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The Power Of Images

In the course of the conversation, it became clear that Perot thought Obama was a Muslim. When I informed him that Obama was actually a Christian, Perot was relieved. He didn’t hate Obama; he just had an instinct to believe whatever he happened to see online over what he read in reputable newspapers. ~Jonathan Alter

All of this might also have something to do with the small problem that Perot has the reputation of being not quite right in the head, but that’s not entirely fair.  One must also ask what sources these people are using.  It isn’t as if “online” sources are uniformly awash in nonsense and gossip.  There are certain kinds of online media and certain sites that excel in misinformation, but there are just as many that don’t.  However, if a reasonably well-informed, albeit eccentric, billionaire can buy into such idiocy, there’s no telling who might be susceptible to it among all those voters who still have no idea what either candidate believes at this late stage in the election.  The notion that only die-hard rejectionists would entertain bizarre ideas about Obama gets things backwards in a lot of cases–some people become die-hard rejectionists because they come to believe bizarre things about him.  If many general election voters have only just started paying attention or won’t pay attention until the autumn, it doesn’t help when you have an image circulating since mid-July depicting the most terrible distortions about a candidate.  The Wright controversy exploded the way it did because there was a visual record, and people could watch Wright say what he said, which obviously gave the controversy more staying power and made Wright’s remarks more memorable than they might have otherwise been had they just been published in a transcript. 

It’s not surprising to see someone at the official Obama NewsletterNewsweek taking the view that I and many others have taken that the image is very damaging, but Alter is right to emphasise the power of images to override whatever arguments are set up against them.  Visual associations are powerful and readily remembered.  Propagandists and campaign communications directors (more or less the same thing in different guises) know this, which is why they spend so much time concerning themselves with presentation, atmospherics, backdrops and the like.  To take a less extreme example, the principal reason why McCain’s “green background” speech was regarded as a failure was its visual effect, and for the most part no one remembers what he said–only that he said it against a hideous green background and looked absurd.  Virtually everyone knows that how candidates appear at presidential debates have an influence on how they are perceived by their audience, and can even affect how the viewers decide whether one candidate or another prevailed.  People will remember this image long after many of them have forgotten the purpose of the artist in making it.       

Update: One of the responses I keep seeing is something like what the L.A. Times wrote in its editorial:

Obama’s campaign is deeply worried about the legions of morons who they apparently believe make up the heart of this great nation.

There is an idea that people who think the image will do real damage to Obama politically must be assuming that there are “legions of morons” or that there are some people too “unsophisticated” to grasp the obvious satire.  Here’s the problem: satire relies on an audience possessing sufficient knowledge to understand the references well enough to recognise that they are being used ironically.  It isn’t really a question of sophistication or lack thereof, and it isn’t even a question of intelligence.  What matters is how much voters already know about Obama and his wife.  To think everyone will “get” the joke as a joke, you have to assume that everyone has been following the election campaign as obsessively as political junkies and professional bloggers.  Of course, there has been a string of columns and articles discussing how relatively unknown Obama still is to much of the country, and yet to hear the defenses of the cover image you’d think that everyone has followed all the twists and turns of the campaign from Springfield till now. 

In fact, this is the high-information argument that takes for granted that everyone in the country already knows the maximal amount about every phony Obama controversy and also knows enough about Obama himself to know that the controversies are phony.  “Oh, yes, the burning flag in the image is rather like the one William Ayers once stepped on in protest of the government!  And we all know who William Ayers is, don’t we?  Very clever!”  This assumption is absolutely wrong, as any focus group with undecided and “swing” voters could tell you.  Given the characteristics of many undecided voters, you could not have come up with an image that was more likely to provoke undecided voters in all the wrong ways if the goal was to deprive the false charges of their power and influence in the election.     

In a new effort to “help” Obama yet again, the cartoonist for the Seattle P-I has done this mock-up of a cover for the McCains.  As everyone can see, a rather crucial difference between what the cartoonist did here and what the New Yorker cover did is that the things being used to mock McCain (rather than refute charges against him) have some significant basis in truth:


The two images aren’t really comparable, but they’re being treated here as if they are, which is actually to reduce the New Yorker image to its most plain, “literal” meaning as an exaggeration of real traits.  The first is a roundabout satire of false charges being made against the two figures, and the second is simply a caricature exaggerating certain truths about McCain (e.g., his age, support for the security state, his enthusiasm for killing Iranians, his wife’s former drug problem).  If you wanted to make an argument that the New Yorker image reflects some exaggerated form of “dangerous” truth about the Obamas, you would put it side by side with this McCain caricature as this presumably pro-Obama cartoonist has done.  Nice work.  Those of us who don’t support Obama should just get out of the way of his fans and let them drag him down.   

Second Update: The LAT editorial has another claim:

It may be that there are some spectacularly literal-minded Americans who will see the New Yorker’s over-the-top portrayal of Obama as a confirmation of their worst fears. But then, they weren’t going to vote for him anyway.

Of course, there’s no way for them to know that.  They assume that there are no potential Obama voters who could be swayed by misinformation and provocative images to vote for someone else, which is to project their own stereotype of the kinds of people who are likely to vote for Obama in the general election (i.e., people just like them).

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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