You ran a column a few weeks ago on German shepherds and how they got an undeserved bad reputation because of their association with the Nazis. That got me thinking about the swastika, which remains a powerful symbol long after the Nazis have fallen out of power. Why do you suppose it still carries such a stigma, and do you think we'll ever be able to look at it innocently again?
Sophomore in Graphic Design
Sophomore: Jeez, couldn't you ask a normal question for a person your age, like which bar has the best beer specials or how can you get your iPhone to text-message your MySpace page? You kids are so idealistic these days that, were Hitler still around, he'd be trying to recruit you all into a youth movement that involved downing lagers and saying "Heil Hitler" a lot. Alas (and I mean that in a Nuremberg trial kind of way), he's not around. Only his message remains. And that message - something about Aryan purity and wiping the Jews off the face of the planet - is still powerfully evoked by the swastika, a graphic symbol that never really hurt anybody before that.
You can find swastikas throughout the history of art and architecture, in cultures all over the world, East and West, North and South, Upper Midwest. And sometimes it has religious significance - among Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists, for example - but often it's just a plus sign with bent arms that happens to form pleasing patterns in combination. Like so many graphic motifs, it comes out of basket-weaving. (Among the nefarious legacies of the Nazis is that they gave basket-weaving a bad name.) And one of the reasons it gets used a lot - used to get used a lot, anyway - is because of its simplicity. It was just waiting for somebody to come along and attach a meaning.
The most prominent meaning, over time, has been (and this has to be one of life's supreme ironies) good luck. In fact, the word "swastika" comes from the Sanskrit word "svastik," which literally translates as "that which is associated with well-being." By adopting the swastika, which he associated with Hinduism, which he associated with Aryans, which he associated with Germans, Hitler was basically wishing himself luck in wiping the Jews off the face of the planet. In other words, it was, for him, a lucky charm - a rabbit's foot, which, as any one-legged rabbit will tell you, isn't necessarily lucky for everyone. For us bunnies, the swastika is still just a little bit terrifying.
Which is why neo-Nazis like to splash it around - as graffiti, arm bands, refrigerator magnets. Terror's one of the few weapons they have at their disposal. Consequently, the German government has officially banned all public displays of swastikas, which has had the paradoxical effect of preserving its potency. In fact, it isn't hard to believe that, if the Germans had won the war, the swastika would have less, not more, power today. It would be a glorified corporate logo by now, akin to the Nike swoosh. And Hitler, still sieg-heiling himself at age 119, would be marveling over how he conquered the world using that weapon of mass destruction, graphic design.
There's a wonderful moment in Mein Kampf where he recalls having designed, Betsy Ross-like, the Nazi flag. It's like something out of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. And you're going to want to make sure, Sophomore, as you go forth in the world, wielding the tools of graphic design, that you do so in a responsible manner. Remember, one man's rabbit foot is another man's phantom limb.
To join me in a rousing round of "If I Had a Hammer and Sickle," write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. Or call 251-1206, ext. 152. Or email MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.