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« The Joke That Had to Happen | Main | Some Random Facts »

October 16, 2004

Rorschach o' th' Day

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I have been puzzling over certain aspects of the latest cover of The New Yorker and thought to write you for your sense of the matter.

Here's the cover:


It's hard to tell when the image is small, but if you look carefully, you'll see what appears to be the shadow of a man with his arms outstretched superimposed on the image of an American flag.

Given that we are getting close to the presidential election, I immediately recognized the relevance of the flag (having taken Semiotics 101) but have been struggling over the deeper meaning, if any, of the figure (not having taken Semiotics 201).

After a time--aha!--the surface significance came clear. I'll try to show below what I think the illustrator had in mind. The illustrator has cleverly taken an image of a flag


and superimposed on it the outline of a figure from the Abu Ghraib prison photos!


Yes, that's it all right, I'm sure of it.

But darn it, I am still having a hard time figuring out the meaning. The New Yorker has a long and storied history of witty and sophisticated covers and this one struck me--regardless of one's views on Iraq--as sophomoric and trite.

Of course, I am not A New Yorker so maybe this is all one or more steps ahead of me.

My non-ironic conclusion is that the cover does not aspire to humor at all, and is as post-ironic as the conclusion to this posting. That is, I suspect it does not aspire to sophistication and wit but rather down-home honesty, New York-style.

At least that's the only way I can understand it. If it is trying to be witty, it fails.



posted by Fenster at October 16, 2004


I was completely flummoxed by the cover myself. Thanks for pointing out that the figure comes from Abu Ghraib. I thought it might be a Klan silhouette, and was struggling to understand why the Klan.

Am I alone in being surprised at how flip and political many of the magazine's cartoons have been about politics and the Iraq war? I got nothin' against political cartoons, and think many of the NYer's cartoonists are brilliant. Still, some of their work over the last year has seemed to me awfully in-group.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 16, 2004 3:52 PM

That particular image of the Abu Graib torture is so iconic, it has immediately made its way into European contemporary art, but also the street culture for one thing.

I've already seen too many variations on it.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 16, 2004 5:11 PM

O, and that the shadow of Abu Graib looms over the US is an image not that difficult to understand.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 16, 2004 5:13 PM

"O, and that the shadow of Abu Graib looms over the US is an image not that difficult to understand."
That was obviously the tacit caption, but that such a narrative has any real significance is another question- one that I believe Fenster was struggling with. What does it mean for Abu Ghraib to have cast some kind of insidious shadow on America? A tarnish on our reputation perhaps? If so than it falls under the "sophomoric and trite" categories: an easy potshot without having to deal with any of the substantive issues behind the problems.

I could superimpose a sillhouette of a New Yorker magazine over the American flag as if to say "these cultural elitist snobs cast a shadow of embarrassment over our nation and tarnish our collective identity." That would be a less controversial accusation, but just about as facile as this cover is.

Posted by: Sweeney on October 16, 2004 6:41 PM

Things like that made me cancel my subscription to NY-er 2 years ago.
The only characteristic that comes to my mind is "Fifth column".

Posted by: Tatyana on October 16, 2004 6:41 PM

I didn't make the leap to Abu Graib yet. I was leaning toward KKK myself, but that didn't seem relevant. Thanks.

Has America ever been perfect or mistake free? No, and we'll survive this and move on too.

I may be wrong, but I think the world (and our 'more worldly' citizens) already despised us (but love us for our money). Now, they just have a specific event that they feel they can legitimately use to rationalize their envy, jealousy and fear.

Posted by: tbflowers on October 17, 2004 5:06 AM

My first thought as well was of the Klan, and only now did I see it's the Abu Ghraib fellow.

The fact that the two seem so similar in shadow makes me wonder, however, if it's not intentional, eh?

Posted by: Vera Kochring on October 17, 2004 2:28 PM

Man, it speaks volumes about people not being able to pick up on what that thing is immediately. I don't think it's at all accurate to list what happened in Abu Graib as a 'mistake.' A mistake is when you arrest someone for a crime, and then discover they didn't commit the crime and let them go. Systematically torturing people with the knowledge and consent of powerful people in the US Army isn't a mistake, it's a travesty. It's just exactly the kind of thing that Bush used as a reason to legitimize the Iraq invasion after is started to become clear that there were no WMDs: that Hussein tortured and killed people. Which, y'know, is a terrible thing and all, but isn't getting us all geared up to head into about 15 other places throughout the world.

Plus, let's note that it's more than surviving and moving on after we make 'mistakes.' It's also about acknowledging those mistakes and learning from them. Looking straight at the ugly stuff, admitting error, doling out blame, and most importantly, correcting the error. The problem is that too many people here and elsewhere don't want to even admit that this was a horrible thing, much less learn from it.

That is part of the reason why the rest of the world is so pissed at America. If this isn't "a tarnish on our reputation" I don't know what is. That picture is just a huge symbol of how badly America screwed up in Iraq.

Maybe there is some jealousy on the part of the rest of the world. Maybe others are sick of seeing America being on top, and would like us to get our comeuppance a little bit. But even if that were so, I don't think it's fair to be pissy towards people because they're angry over people getting tortured. It's more than a little twisted to try to turn this thing around and call people sophomoric and trite because they're refusing to fall all over themselves in defense of America's 'mistakes.'

Posted by: Jason P. on October 17, 2004 5:04 PM

Would it be too over the top to say, "Get a clue, Jason P."? Yes? No?

It's "sophomoric and trite" because we've been subjected to left-wing lecturing about Americans "torturing" Iraqi civilians when it has been acknowledged, I do believe, that those "victims" of Abu Ghraib were Saddam's henchmen who formerly delighted in dishing out power punishment. That may not matter to you. It matters to me. Especially in a war zone.

War. Zone.

More importantly for me, any objective survey of civiliar prisons around the world, including Western civilian prisons, would certainly find similar "abuses" and likely greater crimes committed on a regular basis. Especially in the Middle East.

Finally, the world has been pissed at us for decades. Deal with it. But don't expect me to be overly concerned that they love bitching and moaning about America.

Posted by: RattlerGator on October 17, 2004 5:54 PM

Yeah, I think it would be just a little, maybe a tad, tiny bit, over the top. Many of the prisoners were innocent civilians just randomly thrown into prison with the hardasses. Look it up.

Posted by: Jesus of Suburbia on October 17, 2004 7:16 PM

Jesus is right. The Red Cross found that many of the people in the prison were just regular folks.

But either way, I'm fairly certain that torture is torture is torture. I don't really care if it's Americans or Iraqis or Chinese or Russians or the Swiss doing it, it's still torture. And I don't care if it's during wartime or peacetime, it's still torture. Those people were tortured, and we're no safer because of it.

Posted by: Jason P. on October 17, 2004 8:52 PM

Jason and others:

It is inevitable that this posting ended up in a debate about the event itself. While I have a point of view on the event, I really intended the post as a comment on the image and its meaning. I can see that that is difficult to do that without discussion of the event itself.

For the record, while some of you may have had a problem making out the Abu Ghraib reference from the small image on the site, I had no such problem with the full-size cover. My musing about trying to figure it all out was a goof--indeed, the image smacked me right between the eyes. It was in fact the utter obviousness of the image that bugged me. Abu Ghraib . . . Flag . . . DUH!

I quite agree with the critics who posted who argued that Abu Ghraib was an atrocious event. I think--war zone or net--we are supposed to hold people accountable for bad actions, even under tough conditions.

What bothered me was the--to my mind--hackneyed juxtaposition with the flag. It seemed to me that this was simply trading on tired, thirty-year old imagery (AMERICA THINKS IT IS SO GOOD BUT IT IS REALLY SO SO BAD!!)

This kind of thing was jarring and able to stir up a little aesthetic and political frisson several decades ago. Nowadays it seems to me to be lazy code for Michael Moore-think.

Posted by: fenster on October 18, 2004 9:11 AM

jason & jesus have a fine sense of proportion, which makes me proud to be merkin.

Bush + Cheney = Hitler.

Yes, yes, I finally see the light.

Posted by: playrink on October 18, 2004 10:12 AM

jason & jesus have a fine sense of proportion, which makes me proud to be merkin.

Bush + Cheney = Hitler.

Yes, yes, I finally see the light.

Posted by: playrink on October 18, 2004 10:12 AM

I thought the cover was trying to be simple, not ironic -- the abuses at Abu Ghraib cast a shadow over America (well, its reputation, anyway).

My question is this -- why does everything have to become some left-wing/right-wing "Crossfire" dogfight? Isn't it possible to agree with the image as a critique without falling into some "America is evil" stupidity? Can't one rightly condemn the incompetence of the people in charge while still loving their country and its people?

I think America is a great country.
I think what happened in the prisons is beyond reproach.
I think George W. Bush is the least competent president I've ever seen.

I don't see any contradictions in these beliefs.

Posted by: Scott D on October 18, 2004 12:02 PM

given all the info that's out there about every aspect of the war & the world in general, sane adults choose to determine what's most important, & what's least (not to mention everything in between). plain, commonsensical assessments might in fact be a citizen's duty in time of war. Whining about "dogfights" & "falling into stupidity" sounds like a luxury only the most priviliged can afford. I covet your stature.

Posted by: playrink on October 18, 2004 4:51 PM

The thing is, it doesn't read like a shadow on the flag, it looks as though the figure is "wrapped" in the flag, or hidden behind it.

But perhaps this is a printer problem and not what was intended.

Posted by: j.c. on October 18, 2004 8:11 PM

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