What the Sign Says, When It Means “Keep Out”
From the September 18th issue of the Adirondack Enterprise, regarding a recent proposal to change the name of Swastika, NY:
“I’m dead-set against changing it,” [Councilman Howard] Aubin said Monday. Aubin said the word swastika means “well-being.” Swastika does mean “well-being” in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Aubin said “only an intolerant person” would assume the name is connected to the German Nazi Party and its leader, Adolf Hitler, whose aggression prompted World War II.
Even without the coronavirus, 2020 has been a historical year. We’ve witnessed political debate of an intensity rarely seen, from big cities all the way to the most rural hamlets. Here in the pages of the Almanack, in local newspapers, all over the region, communities are having discussions over the meaning of certain symbols in the Adirondack Park. This conversation has been around for a while, but it was renewed in late May by activism associated with the Movement for Black Lives (also known as Black Lives Matter), which has been taken up by many local residents. There have been town council debates, many letters to the editors and other articles, and even protests in support of racial justice.
A recurring theme in these discussions has been to question the authority and authenticity of some who participate. In particular, some folks keep using the word “outsider” to describe people with whom they disagree. This charge is leveled especially often when a controversial symbol is being challenged. In June, when a local anti-racist educator pointed out that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, she was called an “outsider.” When her words were echoed in October by a town councilor in Tupper Lake, blame was assigned to an “outside” publication that is based a mere 20 miles away that dared weigh in on the discussion.
For those of us who love the Adirondacks, but don’t have the opportunity to live here full time, or at all, this word is employed even more readily. Our geographical status becomes equivalent to our stake in the discussion, or at least our perceived stake.
Since I am not a full time resident, and have been cast into this “outsider” bucket, I feel the need to share my personal perspective. My authenticity as someone that cares about the display of certain symbols is being questioned, and because of this, I should be allowed to answer. The display of these symbols profoundly affects my experience of the Adirondacks. I, and many others, have a lot more stake in this question than some may assume.
I will speak on the example that is most personal: the recent debate surrounding the name of Swastika, NY.
The swastika, like the Confederate flag, is a symbol associated with the hate-based ideology of white supremacy. It feels strange and discouraging to have to remind anyone of this in 2020. But perhaps you’d be forgiven for forgetting, if you were following the recent debate over whether Swastika (a hamlet within the town of Black Brook) should change its name. When a frequent visitor to Essex County wrote to the Black Brook town council requesting that the name of this hamlet be changed, his idea was unanimously rejected. Among other things, one town councilor said that “only an intolerant person” would assume that the name of his town is connected to World War II or Nazism. It was also pointed out that the swastika has multiple meanings. The far more ancient meaning of this symbol, indeed, the original meaning, is one associated with peace and yes, “well being.”
As a Buddhist, I’m already aware of the original meaning of the swastika. In fact, the symbol is still quite important for many eastern religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In India, I’ve seen swastikas on temples, on jewelry, and incorporated into clothing. I’ve seen a local police woman sport a swastika nose piercing, and a robed sadhu with a swastika embroidered into his scarf. Throughout my life, I’ve had many Buddhist teachers who associate this symbol with peace and happiness, and they are greatly saddened by its appropriation by the Nazis in the early 20th century.
But in the West, we’re kidding ourselves if we assume that the swastika has only the above meaning in the 21st century. Putting World War II aside entirely, the swastika is used in the West as propaganda in anti-Semitic and white supremacist hate crimes all the time. 2019 had the highest recorded level of hate against Jewish people in America since the Anti-Defamation League started keeping records. Drawing a swastika on a temple in the East is quite common, but if you saw a swastika painted on almost any place of worship in the West, you’d be completely justified in suspecting that a hateful message is meant.
The above dichotomy is complex and deeply emotionally uncomfortable. Especially given the extremity of the different meanings, where this symbol represents some of the most profoundly ethical and non-violent people I know, and also some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity – it’s not the type of situation that is easy to come to terms with. Given the above, it’s jarring, at best, to hear a few Western individuals attempt to dismiss those of us questioning the name of their town. Further, it’s totally fair to challenge whether the “debate” had so far has been a good faith attempt to resolve this question.
When considering renaming Swastika, did the town council of Black Brook really do any work to consult people for whom this symbol carries serious weight? The heavy lifting of recognizing the dual meanings of the swastika is often discussed by the most affected parties. Local media in the Adirondacks is also doing good work by interviewing people who have a real stake. Were any of these perspectives consulted, or were they too far “outside” the local context of one small town to merit consideration?
In other such “debates” over symbols, there is no positive side of the coin to reference. There’s no positive meaning to the Confederate flag, for example. The Civil War ended over 150 years ago. Many have already pointed out that the side that lost did not include the state of New York. For the vast majority of the 20th century, the only collective meanings of the Confederate flag are either to support revisionist history, or as stated before, to support blatant racism.
I don’t think anyone having a serious discussion on this topic disagrees that individuals have a right to free speech, or the ability to collectively determine how a town should identify itself. Put whatever sign or flag that you want on your lawn; call your town a name that you deem appropriate. However, no one can deny that symbols derive meaning collectively. Although individuals try all the time to assign a personal message to particular symbols, efforts to do so, no matter why they’re tried, certainly don’t guarantee success.
The town council of Black Brook or people that choose to fly a confederate flag are not blind to the negative meanings associated with the symbols they choose to display. On the contrary, their strong reaction to people like me shows they understand that we disagree. But instead of listening to legitimate feedback that is born of direct trauma associated with the symbols in question, we are dismissed, and even called “racist” in one case. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like we’re actually having so much of a debate here. Rather, we’re stuck in a situation where one side keeps narrowing the group of people who are “allowed” to have the discussion.
More so than anything else, I do wonder if what some of the folks who use these symbols are trying to say, ultimately, is “Keep Out.” If you know that someone may have a different opinion than you regarding a symbol you choose to embrace, and then you not only choose to embrace it anyway, but attempt to shut down and evade discussion, then it’s quite possible that you’re not interested in a true dialogue. This is a discouraging attitude indeed, if true, for folks representing the Adirondack Park through media and public office.
I see it quite often written that the Adirondack region should be welcoming to visitors and especially potential new residents, as population in the towns and hamlets of the Park continues to decrease. People of all political perspectives, and all statuses of full-timer, part-timer and visitor have spoken about the need to be welcoming in recent years. This need is as much economic as it is social. It seems like we have a long way to go in attracting younger and more diverse residents of the park, if there is a continuous chorus by some residents that aren’t willing to discuss topics that potential transplants care about.
We certainly do not have to agree on all topics, especially not political ones. But I hope we agree that it is good for the Park if we keep having good faith discussions on many topics. We all have shared goals of protecting the Adirondacks environmentally and economically. Let’s take that common ground and have the tough discussions, without calling anyone an “outsider” or “intolerant.” The Adirondacks will benefit from such frankness, and so will we.