July 7, 2020

The Ethics of Examining the Swastika @ Hyperallergic

Steven Heller opens his latest treatise, The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (2019, Allworth Press) by establishing the symbol now associated with Nazis as a “visual obscenity.” This acknowledgement serves as a framework for understanding the over 200-page exploration that follows, but comes 10 pages into the book, by which time the reader has already encountered several photographs, political cartoons, and various representation of Nazi regalia and culture. “If you want to know what the logo for hate looks like,” writes Heller, “go no further.”

One rightly imagines this book to be a tough a read for anyone of good conscience, but for someone like me, whose family line and continued existence stands in direct defiance of the stated agenda of Nazism, I had to ask myself: what is the point of this exercise? The point, for me, is to examine the power of a symbol. One cannot be concerned with art without a belief in the power of symbolism, and — as Heller notes there are few symbols as potent as the swastika. Other symbols of hate — say, the Confederate flag, which is also (finally) experiencing a moment of being recognized as culturally destructive and irredeemable — were expressly designed to engender division and the oppression of certain groups, but as Heller writes, the swastika is an ancient symbol that was “hijacked and perverted, twisted into the graphic embodiment of intolerance.”

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