Everyday Semiotics

Friday, February 25, 2005

Observations on the new, multinational American nationalism

Part 2. The dogtag incident

By now there's been plenty of banter about the hug shared by bereaved military mother Janet Norwood and Iraqi voter Safia al-Souhail during Pres. Bush's latest state of the union address. So far this banter has been confined to a sort of aesthetic, moral discourse. Either you think it was beautiful and spontaneous or disgusting and fake.

I listened to the speech on the radio, muttering cynical comments throughout. As the radio commentator described Norwood's dogtags getting caught on al-Souhail's button, almost automatically I said, "Now there's a well-staged human moment." In the next instant it struck me as peculiar that it was the dogtags getting entangled in the Iraqi’s clothing, and not the hug itself, that seemed the more scripted of the two actions.

But the question of whether either action (or both of them) was staged is somewhat irrelevant, since the deed is done and the message has been sent. It is now a matter of what information was conveyed by the actions and how that information is interpreted. Suppositions about the origin and intent of the message are secondary.

So what is the message? Quite simply, it is what it is: the demonstration that at least one Iraqi is grateful for the American presence in her country and that at least one mother of a fallen soldier believes that, at the very least, her son’s death was not in vein. Say anything more about the occurrence and we would risk interpreting it rather than simply observing it.

Supposing the hug and/or the dogtag entanglement were staged, however, enables us to treat them both a symbolism. Indeed, the metaphoric details are undeniable: we have al-Suhail’s still-purple finger clutching at her garment, trying to untangle the dogtags of a soldier who helped to ensure the election she just recently took part in by his own death; the heartfelt show of gratitude (on the part of al-Souhail) and selflessness (on Norwood’s part) giving way to comic fumbling. The reader approaching this imagined text as one advancing a leftwing, anti-imperialist message would interpret the entanglement as a portent. Typified in the hug is a sense of optimism, of hope for a better Iraqi future forged by America’s altruistic campaign of regime change. But the dogtags getting caught ruins this moment, foreshadowing, perhaps, the Iraqis people’s inability to shrug off American influence in their politics. And of course the scene doesn’t want for artistic ambiguity: is it the insurgents who guarantee the military’s continued presence, or is it American interests that forces our troops to overstay their welcome even more? That will depend on how “liberal” the reader takes the text’s author to be.

But if either element of the scene were scripted and did have an author, then that author must have been a “conservative” one, or at least someone whose job was to cast the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the “march of freedom” in a favorable light. The author was not, of course, President Bush, any more than President Bush was the author of the state of the union address. Like the speech, the hug and/or entanglement would have to have been devised by committee that weighed word and, perhaps, every gesture before directing Bush how to execute them.

It is easy to imagine this committee devising the hug; and why shouldn’t they have? Provided Norwood and al-Souhail were willing participants, that they /wanted/ to hug each other, then how can anyone say the action’s scriptedness makes it objectionable? Who knows -- perhaps they themselves were the authors of the scene, contributing writers, as it were, to the larger text of the president’s address.

It is harder to imagine the committee devising the entanglement. Not to mention the amount of rehearsal that would have been necessary to make it look accidental. It is because of this unlikelihood, perhaps, that I assumed it must have been scripted. The more far-fetched something is, the more eager we are to believe it.

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