Raelian Schoolboy Swastika Controversy: Are Some Symbols Irredeemable?

Picture: ekabhishek (CC)

Probably like a good many of you, I’m fascinated by symbols. The fact that we can communicate dozens – or more – ideas with just  a few simple lines and colors is utterly astounding to me, particularly when I consider the way that these meanings can shift wildly in different contexts and over time – even from person to person. Symbols work because they’re heuristic – cognitive shortcuts on the neurological highway. We can drive our synaptic vehicle to its mental destination nanoseconds faster once we’re cued to them.

That’s just one take on symbols, though.

Some thinkers consider them to have intrinsic, or even transcendent, meaning. In both cases, the idea is that the symbol has an Ur-meaning that is independent of context; that it is universally recognizable due to an inherent quality that has its basis in the “collective unconscious” (and thus the operating system, if you will, of the Homo sapien brain) or some spiritual realm beyond. I like both of these ideas, but I suspect that they’re ex post facto  convenient explanations for the seeming similarity of cross-cultural symbols rather than theories possibly supported by facts.

One of the most problematic symbols of the last 100 years has been the swastika, an ancient glyph (earliest documented use dates to 10,000 BC) once associated with (depending on who you ask) the sun, good fortune or man. While it remains so in many parts of the world, in the West almost all traces of its original meaning has been subverted and replaced with the evil of National Socialism. Doubt it? Paint a large swastika on a t-shirt and go for a stroll. Let me know how that goes…if they have internet service in the emergency room.

The International Raelian Movement (a religion described by some as a “UFO cult” that holds among its tenets that humanity was created by aliens) hold a Swastika Rehabilitation Day every year, ostensibly in the hope of returning some of the benign ancient meaning to the controversial symbol. (I say ostensibly due to my observation that the Raelians are very keen on publicity stunts. They were the group that announced that they had cloned a human being years ago, and they also hold well-attended demonstrations to advocate that women go topless – not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that.)

They recently went to bat for for a New Jersey elementary school student “of Hindu heritage” who received mandatory racial bias counseling after he drew a swastika as part of a third-grade holiday assignment (a Hindu child required to participate in a winter “holiday” assignment is problematic all on its own), winning an acknowledgment of error and apology from school officials as the result of a letter to the school from Raelian guide Thomas Kaenzig:

“The swastika is an ancient symbol of good will for nearly a billion Hindus worldwide, and Middlesex County, where this incident took place, is home to a large Hindu minority,” said Kaenzig, who wrote letters of protest to the Middlesex County and Old Bridge superintendents of school on behalf of the group.

“It’s not the child who needs counseling but the teacher’s aide who complained about the child’s drawing, the counselor and the principal who approved the counseling,” Kaenzig wrote. “They need to know the beautiful, original meaning of this symbol, which can be found throughout the world. For thousands of years before the Nazis hijacked and distorted it, it signified peace, harmony and good luck. And for billions of people, it means those same things today.”

 When a symbol becomes so utterly corrupted like this (well, I guess corrupted is a loaded word. let’s say changes) is there any possible chance that it may resume its original, benign (dammit, there’s those loaded words, but we’re discussing Nazism here) form? Where’s the tipping point for when a symbol goes bad?

Is it wise to interfere when a symbol changes? Should the Raelians should work toward the conscious effort of rehabilitating a symbol, or should they account for the fluidity of meaning and accept the new definition. In some ways, I suppose that this is a function of consensus opinion: The symbol means what the majority of people agree that it does, and without a sizable shift in public opinion the discussion is moot.

That seems simple enough, but it suggests another question: Should the symbolic lexicon held by a minority – in this case the Hindu child – bend to that of the majority? Again, where is the tipping point at which the individual must sacrifice his or her personal symbolic language to avoid the potential of offense? Is that ever an acceptable concession? If so, we’re faced once again with the primary question? How can offensive (to some) symbols change?


35 Comments on "Raelian Schoolboy Swastika Controversy: Are Some Symbols Irredeemable?"

  1. The Swastika is still a sacred and very actively used symbol throughout Asia. If you look at a map from South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, you will very likely notice that it is full of Swastikas, because these are used to mark the location of Buddhist temples. Hindus and Jains also make widespread use of Swastikas.

    So it actually (and rather ironically) boils down to racism. Do Europeans get to declare that the Swastika is now ganz verboten FOR EVERYONE just because WE fucked it up? (The answer, by the way, is, uh, no.)

    • Matt Staggs | Jan 4, 2013 at 6:57 pm |

      I was hoping to communicate that my questions were focused on the status of the swastika in the west; I’m not sure that I did a very good job with that. In any case, I can’t disagree with you.

      • BuzzCoastin | Jan 4, 2013 at 7:26 pm |

        the swastika only recently entered western culture (1790ish)
        and has never had a widely understood meaning in western culture
        other than that which the Nazi Party assigned to it

        the same thing with curse words too
        “grandson of a turtle” is fighting words in China
        and a comic non sequitur somewhere else

        • Matt Staggs | Jan 4, 2013 at 7:31 pm |

          “grandson of a turtle” is also entering my personal lexicon as of now.

          • Ted Heistman | Jan 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm |

            Wow, I can’t believe you guys are using that type of language on the internet!

            That kind of reminds me of how happy Black Elk was when he learned how to curse and didn’t have to keep using the bear sound.

          • zombieslapper | Jan 5, 2013 at 2:31 am |

            Wang ba dan = Egg of turtle = Son of a bitch

            If I’m not mistaken… Not a good thing to say to a Chinese person. 😉

        • OK, inquiring minds need to know. Why is “grandson of a turtle” fighting words in China?

          • BuzzCoastin | Jan 5, 2013 at 12:08 am |

            just is
            why’s fuck a dirty word?
            if it weren’t for America’s pervasive media
            fuck would not be a vulgar word everywhere
            every culture has it vulgar phrases & words
            and they’re all pretty funny even when translated
            qoodah smoqah means red punani in some middle-eastern tongue
            so qoodah smoqah from me to you

  2. mxyzptlk | Jan 4, 2013 at 5:29 pm |

    I have no idea if some symbols themselves are irredeemable, but I’m pretty sure online discussions about such symbols are.

    Let the wild rumpus start!

  3. Just for fun, let’s consider that, to a wide swath of people, the Christian Cross and the Muslim Crescent Moon have become swastika-esque to their Abrahamic neighbours…

    Also: actor Walton Goggins actually ran the ‘paint a swastika on your chest & go walkabout’ experiment in prep for his role in Justified. He said people treated him rather differently, as to be expected.. but not with violence, more with fear *he* would be violent.

    • Matt Staggs | Jan 4, 2013 at 6:55 pm |

      Fascinating, Cat. Thanks for wading in on this discussion. Not sure where Goggins lives. Might be a matter of context there, too. I live in one of the most racially polarized places in the United States. Not sure how things might play out here. I’m not eager to find out.

      • Calypso_1 | Jan 4, 2013 at 10:51 pm |

        Goggins hails originally from Georgia & Bama so I suspect he might have a fairly nuanced appreciation of such dynamics.

        Have you seen Django Unchained yet?

  4. Clockwise rotation=good.
    Counterclockwise rotation=bad/Nazi.
    Seriously; how hard is this?

    • Apathesis | Jan 4, 2013 at 6:15 pm |

      False. Hitler merely corrupted one version by using it as a symbol for the evil he and his regime embodied.

      • Regardless, the Nazis only ever used the counterclockwise version.

        I’m personally in favor of reclaiming that one (the counterclockwise) as well as all the Old Norse runes they used.

        But, at the very least, the clockwise version was never used by the Nazis.

        • Apathesis | Jan 4, 2013 at 7:52 pm |

          You are correct about the orientation. I misinterpreted your comment, it seems.

          They appropriated anything they liked, it seems. It was crazy. The iron cross, the celtic cross, Odin’s cross, the runes, etc.

          I’ve often thought about getting a swastika tattoo (particularly the one I linked in a previous comment) in an effort to rehabilitate the symbol and provoke discussion that will hopefully enlighten and educate people.

          • OK. We’re on the same page.
            My most basic argument is, why should those of us with a working knowledge of symbols be handicapped by people with zero knowledge of their history before the last half-century or so, and an over-inflated sense of self importance?

          • Is it really so much of a handicap to at least consider the reactions of people related to those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis? Personally I’d weigh a consideration for those people over the right of a westerner to get a tattoo of a swastika as I’m not really too sure what the great evil is in not using one symbol. Whether it’s to educate or, as seems likely with some, to be snarky to those who don’t have a knowledge of the history of the symbol, or indeed those that do but consider it’s association with far-right politics both historically, and in the present day to be more notable.

            I’m not saying stop those with a genuine connection to the symbol should not be able to use it, but just that it’s reasonable when in Europe/the US to consider that it has at least dual meaning.

          • No, I’m not saying to hell with any sort of discretion. Actually, my close friend’s father had the misfortune of being Polish in the late 30s, and has the ink to prove it. I always make sure to cover up any ink or jewelry that might bring back bad memories for him as he is a great drinking buddy and a superb conversationalist (especially when he’s drunk).

            But in an era where calculated outrage can often be a lucrative career choice, I’m pretty stingy when it comes to whom I will defer to.

          • But the swastika still means something to a lot of people in the West, whether you believe it’s calculated or not. There’s still significant undercurrents of people who use it as a banner for far-right politics and as such making the distinction between that and people such as yourself is complex, which is why I have a hard time backing a lot of those wanting to reclaim the symbol- especially as their motives seem just as calculated.

          • Apathesis | Jan 4, 2013 at 10:37 pm |

            My mom wouldn’t let me play Wolfenstein 3D because of the prevalence of Nazi imagery. She couldn’t appreciate the premise of the game, because of the fact it involved Nazis disgusted her so much. She could not get past her emotional objections to Nazism to understand that the game wasn’t pro-Nazi, but quite anti-Nazi.

            No objections to playing DooM or Duke Nukem, though.

            They let their emotions get to an irrational level, and rather than calm down, think and work through the issue, they want to shut it out and not address it. With the way some people react, they probably blame the symbol. It is far too common for people to blame the symptom of a given problem, rather than the root cause.

            Education is the key, and with knowledge being so easy to attain these days, it’s pretty shameful for people to be unaware of such things, but not surprising. Some will seek out the truth due to curiosity, others will avoid it due to fear and hate.

          • Damn. That sucks. Wolfenstein was a great game.
            As I replied to Jack Pitt below, my good friend’s father was a native Pole in the late 30s. I would NEVER walk into his house with my Wolfsangel or Mjolnir showing.
            But at the same time, calculated outrage has become so commonplace today that, unless you were directly affected by the atrocities of WWII, which means you are at least in your early-seventies, I don’t want to hear about how offended you are.

          • Apathesis | Jan 5, 2013 at 12:05 am |

            I just couldn’t play it when she was around. I should have specified.

            Tell me about it. If only more people were as sensitive and rational.

          • alizardx | Jan 5, 2013 at 6:02 pm |

            I found the Barney The Dinosaur patches for Wolfenstein 3D. Spent hundreds of hours zapping the Purple Fiend iterations wearing swastikas.

        • howiebledsoe | Jan 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm |

          Yes, Hitler used the SS, two intertwined S’s. The hindi style is more like a ZZ, as they were ardent ZZ Top fans.

  5. Apathesis | Jan 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm |

    ^I find this version fascinating.

    By not reclaiming this symbol for the good it once represented, and the good it continues to represent, we have let Hitler succeed in death where in life he failed – achieving immortality. His evil has become immortalized by his corruption of a symbol now considered too taboo to display or ‘take back.’

    Why should he have this final victory over us?

    • I’d say he probably achieved ‘immortality’ through things like being responsible for the death of millions of Jewish people, but sure.

      • Apathesis | Jan 4, 2013 at 10:58 pm |

        And millions of others including Pols, Christians, Gypsies, homosexuals, retards, the mentally ‘ill’, and the handicapped. Their deaths are just as significant because eugenics was such a large component of the Nazi regime.

        I actually meant to amend that bit right there to “achieving immortality by continuing to terrorize the world, even after his death”, but I got distracted by It’s Always Sunny. I knew it was too simplistic to stand without criticism.

        • Agreed, I should have included all of those, but felt the reply was maybe less punchy if it ended up being twice a long.

          As for terrorizing the world after his death, I think if all he manages to do now is re-appropriate a symbol in western culture then we’re not doing too badly.

  6. InfvoCuernos | Jan 4, 2013 at 9:25 pm |

    Manwoman tried his entire life to reclaim the swastika as a symbol of life and failed miserably, and made himself into a circus freak at the same time

  7. Ted Heistman | Jan 4, 2013 at 9:50 pm |

    I thought all the Raelians comitted suicide to join Hailey;s comet?

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Jan 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm |

      That was the heavens gate cult. The Raelian cult leader is building a multi-billion dollar palace somewhere to welcome the aliens.

  8. VaudeVillain | Jan 5, 2013 at 10:25 am |

    I’m just baffled that anyone seriously thought racial sensitivity training was relevant for an 8-year-old.

    The swastika, regardless of meaning, is a fairly simple design with very appealing lines. I know that when I was a child, long before I had any notion of Nazis or the Swastika as a symbol in common use, I thought it was a really cool design. Does that make me some sort of crypto-fascist hatemonger? Because I used a symbol I had never seen and had no association with to represent nothing at all in the context of arranging lines into a right angle pattern for aesthetics?

    That’s insane, and telling an 8-year-old that they’re a racist is too.

  9. Bruteloop | Jan 6, 2013 at 5:56 am |

    If you were born after 1960 in the West then I can see no reason for wanting to use or wear a swastika. It doesn’t really matter what other cultures still use it and in what context or form. In white Western cultural heritage it is, and will remain, inextricably linked with Nazism. Variations of it are continually used by bonehead neo-nazi groups.

    What would you wish to rehabilitate it for? What use?

    Those whose cultures do retain other interpretations of it don’t need it rehabilitated.

    Besides, why rehabilitate so potent a reminder of one of the great horrors of humankind?

    Perhaps, in the West, that is the meaning it should carry now and always.

  10. For a picture of the drawing of the child, see http://www.proswastika.org/news.php?item.20.1

Comments are closed.