A few days ago while skimming my morning RSS feeds, I read a news article about a soccer player being banned for giving the Nazi salute while celebrating a goal. I know little about sports and even less about the specific sport football (US soccer), but the title of the BBC article has haunted me: “Who, What, Why: Can you accidentally do a Nazi salute?”
My mind keeps drifting to this question of intention, meaning, and interpretation. A few years ago I had an argument about a similar, albeit more straightforward, issue of the use of the swastika by punks in 1970s England. For the umpteenth time I was reading Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style (of which there is so much to say, but I’m trying to stay focused!). In the book Hebdige argues that in being used by punks, the swastika “lost its ‘natural’ meaning-fascism,” “was worn because it was guaranteed to shock,” and “[t]he signifier (swastika) had been willfully detached from the concept (Nazism) it conventionally signified…its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning” (p 177).
I was discussing the book with a fellow student who agreed with Hebdige, that the swastika was signifying shock and not actual Nazism. I disagreed with him, namely, and reason I say this argument was more straightforward than the soccer player, because the context in which the punks were displaying the symbol was in England roughly 35 years after the Blitz. Maybe their parents and certainly their grandparents, experienced the bombing, death, and destruction.
The interpretation of the symbol by others, the signified, is inarguably Nazis, Hitler, fascism. As far as the punk’s intention, the symbol is not a ‘rhetoric of crisis‘ but a rhetoric of fascism, no matter its bricolage context. Yes the symbol caused ‘shock,’ but it was a particular type of shock. Other symbols like unnaturally dyed hair and PVC clothing also caused shock. While perhaps not active in Nazi groups, there was purpose in the use of the symbol, its ‘natural’ meaning was being evoked. Wielding this signifier demonstrates there is no absence, or ignorance, of meaning. To have clear, personal ties to such a political signifier indicates a specific kind of violence and hostility.
While I feel similarly about the recent football incident, I believe my unfamiliarity with the various factors is part of why I feel it is more complex. The player has claimed 1. that he was pointing to friends, then 2. that he did not know what it meant. His coach has said “He is a young kid who does not have any political ideas. He most likely saw such a salute on the internet or somewhere else and did it, without knowing what it means.” But is that even possible? Why has he given different explanations to interpret the symbol? Where would he have seen the symbol out of its ‘natural’ context?
I am aware that the sport, as many others, is rife with gender and race issues and it is sometimes entwined with neo Nazism. I’m also aware that while those of us with radical leanings bask in Greek anarchist riot porn, the country also has a rising neo Nazi contingent in the Golden Dawn party. In the US, it has become widespread and commonplace to use politically charged symbols with ambivalence and for consumption, the ultimate ‘defusion’ of the symbol. In addition, I find it interesting to think of this symbol temporarily embodied becoming permanent in film and media.
In this case, the player has been banned from the national team, but would still be able to ‘go pro.’ I feel somewhat settled in my belief that no, this player could not have done an accidental Nazi salute. Yet, I teach young adults and find myself confounded by their simultaneous abundance and dearth of existing knowledge. When paired with the proliferation in transformation of the political to the apolitical, I am troubled the answer to such a question could possibly be ‘yes’.
*Note on the images I’ve used: In placing these images next to one another I do not mean to infer equivalency between them. They are merely images I believe demonstrate the use of symbols packed with politicized meaning.