This weekend a plane flew over Coney Island and the Rockaways towing a banner with a swastika and an ad for proswastika.org, a new initiative by the Raelians—a religious movement that believes humans were created by ancient extra-terrestrials, and whose insignia is a swastika inside of a hexagram.
According to Raelian spokesperson Thomas Kaenzig, the swastika was brought to Earth millions of years ago by our alien forefathers, which is presumably why Raelians believe the symbol appears in cultures all over the world. This weekend marked the end of “International Swastika Rehabilitation Week,” part of an attempt to reclaim the symbol from its Nazi associations which also featured street activism in Las Vegas.
Press coverage indicates that those who saw the plane felt outraged rather than informed. A teenager who spotted the sign described it as “horrific,” while City Councilman Mark Treyger called the sign “a chilling message of fear and intimidation.” The Raelians almost certainly counted on this emotional response. In her book on the Raelians, Susan J. Palmer suggests that the movement intentionally generates controversy to gain media attention and to present the itself as a group that is embattled for its enlightened ideas, a self-narrative that fosters a sense of unity among the group’s membership.
Defending the swastika, which for many Westerners provokes a strong sense of moral outrage, as a symbol of cosmic love rather than hate is a classic example of this strategy of “controversy surfing.” Furthermore, condemning the swastika as if the symbol itself were evil can foster a sense of righteousness.
As a high school history teacher lecturing on World War II, I occasionally encountered students who felt it was immoral to reproduce the swastika even for educational purposes. I witnessed another example of “swastika-phobia” on a trip to Kochi, India, once home to a sizable population of Indian Jews, a part of which is still known as “Jew Town.” I overheard an American tourist exclaim with alarm, “I was in Jew Town, and there were swastikas everywhere!” When her friend tried to explain that in Kochi the swastika is a symbol of Hinduism and not Nazism, she responded, “I know, but still!”
Because the swastika inspires emotions that can overpower our logic, the outrage it generates plays to the Raelian narrative of their movement as a group that is hated for its enlightened ideals. In previous campaigns such as Clonaid and Clitoraid, the Raelians have presented themselves as a group that could transform the world through advanced science were it not for the influence of the Catholic Church and its medieval opposition to reproductive freedom and sexuality.
A public backlash against proswastika.org will likewise allow the Raelians to claim that their enemies are ignorant of history and other cultures and too angry to receive their message of love. For those who take offense at the Raelians and their campaign, it may be most effective to simply ignore them.