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Friday, December 12, 2003

Swastika fear


Ignorance bugs me. It bugs me more when people, through ignorance, force people to change things that are harmless.

This was brought to mind by an article reporting that Microsoft was pulling a font that contained swastikas. It was a font from Japan, they report, which leads me to believe that it was put in as a Jain religious symbol, alongside a cross, an Om, and a star of David. Now, I have no problem with that decision; Microsoft can do what it wants, and there is no reason why they should have swastikas in their font, be they Germanic or South Asian swastikas. What I do have a problem with are the people who are eager to erase swastikas from India, people incapable of believing that perhaps it is a benign symbol (or, more literally, a "good symbol") which was twisted (literally -- it was inverted in Germany) and used as a symbol of evil in WWII.

Ann Landers wrote an advice column a few years ago in which she betrayed her ignorance of the matter. Someone wrote in with concerns about a cloth from India including swastikas in the pattern. Ann Landers responded with fury, assuming that Nazi symbols had gotten to India, and telling her correspondent to get rid of it.

In every South Asian Studies class I have been in that involved a visual element, when students saw the swastikas that are all over many Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu temples in India, they were incensed and distressed that India has so many Nazi sympathizers. The teachers are obviously as tired as I am of explaining that just because Germans used an Indian symbol does not mean that Indians are now all Nazis. I also hear reports (secondhand) that some well-meaning western groups are going into India and trying to convince people to paint over, chisel out, cut off, and otherwise remove swastikas from their holy sites, and stop making traditional Jain offerings involving rice in the shape of a swastika.

Now, I agree that non-Asian companies had better have a dang good reason if they want to sell products with swastikas on them. I also think that it would be nothing but considerate to hint to immigrant neighbors that, if they can see a way around it, they might prefer to put some other symbol on their curtains and draw a different mandala shape in front of their door in the morning -- or put an explanatory sign next to it -- in order to avoid becoming the innocent targets of anti-Nazi sentiment. However, people really should keep in mind that swastikas, especially (and nearly exclusively) when used by Asians, have an entirely different meaning from the one Hitler represented.

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