Recent talk of extremism and universities, the Prevent duty and so on reminded me of something I wrote back in April 2001. It feels odd now, especially given that some of the explanation of the online was done because it was all so new (imagine that!).... this first appeared in a Goldsmiths publication:
In the week of the first UK Holocaust Memorial Day I watched as a Goldsmiths’ student attempted to purchase a Hitler Youth Armband. Regrettably I did not attempt to talk to her and so at this point I can only guess her motives. I cannot also be fully sure of the reasons behind my own actions and inaction. The situation throws up questions of ethics, authority and political action. However, without talking to the student these questions cannot be answered.
I’m not a particularly nosy person. When the student sat next to me in the first floor computer room to do her email I noticed her red hair, boots and fishnet tights my only thought was that there are always new punks to replace the retirees… much the same as the goths. I took more notice of her when she was browsing the online catalogue of Data records, a Coventry record shop specialising in old and new punk. Working in a record shop myself and for a long time being responsible for this shops online catalogue I am always curious about competitors. So as I thought about planning my essay I took occasional glances at the next screen.
The student’s record browsing told me that her main interest was Skinhead and Oi!. Although the skinhead movement is widely perceived as being white, working class and racist this image has been contested since its beginnings. Many bands resent being categorised as racist and describe themselves as ‘anti-racist Oi!’. Apart from the notorious Skrewdriver the overt stance of most bands is either anti-racist or ambiguous. In addition, this straight translation of political affiliation from band to fan is problematic even if one is in the audience. This is also more often the case with fandom at a geographical or temporal distance. As with the current goths, many punks in London are from other countries in Europe and so do not have the same background influences as the stereotypical white, English, working class punk or skin.
It was what happened next that surprised me. The student began browsing listings of Nazi memorabilia on Ebay (www. ebay.com), an online auctioneer. She spent between thirty minutes and an hour browsing through photographs and descriptions of medals, armbands and signed photographs amongst other souvenirs of the Third Reich. At first it looked like youthful curiosity but all the way through the browsing the student was using a calculator to convert currency (into UK pounds or her ‘home’ country’s currency?). And then it happened. She saw a Hitler Youth Armband at the right price and made a bid of 15.50 for it. I have tried to think of explanations for this behaviour. Research? But why actually buy an item. Fashion? Medals maybe, but in what circumstances would you wear the armband? And it’s hard to see how signed photos of prominent Nazis could be a fashion accessory. As a prop for a play? She would have been looking for a specific item and not comparing prices of medals AND armbands. As part of a historical collection? Surely she would have looked at memorabilia from other wars.
It was the requirement for authenticity that really closes off these possibilities. For fashion purposes the painting of a swastika onto a ripped T-shirt would be enough. It is hard to imagine a situation in which this level of authenticity would be a requirement. A trip to an army and navy store would usually suffice.
At this point I felt a need to speak to her. But I also knew that in the library I do not have the authority to tell others what they can or cannot do. I also knew that as soon as she knew I was watching her behaviour would change. A warning would also enable her to find an explanation for her potential purchase. However, I needed to know that I could find out who this student was before leaving the library. In the end I decided to speak to whoever was manning the computer helpdesk. I was informed that there is an ethical policy regarding the use of Goldsmiths’ computers. He was sure that pornography was banned but did not know whether the purchasing of Nazi memorabilia was permitted (the purchasing of Nazi memorabilia is legal in the UK but banned in France, Germany, Austria and Italy). He also assured me that the records of who is logged on where and any network traffic is stored. I knew at this point that any conversation or confrontation could wait.
I left the library a little confused. I felt that I needed to talk to someone and ask advice about what to do next. I also felt disappointed that I did not take the opportunity to talk to her and would probably not follow it up with more research. In some ways that is why this is being written. As it is now in the open it compels me to finish the story, to find the student and discover her motives.
Technical Note: When using the Internet your activities are recorded in many places. Your computer keeps a copy of the material (a cache) in order that it does not need to be retrieved again if it has not changed. Your web server at your Internet Service Provider (e.g. Goldsmiths or Freeserve) can log any page requests and may also keep a cache of data to speed up access to commonly requested pages. In addition the server that hosts the website keeps records of which computers have requested the pages. If I was browsing the BNP website from the Goldsmiths’ library the creator of the website would have a record of goldsmiths.ac.uk requesting pages. In commercial circles this is used to see how popular the site is and from where people are looking. Of course the BNP webmaster has no way of telling whether the user was a supporter, an enemy or just indifferent but even by browsing the site you inform him that he has had an influence.