Monday, June 9, 2008

Obama Wants You!

When I first saw the image to the right, I was mystified.

It was without context, so I was not sure if it was an anti-Obama piece of propaganda, meant to portray him as a kind of scary American icon, recruiting Obamaniacs into his fold, or if it was a pro-Obama piece that plays off the original Uncle Sam, urging young Americans to be patriots.

Either way, it remains one of the most striking examples of Obama semiotics.

According to its creator, James Montgomery Flagg, the original poster of Uncle Sam was, at one time, the most popular poster in the world. It first appeared on the cover of a magazine called Leslie's Weekly in 1916 and went on to be every red-blooded American boy's avuncular patriotic conscience, urging him to join his brethren and protect the United States of America.

The Obama version plays with and off of these associations in startling ways. On one hand, the Obama Sam also asks Americans to be patriots and join their brethren--but in change. Like the original image, Obama is draped in the semiotic garb of the United States, all top-hatted and blue-cloaked, and he, too, beseeches us to help him protect America from the forces out to destroy it--a weak dollar, bigotry, a failed war, curtailed civil liberties, and Republicans.

Most interesting is the absence of any text with Obama Sam. The image--its ubiquity and its power--is enough. Anyone who knows the iconic original will get this new version. However, what you think about Obama may influence your interpretation of the image. In this case, semiotics is also politics.

Recently, another image has started popping up--the one on the left. I like it, but less. The representation of Obama is rather lame; he looks too much like he's picking teams for basketball, and he wants you to be his small forward. Notice how this sign plays with the text of the original but not so much its subtext. It has no power, no cultural memory, and almost no patriotic associations.

But back to the first Obama image above. What I like most about Obama Sam is its inversions. The old guy becomes the young guy. The scary guy becomes the hopeful guy. The white guy becomes the black guy. It plays on all of the xenophobic, protectionist emotions the original Uncle Sam posters were designed to elicit and turns them on their heads. It turns fear into hope.

What it says is that Uncle Sam may have wanted you for the old America; but Obama Sam wants you for the new one.

--D. R.

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