Friday, October 31, 2008

Obama and Fantasy Football, or What Obama Has in Common with

Barack Obama is a recognized sports fan. We know about his basketball, and then there was this recent article about Obama's fantasy football team, written by Rick Reilly.  The article itself, like most of Reilly's stuff, was really about Reilly--after all the column is called the Life of Reilly--but it also revealed another heretofore unseen aspect of Obama's personality. 

The article revealed directly a least one part of Obama that only gets displayed indirectly most of the time--his inherent American masculinity. In this case, however, it's a particular kind of masculinity, the sports geek; his knowledge of fantasy football makes him part the growing legion of American men who love both sports and numbers.  Combine this with Obama's relationship with basketball, his appearance on the cover of Men's Health, his smoking habits, his hiring of a former sports player and academic as an aide, (not to mention his poker playing) and you have a man who can move in many different circles of masculinity, seemingly all very easily. 

But back to fantasy football. It's a sport where people pretend to own teams; they draft players, often pretend to pay them, and then compete against other teams. It's becoming more and more popular, with almost every sports website sponsoring a game. There is also fantasy baseball, basketball, golf, horse racing, hockey, and NASCAR. Being successful depends on a laser focus on numbers and predictions based on numbers. 

The link between masculinity and geekdom has only blossomed in the last few decades, with technology nerds becoming kings of the universe, and more specifically, to this post, geeky sports nerds being hired as the cool kids. That's why it's entirely appropriate that Nate Silver, the Baseball Prospectus writer, is this election's geek sensation; his, a highly technical but eminently readable guide to election polling, is the go-to site for those of us who are geeked out on polls.*

That somehow Obama's connection to Fantasy Football makes him cooler is of some consequence to those of us who have had to explain to friends and romantic partners why we are spending hundreds of dollars and hours on a game with little chance of making any of that back. 

More importantly for this election, it probably means that Obama reads and other geeky blogs; this year, politics is the new fantasy sport...


*I am glossing over the differences between geek and nerd. See Mental Floss's take.

Effect of Viral Emails

On the heels of yesterday's post, we provide a link to a story in The Swamp that, coincidentally or not, ran yesterday as well. It takes a look at the short and long term effects of anti-Obama email.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Racist Email

Nothing makes you a lightning rod for odd Obama emails like writing about Obama. The one in my inbox this morning was simple.

The subject line: "Plot to Kidnap Obama"

Upon opening the email, the message was nothing but this photo:

Time Magazine recently did a piece on how economics is going to trump race in this election. I believe they are right. According to Time, some white supremacist organizations are even supporting Obama out of sheer financial desperation. Still, it's fascinating how an underground subset of Americans seem to be working through both latent and overt racism because of Obama's success in the public and political sphere.

Almost everyone knows better than to publicly cite race as a motivating factor in voting. Regardless of personal views, public pressure will force folks to censor themselves. For example, virtually no one would wear a t-shirt of this joke. However, there does seem to be a need for some to process and vent through a more innocuous, more protected medium. I suppose the consolation here is that at least people know it is publicly unacceptable to be racist, and that at least that racism gets enacted as a joke rather than as action.

The only negative repercussions of Obama getting elected is the possibility of 4-8 more years of these emails . . .the optimistic reading though is that despite these emails, we should have 4-8 more years of an Obama presidency . . .

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Election fatigue

Everybody I know is saying, "I can't wait for it to be over," suggesting an existential weariness that goes beyond simple tiredness.  I know I feel that way. So let's read this fear as a text.

Is it fatigue or memory? A Daily Kos diary recalls a post from 2004 in which he declared "We're already winning in Florida," linking to this image. I predicted a Kerry win myself. So some of this has to do with predictions gone wrong, not unlike my friend Miles's consistent memory about the Bartman Cubs, a series where he called me in the offending game and talked about pitching lineups between his Cubs and my Yankees. The World Series champions that year were the Marlins.

Is it fatigue or (a hundred different kinds of) fear? We have all been reading about the Bradley effect, but we want to believe in our country's ability to choose an African American president. Many of us are afraid that we won't take our first serious chance to do so. We remember Florida in 2000, and we read stories like this, which talk about election machine troubles, or this, which talks about endless waiting, or this, which talks about GOP efforts to disenfranchise poor voters, or this, where official looking signs appear telling Democrats to vote on November 5 (not 4). So we're also afraid Democrats will somehow be cheated out of a deserved victory.

Is it fatigue or excitement? Has the past month been the equivalent of an extended Christmas Eve or the week or two before a big sporting event when our team is playing? Are we so excited that we cannot wait until Election Day? 

Is it fatigue or the promise of relief? We might be anticipating the Wednesday after the election just as we might be a little extra tired the week before a vacation.

Is it fatigue? Some of us have added the equivalent of a part-time job either working for the campaign or in my case reading about it to our already over-scheduled lives. So we really might be tired for all the reasons above and then some. 


Sunday, October 26, 2008

The NYT Week In Review Page: Mr. Thrust & Mr. Parry

Poor John McCain--first he discovers his vice-presidential candidate disagrees with him on gay marriage, then, a caricature of him winds up on the front page of the New York Times "Week In Review" section in which he is endowed with the moniker "Mr. Thrust." To make matters worse, a "CHANGE" banner Adams and Eves across his crotch.


Hard to say, but it's not what you would have expected for Mr. McCain's porn name--something more like Pepper Lakeshore comes to mind.

But, Mr. Obama doesn't come off much better in this version. His visage is scrunched and overly adolescent. He looks too much like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman and Nipsey Russell.

Still, in the semiotic tug-o-war within this image, the taller, lankier Obama--who also seems to be using his hips to gain leverage on Mr. Thrust--I give the edge to Mr. Parry (though not in the nickname contest).

The T-Shirt Matrix: What Images of Obama Tell us about Obama (and Us)

As interesting as the possible Obama t-shirt options are, perhaps even more intriguing is the effect of this unintentional tic-tac-toe matrix.

As an individual icon, Obama's visage is now no longer noteworthy; it's even quotidian. But, when arranged in this nearly collage-type design, the various images enter into dialogue with each other. They tell us how we have seen, and perhaps even tell us how we should see Obama.

They also demonstrate the various ways Obama's face has been translated into popular culture. In this case, what emerges is overwhelming evidence for a kind of mytholigization of Obama. Many of these suggest a sort of abstract, woodcut aesthetic that evokes either propaganda or political art. However, almost none of the images are particularly "patriotic," which suggests the degree to which Obama's Obamaness transcends politics.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Canvassing, Part I

A few days ago, I canvassed for Barack Obama with my friend Miles and his daughter, Sophia, already famous for their extensive participation in Hanover County near Richmond, where they live. Hanover County is a reliably Republican county, but the Obama campaign is taking nothing for granted--they hope to significantly reduce the Republican margin in the county.

For the most part my participation was as sort of a pack mule, carrying campaign literature, as Miles asked each household (that had previous either been identified as undecided or had not received a completed visit) their voting preferences. We spent about two hours in this highly Republican area and ended up hitting about 25 houses.

The process is highly refined, and Miles and Sophia had a definitive pattern. Working from a map, we methodically went up to each house; Miles rang the doorbell and stepped back off the porch and waited for the person to answer. He first introduced himself, his daughter and me, then asked respondents if they were the person on the list, and when they replied, he asked the residents if they had made a decision about their voting preferences for both the president and the Senate and then carefully noted the reply.

The OED defines canvas "to entangle or catch in a net," but if there is such a net, it's of the flimsiest of materials; there is no hard sell, even if the voter is undecided. My friends seemed to understand the balance between the privacy of the resident and aims of the campaign; the most symbolic aspect of the campaign was Miles's deliberate decision to walk off the porch to stand on the walk (it's also interesting that all the houses in this particular development had both well defined porches and walks). It suggested Miles's desire to seem non-threatening. As I confessed when we walked on these suburban streets, I hate when people knock on my door, and Miles seem to understand this. 

But it was also true that Miles was determined to reach every house and so he had to balance his own desires not to intrude with his strong will to reach every voter who might vote for Obama.

More canvassing stories later...


Friday, October 24, 2008

The Economist Cover

We've become used to seeing photos of Obama from a distance or, as with the Time covers, straight on and probably altered or airbrushed if ever so slightly.

This untouched image of Obama from the side is unusually intimate. It makes the viewer feel like she's about to whisper something in his ear ("Look, Karl Rove showed up without a tie!;" "salad fork is the little one;" Butthead is, in fact, the more highly evolved one").

The pursed lips and contemplative expression evoke both perplexity and determination, unlike the typical photos which read confidence and arrival.

In short, here, he looks more like us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


From Wired Science:

Sen. Barack Obama's support for space exploration has earned him the support of advocates on Florida's "Space Coast" that call themselves Obamanauts.

I like the Obama-ing of language here, but I think the icon is the thing; the spaceship version of the logo is much cooler than the original.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yes We Carve


What to say about people carving pumpkins with Barack Obama's likeness or with campaign logos. I think it's one more demonstration that Obama has not only voters but fans.


The New Donation Video

On the off chance you haven't seen the new video by Obama asking for donations, you can view it here:

Against the backdrop of a matrix of the now iconic "CHANGE" signs, a dark suited, flag-pin wearing, striped blue tie donning Obama makes a plea to last minute supporters to donate to his campaign. His strongest argument is that McCain/Palin have deployed the same strategies for this election that George W. Bush relied on in the last two.

There is only a hint of alarmism in an otherwise reasonable and persuasive pitch.

Monday, October 20, 2008

On Endorsements

The news cycle is being ridden by Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama, which naturally had us putting on our semiotic hats (they are quite stylish).  The semiotics of an endorsement force us not only to look at the two parties involved in the endorsement but also the questions that the arise when receiving or giving an endorsement.

It does not take a rocket scientist (nor an English professor) to observe that an endorsement is a form of high-profile vouching--Powell is essentially saying "he's with me" in the common space of the election. Besides the obvious electoral consequences, there are other questions that arise with an endorsement. Is the endorsee connected with everything that the endorser has done? How much does the context of the endorser's past matter? For the endorsee, are there new obligations that arise with the new affiliation with the endorser--and vice versa?

You can see in the coverage of the Powell endorsement various responses to the above questions, but it's also true that the same contexts surrounded the endorsement from Hilary Clinton, which led us think about the question on a more abstract level. If an endorsement matters, rarely does it come without connections to a high-profile past--if the person endorsing matters, then something they have done has mattered to someone.

Am I leaving out other questions?


Sunday, October 19, 2008

The bumper sticker

I've been meaning to write about my new bumper sticker and car magnet, but have been stumped on saying something interesting beyond the fact that I do not see a lot of Obama bumper stickers (but more than for McCain), and wondering why that is. But perhaps it's too early to declare loyalty or some trend reducing bumper sticker placement (I say that because the woman buying her sticker before me had trouble finding a place to put it).

In general, I like bumper stickers, perhaps because I like telling the same joke over and over. As a car owner  for the first time since 2004, I am going to have to choose my loyalties carefully. Bumper stickers are semi-permanent, and in fact, I remember in high school, one of our pranks was to put unwanted bumper stickers on each other's (parents') cars. Yes, we were nerds. 

The Obama sticker is attractive in its use of the campaign font (Gotham), taking a cue from its predecessor in font-dom--the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site, as The New York Times writes; the font itself was inspired by previous uses in New York City, mostly on municipal or transportation signs. It is supposed to represent the tone of the campaign, forward-looking and youthful. 

But why aren't there more around especially in  such an exciting election year?


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Link: Reading the Debates - Part II

The folks over at The Weekly Rader offer a reading of the debates as an intentionally constructed text. Ironically, it serves as a sort of companion piece to our recent post on metaness and the debates.

In both posts, the authors provide interesting perspectives for looking at debates beyond simply thinking about who won or what is said.

Target: Obama - A Guest Post by James Taylor

University of San Francisco political scientist James Taylor has been one of the most active commentators on the issue of race in this presidential election. Though the piece below gets at semiotics through the back door, it does address the optics of the election, the actions and reactions of people who respond to the idea (and the image) of a black president.

"Kill him!" "Terrorist!" "Traitor!" "Sit down, boy!" "He is not one of us!" "He's an Arab," "Socialist," and "Bomb Obama!" are just a few of the audible rants of Americans, heard at McCain-Palin gatherings in recent weeks.

Wow, how we long for the good ol' days of feeling bombarded when William Horton (he was given the name "Willie" by Atwater, not his mother) was introduced to the Republicans by Al Gore in 1988 -- providing Lee Atwater and Bush 41 the race-baiting, fear-mongering fodder that resulted in the defeat of Dukakis after having the lead entering the final weeks of the 1988 campaign.

This is not to suggest the Obama campaign has been innocent of smear tactics, such as linking McCain to the anti-immigrant demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh on Spanish-speaking TV. But this did not amount to all-Mexican and all-Black crowds calling for McCain's Mississippi Irish blood.

The Right's rage against Obama has bordered on fanatical, and the dye may have been cast, regrettably, by Hillary Clinton's defeated campaign, which provided the blueprint that the McCain-Palin ticket is currently following. This tenor was stirred earlier this week by the Republicans' answer to Hillary Clinton -- Sarah Palin. McCain should take note; it did not work effectively for Sen. Clinton.

This animus we are witnessing may be owned by the Republicans, but it was brought and brought first by the Democrats during the primary campaign. Pundits called it the "kitchen sink" strategy. Indeed once Sen. Clinton's campaign was on the verge of defeat in late May -- just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination -- she reminded an editorial board in South Dakota, "My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992, until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know I just, I don't understand it," she said, dismissing the idea of abandoning the race at that time.

It was the fourth time which Clinton alluded to RFK's late June assassination as precedence for not suspending or ending her campaign (on March 6th she used the word "assassination" in a TIME magazine interview; on May 7th in Washington, D.C. and later in West Virginia she redacted the word, but mentioned the tragedy). After reasserting the word in late May amid much criticism, Sen. Clinton apologized.

In a January 8th interview with BET's Jeff Johnson (What's In It For Us? special), Barack Obama himself, conceded, that early reticence among older African Americans -- who witnessed the murders of JFK, MLK, and RFK -- centered on concern for his safety. It has been widely reported, but only whispered, that Barack Obama received Secret Service protection beginning in May 2007, earlier than any presidential candidate in recorded history of the Service; "I've got the best protection in the world," Obama said in a previous interview, "So stop worrying."

But Obama made the request for protection himself. On the eve of Obama's Democratic nomination acceptance speech on August 28, three "lone wolf" white supremacist meth addicts, Tharin R. Gartrell, 28; Shawn R. Adolf, 33; and Nathan D. Johnson, 32, were arrested for plotting to kill Obama. Initially, officials said there was no credible threat -- despite their possession of two rifles, one with a scope, in the car, along with walkie-talkies, a bulletproof vest and licenses in the names of other people -- but they now consider it a serious plot.

During this campaign, the world witnessed the tragic assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who like Obama, was a left-of-center political leader and equally an historic figure as the first woman to be elected head of an Islamic state.

In 1963, Texas oil tycoon Haroldson Lafayette (H.L.) Hunt publicly stated that JFK should be shot since "there was no way to get those traitors out of government except by shooting them out." His son, Nelson Bunker Hunt and others, took out a full-page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News on November 22nd accusing JFK of being a Communist sympathizer and a traitor to the nation -- precisely the charges against Obama for his ties to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.

JFK, like Obama, was a "first" in being a serious Irish Catholic candidate (Al E. Smith lost in 1920) and his faith, like Obama's racial mix, was a perennial issue in the 1960 campaign. The Hunts also ran a propaganda machine called the International Committee for the Defense of Christian Culture and like the venomous Fox News demagogues, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, they used their radio programs Facts Forum and Life Line to spew hatred of the president before he was killed.

Martin Luther King, of course, lived with death threats every day of his public life until it was taken April 4, 1968. Like Malcolm X, it is depressingly true that in such an eerie atmosphere as the present, Barack Obama is safer abroad than he will be, should he win, in America, even as President of the United States.

Some might remember comedian Eddy Murphy's 1980s Delirious stand-up routine where he joked about whites voting for Jesse Jackson -- after a night of drinking and pranks -- only to discover the next morning, that Jackson had been elected; during his fictitious inaugural address, Jackson ran back and forth from left to right of the stage as the imagined assassins, in southern drawl, looked through a rifle scope saying, "He won't stand still, he won't stand still."

That was funny; the tenor of this political moment is not.

Politics has always been a "blood sport," and campaigns often bring out the lowest common denominator in people; the "us" against "them" trope. But there is something of a spiritual sickness in a nation where our political process has been reduced to calls of "Kill him," and something only slightly less troubling about Hillary Clinton saying, "Let's wait and see what happens."

Add the ingredient of the worst global economy since the Great Depression or the crash of 1877, and it makes for a combustible atmosphere. And in the end, if this is the course that our politics take -- again, then what voice, prey tell, do you think many people might invoke? Does the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ring a bell?

Friday, October 17, 2008


What's so interesting about both the debates and the campaign is its meta-ness and performantive aspects. We know from history that content and visual performance do not always agree--the crucial debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, where television viewers thought Kennedy won and radio listeners thought Nixon did is the most prominent example. But with the growth of so many forms of criticism and the addition of so many pundits on television and on the Internet is that performance--and its resulting commentary--have become especially prominent.

Focusing on performance in some ways more accurately mimics the way we often choose our political candidates; certainly some voters focus as much on personality and demeanor as they do on issues.*

While the media focus on performance has increased over the last few election cycles, a new somewhat mitigating factor has also arisen.


By metaness I mean a focus on the process of commentary as well as the commentary itself, Metaness is often a form of transparency in that we understand the process by which information reaches us. If we are open about the way media cover candidates, we are more likely to get at a truth than by simply listening, watching, or reading straight journalism. Check out this video from's all about how the story is being told rather than the issues of the candidates. Political Internet journalism and blogs tend to be at the forefront of this, but I've noticed the post-debate coverage on the networks to be much more meta than in the past.

Indeed, this campaign has shown the full flowering of meta-commentary, both on the right and left, on television and on the Internet, and everywhere in between. Pundits and writers are focusing not only on the policies and performances of Barack Obama and John McCain but also on the way media is bringing that information to its audiences. Sometimes that coverage eclipses the actual content generated by the two  candidates, leading to the idea that the candidates do not have ideas, a decidedly negative result. But at the same time, metaness acts as a mitigating filter, letting audiences know the ways media and political campaigns are giving them information.

Of course, that's what this blog is about too; we think the signs and symbols of the campaign are a crucial part in understanding the messages behind the messages.

That's not to say of course that issues are not important; obviously, they are the most important aspect of a campaign. But at least the coverage of the coverage of the campaign has caught up with the implicit focus on non-issues in the election.

Comments? I'm still working through some of the ideas behind this...


*If you want to know the positions of the candidates, the worst place to find it is in network news coverage and the best is on the campaigns' websites. The debates are somewhere in the middle. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New Blog Idea: SemioCain . . .

No Sleep Til Election!

That's right, after a brief hiatus, SemiObama makes a pledge to do a post--some kind of post--every day until the election. The semiotics of the election are ramping up. The optics of skin and age and rallies and debates are on everyone's table.

We just hope to serve up the daily dish . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Game Obama

Television, radio, Internet--and now Xbox 360. The Obama campaign is now advertising on the popular video game Burnout

Of course, this fits in with the general philosophy of appealing to a younger generation, and it's also true that videogames are an increasingly important part of American culture. Beyond that, I think the Obama campaign's game ads, besides their more traditionally serious goals, bespeaks a candidate who wants to be a leader that gets it. And getting it means going beyond the traditional media outlets and the  Internet to where millions of people, mostly young, but increasingly older are spending their time.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Obama, CA

We're grateful to Jan Davidson of Olema (or is that Obama), California for sending us the photo to the right.

The small town of 55 souls is positioned just about an hour north of San Francisco on the lovely Highway 1, just a Palin's throw from the Pacific Ocean. Though Olema has not officially changed its name to Obama, Kelly Emery's sign might lead passers-by to assume the opposite.

A Marin county code allows political signs on personal property, and Emery (below) installed this one on the site of her Bed and Breakfast. So far, residents seem to be both pleased and amused by the sign, perhaps because they expect to see the senator crossing the street.

One of the things we like about this text is its seamless merging of Obama iconography and the semiotics of normal traffic signs. It sends the message that an idea of an Obama presidency has already become part of the literal and cultural landscape.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Semiotics of the Debate - Part 1

SemiObama returns from a brief hiatus just in time for Sarah Palin and the debates.

Presidential debates are confusing. On a literal level, they aren't really debates, and on a semiotic level, they are not the most diverse texts. Both candidates wear dark suits, white shirts, and ties of either red, blue, or some combination thereof. Of all the predictable elements of a debate, nothing rivals the costuming, even down to the flag lapel pin.

There are often podiums, the accoutrement of either a professor or a preacher, but presidential candidates belong to neither of those shady professions. The podiums professionalize and formalize the setting, and they provide some measure of distance between the candidates, each other, and the audience. In short, they are deadly dull.

But not as dull as the set.

This year, the set design is painfully consistent from one debate to the next, at least in terms of the confusing backdrop. Not even the longest McCain answer is as tedious as the royal blue field and the white cursive script, which we are to assume is a passage from the Constitution. The line of red stars along the bottom patriotizes the backdrop, not only by completing the American color palette but by accentuating the faux document. The problem with this set is the synergy created by its sterility and its overt patriotism. Both earnest and dull, the set evokes neither the oval office nor a board room. All it evokes is trade show booth.

As for the candidates, there is little to say. McCain comes off as stiff and a little too starchy; Obama can be too measured and not emotional enough. Check back soon for further posts on the semiotics of the performances.

But for now, consider ways in which the contrived set reinforces the contrived nature of these non-debates. Two-dimensional, flimsy, and shallow, the set seems to ask us to pay attention to those same flat, superficial traits in our candidates.