There’s been much ado in the outrageosphere recently about the appropriateness of depicting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as a monkey. Obama supporters look backwards, pointing to the long history of the simian slur in the racist iconography of African-descended peoples. Conservatives counter that if it’s fair game to depict Bush as a monkey, it should also be within the domain of acceptable political discourse to represent Obama similarly. So who’s right and who’s full of sh!t? Although I suspect many of you already know the answer to this question, let’s pretend for the moment to take it seriously on the off chance we find ourselves having to debate a skeptic.
To answer this question, it’s helpful to briefly consider simian iconography in (relatively) recent political history. The image of the monkey has historically been deployed to dehumanize its targets: thus the German soldier of WWI became a culture-wrecking gorilla in American propaganda posters, and Bush’s characteristic ineloquence and presumed mental simplicity feeds his own monkey metaphor. It’s no great leap from here to conclude that the purpose of the Obama-as-monkey slur is to diminish his humanity as well.
But there’s a crucial difference between Obama’s case and those of Bush and WWI-era Germany. The latter two metaphors appeal to behavioral characteristics of their objects, while Obama-as-monkey plays solely on his identity. In other words, Germany’s simian-ness manifested itself through the brutality of the brownshirts and the bellicosity of Kaiser Wilhelm, and Bush’s via his decidely un-presidential mannerisms. By contrast, Obama has rarely, if ever, been observed to act like a monkey, at least in public. In order even to begin to claim equivalence between Obama-as-monkey and Bush-as-monkey, one would need to demonstrate that the basis of the latter lay not in Obama’s identity as a black man but rather in some aspect of his behavior. Even if such a behavioral justification existed, it wouldn’t be possible to sever the clear link between the long, ugly history behind historical-Africans-as-monkeys and Obama-as-monkey. But the fact that it doesn’t shows that the promulgators and supporters of the offending T-shirts and dolls are trying to have it both ways by exploiting racism while denying that they are doing so.