More on the “Socialist Joker” Poster

This controversy is moving more quickly than I can keep up, unfortunately.

1. khateeb88 has taken down the original image. This follows the revelation that he is a Chicago engineering student whose primary frustrations with Obama began when he picked Rahm Emmanuel as chief of staff, who Khateeb believes to be pro-Israeli and thus evidence that Obama will continue to support Israel against the Palestinians.  Understandably, Khateeb seemed surprised at the accusations coming from Democrats, and seems to have pulled the image in a desire to escape this kind of publicity. I wonder what Khateeb thought of the Cairo speech?

2. Infowars, a populist conservative website, has offered a $1000 prize to promote the distribution of the image. Their version of the image replaces the “socialism” text with their website “infowars.com.” Infowars is the work of Alex Jones, a radio host who has defended the Branch Davidians and appeared in both of Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped movies. In short, it belongs at the part of the political spectrum where radicalisms bend back on themselves and left and right meet on the fringe.

In their statement about the image, they describe two concerns: first, that positive portrayals of the President are allowed to be posted of on government buildings, but these posters are criminalized as ‘graffiti.’ Second, they explain their specific criticisms in this way:

“the office of the president is nothing if not a wholly owned subsidiary of the international bankers.”

This is a fairly standard version of populist conservatism. Like liberal populists, they are concerned that elites have purchased control of the steering mechanisms of the state. Like liberal populists, the infowars people worry more about the military industrial complex than with the particular person currently at its top. They seem to believe that the executive branch, in particular, is a remarkably toothless organization with little power to restrict the activities of the massive military bureaucracy reputedly under its control.

“Obama represents the most violent and sadistic force in the world — the United States government long ago taken over by the aforementioned bankster cartel or mafia. Three million dead Vietnamese, one million plus dead Iraqis, an undetermined number of Afghans and assorted others either directly slaughtered by the U.S. war machine or its numerous proxies should be evidence enough. So should the penchant for torture and economic warfare, the latter waged against literally billions of people, including the kool-aid drinking liberals. Obama is the current and transitional face of this high-tech murder and economic violence machine.”

As a pacifist, I often find this kind of rhetoric tempting, though I think it’s basically nonsense, a muddled mix of ignorance and conspiratorial paranoia. Notice that the rhetoric is close to Khateeb’s: this isn’t your standard brand of jingoistic, pro-military conservative populism. However, infowars is not the originator of the image, and in fact they decry the equation of Obama with socialism except when socialism is understood from the libertarian perspective:

“If one understands that socialism is not a share-the-wealth program, but is in reality a method to consolidate and control the wealth, then the seeming paradox of super-rich men promoting socialism becomes no paradox at all. Instead, it becomes logical, even the perfect tool of power-seeking megalomaniacs,” explained the late Gary Allen. “Communism or more accurately, socialism, is not a movement of the downtrodden masses, but of the economic elite.”

Libertarians of this stripe so distrust the democratic status of our institutions that they’d rather de-legitimize the government than work to make it an accountable and rational organization. That’s the ideology behind “shrink it until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub.” It may well have been part of the internal justification for scaring off so many of the career bureaucrats who have served Democrats and Republicans throughout the years but fled to the private sector under President Bush.

Alexander Hamilton wrote that “confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration.” We have had plentyof reasons to distrust that the state has been well-administered of late, and I suspect this is the largest reason for opposition to major new programs like the stimulus and health care reform: given how unaccountably bad the government can be run, these folks wonder why we should volunteer more authorty to the state. That’s one reason that I wish Obama had started with procedural and institutional reforms aimed at making the state more accountable before moving to health care. I still hope that the President’s civic engagement agenda will get some attention: I think that it’s much more important, in the long run, than small changes in the GDP.

3. Clearly, I need to retract my claim that this image is not political: both Khateeb and Infowars are using it in political ways. I should have taken note of my own claims about anonymous authorship a few weeks ago: a message without attribution is always open to reinterpretation and reinscription, including in contexts at odds with our intentions: “that is not what I meant at all,” indeed. I guess now I’d have to say that there is something hyperpolitical about the image, that it’s overdetermined or exhorbitantly political or saturated with politics. I still maintain that it’s not political in the standard partisan way, and I don’t think it really serves the interests of the Republican party. But, like the Joker himself, it does seem to speak to what Noelle McAfee talks about when she describes the “political unconscious”: the marginalized voices whose message is muddled by their very marginalization.

4. For some great thinking about graffiti and politics, I recommend perusing Shepard Fairey’s website, obeygiant.com. Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the red and blue Obama posters, has been posting culture-jamming campaigns (“manufacturing quality dissent”) for more than twenty years now. They started with Andre the Giant has a Posse and at this point they’re doing a lot of ad campaigns for the Obama administration. Here’s what he says about his work:

The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.

Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.

This is the sense of culture jamming I was drawing on in my last post. It now appears that that analysis is incomplete. I look forward to exploring this further, especially with relation to Noelle McAfee‘s recent work, though probably only after I’ve gotten “Week 3” of the Parfit group off the ground. 🙂

Second Opinions