In a comment, Mishu linked to “The Lie of a Liberal Arts Education.” Jeff Goldstein, of Protein Wisdom, tells us after a political cartoon was posted at his site, an old teacher e-mailed him, requesting that his name be struck from the list of Goldstein’s teachers. That we are responsible for those who have studied under us would make neither my raft of old teachers very happy nor me about many of my students. (Jonathan’s need to fix my comma splices, for instance, must make one of them spin in his grave.)
I’d seen the comment (for the usual reason, groggy in the morning and late at night, I check out Instapundit). And I’d remembered it clearly, since it brought home the adolescent and enforced homogeneity of academic thinking but also because the cartoon was especially memorable, disturbing the way political cartoons can be. The visual and analogous are powerful weapons. The Muslims realize that – and we should, too. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we follow the actions of either the Jihadists or the average college faculty. When I went back later to show it to my husband, the cartoon was linked but no longer at the top of the page. It provokes, but it has a certain rightness. I found it and my husband was repelled. He felt it was in bad taste. His explanation for that gut reaction was not a defense of Obama nor of the content or the process of Healthcare legislation – as would any sentient being, he sees those as pretty bad. Nor did he see it as racist – indeed, worrying about that label would make any criticism difficult.
What bothered him – and I understand this hesitation – was that Obama is president. He felt the rapist image with all its power was not one he wanted attached to the office. (That was, of course, why he had felt deep repugnance at the numerous ways Bush was attacked – as indeed, Goldstein demonstrates in a counter cartoon from that period.) My tradition is different than his – more “mouthy” perhaps, more loud and contentious. But I understand his reluctance to find pleasure in seeing a portrait of a man embodying the position he reveres as a rapist. His response is different from those who complain it insults Obama as a black. It is not personal. Describing the cartoon as racist ignores the distinction between the president’s two bodies – he is a president in his public body, his private one is married to Michelle and is black. (And that makes what Clinton did so much worse – apparently a literal rape – and so much less – he did it not as a governor, despite using the power of that office, but as Bill Clinton.)
Analogies are powerful – we are a people whose culture has been permeated from the beginning with attempts to seek parallels. Winthrop and Bradford were seen as Moses, the wandering of the Pilgrims from Leyden to America, the self-exile of the Puritans – they always looked to the Old Testament. We have dueling analogies – never was that more obvious than when some compared Iraq to Vietnam and some to World War II, when some compare the Tea Parties to McCarthyism and some to the Founders. All of us, to some degree, conflate the public and the private.
And our political cartoons take the political/the public and make it the private/the personal. Houston’s exhibit of Nast’s cartoons demonstrate how much they influenced our idioms and our history. But they work best when they fit best. Part of the cartoon’s power lies in the way so many Americans a year and a half ago were enamored of Obama; they have awakened in bed with a man who lets Netanyahu sit while he eats with his family (would any of us do that to a salesman?), gave the Queen tapes of his own speeches, has, in short, been one of the most vulgar of public men, been a man whose confusions arise from a personal hubris. This is the man who seduced them. They didn’t see it coming. They are only beginning to realize the dimensions of the yes they gave.