Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hidden gems

In the Gawker comments, of all places, is perhaps the best retort to an anti-Semite... ever? Huh!

Backstory: it's in a thread responding to a post about swastika earrings that aren't technically swastika earrings but that sure look like swastika earrings, that are being sold in the traditionally-Polish-now-spillover-from-neighboring-Williamsburg-hipster Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.

So. First we have: "That's an ancient Indian symbol, you dummies. The swastika looks similar to that unfortunately. History and the world does not revolve around Jews, sorry."

The retort: "I suspect that your inner life does, however."

Flawless. The "however" is necessary to make it clear that there is agreement that not everything revolves around Jews. That no one was making this claim. Yes, the "backwards swastika" has significance in various cultures, with zilch to do with Germans, Jews, or the 1930s. But in Brooklyn, which is not some randomly-selected spot on the globe, which is not some part of Asia where Modern Ashkenazi Jewish history is remote, but rather a place with a significant Jewish presence and history including but not limited to Holocaust survivors, something that looks like a slightly off swastika poses a problem.

It's awkward being a member of a group that has a long history of being thought to be at the center of everything. While Jews themselves are not especially interesting (not more or less so than anyone else), the Jews have been all kinds of significant, even in settings where actual Jews were few, far between, and powerless. It's bound to give some Jews a sense - unearned, but understandable - of being born into something important and special and chosen if you will. It's bound to be off-putting to others (the majority, I'd bet, and this is where I fall), who find that in being disproportionately interested in Jewish matters, in the same way that gay people are disproportionately interested in gay matters, Jamaicans in Jamaican matters, etc., we are viewed as not merely parochial, but some twisted kind of parochial that's about wanting to be at the center of the universe. And then the only way to refute this becomes to claim that one has no particular interest in things Jewish, or to apologize for having such an interest. Jews are blamed for the fact that others have long been disproportionately interested in them. Jews are held responsible for somehow canceling out that interest by being less interested in their own story than any other subset of humanity might be. And when Jews falter, when Jews reveal themselves to have parochial concerns, they are interpreted as being narcissistic beyond reason.

11 comments:

Britta said...

Actually, minor point but I am pedantic, at least in Chinese buddhism/traditional Chinese culture, swastikas can go in any direction, so it's not like there's a "backwards" or "forwards" to them that signals something meaningful.

It is completely true, though, that symbols don't have some inherent meaning, and must be interpreted in context. I would argue anywhere in the West, and also in other places in certain contexts, the swastika symbolizes anti-semitism/extreme ethnic hatred, and is totally inappropriate to wear (especially for a white person!) Also, those arguments are not only inane and slightly offensive, they're also kind of ignorant. I mean, no shit it's a Hindu symbol, where do you think the Nazis got it from in a first place (and why do you think they were so in to being "Aryan"? Indian Orientalism was huge in Germany at the time.)

In anecdotes, I was once in SW China at a market buying gorgeous embroidery done by Miao minority woman. There was this traditional women's cloth headcovering embroidered with hundreds of tiny swastikas, and the woman selling it told me I would look great in it and I should buy it and wear it around my home country to show off beautiful Miao embroidery. I didn't really know how to explain that there was no way in hell I could walk around in the US with a swastika scarf wrapped around my head, no matter how beautiful (and obviously "ethnic") it was.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Pedantry appreciated! I had thought it was just a matter of which way the "arms" were bent.

(I remember there being carrels at the Reg that, if you look down from some mezzanine, look like swastikas...)

But yes, I think many who'd know enough to be offended by a swastika also would know that the Germans didn't invent it. Many, maybe not most - I don't think either of us are representative in terms of knowledge about this sort of thing. So sure, some people might benefit from education in this regard, but only insofar as that education will allow them to be less judgmental of others who lack knowledge about the symbol's Western connotations. And I agree with you that the symbol is problematic well beyond Brooklyn - Brooklyn just seemed an especially preposterous example of a place where it would be OK to wear that symbol.

The (first) Gawker comment also makes me think of another forum favorite - that it's Judeo-centric to use the expression "anti-Semitic" to refer to that which is anti-Jewish, because Arabs are Semites, too. With this, as well, there's a case of those who are not Jewish having opted to be obsessed with Jews (this having once been the term Jew-haters used to identify themselves!), with Jews, in turn, taking the blame for having somehow chosen to make everything about them. The term came to mean "anti-Jewish" not because Western Jews wanted to somehow horde Semitic identity, but because "anti-Semites" - their political parties, their newspapers, etc. - hated Jews, but opted, for reasons not necessary to go into here, to use that term.

PG said...

So... not acceptable to sell non-Nazi swastikas in Brooklyn? Why assume that the people who asked for it must be people who wanted to wear something that they thought were Nazi swastikas instead of an Asian symbol?

Phoebe said...

PG,

If it's going to be perceived of as a swastika in a given community, and going to be not merely offensive but frightening in that community, then no, not acceptable. (Not getting into what people do or don't have the legal right to sell, because that's a separate issue.) It's certainly reasonable that people selling/buying the item would only know a different and not-offensive meaning of the symbol, and would require an explanation as to why the symbol poses a problem in a particular community. But you have to weigh the benefits from getting to preserve all symbols from a culture against the cost to others of going around looking like you're wearing a swastika symbol. It's also worth considering that it would be all kinds of exhausting and unpleasant to wear those earrings and have to explain them at every turn. Again, it's relative - it depends where you live.

Britta said...

Thinking about this more, in addition to where you live (or in contrast?) who you are probably matters. If I saw a South or East Asian person in Brooklyn wearing those earrings, I'd be less likely to assume they were a Neo-Nazi than if I saw someone who looked generically "white." In part, it would be a thing about someone's own culture and what, say, those earrings would signify to them, but also, I mean, a white person who wears earrings like that and insists on pointing out they're an Eastern religious symbol is at minimum a total douchebag and probably also slightly racist/anti-Semitic. Then, the question would not only be, are you appropriating someone else's culture, but why are you choosing something that you know is offensive in your own culture.

(I mean, again, the Nazis appropriated the symbol *because* it was Hindu, as they saw Hinduism as a caste-based religion of Aryan superiority (which, yes, is totally offensive, but in a different way from the one brought up.) and were generally into all things Indian-- e.g. Wagner died leaving an unfinished opera about a Buddhist monk.(Basically, to oversimplify, the reason the Germans were so in to being 'Aryan' is that the French had a lock on being inheritors of the Roman empire, so the Germans had to look for some other ancient civilization to claim to be the inheritors of, since it is well known N. Europeans were beating each other with sticks long after everyone else was being civilized, and so they got into Sanskrit & ancient Indian culture big time as some ancient civilization they could claim a connection too and which the French couldn't claim an even closer connection to.) so...long digression, but being white and really into Indian culture isn't exactly sticking it to the Nazis.)

Phoebe said...

Britta,

The problem with profiling in this way is that you can't tell, by physical features, who was born where, who has what history. And - I say this as someone who can rarely spot a fellow Ashkenazi Jew, let alone tell who's German or Norwegian, Iraqi or Moroccan, etc. - it's hard to tell who's what. A "brown" individual in this earrings might appreciate their Indian significance, might be of Pakistani, Iranian, or Middle Eastern heritage and happen to be unenthusiastic about Jews, might have been adopted by otherwise open-minded generic-white-American parents whose one bigotry is anti-Semitism.

That said, if you do know who someone is and a bit about their biography, then you can absolutely make these distinctions.

PG said...

But the fact that the Nazis found it desirable to appropriate from Hindu culture* shouldn't affect whether someone might find it desirable to wear Hindu iconography, particularly if we're assuming that appropriation and not-knowing-what-the-hell-symbol's-really-about are OK.

* Although so far as I know, the Nazis had no interest in deeming the Hindus of 1930s-40s India to be part of their master race. There were many Indians in the independence movement who thought Japan might be a better master than the UK because of Japanese rhetoric regarding throwing white colonial masters out of Asia, pan-Asian unity, etc. But I don't know of much desire to ally with the Nazis.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Something that looks like a swastika looks like a swastika in the environments where people are primed to see a swastika in anything that looks a great deal like one. It's significantly upsetting and frightening to see it that unless it were integral to Hindu practice to wear swastika-ish earrings, it seems there's an obvious way for this not exactly massive accommodation to be made. It's not as if hyper-sensitive Jews are going to India or going to Hindu temples and scouring for symbols to be offended by.

PG said...

But Nazis didn't wear swastikas as earrings either. I can see why it would be significantly upsetting and frightening to see swastikas (not "swastika-ish" -- swastika is the Sanksrit term, and there used to be a different term in German for the shape until the brief Western fashion for Indian stuff in the 1880-1920 era got "swastika" generally adopted) used in graffiti or on T-shirts or in general used as the Nazis and their ideological descendants have used them.

There's very little that can be said to be "integral to Hindu practice" -- it's not obligatory to wear a bindi. But I don't think the acceptable response to having gotten picked on for wearing one when I was in middle school was to think, "Well, this isn't really integral to being a Hindu, so I'll just leave it off to avoid getting hassled." (Which is a response I'd be likely to have if I had been getting teased for wearing, say, unfashionable sweaters.)

While Jews are a vastly larger percentage of the population in Brooklyn than Hindus are, I don't think that means that "in the environments where people are primed to see a [Nazi] swastika in any [swastika]," people who like the non-Nazi swastikas should feel it unacceptable to wear them until they enter an environment that's majority-Hindu (such as a temple or the nation of India or island of Bali).

It's nice that some Native American tribes decided to renounce use of a symbol similar to a swastika (presumably it has a different name in the Navajo language), but I'm skeptical of the pressure that every culture should do so in any publicly-facing situation where they're not already the majority.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm not going to be convinced on this, sorry. If something looks like a Nazi symbol (and regardless of what Goebbels wore, do you really think neo-Nazis don't/wouldn't wear swastika earrings?), and avoiding it isn't much of an imposition to you as a Hindu or for whichever other cultural significance a Nazi-looking symbol might have, then don't wear the earrings. The bindi comparison doesn't hold, because it's quite different to be mocked for being different/marginalized than for being thought to support the genocide of Jews-and-more. It seems an utterly ridiculous battle to pick, the right to wear swastika earrings and... not be socially ostracized for it? To wear them to a job interview? To send the all-important message that the swastika used to mean something else, even if in Brooklyn in 2012 not really? I don't see the point.

PG said...

I think the right at issue is to be able to have a meaning for the symbol other than the one created by people who appropriated it. I normally don't get too pissy about appropriation, but if the way it's going to work is that if an evil Western group appropriates something, then the meaning in the West must always be that of the evil group, then I can see why people want to be VERY policing of appropriation. It's not only a way to prevent there from being multiple meanings for a symbol (which was not a goal I got enthused about) but to prevent the Western meaning from becoming the ONLY meaning (a goal I'm much more inclined to support).