Wishing that the president of the United States were dead seems to be in vogue. Kathy Griffin decapitated the president on Tuesday, holding his bloodied head before her like the Gorgon Medusa’s severed by Perseus. The beheading was a photo shoot — art — of course, and the head was a mask. On Tuesday, after “just now seeing the reaction to these images,” Griffin said, she apologized.
The inference from Griffin’s statement seems to be this: If there were scant negative reaction to her gory depiction, she would yet be promoting it. The morality of a nation is largely dependent on collective mass sentiment, which is now metered by social media, not wholly different from the frenzied crowd at the Roman Colosseum. Facebook’s only failing seems to be that it lacks a thumbs down reaction button.
The nation, of course, has been down this road before, most recently with the lynching of President Barack Obama — again via images created during his term. I make the separation between the act and a depiction of the act, as in Griffin’s case, to stress a point: Such images approximate the searing emotions behind them, as if the beheading or the lynching actually happened. That is precisely why people create them.
Politicians have been beheaded for quite some time, mostly done in political cartoons. Even President Donald Trump has beheaded no less a figure than the Statue of Liberty, on a February Der Spiegel cover. So perhaps we’re not in entirely new territory, but I have my doubts.
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Last week, I asked friends via a Facebook post to please stop sharing the ubiquitous Melania Trump-widow meme. (I’m a dedicated liberal, by the way.) The first lady, her head draped in a black mantilla, is shown at the Vatican standing next to her husband. The text reads: “Dress for the job you want.” And for good measure, the hashtag #widow is included, in case the meaning was not clear.
“That’s disgusting,” I wrote in my three-sentence post. “Wishing people dead is reprehensible.”
A timeline debate ensued about whether it’s ethical to wish the president dead or to wish anyone dead. To be sure, wanting to wring someone’s neck — to the point where the victim actually stops breathing — is not unheard of. Most people are able to walk that thought back in their minds, parsing the layered emotions that led them to it. The thought often remains just that, a thought.
Several commenters on my post were adamant that they wished the president dead. One parsed the equation, saying it was just Melania who was doing all the vile wishing. But that is part of the meme’s trap, I replied, to place the death wish safely onto the first lady. “It’s just satire,” the commenter responded.
Witches began placing “binding spells” on the president in February, and last week a major newspaper detailed the account of one such hex, which was actually not a hex, the author clarified, since it was merely to prevent the president from succeeding at destroying health care. Christians began to tweet anti-witch spells to thwart the binding spells, and one held up a mirror to witches assembled at Trump Tower, in an effort to reverse the spell.
This is the carnival that the country seems to have become. My liberal cohorts would claim that the president of the United States largely started it all, or at least unleashed the three-ring circus.
In truth, I don’t care who started the madness and have read, like most Americans, scores of analyses on how we got here. I just care that it ends.
The solution has often been stated, and yes, it’s stale and tasteless as a month-old bagel: Americans must focus on policies, not personalities, and make legitimate arguments that address solving problems. I know that our current culture is not built for such crusty advice. I also realize that the task seems impossible when a personality as large as Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office.
But in the face of beheadings, binding spells and widow memes, someone needs to state the obvious.
R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times and other national outlets.