Sunday, January 16, 2005

I don't have very much to say about the flap about Prince Harry and the Nazi uniform. Was it in poor taste? Sure. Does it suggest that he's been raised to be a clueless dingbat? Yes, but I think we knew that already. But honestly, the outrage seems a bit disproportionate to the offense. Given all the truly awful things going on in the world right now, I'm inclined to save my outrage for other targets.

But I do want to comment on calls for a ban on swastikas." I heard a German politician on the BBC last night advocating this, and he seemed to suggest that it should extend to the U.S., since the internet has made American swastika-laden stuff available to Europeans. "This is not a free speech issue," he said.

The thing is, it is. Actually, I think it's a freedom of religion issue. Hitler did not invent the swastika. He stole it from India, where it was and continues to be a symbol of good luck. It's used by Hindus and Buddhists, and it's an emblem of the Jain faith. It's even been incorporated in the officialJain symbol. I stayed with friends of friends in Bombay, and they chalked little swastikas all over their front walk, because swastikas are decorative and are thought to be auspicious. My hosts were totally taken aback when I flinched at the sight of swastikas. They knew, of course, that Nazis had appropriated the symbol, but they'd had no idea that Nazism was the primary (indeed, the only) thing that people in the West associated with the swastika. "But we used it first!" they pointed out. And that's true.

In my experience, South Asians in the U.S. are hesitant to display swastikas, for obvious reasons. But that's a far cry from saying that they shouldn't be allowed to do so.

For me, the swastika will never be redeemed. I'm always going to associate it with the people who murdered my great-grandparents. But my associations are not the only valid ones. I don't believe in banning symbols anyway, but this one seems especially problematic. Would the law require governments to prosecute Jains for displaying the symbol of their religion? The irony is that a law meant to protect minorities would actually criminalize expressions of minority faiths.

Comments:
I thought that when the Nazi's stole the swastika, however they made the little legs turn in the opposite direction from how they were originally portrayed in Asia. Or do the Asian symbols go in both directions?
 
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Hmm. I responded to that, but it seems to have disappeared.

As I understand it, in Hinduism it can go both ways. The normal way is the reverse of a Nazi swastika, and it means good luck. The opposite way symbolizes the occult and the goddess Kali. You don't see reverse swastikas nearly as often as the normal ones, but they do exist.
 
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