Powerful Images

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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth has been amused recently by several controversies surrounding images, and their political implications – a fitting subject on this Martin Luther King Day.

(BARUTH) A couple of weeks back, Governor Douglas decided to remove a lamp from his desk. Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing to make headline news at CNN, but it did. Because the lamp wasn’t just any lamp; it was naked, or rather it featured the figure of a naked Greek slave, an icon of the abolitionist movement.

“The governor does not object to the art,” said a Douglas spokesman. “It may, frankly, be awkward to explain why there is a nude Greek slave on the governor’s desk to a third-grader.” A point well taken: explaining a nude Greek slave on the governor’s desk would be awkward. But, of course, this wasn’t a nude Greek woman; it was a lamp in the shape of a nude woman, an icon, a thing designed to mean something. And that something – that slavery is inhuman – is exactly the sort of thing we might want to explain to third-graders.

Suddenly, articles about the lamp started appearing in the Washington Post, and Jim Douglas – no fool – began to argue that nudity wasn’t the issue at all. “I wouldn’t care if that statue were wearing a sweater and turtleneck,” Douglas said. “It’s not an appropriate place for a lamp.” The logic was pretty shaky here, too, given that every single desk in America has a lamp on it.

So I think Douglas lost the battle of the lamp because a) he wouldn’t admit that he was attempting to reshape the image of the Governor’s office, and b) because he was assuming the power to reshape it alone. And in a postmodern world, the power of the image has to be shared, or it will be contested, fought over.

This month has been full of these sorts of struggles. Just last week, a tabloid reported that Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, wore a Nazi uniform to a friend’s costume party. There he was on the front page, in the uniform, with a cigarette and a highball and a pretty big swastika. A press release later said, “It was a poor choice of costume, and I apologise.” Of course, a Nazi uniform is not really a costume at all, which is why the rest of the world was upset in the first place.

Now, in my opinion, this faux-pas could not have been committed by accident: children raised in Buckingham Palace understand very early that they cannot wear swastikas, partially because they are, themselves, living symbols of their country. But Harry chose to wear one, and he did so, I think, precisely because the swastika is the one symbol in postmodern life which cannot be made ironic or separated from the ideology that created it. In short, it is the one symbol which may not be worn. And by doing so, even by later referring to the uniform as a “costume,” Harry placed himself above history, above the world. Which makes a certain childish sense when you remember that he is second-eldest in a monarchical system that reserves everything for the first-born, and only for the first-born.

It’s become fashionable to see these little storms in the media as political correctness run amok. But usually they’re not – they’re important moments of reorientation, when the media and the public insist that the fundamental power to represent reality itself be shared.

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