Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cultural Reference Points Will Set You Free

A large retailer recently faced controversy when it included among its online catalog what was supposed to be a motivational poster featuring German wording over a gate that translates to "Work Will Set You Free" ("Arbeit marcht frei"). The problem was that the gate was the entrance to Auschwitz, the notorious German Nazi concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated during World War II. 

It's an inexcusable mistake, but my guess is that it happened because most people today under the age of 40 lack a sense of cultural reference points -- they have no sense of, or interest in, events that have shaped the world they live in. (Which is ironic, considering the vast encyclopedia of information instantly available at their fingertips.) 

So probably, some young graphic designer was asked to create a motivational poster about the uplifting benefits of hard work. Then he or she googled related images, saw a photo of the gate that was unrelated to any content linking it to the source of one of history's most shocking atrocities, and that was that. Then someone else at the retail site with an equally serious deficiency in cultural history thought nothing about adding it to their online shelves. It's more than just a matter of forgetting about the Holocaust -- it's having no sense of important events taking place in the relatively recent past. 

Which brings me to an item the fashion retailer Zara recently pulled from its shelves. It's difficult to believe that the design of this children's shirt didn't set off alarm bells for its resemblance to the striped uniforms issued at concentration camps. Yes, the stripes are horizontal rather than vertical and yes, it says "Sheriff" inside the yellow six-pointed star -- but when did an old West sheriff ever wear a striped jersey? It's another flagrant example of chillingly obtuse historical ignorance -- and a cautionary tale about the importance of staying aware of the past so as not to repeat it.  

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