Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 9, 2017

Hello Orwell: On the Congressman’s Kid Who Dabbed Paul Ryan

Cal Marshall, center, dabs during the swearing-in of his father, Representative Roger Marshall of Kansas, center left, by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, center right. The younger Mr. Marshall has been grounded. Credit Zach Gibson/Associated Press

 

Making a gesture popularized as a hip-hop and sports meme, the 17-year-old son of an incoming GOP Congressman mars his Dad’s swearing-in pic with Paul Ryan. The confused Ryan jokes it off. A gesture gets explained. The kid gets grounded. Next.

But that’s not all there is to it. Not visually. Not with what’s brewing.

Based on what we’ve already felt and seen of the Trump era, there are elements of this demonstration that are already familiar, no matter how innocent the intent. For example:

The gesture was disruptive.

One of the main qualities Trump is lacking, and the government and the country will shortly be lacking just as much, is a sense of humor. Public acts, from perceived slights to out-and-out defiance, will not be taken lightly. (That means you, Meryl Streep.)

The gesture was not just unpatriotic, but sacrilegious.

The kid wasn’t just marring an innocent group photo. He was abrogating the GOP’s pledge of allegiance to the destruction of progressive principals and the complicity with a new order. And he defied that practice while prioritizing some weird, clearly secular gesture over the Holy Bible that he was there to anchor and that he was balancing in his right hand.

As subversive is how the kid employed code to address a whole different part of the culture. In a literally sideways version of the traditional “raise your right hand and repeat after me,” the kid opened a channel from the halls of Congress to a strata of race, attitude and sensibility, as well as language, meme and symbol that largely defies the white, conservative ruling class.

So, was the act, and then the photo, fun or disruption? Was it business as usual or unusual?

Which lens one chooses to look through is the perceptual challenge we face in light of Trump’s election and his party’s radical agenda. To be more accurate, though, the visual challenge has a lot more to do with the tension between normal and not normal.

In that tension, almost every image representing a customary and familiar ritual or affair of state now presents a challenge. Whether there is actual discord or tension in a particular image isn’t the point.  The problem we’ll face reading the pictures during Trump’s reign of gas lighting, belligerence, misinformation, and race and culture baiting is the difficulty distinguishing between real discord and its suggestion (1, 2, 3).

By the way, I’m not suggesting what young Cal Marshall did was in any way political or even planned. Still, in an atmosphere where you’re either a sycophant of the president or an enemy, in which the requirement of allegiance is already feeling scary, this dab, albeit of lesser magnitude, can be seen in the same register as the Kaepernick knee down.

You think I’m going too far? Well, just wait until the young Cal Marshalls start to understand what their father’s and mother’s oaths really stood for. Or the Trumpists start falling out. Or, better yet, just wait eleven days.

(photo: Zach Gibson/AP. caption: Cal Marshall, center, dabs during the swearing-in of his father, Representative Roger Marshall of Kansas, center left, by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, center right. The younger Mr. Marshall has been grounded.)

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