What's in a sign?

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Think of a bad man, any bad man. The worst man. The most awful man in this history of humanity. If I were to ask this of myself, I'm pretty sure I'd come up with Hitler. The man is synonymous with evil. By extension, the Nazi party fits the same bill. The image is universal. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. We recognize this in the West as being an inherently terrible series of events in recent history. So why then are images of Hitler and Nazism used so carelessly and without any sense of irony in Thailand?

The latest example of this, and one that instigated some brief discussion on Twitter, is a music event in Bangkok called Raw Bizness being held at a nightspot called Club Culture, a venue I've been to many times. The promoter of the event, a band called Animal FX, put together a promotional flyer that features images of Wayne and Garth of Wayne's World fame, Benito Mussolini of fascism fame, and Adolf Hitler of genocide fame.

A few people expressed outrage while most appeared apathetic. I was unsure how I should feel and I evaluated my stance to the point where I wasn't sure what to think. I wasn't offended by the flyer, as such, but the first thing I thought was how insensitive it was and how it would offend other people. Then I started wondering if it really would offend other people or if, in fact, the people who expressed outraged were doing so out of empathy.

The reason why I've given this so much thought is because this past Halloween, a Facebook friend of a friend in Bangkok wrapped a Nazi flag around himself as part of his costume. My jaw dropped when I saw this. The pictures are there on Facebook for the world to see. There's no hiding from the fact that the person in question knew exactly what he was doing. One of his comments was something along the lines of, “I will keep it for you but you can't wear the swastika sign in London, you will get beat up there.”

You can't cite ignorance in either of the above cases. These are middle-class, educated Thais who know the meanings behind the symbols they use, but choose to overlook the effect they might have on others for the sake of a cheap pop.

I understand that images often come to represent something outside of their original meaning. How many people wearing a Ramones T-shirt have ever been to a Ramones concert? And how many people with Che Guevara posters have ever really studied his life?

The Che Guevara image is interesting because it's popular in Timor-Leste, where it's essentially become a symbol of independence and freedom. A former NGO worker once recalled to me a story about a local staffer turning up to work wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, only to be sent home to change (by a Western superior).

Back on Nazism, the swastika itself is problematic in a sense because the symbol is common in Buddhism and Hinduism. The swastika was adopted by the German Workers Party and subsequently the Nazi Party. You see swastikas all over Asia, and of course almost all of them have nothing to do with Nazism.

But the swastika often pops up in fashion, particularly in Thailand. It's seemingly a symbol of rebellion, occasionally adopted by middle-class Thais who have disposable income to spend on clothes, Krispy Kreme donuts and Blackberry devices.

Is it insensitive or am I giving this undue attention? How about if I rocked into Bangkok wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of Pol Pot? Or how about one of Alaungpaya, the Burmese king who led the sack of Ayutthaya? Maybe one of WWII-era Japanese invaders? Or what if I wore a T-shirt depicting… no, wait, the outside world is expected to fall into order and be sensitive to certain aspects of Thai society. And the international media is expected to follow guidelines laid down by angry, young nationalists when their beloved country falls apart. We can never understand Thailand, can we?

Last year, the German and Israeli ambassadors to Thailand were also “outraged” when a giant billboard was erected showing Hitler giving the Nazi salute. The ad was to promote a new waxworks museum. “Hitler is not dead,” read the slogan, in Thai language.

In 2007, “[a] Thai school… apologized to an international Jewish human rights organization for its sponsorship of a celebration that involved a Nazi-themed parade”. (AP)

Photos from the event showed about 200 students — between the ages of 6 and 18 — dressed in red outfits with swastikas on their baseball caps behind a large sign with “NAZI” in shoulder-high letters.

Absolutely Bangkok blogged about the whole issue a couple of years ago:

And a glance at the moment might find your eyes landing on a quarterly magazine called Akasi, published by the Flying Wind group. The cover displays a scantily clad young woman posing as a Nazi tank commander with a Nazi general, Heinz Guderian. Inside, the magazine continues the theme with a centerpiece explaining Guderian’s life and times. Clearly they are aiming to offend and I will take the bait.

This is the latest example of a long line of “Nazi chic.” Fashion chain Izzue had an infamous campaign involving shops adorned in Nazi flags, swastikas and even Nazi propaganda films playing on the shop wall… These are not isolated examples. Rather they are all too common.

There have been similar stories in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and beyond.

This isn't to say that Westerners have a solid grasp of Asian history and atrocities, but young, educated Thais do know about the Holocaust. They simply don't see a problem with using Nazi imagery for trivial, gimmicky purposes.

On a more topical note, Thailand's New Politics Party last year rolled out its new logo, which bore a striking resemblance to, you guessed it, a swastika. It was the party's curious indifference that baffled the international community.

Are we overly sensitive or should some people really know better?

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2 thoughts on “What's in a sign?

  1. If Nazis would have killed grand style on their own turf they should know better. On the other hand even Germany today has a sometimes surprising relationship with old Adolf.

  2. Education & upbringing unfortunately do not ensure that a person has good taste or judgement. Remember, Prince Harry donned the same party costume!

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