The Rape of “The Rape of Liberty”
Via David Thompson, Elle Gray in The Guardian:
Then, I saw a cartoon, the “creative” work of a conservative blogger, that depicted the aftermath of the rape of the Statue of Liberty by President Obama. My first thought was, oh, hello, yet another idea reinforced during reconstruction and redemption – the myth of the sexually violent black man. This “brute” was a particular danger to white women and this myth was used as one of the primary justifications for the belief in black inferiority (uncontrollable, animalistic natures) and institutionalised segregation. White women had to be protected, at all costs, from interaction with black men, who would not be able to resist their purity and beauty.
A supposed scholar, Gray exhibits just the right combination of arrogance and ineptitude / dishonesty here, from the scare quotes around creative (is she trying to suggest the cartoon, contrary to how we all think cartoon’s are created, sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus?) to the decision to foreground “her first thought” as anything more than what it is: a self-congratulatory moral pose that reveals more about her biases than it does about the cartoon’s author.
For Gray, conservatives are necessarily racist to begin with — else it makes no sense to see the depiction of a black man as a black man and conclude that such a depiction is racist rather than merely representational. That she can justify the conclusion by pointing us back to racist Reconstruction-era tropes is simply dishonest special pleading: what connects Obama to slavery or Reconstruction can only be the color of his skin; and yet the color of his skin is what it is, without any specific or historic causal connection to slavery or Reconstruction. Too, Gray doesn’t even bother to suggest that Darleen has any knowledge of these tropes — which allows her to pretend that the cartoon can mean what she wants it to mean, irrespective of what Darleen intended it to mean. And what Gray wants it to mean — what she needs it to mean, if she is going to reinforce the stereotype of conservatives as inveterate racists — requires us to believe that Obama is a figure for Reconstruction-era black men, that Lady Liberty (green though she be) is a “white woman” who is “to be protected, at all costs, from interaction with black men, who would not be able to resist their purity and beauty,” and that the “rape” in the cartoon is less about a violation of liberty by a President who happens to be black than it is about a violation of white purity by a black man who happens to be President.
To be fair, one can make an argument for a racialist reading of the comic. But doing so requires the kind of work that Gray here refuses to do, preferring instead to allow the easy connections she made stand in for what she suggests is Darleen’s (and, by extension, the entirety of “conservatism’s”) intent. If she believes Darleen intended to reference Reconstruction-era racial tropes, she needs to say so — and then demonstrate why we are to privilege those tropes and not other tropes (eg., the morning-after regret Lady Liberty evinces as she sobs on the bed, which is more a reference to date rape than to Reconstruction-era mixed-race anxieties, and so has its own set of ready cultural referents) as we negotiate the comic. Or she could argue that Darleen intended both referents to operate simultaneously. What she can’t do, however, is suggest that just because Obama is black, and just because Reconstruction-era tropes about blacks and rape existed, Darleen’s comic must necessarily reference any connection between the two — then offer as “proof” Darlene’s conservatism.
And that’s because the far more obvious reading, to those who aren’t viewing the cartoon through certain presuppositions about conservatives and race, is that the critique of the President and Democrats is perfectly — perhaps even ham-handedly — straight forward: liberty has been violated, and the violation is a result of not obtaining immediate (as opposed to proximate) consent. For Gray, the metaphorical raping of liberty in a cartoon trivializes actual rape. And yet her suggestion that Darleen’s cartoon “serves as more justification for retaliating violently against [Obama]” — that it is less speech than it is the clarion call to would-be Presidential assassins — presumably doesn’t trivialize actual political violence. Convenient, that.
The cartoon as drawn raises questions about what, precisely, is the role of elected legislative officials: Are they mere conduits for the whim of constituents? Or do they view election as a kind of mandate to act on behalf of a constituency as they see fit? And from those questions can come legitimate debate.
But to suggest that because you see racism (or sexism) in a cartoon it must necessarily be racist or sexist — that is, that it has some ontology outside of the intent that signifies it, be that intent the author’s or your own — is to misunderstand how signs function. To view the text as apart from some consciousness available to signify it is to view the text not as language at all; and just as it makes no sense to say that a text can be racist while the person who intended it is not, it makes no sense to say that the person who intended the text is racist of necessity because the person reading the text sees in it racism.
Even so, a misunderstanding turned into dogma can prove politically very powerful to those whose ideology is based around identitarianism and other “consensus”-based epistemological building blocks.