Totalitarian chic [Excerpts]
In January 2005, Britain's Prince Harry attended a birthday party dressed as a Nazi. When the London Sun published a picture of the prince in his German desert uniform and swastika armband, it triggered widespread outrage and disgust. In scathing editorials, Harry was condemned as an ignorant and insensitive clod; months later, he was still apologizing for his tasteless costume. "It was a very stupid thing to do," he said in September. "I've learnt my lesson."
For a more recent example of totalitarian fashion, consider Tim Vincent, the New York correspondent for NBC's entertainment newsmagazine, "Access Hollywood." Twice in the last few weeks, Vincent has introduced stories about upcoming movies while sporting an open jacket over a bright red T-shirt - on which, clearly outlined in gold, was a large red star and a hammer-and-sickle: the international emblems of totalitarian communism.
Nazi regalia may be strictly taboo, but communist emblems have never been trendier. Enter "hammer and sickle" into a shopping search engine, and up pop dozens of products adorned with the Marxist brand -- T-shirts and ski caps, bracelet charms and keychains, posters of Lenin and "Soviet Kremlin Stainless Steel Flasks."
The glamorization of communist imagery is widespread. On West 4th Street in Manhattan, the popular KGB Bar is known for its literary readings and Soviet propaganda posters. In Los Angeles, the La La Ling boutique sells baby clothing emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro's bloody henchman. At the House of Mao, a popular eatery in Singapore, waiters in Chinese army uniforms serve Long March Chicken, and a giant picture of Mao Zedong dominates one wall.
What explains such "communist chic?" How can people who would never dream of drinking in a pub called Gestapo cheerfully hang out at the KGB Bar? If the swastika is an undisputed symbol of unspeakable evil, can the hammer-and-sickle and other emblems of communism be anything less?
Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler's Nazis slaughtered some 21 million people, but the communist nightmare has lasted far longer and its death toll is far, far higher. Since 1917, communist regimes have sent more than 100 million victims to their graves -- and in places like North Korea, the deaths continue to this day. The historian R.J. Rummel, an expert on genocide and government mass murder, estimates that the Soviet Union alone annihilated nearly 62 million people: "Old and young, healthy and sick, men and women, even infants and the infirm, were killed in cold blood. They were not combatants in civil war or rebellions; they were not criminals. Indeed, nearly all were guilty of . . . nothing."
Yet communism rarely evokes the instinctive loathing that Nazism does. Prince Harry's swastika was way over the line, but Tim Vincent's hammer-and-sickle was kitschy and cool. Why?
Several reasons suggest themselves.
[P]erhaps the most compelling explanation is the simplest: visibility. Ever since the end of World War II, when photographers entered the death camps and recorded what they found, the world has had indelible images of the Nazi crimes. But no army ever liberated the Soviet Gulag or halted the Maoist massacres. If there are photos or films of those atrocities, few of us have ever seen them. The victims of communism have tended to be invisible -- and suffering that isn't seen is suffering most people don't think about.]