Images, Analogies, and Cooties

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.

19 thoughts on “Images, Analogies, and Cooties”

  1. Small correction: I didn’t post the comic. It was drawn by — and posted by — Darleen Click, who has posting privileges on my site. This made the fact of Professor Kiteley’s “alarm” all the more ridiculous, I felt; and when I argued to him as much, that’s when he told me it was my responsibility to remove the comic — even though by the time I first saw it it had already garnered quite a few comments. Was I to delete and pretend it was never there? Delete it and post some sanctimonious replacement text decrying its earlier publication — even though I felt it was well within the tradition of political cartooning? Instead, I decided that it should stay and that people were free to discuss it. Among the important questions the commentary helped tease out is how, exactly, is the cartoon “racist” — and when is it okay to use rape imagery when what you are feeling as the artist is a sense of severe violation? Kiteley would rather forestall all such analysis and conversation, declare the image verboten and dangerous — as if “right wingers” were unable to view a political cartoon without getting riled up, piling into the pick-up, and heading out to do them some lynchin’!

    Kiteley knows I’m an academic. His outrage was posturing. And as I argued subsequently in my post, he showed a side of the academy that is increasingly common: a demand for approved thought, rendered in an approved way. That, to me, flies in the face of what the academy is all about: competing ideas tested with rigor by the intellectually curious.

    At any rate, just thought I’d offer the gloss.

  2. JeffG,

    Thanks for coming here and thanks for the “gloss.” I’ve enjoyed your blog in the past, but wasn’t attuned enough (although her name is certainly clear enough) to the distinctions between authors, etc.

    I loved your comment: “That, to me, flies in the face of what the academy is all about: competing ideas tested with rigor by the intellectually curious.” That is a nice way to put it: the open marketplace of ideas – the academy. How often do we say that, as we teach comp/rhetoric or teach the founders? On the other hand, I am somewhat amazed that you have been able to keep that philosophy – indeed, I’d cynically call them illusions. But by providing an open marketplace yourself, you are proving that just because it is rare doesn’t mean it is, really, just an illusion.

  3. Thanks JG for allowing that to be posted. Let those who elected this creep see what they have done and feel uncomfortable.
    The biggest problem in the liberal arts is lack of moral fiber,much more than weak intellect. These people have tenure and still won’t stand up for anything recognisably right.

  4. Weren’t their “Rape of Lady Liberty” cartoons in the past? I have a vague memory of some WW1 posters with that topic. Is it really fair to tar an entire people (Kasierian Germans) as rapists? I don’t recall any rape of liberty posters from the 1960s, because, that’s what the 1960ers wanted. Were there such a cartoon it would be wish-fulfillment porn, not a warning.

  5. Thanks to JG for maintaining and publicly displaying his naive belief in the ideal function of academia. That is what it takes to restore and reform sclorotic institutions that have grown moribund in their cynicism. One day academe will return from its current extreme and intolerant position. But only because someone demonstrates that it can and should.

  6. Yes, but Obama has, indeed, raped the Lady Liberty. A fact is a fact, regardless of how repulsive. Last weekend, the Left took the country over in a coup. If that isn’t the rape of Liberty, what the hell was it?

  7. 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.

    Excellent point, and extremely well-expressed.

    Thank you.

  8. In order to be genuine satire (not to mention effective with people other than those who already agree with you) a political cartoon has to be in some sense funny. There is nothing funny about rape. Now, Click’s drawing is political art (the censorship of which I strongly oppose), but portraying Obama as rapist does cross the line IMHO. It crosses the line, not only for the “President’s Two Bodies” point Ginny makes above, but also because, for all his nefariousness (which has been grave indeed), Obama has not reached the depths of a “liberty rapist.” It would be perfectly alright to portray Castro as such because he is a tyrannt with the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands. As bad as Obama is, he has not become another Hitler. (May he soon have no opportunity to become one!) So, it is wrong to portray him in a way fit only for Hitler and his ilk.

  9. “a political cartoon has to be in some sense funny”

    It was very funny. Success on that score. And accurate. Success again. Funny and accurate–that’s not satire, that’s truth!

    “There is nothing funny about rape”

    There isn’t? I don’t think a year of my life has passed without hearing a rape joke. For while the “May I introduce to your new cell mate Bruno” jokes were all the rage. No one was forced into exile over it. In face, such jokes were told because they were funny.

    But I’ll agree with you. On one condition: for every past offense beginning in 1970 that the phrase “rape of Earth” was used, I get a $1. For every time some variant of “capitalism rapes the earth” was used, I get a $1. For every time…, ah, heck with it, there isn’t that much money.

    Wearing funny clothes or having a funny title does not exempt someone from derision, especially when in Obama’s case, it is so richly deserved.

  10. Tehag, just because people tell jokes about something doesn’t make it funny. I’ve heard many genuinely racist and anti-semetic jokes in my life, and, proving I’m not perfect, I’ve probably told a few myself (which I deeply regret). I do think SOME prison rape jokes, eg. the one you mentioned, are a separated case. First, rape is implied (maybe just threatened) rather than stated explicitly. Second, the butt of the joke usually is some punk for whom we have little sympathy. A metaphor is not a joke. I agree the rape metaphor has been over and incorrectly used by the Left for many years, but it does have legitimate uses, e.g. the rape of Nanking. Humor is a much more complicated subject than many people think. We have certainly gone wacko with political correctness, and we should all grow thicker hides. Nevertheless, we should always try to keep a sense of proportion in our humor, and, IMHO, the cartoon in question did not.

  11. “Nevertheless, we should always try to keep a sense of proportion in our humor, and, IMHO, the cartoon in question did not.”

    Eh. Fine by me. If the metaphor that Obama is raping the country isn’t to your liking, okay. If you don’t like it illustrated, okay. I do think the cartoon is disproportionate: it needs more derision.

    ” First, rape is implied (maybe just threatened) rather than stated explicitly.”

    Okay… try this one: The movie “Trading Places” with Murphy and Aykroyd and Franken (yes, that Franken, who’s actually in the scene) ends with the rape of man by a gorilla. Not shown, of course. Millions apparently found that funny. Certainly the filmmakers did.

    “the butt of the joke usually is some punk for whom we have little sympathy”

    Drawing on my able command of English, I said nothing.

  12. Tehag, let’s take the testosterone level down a couple of notches. “Trading Places” is a farce. I don’t mean it’s a rotten movie. I mean that’s its genre. In a farce no one believes what is shown on the stage or screen would ever happen in real life. In a farce or dark comedy, things that would never be funny in real life, or in ordinary jokes, can be funny, e.g. canibalism in “Sweeney Todd.” I don’t know whether millions of people found “Trading Places” funny (I did) but such ad populum appeals are not good logic. After all, thousands, if not millions, of ancient Romans once thought lions’ tearing defenseless Christians to shreds was entertaining. (Also, I would advise against making Hollywood filmmakers your arbiters of taste.) Finally, I’m glad your able command of the English language allows to recognize a double entendre when someone inserts one.

  13. I’d like to point out that Lady Liberty isn’t just green, she’s a statue. A symbol. Political cartoons are about symbols. The rape is symbolic – it is dishonoring, tainting, destroying.

    I actually don’t think prison jokes about rape are all that funny myself. And I’d just as soon not go where you all are by saying the guy’s a jerk in Trading Places so we don’t care.

    I did find the original cartoon disturbing, but that is because it is also powerful. It captured the sense that people had bought into a character, been attracted to a man, who they now saw was dangerous.

    I have a lot of trouble with mid-nineteenth century cartoons of Lincoln as baboon (and am not too happy with Hawthorne’s vitriolic picture of him, let alone the attitude of the English as the Adams try to keep a polite face in the face of vulgar commentary.) In my mind Lincoln has becomie iconic. (I’m not sure that’s good, but it’s true.) I came to like Bush’s civility, I don’t feel the same kind of shock when I see him as vampire. I don’t like it much, but that’s something else.

    If any of you are close to Houston, you might like seeing the Nast exhibit – we did over spring break. His images defined not just Republicans & Democrats (images which seem arbitrary), but Santa Claus and cat’s paw, etc. They stick in our mind. Some commentors are not seeing the pictures as pure metaphor, filled with another meaning, but as meaning in themselves. I don’t know if I’m expressing this very well, but it is a literalization of political cartoons. I’m not sure it is bad – since the intensity arises in part from its relation to reality. But I have my doubts that Click thinks rape isn’t a bad thing or is a funny thing. And I’m not sure most of us see it that way either.

  14. This comment thread leaves me somewhat bewildered. A 30 second trip to shows that there are several definitions of the word rape. One of these definitions is “the act of seizing and carrying off by force.” In fact the Lain origin, rapere, of the word means “to seize.” The long and pointless discussion – see Scotus comment in particular – have nothing to do with the point of the cartoon. In fact, we could debate whether editorial cartoons are, in fact, meant to be funny. As a case in point just examine of the so-called cartoons of the arch leftist Ted Ralls. Funny they are not. In sum, the image in Darleen Click’s cartoon was a one panel illustration to make a quite legitimate point concerning the Obama administration’s effort to seize and possess our natural liberties through government imposed mandates. Let’s please stop the hysterics from those looking in desperation for excuses to delegitimize honest opposition.

  15. “I’ve heard many genuinely racist and anti-semetic jokes in my life, and, proving I’m not perfect, I’ve probably told a few myself (which I deeply regret).” (Scotus)

    How regretful are you? What have you done to atone for telling these jokes?

  16. I really don’t know where to begin. I’ll start by stating my “bona fides,” not because I think I must to join this discussion, but because I want to point out how quickly some people jump to conclusions. I am unalterably OPPOSED to Obamacare. I believe it’s a disaster for this country and an attack on liberty. Thus, I totally agree with the point Click was trying to make with her picture. What I disagree with is HOW she tried to make the point.

    Ginny talks about the “literalization” of symbols. Symbols, however, draw their power from their literal surfaces. One cannot just use any old thing for a symbol. There must be a natural affinity between what’s chosen as the symbol and what it’s supposed to symbolize. In thinking about why I believe Click’s choice of symbol crossed the line and was disproportionate, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s too violent a symbol for what Obama has done, at least so far. Obama is a socialist; there’s no doubt about that, but he has not (yet) shown himself to be a tyrant. IMHO, rape is a legitimate symbol for tyranny but not for socialism. I mean, once you’ve shown Obama as “liberty-rapist” because of Obamacare, how do you portray him, if (God spare us!) he sets up a corps of storm troopers? I suppose one might say that, once the storm troopers are on the streets, it’s too late to portray Obama as a “liberty-rapist” or anything else. That strikes me as a not unreasonable point, but I’m just not willing to go along with Click’s picture (yet).

    Now to address some points individually. Ginny, I did not say Click believes rape was funny. I said a political cartoon has to be in some sense funny to be effective. In thinking about it, I now see Click intended her picture to be political art, even incendiary art, not a political cartoon. I also made clear that I do NOT believe such art should be censored. boqueronman, you commit the etymological fallacy. It’s clear from the picture, given what Obama says in it and how Lady Liberty looks, that Click’s intended metaphor is not rape as a “seizing” or “carrying away” but rape as sexual violation. Seerov, people do not have to atone for inappropriate humor, deep regret is enough, and I never said Click had to atone for her picture.

    To sum up, I agree with Click’s point but disagree with how she made the point. I think her picture was disproportionate and inappropriate. I don’t think she should have published it. That is a far cry, however, from saying she should be stopped from publishing it, or saying she should be made to retract it, or trying to “delegitimize” her opposition to Obama (which I share). Finally, speaking of delegitimizing, I must confess I get the impression that some are trying to delegitimize my opinion about Click’s picture. This is rather ironic, since I’m sure many of the same people would claim they favor the “Free Marketplace of Ideas.” In such a marketplace people are supposed to be able to express whatever opinion they wish. (“All ideas are welcome in Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner.”) Click put something out into that marketplace. Lots of people found it great. I did not. Disagree with me, if you will, but please don’t rule me out of court (or Hyde Park) for initiating long and pointless discussions.

  17. You know I used to read a lot of (American) conservative blogs (and books, actually) during the last few years of the Bush presidency. I hoped to learn, and to understand their point of view.

    I don’t any more. I’ve understood enough. With some notable exceptions – Daniel Larison, Andrew Bacevich, Andrew Suillivan – there isn’t much to learn. Unfortunately.

    The GOP appears to be stuck where the the Democrats were in the 1970s. Virtually all the intellectual honesty, the freedom from cant and cherished shibboleths, the ability to deal with reality as it is – always in short supply regardless of political affiliation – is now found, if at all, on the left. For the medium term at least, the right has, mostly, nothing positive to offer this country.

    Obama is a good deal more conservative, with a small c, than the large majority of politically active US conservatives. Christopher Buckley has it right. American conservatives have deserted conservatism. That is a shame.

  18. “American conservatives have deserted conservatism. That is a shame.”

    Praise be. Perhaps for once such conservatives will be in favor of freedom, liberty, and abolishing most of the government instead of just talking about it. I can’t think of a better form of “conservatism” to abandon than the Obama-Sullivan “conservatism.”

Comments are closed.