Controlling the symbols of power: Who decides?

Obamao! Lmao!

We are constantly surrounded by all sorts of symbols, so much so that we seldom stop to consider their meanings or their effects on us until someone points them out. But perhaps we should pay more attention, because symbols have power. If they didn’t, governments wouldn’t attempt to censor and control any number of them. Although many of these may seem failrly innocuous to most of us, here’s a few examples that have caught my eye in last few weeks; all of the following provide an illustration of the attempts by those in power to control various “threatening” symbols and images:

1)      The Chinese government has tried to shut down vendors selling popular “Obamao” screen-printed t-shirts. The image is an amalgam of Obama and Mao (see pic). The official reason for this censorship is that that the Chinese are worried about offending the visiting president. Unofficially it is thought that the politburo has become worried about the cult of personality that is developing around Barack Obama, particularly what he might represent to the young in terms of democracy.

2)      Meanwhile, in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, shops displaying images of Fatah-aligned Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have been warned to take them down. Some symbols are ok, however, as you can buy battery-powered, dancing Osama Bin Laden dolls (made in China).

3)      Soviet and communist era images and iconography are coming in for scrutiny in the former Soviet satellites where there is fear of a communist resurgence. This resurgence is driven by a nostalgia for the old regime that is taking hold as the recession bites hard in many of these countries. Slavoj Zizek reports in The New York Times that: “This new anti-Communist scare even goes after symbols. In June 2008, Lithuania passed a law prohibiting the public display of Communist images like the hammer and sickle, as well as the playing of the Soviet anthem. In April 2009, the Polish government proposed expanding a ban on totalitarian propaganda to include Communist books, clothing and other items: one could even be arrested for wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.”

"Sieg Heil, waxy Hitler dude."

4)      German critics, including the mayor of Berlin, have become worried about a wax figure of Hitler at the Berlin branch of Madame Tussauds. To assuage fears about this symbol “Madame Tussauds spokeswoman Ruoss said visitors would not be able to pose with the Hitler figure, which would be sealed off and be under camera surveillance.” So the behaviour in the accompanying photo would be right out of order! We must remember, however, that Nazi iconography has been banned in Germany since WWII.

5)      Wax symbols are obviously quite a big problem. In another recent case, the German and Israeli ambassadors to Thailand protested about the use of an image of Hitler on a billboard that was promoting a waxworks. Accompanying the image was the caption: “Hitler is not dead.” The Thais apologised and removed the billboard, explaining that “the use of Nazi imagery does not stir the same emotional reaction in Asia as it does in the West.” Because of this lack of historical connection to Hitler’s atrocities the report states that it is not uncommon in Thailand “for icons of the genocidal German regime to be used in advertising and entertainment.” That would explain why there is a watering hole in Pattaya called the Nazi Bar.

6)      Last week, the Christian symbol of the cross, or crucifix, was deemed to be inappropriate in Italian schools after an atheist took a case to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court ruled that crucifixes in Italy’s public school classrooms violate the “principle of the secularism of the State”. This has provoked outrage across Italy where politicians and public alike have preached about how much meaning the crucifix has in Italian culture. Interestingly enough, it was the Fascists and not the Catholic church that originally legislated that the crucifix must appear in all school classrooms.

*******

As can be seen from these examples, it is not just authoritarian or communist regimes that seek to control images and symbols, it is also liberal democracies. Even France, the birthplace of Enlightment era ideals has controlled the wearing of the Muslim headscarf, the hajib, in schools because it symbolises an un-French way of life.

When pointed out en masse like this, many of these official reactions to symbols can seem quite childish, particularly when you consider that it is supposedly intelligent people in positions of power who are deciding what to control. And often it becomes apparent  in any decision to control symbols that there is a substantial dose of fear and paranoia at work.

But this is only one side of the “symbol equation.”  There is another aspect to the control of symbols that receives less attention, mainly because it is less obvious. This aspect is the way in which governments and politicians employ symbols for their own ends — namely as a means of ideologically controlling their populations.

In order to demonstrate this process, in the second part of this investigation into the power of symbols and symbolism, tomorrow I’ll be looking more closely at the launch last week of the newest naval vessel in the American fleet, the USS New York.

Part II: Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the USS New York
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6 Responses

  1. How about the print of “Guernica” which hangs at the UN building in New York being covered with a blue sheet the day the General Assembly voted on the Iraq War in 2003?

  2. Great example — double symbolism at work in that one — understanding the meaning of the painting and then the symbolic act covering it up.

  3. […] Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the USS New York Posted on November 19, 2009 by Duffster Below is a follow-up to an earlier post: Controlling the symbols of power: Who decides? […]

  4. […] Controlling the symbols of power: Who decides? […]

  5. […] There are different kinds of Obama satire. My favorite plays on Obama’s inflated self esteem. Such caricatures are often fusion pictures combining Obama’s picture with that of Jesus or St. Francis. Then there are fusion pictures that poke fun at Obama’s radical links , most notably the poster fusing Obama’s image with that of  Chairman Mao and labled “Obamao”. […]

  6. Fuck u cants

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