In 2004, Major League Baseball decided to allow a Spider-Man movie to advertise on bases on the playing field, but were forced to rescind their decision due to angry reactions by the fans. That ads are making their ways onto batting helmets and selected team uniforms again is a cautionary tale of the patient and seemingly inexorable march of capitalism and a seemingly weak long-term societal memory.
So is it simply capitalism doing its thing when Christmas ornaments with images from the Auschwitz death camp are for sale [update: the item has been taken down due to the public outcry, though this Birkenau Jewish Death Mousepad is still available] on the world’s largest online retailer? Who’s idea was that anyway? Is it a personalized item, generated online by a Neo-Nazi in Des Moines? Perhaps it was the teenagers in London who beat a rabbi this past Friday night while screaming “Kill Jews” and “F$$k Jews.” The blasphemy of using Christian symbols to amplify Anti-Semitism has a complicated history. So too does the online peddling of hate, well-articulated (and dressed-down) by Sacha Baron Cohen just last week.
The difference between movie-themed bases and genocide-themed ornaments is obvious. But the trends and platforms that link them should be alarming. There will always be people to buy that stuff and product placement works. And, if our only guideposts are profits, the gulf between Auschwitz and Spider-Man is less wide than we thought. After all, White Nationalism in Charlottesville translated into hefty sales of tiki- torches from local hardware stores.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described capitalism as “the crushing of the human spirit” and charged humanity with the task of developing a sense of the Divine Spirit. A story is told that once, in a discussion about whether a New York synagogue no longer in use should be sold to either a church or to a bank, Heschel said: “If it is sold to a bank then it will become a temple of capitalism; if sold to a church, it will continue to be a temple of God.”
Clearly, religious institutions are not immune from sin. Churches, synagogues, and mosques can be contaminated by the influence of greed, but likely, their explicit concern with the sense of the Divine might serve as a bulwark against an amoral capitalism that sees no distress when hate sells well.
It should not be lost on us that Amazon’s massive reach makes voices of dissent harder to hear. That leaves us one option. We must stand, tribes united, infused by an acute awareness of hate’s contagion. Voices raised together in defense of each other, our voices might be loud enough to save us all.