Saturday, June 06, 2009

Co-opting a symbol

Shown here are some usages of the swastika from, top to bottom: Finland(municipal coat-of-arms), Japan (municipal flag), India (provincial seal), and Korea (Buddhist temple). 7,000 year old swastikas have been found in the archaeological record. According to Wikipedia:

The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word svastika (in Devanagari, स्वस्तिक), meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck. It is composed of su- (cognate with Greek ευ-, eu-), meaning "good, well" and asti, a verbal abstract to the root as "to be" (cognate with the Romance copula, coming ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *h1es-); svasti thus means "well-being." The suffix -ka either forms a diminutive or intensifies the verbal meaning, and svastika might thus be translated literally as "that which is associated with well-being," corresponding to "lucky charm" or "thing that is auspicious."

Of course, the swastika has come to be associated with something entirely different in modern times - but, as the examples here illustrate, this has not obliterated its older senses and uses. The last photo is one I personally took, and I can testify from personal experience that it is a common symbol in Buddhist architecture in Korea, with no negative connotations in that society.

Two interesting facts: 1) that a symbol can come to have two diametrically associated meanings/connotations; 2) that people aware of one meaning can be utterly unaware of the other. I bring this up in the context of recent news stories surrounding a little girl involved in a custody case in Winnipeg. Apparently, her parents belong to some kind of neo-Nazi organization (or perhaps would like to), and the court case stems from, among other things, her being sent to school with swastikas and other markings drawn on her skin. Nowhere have I seen any mention that the swastika has any other association than with Naziism.


wolfBoy said...

as a former (and sometimes current) journalist, i can say that various factors in newspaper journalism (including, far too often, woefully ignorant writers and editors) discourage this kind of exploration of the complexity of an issue.

The Disclaimer said...

I wouldn't call the issue in question complex, there was no intent on the part of the parents to invoke any Buddhist symbols. While I understand the dualistic nature of the symbol (and wish that everyone else did too), the people who used in this context were not attempting to draw attention to its duality, therefore the journalists (the dumb and the smart) had no obligation to report on the Nazi's co-opting of this ancient symbol.

D. Sky Onosson said...

I disagree somewhat with that. I understand that the family involved had no positive intent here, that's for sure. But by continuing to report on the negative use of this symbol without regard for or recognition of its use by other groups, those other groups are themselves cast in a negative light when and wherever they choose to use it. I don't recall seeing a swastika on the exterior of a temple anywhere in Canada - and I can certainly guess why that is.

It would just be nice to see someone address this in the press once. In fact, in one of the articles I read, they quoted the young girl as claiming that the swastika had positive associations (good luck, the sun), and the journalist made pretty clear in their writing that they didn't believe her. Certainly that wasn't her parents' intent - but that alone doesn't make it true or false.

The Disclaimer said...

I have seen the other context of the swastika reported, although very infrequently (like maybe once in my life!) But like Lorne said, some journalists are just as lazy and dumb as the laziest, dumbest people you'll ever know, which is why they would choose to not report (or even dismiss?!) the other side of the story.

You do make an excellent point about the continuing diminishment of the original meaning of the swastika. Maybe I'll work up a positive story on it, could be a good time for publishing such an article (newsy is always good when trying to sell a piece). Wanna collaborate?

D. Sky Onosson said...

Maybe! I've never written anything even remotely journalistic, but I'd be up for giving it a shot. Since you've done this kind of thing before - where would you start?