In case you haven't already seen it, or heard it discussed anywhere, here's the cover of the 21 July New Yorker ("The Politics of Fear" by Barry Blitt):
One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong (from Sesame Street). Question: which one?
Ok, most of you got it: the gesture: the fist bump (or whatever term you use for it). The other components in the cartoon — Michelle Obama's machine gun, Barack Obama's Arab dress, the portrait of Osama bin Laden, the American flag burning in the fireplace — signify Muslim identity or terrorist allegiance or both. But the gesture does not. (Neither does Michelle Obama's hairstyle, which I suppose is intended to be some kind of Afro. So the hairstyle is a possible alternative answer.)
Some background. Satire in general is dangerous: some people don't get it, and will just assume you're presenting opinions or claims — in this case, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and that the Obamas together are, if not actually terrorists, nevertheless disloyal Americans (as, by implication, are African-Americans in general). Even people who do get it, who do understand that the depiction intends to confront, and mock, these beliefs and claims through over-the-top exaggeration, may have their opinions altered somewhat by such depictions, in the same way that explicit denials and refutations sometimes have the paradoxical effect of increasing, by a bit, the credibility of the claim that's denied or refuted.
But that's not my point here. There's been an avalanche of media and public opinion critiquing the New Yorker cover as satire, plus defenses of the cover as mockery by Danid Remnick (editor of the New Yorker) and others. I'm interested specifically in the gesture.
The gesture led off the New York Times story on how difficult it has been for comedians to skewer Obama ("Want Obama in a Punch Line? First, Find a Joke", by Bill Carter on the front page on 15 July:
The New Yorker magazine tried dipping its toe into broad satire involving Senator Obama with a cover image depicting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and his wife, Michelle, as fist-bumping, flag-burning, bin Laden-loving terrorists in the Oval Office.
In the cover, the fist bump is presented along with clear signifiers of anti-Americanism, Muslim identity, and terrorism, suggesting that it is another such signifier. That's just wrong, and presenting the gesture this way is pernicious. The primary social-group signification of the gesture is, or at least was, "African-American", and it's never been associated with either Islam or terrorism, so that linking the gesture to anti-Americanism and terrorism (and, via another link, to Islam) promotes a (groundless) slur on African-Americans. I'm sure this is not what the New Yorker intended — quite the contrary, in fact — but its depiction of several signifiers together encourages this interpretation, and so advances a slur on African-Americans as treacherous anti-Americans.
Some restrictions. Yes, the whole thing is complicated, and I'll get to the complications. But before that, some restrictions on my topic.
I am NOT writing here about the expressions used to refer to this gesture: fist bump, fist pound, fist thump, pound, dap, etc. (A 6 July Safire column in the New York Times Magazine also listed closed fist high five, knuckle buckle, and fist jab, and there are no doubt more.) Different speakers at different times have used different expressions, and the actual gestures referred to, and their uses in social contexts, have differed some over the years, but none of that is what's at issue here: I'm talking about how people use the gesture now and am not concerned (here) about the labels for it or their origins.
Origins are not entirely irrelevant, though. It's clear that the gesture (whatever it was called) originated among African-Americans, probably African-American men, about 30 to 40 years ago (see some ADS-L discussion here, with citations), and has since diffused considerably, though it still has associations with African-Americans.
Functions of the gesture. It's also clear that the function of gesture is primarily to indicate solidarity and support. It can be used as a kind of greeting gesture, the equivalent of a handshake, but mostly it's celebratory — like a high five, but not so exuberant. It says, "I'm with you!"
Until the recent flaps, I'd seen the gesture as an easier, less aggressive, variant of the buddy-slap (on one shoulder) or the buddy-punch (on one biceps [for one biceps, see below]); it's just light touching, and that's something you can do with anyone, including people of the other sex. I like that.
[Morphological note: biceps is, originally, singular, with (in English) a zero plural (though bicepses is also attested): right biceps, left biceps, both biceps. Some people have interpreted the -s as a mark of plurality and so back-formed a singular bicep. I'm not offended by that, but it's not my preferred usage. But please don't write to complain about my use of biceps as a singular.]
And it has diffused. Kindergartners in the U.S. do a fair amount of high-fiving these days, but some of them also do fist bumps. The message is, of course, a bit different in the two cases. (Kindergartners do not normally shake hands with each other, by the way.)
Fist bumps and machine guns. So how did the fist bump get lumped in with machine guns, the veneration of Osama bin Laden, and flag-burning? By poisonous deliberate invention, apparently. Surely it started with vile anti-Obama mutterings, but it quickly made its way into the media. A Slate "Explainer" column, by Juliet Lapidos, tells us that
After [the Obamas] greeted each other with closed fists at a campaign rally, a commenter on the right-wing Web site Human Events [27 May] described the gesture as a "Hezbollah-style fist jab." Later, Fox News host [now ex-Fox News host E. D. Hill would refer to it as a "terrorist fist jab."
(Lapidos's piece goes on to briefly survey the ways in which members of various terrorist groups, from the Basque ETA to al-Qaeda to Colombia's FARC, do in fact greet each other -- none of them involving fist bumps, of course.)
The Human Events episode is convoluted. As far as I can determine "Hezbollah-style fist jab" was not in Cal Thomas's posting "Obama: See No Evil", but came from a commenter, "Larry" in Alpine, Texas. Somehow the expression got attributed to Thomas, so that it then appeared that Thomas had edited his posting to remove the offending material. In fact, it seems that it was the comment that was deleted.
On to Hill's coverage on Fox News. Here's the beginning of the Media Matters for America account:
During the June 6 edition of Fox News' America's Pulse, host E.D. Hill teased an upcoming discussion by saying, "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently." In the ensuing discussion with Janine Driver -- whom Hill introduced as "a body language expert" -- Hill referred to the "Michelle and Barack Obama fist bump or fist pound," adding that "people call it all sorts of things." Hill went on to ask Driver: "Let's start with the Barack and Michelle Obama, because that's what most people are writing about -- the fist thump. Is that sort of a signal that young people get?" At no point during the discussion did Hill explain her earlier reference to "a terrorist fist jab."
[Who, some of you are wondering, is this body language expert Janine Driver? Check out her website to see a portrait of a very American phenomenon, the self-invented expert engaged in relentless self-promotion. "Comedienne, communications guru, body language expert, Lyin' Tamer" (the name is trademarked), she says, adding that
Since I was barely out of diapers, I've been researching, developing, and years later, instructing courses on trends, issues, and effective techniques in detecting deception, rapport building, body language, relationships and cognitive interviewing.
This is a peek into a world we've touched on a number of times here (often in connection with writers on sex differences), and I'm not going to pursue it in this posting, though it would make a good, though challenging, topic for a future posting.]
Now back to the New Yorker cover. What makes it complicated is that it not only mocks sleazy slurs on the Obamas — for the most part requiring only that the viewer catches the signifiers of terrorism, Islam, and ant-Americanism — but also requires the viewer to supply a second level of interpretation to the fist bump: the understanding that what's being mocked here is not the gesture itself but the sleazy association of the gesture (in some media) with Islam and terrorism.
New Yorker covers (and the other cartoons, inside the magazine) routinely depend on the viewer's bringing rich knowledge of the culture and current events to bear on their interpretation. (I've spent no small amount of time explaining New Yorker cartoons to people who lack some of this background knowledge.) Usually, if you don't have that knowledge, you're just baffled — but sometimes you'll try to infer some of this information. That means that unless you're right on top of the sleazy media treatments of fist bumps and also have some prior knowledge of who uses the gesture and for what purposes, you might understand it as just another signifier of Islam, terrorism, or ant-Americanism.
That's what so dismayed me about the cover. It had such a good chance of feeding into a vicious slur. Satire is dangerous in general, but this bit of it seemed even more dangerous to me than usual.
Meanwhile, back on Language Log, terrorist fist jab appeared in a posting by Eric Bakovic. In quotation marks. Eric's intention was clearly (to me, at any rate) to mock E. D. Hill's use of the expression. But quotation marks are perilous: they do many kinds of work, including simple quotation (which would, in this case, indicate that the expression was in fact the name of the gesture, and implicate that the gesture is associated with terrorism). Eric's intended use was a species of "sneer quotation", but if you didn't know the history of the term (and missed Mark Liberman's posting "Terrorist hand signs at home plate?"), you could easily miss the sneer and infer that the gesture was in fact a terrorist one.
At the time, I thought that Eric's posting was ok — mocking should absolutely not be over the line — though I winced a bit in worry. Then Ryan Rosso made a follow-up comment to Eric's posting that used the expression, three times, without quotation marks, to convey congratulations:
Wow Eric, I need to give you terrorist fist jabs for all the great things you just mentioned in this post:
-The reference to someone who calls herself "conservative beach girl"
-The Ali G – Noam Chomsky interview
-Terrorist fist jabs!
That's five terrorist fist jabs! Good work.
Yes, it was joking, but it seemed to me to be really perilous (not unlike using feminazis as a reference to feminists, intending to mock Rush Limbaugh's use of the word, but risking putting the word into more general circulation).
At that point, I wrote Eric, expressing my fears that such uses of the expression might just reproduce nasty (and false) claims about African-Americans. Eric (who is a very nice man) offered to write a public apology, but then the New Yorker cover appeared, and I thought it was time to do something more extensive. It's taken a while, but here it is.