Once again, I have proven to be a lousy prognosticator when it comes to which posts will generate the liveliest discussions. The Ethics Quiz about the propriety of buying Adolf Hitler’s watch provoked many excellent comments and trenchant observations, and Steve-O-In NJ’s Comment of the Day is certainly among them.
Here it is…
Something as unique and personal as Hitler’s watch probably belongs in a museum, but if a private person owns it, he has the right to sell it. My question is why would anyone want something like that and what would he do with it once he had it? Doesn’t that say something about the buyer? People collect all kinds of odd things, but collecting something like this is odder than most.
As a Roman Catholic, I was brought up on the idea that certain amounts of power remained within certain objects, especially physical remains. That’s why Church altars often hold holy relics, the more important the church, the more important the relics it holds. There was some serious fear when the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris had that fire a few years back that the crown of thorns, supposedly worn by Christ Himself, and the tunic of St Louis, worn by that saintly King on crusade, would be destroyed and with them the physical link to those personages. I don’t think the belief in relics and similar items is unique to Catholicism, I think it was around long before that. Supposedly the tree that Siddhartha achieved enlightenment under, the burning bush where Moses received his mission from God, and the three items that the sun goddess Amaterasu gave to the first emperor of Japan all exist still. You can see the first two if you are willing to travel, the three items are kept at the Great Ise Shrine in Japan and none but the appointed guardian clerics are allowed to see them.
I think that the human belief that after revered or reviled figures are no longer in this world that something of them remains and can be accessed via whatever physical links there are transcends modern religion and goes back to very early beliefs. The belief that certain symbols have certain power is also a very ancient belief, and why, to this day, we all seem to believe that the display of the cross will repulse a vampire or similar creature. Does any of this make logical sense? Not really, but we are humans, not Vulcans, and therefore the feelings associated with these beliefs remain part of us.
Those feelings can be played upon and amplified, of course, and a lot of individuals do just that, to harness them and hopefully lead others into doing as they say or making the leap from feeling to action. Symbols can serve as points to rally around or against and focusing points for causes. That’s why in the various crusades and jihads it was common for the victor to throw down symbols of the defeated.
Supposedly, in this modern era, we are supposed to have moved past giving these symbols inordinate amounts of power. However, certain political figures have found that rallying against certain symbols is a shortcut to power and mob rule. There is a certain level of dopamine rush that goes with feeling like you’re a righteous member of a righteous cause, and another kind of thrill that goes with destroying a symbol that someone says is bad. The problem is that, like any other kind of addiction, it becomes harder and harder to get the same amount of high with the same actions. Eventually you graduate to hurting and even killing others that you associate with whatever is opposed to your righteous cause.
There is nothing per se unethical about dealing in historical artifacts, whether they be associated with those were thought of as very good or those who are thought of as very evil. Any unethical actions lie within the use of those artifacts. Would I personally want to own some item that was personally possessed by a genocidal dictator? Not really. Do I have a problem with someone else owning such an item? No. Do I have a problem with such an item being displayed in a museum? No. Destroying the physical reminders of History is ultimately unhelpful.
Do I wonder what the owner or buyer of such an item is thinking? Yes. However, unless I actually discuss it with him, I don’t get to assume he’s a bad guy. Am I going to empower someone who claims victimhood to insist on the concealment or destruction of anything? No. I think the sanctification of victimhood ultimately leads to the pussification of society.