Recent debate over the Confederate Battle Flag led me to dig out a book I read years ago about another symbol: The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? by Steven Heller.
With widely spaced lines and half-page margins filled with illustrations, Heller’s slender volume is more a long essay than a book, so this is a short review. He asks, “Can the same image that represents the Holocaust ever represent anything else?”
Before Aryan mystics appropriated the swastika and Hitler adopted it for the Nazis, it was a good-luck symbol and decorative motif appearing all over the world. The swastika became so strongly associated with the Nazis that, during World War II, Native Americans burned tribal textiles with the symbol and Jewish congregations chiseled it out of mosaic floors in synagogues. Americans destroyed thousands of items adorned with swastikas, from Girls’ Club magazines to US Army shoulder patches.
The swastika is used today by hate groups with its full Nazi connotation. But the swastika and lesser-known Nazi symbols are also used commercially in the West, especially on youth-oriented items like music CDs and skateboards. A hip advertising agency says it “will appropriate the swastika because it is a cool-looking symbol”. Artists have tried to reclaim the swastika to “neutralize the [Nazi] symbol and reinvest it with ancient meaning.”
Some countries never associated the swastika with Nazis, so Pokemon cards imported from Japan showed swastikas with the original good-luck meaning. Even knowing this, I personally find it jarring to see a swastika on a package of Chinese noodles. Others must share my feeling, since Nintendo of America discontinued that Pokeman card after parents complained.
Heller writes, “As long as it embodies even an iota of evil, [the swastika] will never again be redeemed.”
I agree. If you walk around with a swastika on your tee-shirt – even without the Nazi colors – you are unlikely to get a chance to explain it’s an ancient good luck symbol before people judge you. And I would judge you, too – you may not be a neo-Nazi, but you haven’t got any sense.