You Might Just as Well Try to Rehabilitate Charles Manson

Here’s a news item that you may have missed:

“Beachgoers in New York and New Jersey were outraged when they saw a plane towing a banner with swastika imagery Saturday afternoon.

“Promoting the Web site, an organization called The International Raelian Movement aimed to reclaim the swastika symbol, saying it was ‘hijacked by the Nazis.’

“The plane flew over Coney Island and Long Beach as part of what the group has dubbed Swastika Rehabilitation Week 2014 to promote peace. The banner contained a swastika, Star of David and a peace sign.

“Similar events have occurred in Miami, London and Brisbane, Australia.”

Other sources have reported that, as part of this international effort to rehabilitate this symbol of hate, selected tattoo parlors have also been offering reduced prices on tattoos featuring swastikas.

At first when I read these news items, I thought that all of this was either another one of those Far Right attempts to make hatefulness seem innocuously mainstream or some sort of Progressive parody of those efforts.

It is, of course, very possible that at least some of the people involved in this effort (one hesitates to call it a movement) are so myopically self-absorbed by this bizarre preoccupation that they somehow have not noticed that the Nazi ideology and its symbology still resonate with all sorts of Neo-Nazi and similar lunatic-fringe Far Right groups in just about every dark corner of the world (and some not so dark).

But even if some of those involved are well-intentioned, all that proves is that one does not have to be a hater to be an idiot.

A internationally recognized symbol of horror such as the swastika can eventually be ridiculed, but it cannot be rehabilitated as long as its association with the Nazis is part of the historical memory.

Mel Brooks addressed the issue of making jokes about the Nazis head on in his play within a play, The Producers, and that play was first staged about midway through the run of the television series Hogan’s Heroes.

Framing the broader issue as a sort of meta-joke, Johnny Carson would regularly tell lame jokes about the Lincoln assassination, and when the jokes fell flat, he would turn to Ed McMahon and ask rhetorically, “Is it still too soon?” That sort of follow-up has since become a very common tactic with comedians who tell jokes about very sensitive subjects.

Along these same lines, there is a website that chronicles the ways in which comedians who tried “too early” to make jokes about 9-11 generated much more controversy than laughter:  In retrospect, some of the jokes seem very funny precisely because one immediately recognizes how outrageous they must have seemed. My favorite may be a simple joke that Gilbert Gottfried told at a Friar’s Club roast: “’I’m flying back to L. A. tomorrow.  I wanted a direct flight, but apparently they have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.’”

I noticed, by the way, that the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner fairly quickly became a staple subject for comedians specializing in topical humor, but more often than not, the jokes were framed as responses to the endless and incredibly inane, pointless, and blatantly exploitative cable news coverage of the plane’s disappearance. Another factor may have been the fact that there were relatively few Americans on board (an issue that Philip Roth addressed more than 50 years ago in “The Conversion of the Jews”).

So, at some point, we become willing to laugh at almost anything that we find very terrifying or horrifying. That laughter creates a certain distance between us and the actual terror or horror—as well as a certain control over it–that mitigates its impact.

But that sort of laughter is the obverse of embracing a symbol of terror or horror as if the symbol can be made benign.

Indeed, one can argue that Stalin and Mao were responsible for at least as much death and destruction as Hitler caused, but the crimes against humanity that they sanctioned have somehow not continued to resound quite as profoundly as the atrocities committed in Hitler’s name, at least in part because they are not associated with—have not been distilled into—a symbol with the continuing resonance of the swastika.

Coming back to the title of this post, it was not at all coincidental that Charles Manson carved a swastika into his forehead to demonstrate, among other things perhaps, his complete rejection of the concept of rehabilitation.


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