Don’t ban the sickle, hammer the wearers


Should red stars, hammers-and-sickles and other communist symbols be banned by retailers? Lithuania thinks so:

Lithuania has urged American online retailer Amazon to stop selling clothing featuring the hammer and sickle and other Soviet symbols, which it says are offensive to victims of Soviet-era persecution.

“While cruelty is growing across our planet, nobody should stay indifferent even to ‘funny’ symbols,” the Baltic country’s first postindependence president, Vytautas Landsbergis, said in an open letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The 86-year-old equated Soviet-themed symbols to “communist tyranny,” while calling the U.S.S.R. a collaborator with Nazi Germany in “war crimes and genocide.”

Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius endorsed the ex-Lithuanian leader’s letter and told AFP his diplomats had also asked Amazon to remove merchandise with Soviet symbols.

As the story reminds us, communist imagery is banned in Lithuania and in recent past some other big retailers made supportive noises upon similar requests.

Hammer and sickle is clearly a symbol of an ideology that in the past hundred years murdered and starved to death around 100 million people (think Austin, Texas, or Brisbane, Queensland, every year for a century), imprisoned countless others, enslaved whole nations, kept hundreds of millions of people unfree and impoverished, not to mention being spectacularly bad for the environment. Like it or not, symbols like red star are symbols of mass murder, if not genocide (whatever else they might also symbolise to people). We’re talking here about an explicit and specific association with communism as practiced on a large scale since the end of World War One, not merely an association with broad left or social democracy, such as represented by a red flag or a red rose. Red star and hammer and sickle are emblems of totalitarian oppression. Hundreds of millions of people are still alive around the world who have directly suffered under these symbols or at least lived under them without democracy, human rights, and often food and basic other necessities. These symbols bring painful personal and family memories.

Swastika has a similar dark history. However, unlike the paraphernalia of communism, the paraphernalia of Nazism are widely banned around the world (at least the developed world – the Middle East and Asia are something else) and almost impossible to obtain, certainly not through a major retailer like Amazon or Walmart.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled by people (including myself) writing about this double standard: while anything associated with Nazism is banned and shunned, communism, if not necessarily considered cool by any large section of society, continues to be indulged. While some go around the streets sincerely and unironically wearing their hammer-and-sickle or Che Guevara t-shirts, most people don’t see anything wrong with, say, a communist-themed bar. I won’t go into all the possible explanations for this disparity in treatment, from the consensus about the uniquely evil nature of the Holocaust on the one hand to on the other hand the pervasive cultural influence of the left in our societies, which might condemn the “excesses” of communism but can’t repudiate the shared ideological background, the aspirations and the idealism. Needless to say, this results in a world where the Israeli foreign minister does not have to write to Target, asking them to pull a swastika sweater, because no one in the right mind at Target would think of stocking such an item of apparel.

Should we heed Lithuania’s calls? You could argue that it’s only fair that both totalitarianisms are treated the same. Personally, I would argue that they should be – but by not banning anything. While I understand perfectly well – and sympathise – with those who find the totalitarian symbolism offensive, repugnant and deeply painful (think the families of the Holocaust survivors, for example – or, on the other side, those who might have been persecuted by communist regimes), I also think that there is a good case against prohibition. It’s the argument that freedom of speech – which includes freedom to wear what one wants – serves a useful purpose in quickly and efficiently communicating important information, in this particular case that the person wearing a hammer-and-sickle or a swastika t-shirt is a complete and utter knob. I see a person so clearly associating themselves with a mass-murdering totalitarian ideology and I instantly know that they are a moral and intellectual midget (no offence to midgets). I don’t even have to talk to them or hear them out, I don’t have to know anything more about them; their choice of symbols tells me all I need to know, which is that I don’t need to know anything else in order to know they are extremely ignorant or extremely malicious – either way, not serious participants in any sort of political activity.

Think about Antifa. It’s the fact that so many of them sport communist symbolism that allows us to recognise them instantly not as courageous campaigners against hatred and prejudice and for freedom and democracy but merely street brawlers for one kind of genocidal totalitarianism who are violently opposed to another kind of genocidal totalitarianism – but also pretty much any other ideology than their’s.

I’m not one for punching Nazis – or punching commies. Good old finger pointing in enough for me. You want to wear a swastika or a hammer-and-sickle? Prepare to be subjected to contempt, ridicule and ostracism you so richly deserve. You have outed yourself as scum; you will be treated accordingly.