Sunday, July 30, 2006

It's Just a Shirt, Man?

My barber wore a red shirt emblazoned with a solitary star and the hammer and sickle, the symbol of Soviet imperialism. I was annoyed but not moved to rage, so I was going to let it go until he started chatting with me while cutting my hair.

[Please note this is a paraphrase of the dialogue. The actual exchange was a little choppier and used some saltier language]

After a few basic pleasantries I lightheartedly asked, "So you kick it Stalin style, eh?"

He found this amusing and answered, "Nah, it's a cool shirt. So I bought it."

"A cool shirt emblazoned with the symbol of a murderous ideology," I replied.

"Well, I don't believe in Communism. It's just a shirt."

"Well, yeah, now it is since it's been defeated and all, it's just it's a symbol that stands for the Soviet empire which killed millions of its own people and enslaved millions of others."

"Yeah, I think older people get more worked up about it. I wore it once and this older guy gave me this crazy look, like he wanted to kill me. maybe I should be more careful about wearing it in the future."

"Yeah, I will give you that stylistically the design looks cool. But of course its history is a bloody one and its easy for us to forget that with the end of the Cold War and all."
There were a few other exchanges, but it struck me as interesting.

This guy is my age, maybe slightly older (he and I both graduated in 2001 from UMd.-- he has a degree in history)

His point about the shirt "looking cool" has some merit. Like I told him, divorced from the context of the dark annals of Soviet history, the hammer and sickle look kind of cool on a T-shirt. Ditto with Che Guevara T-shirts.

I can see how apolitical people, even those supposedly well-versed in history can wear such a T-shirt with no concern for the implicit agreement with the political ideology represented.

I'm sure this dude would not wear a shirt emblazoned with a swastika. He knows damn well the murderous history and ideology of Nazism and would not want to glorify it, and rightly so.

So why is it that although we have some inkling of Soviet atrocities we as a generation think Red-friendly T-shirts are cool? And beyond that, is it really a big idea?

Does the evolution of Soviet Communism from a global threat to peace and security to a cool T-shirt design in some way pile on to the fundamental weakness of communism which doomed the Iron Curtain to eventually fall with a resounding crash 15 years ago?

I'm inclined to think the latter, although I must confess it does disturb me that we are not as aware as we should be of the sordid history of Soviet imperialism and how it poured salt in the wounds of a world scarred with the scourge of Nazi, Italian, and Japanese fascism.