Fashion house Zara has gotten itself into trouble by accidentally selling purses with swastikas on them in the UK. Denis Fernando, national secretary of Unite Against Fascism, responded forcefully: “Fascism and racist symbols are sometimes legitimised in popular culture, this is one of those times.”
Except it’s not. As a nice Jewish boy with a swastika on my living room wall, I’d like to explain.
Like most people in the West, I grew up associating the swastika strictly with the Nazis, and I was appalled by any display of it, in any form. It had a kind of radioactive power that compelled disgust — an entirely appropriate response to any attempted glorification of Nazism, however crude. When my German-descended high school classmate drew them on his desk (in pencil, crookedly and backwards), I took it as a personal insult, and that’s how it was intended.
It was my trip to India in 1997, just after college, that changed my perspective on the swastika. Again and again during my four months in the Subcontinent, concepts I had never thought to question turned out to be completely contingent on cultural context, and swastikas were no exception. In Nepal, I was amused to find that the swastika was included with the hammer and sickle in a pro-communist graffito, a juxtaposition unimaginable in the West. In India, I saw swastikas branded on camel’s butts, put on goofy stickers for kids, painted on people’s faces. I even saw snacks arranged into swastikas. Three years later, in Korea, I became even more used to the ubiquity of swastikas, which tended to mark Buddhist gathering places or shamanistic fortune tellers’ shops in otherwise nondescript streets of three-story brick suburbia.
The swastika on my wall is on the palm of the Hindu god Ganesh, in one of four extraordinarily beautiful posters I picked up for a few dollars on the street in Mumbai back in 1998. It’s a symbol that can mean death, horror and destruction, but also means welcome and good luck to millions upon millions of people in our world. (In this respect, it’s not unlike the cross or the crescent.) Ganesh’s swastika is not the Nazi black outline on a white circle in a red field. It’s red, trimmed with gold, hand-painted with affection. Likewise, the Zara swastikas were a cheerful green, enclosed in a red sunburst.
What interests me in all this is the way this fundamental shibboleth of Western culture makes absolutely no sense in the context of a globalized world. This won’t be the last time some Asian swastika sneaks its way into the West. At the same time, the whole Danish-Muhammad-cartoon crisis makes it clear that these kinds of misunderstanding can run in every direction. What is necessary on all sides is a ratcheting down of the knee-jerk rhetoric, a consideration of context before the declarations of outrage.
I recognize that this won’t be easy. Some jackass is always willing to scream bloody murder just to get attention. But we should remember that any symbol sent from one culture to another is in need of translation. A swastika from India is no more an obscenity than a Vietnamese person named Phuc.