Apart from female dignitaries accepting the odd diamond from unsavoury foreigners, jewellery tends to be rather uncontroversial. Well, not any longer. The other day a jewellery shop in Brooklyn put swastika-shaped earrings up for sale, and the $5.99 ornaments were sold out in a matter of hours.
A lively exchange followed, with Scott Singer, Manhattan Borough President, stepping outside his jurisdiction to demand that the offensive item be removed. ‘A swastika is not a fashion statement,’ he said, and Young Kim, the shop’s manager, agreed it’s so much more than that: ‘I don’t know what the problem is. My earrings are coming from India as a Buddhist symbol.’
That may be, but surely Mr Kim must be aware that this side of Tibet the swastika isn’t just a Buddhist symbol. I don’t know how long he has lived in the West, but if it’s more than a month or two he must be aware of certain sensitivities aroused by this particular ancient design. Also, while New Yorkers do tend to show a most unhealthy interest in Eastern cults, I doubt the swastika earrings became such a hot item solely on the strength of their association with reincarnation, Nirvana and disdainful detachment from this world.
So Mr Singer may be right when describing the swastika as ‘an insult to every civilised person’. However, one might observe that ‘civilised persons’ are these days rather selective in their reaction to offensive symbols. Witness the profusion of Soviet memorabilia, openly sold in shops all over the West. In the last few years I’ve espied such shops in Arezzo and Auxerre, London and New York, Paris and Amsterdam — and of course Moscow and Petersburg. Nowhere did I witness an outburst of outraged indignation, private or public.
One has to infer that the realities represented by, say, a hammer and sickle or Lenin’s profile are widely perceived as somehow being less offensive than those symbolised by the swastika or Hitler’s moustache. ‘Every civilised person’ seems to think that Soviet concentration camps and execution cellars were nice, clean fun compared to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. Thousands of youngsters who wouldn’t dream of wearing SS uniforms in public proudly prance about in greatcoats exhibiting KGB insignia. The SS is nasty; the KGB, cool.
The families of the 60 million people murdered by the communists in Russia, as many again in China, and untold millions elsewhere may disagree. They are too uncool to see that murder done in the name of international socialism can’t be equated to murder done in the name of national socialism. But we, cool Westerners, know better. We are deaf to the uncool people showing, calculator in hand, that in the murder stakes the Soviets outscored the Nazis not just in absolute numbers but even in annual output. The souls of the shot, starved and tortured to death can scream all they want — we choose not to hear. But flash a swastika before a chap sporting a Lenin lapel pin, and he’s up in arms.
I wonder why the double standard. One explanation may be that people have been trained to respond to words, not deeds. The deeds of the Nazis and the Soviets are equally monstrous, but, unlike Nazi rants, the Soviet propaganda rhetoric appeals to the largest and politically most influential sector of the Western public: well-meaning ignoramuses.
I wish I had £10 for each time a Westerner has told me that communist ideas are wonderful, if lamentably perverted by the Russians — I’d be rich. And what ideas might those be? Well, equality, sharing and caring, respect even for the downtrodden — in short, all the same things our own politicians spout every day. ‘Read the Communist Manifesto,’ I invariably suggest. ‘All the monstrosities are there in black and white. If Lenin and Stalin indeed perverted Marx’s ideals, it was by softening them.’ Just as invariably I get worried looks showing genuine concern for my mental health.
I’m not even sure that the sale of either Nazi or Soviet symbols ought to be banned: a demand will always find a supply. What I am sure about is that the only way to suppress the demand for such obscene trinkets is to educate our youngsters properly. The issue of good and evil, and how they are manifested in political theory and practice, is a vital subject to teach. As vital, one might suggest, as the use of condoms, which seems to be the cornerstone of our comprehensive education.