I haven’t checked in on The Ethicist column in the New York Time Magazine in a while: the current resident, Kwame Anthony Appiah, is the real McCoy, unlike all of his predecessors, and his analysis of various queries from readers is usually valid and properly reasoned. This week’s featured issue is a strange one, however.
A Peter Hulit of Los Angeles wrote to ask what was the “ethical way” to deal with a belt buckle from a Nazi uniform that was stored in his late father’s box of World War II memorabilia, collected during his service overseas. Hulit explained,
“I have kept it stashed in my desk. I’m now in my 60s and really don’t want it in my house..I have checked resale sites, and it does have some monetary value, but I do not want it to fall into hands that may use it symbolically for what my father fought against.”
I rate this question as more evidence of Nazi hysteria, one of the side-effect of the 2016 post election Ethics Train Wreck that includes the effort by the Left to slander opposition to Democrats, Clinton and Obama as nascent fascism. It is also a continuation of the historical air-brushing that Orwellian progressives seem to think will magically eliminate all evils from modern society.
World War II artifacts are history and are tools of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is what those seeing German Nazi motivations in President Trump and his supporters sorely lack. There is no such thing as dangerous history. What is dangerous is to forget history, or to try to pretend that what happened did not.
Nor are objects cursed, or evil. People are evil, and history leaves evidence of evil deeds. “I don’t want it in my house” smacks of superstition. It’s a belt buckle.
Hulit’s question seems to suck The Ethicist down some unethical holes that he should avoid, and usually does. For example, he writes,
Well, we are required not just to act in accordance with morality but also to have the right moral emotions. And having this stuff around suggests that you just might have a problem there. Indifference toward a genocidal regime is bad. Active approval is, of course, worse.
Wait, what? What are “the right” moral emotions? Emotions are emotions: they are not right or wrong. Only how we allow emotions to govern conduct is right or wrong. Having an old soldiers souvenirs of the Allied victory over Hitler in the house does nothing more than honor his service, and symbolically celebrate the defeat of the Third Reich. My Dad brought home lots of Nazi stuff, including a gigantic party flag. Mu mom took it, cut out the swastika in the middle, and made beautiful red curtains for our playroom on the basement. My sister and I had no idea about the origin of those curtains until decades later.We both thought it was great. Take that, Adolf! Did “having this stuff around suggests that we just might had a problem”? No, making such a silly statement suggests that Appiah has a problem. His problem gets worse, as he writes,
“Because you, like me, are repulsed by this sort of celebration, you naturally don’t want to allow this belt buckle — presumably it’s the kind with the eagle and swastika — to be misused in this way. Now, here’s the problem. As far as I can see, if you want to ensure that the buckle is never misused, you can’t really sell it to anyone. You can tell buyers that they must not use it in this way, but that stricture isn’t enforceable. Even if you gave it to a responsible museum, it can’t stop people coming in to look at it for the wrong reasons. And again, the museum could always decide to sell the buckle later. Are you right to be concerned about the uses that might be made of the object? No doubt most buyers of this sort of thing are military-artifact collectors with no untoward predilections. And we’re not generally responsible for what people do with the things we sell them, mostly because we can’t be expected to foresee those things. Still, the more obvious the possibilities for an object’s misuse, and the more serious its consequences, the more diligent you need to be in avoiding selling that object to the wrong buyers.”
Oh, get over yourself. It’s a belt buckle. What damage is a belt buckle going to do, under the most over-heated, hysterical theory imaginable? is the fear that the belt buckle might fall into the hands of someone who likes it? You know, one of my father’s WWII souvenirs was a German infantry cap. It was made of heavier material than the American caps, and was black; it also had a small Nazi insignia on it. I loved it. I wore it sometimes. I once brought it to school for show and tell, and nobody misconstrued what interested me in it—the history, and my father’s heroism in WWII—or thought I was a Nazi sympathizer. You know why? Because they were sane. That’s why.
We don’t know what anyone will do with anything we sell. I wouldn’t sell one of my father’s Nazi daggers to a drooling maniac, but would I sell one to a collector of Nazi memorabilia? Sure. He has a right to collect what he wants, and I make no judgments about what he chooses to collect. As for a belt buckle: what misuse is “The Ethicist” imagining? Wearing it? That’s not misuse. That’s free speech. or more likely, as when I wore that black cap, no speech at all.
To be fair, The Ethicist waffles all over the place; the question clearly has his emotions battling with his sound ethical instincts. He writes,
“Finally, in any sale, you’re connected with those who would use the buckle to signal pro-Nazi attitudes, because their preferences are one source of the economic demand that sets the price. I’m inclined to think that this connection is too remote to worry about, though. Many objects have morally unattractive elements shaping the demand that sets their prices.”
“A sensible precaution would be to identify an interested buyer who doesn’t intend to sell it and whose collecting interests don’t seem guided by neo-Nazi sentiments. But if you’re really determined to avoid any possibility of misuse, I suggest you give your father’s buckle a decent burial.”
Burial? Sure, why not? Pretend those Nazi trousers never needed to stay up! Better yet, pretend there were no Nazis, no war, best of all, no Holocaust.
The less we know the better, right?