Why so… socialist?

Sometime in the past few days, just in time for the President’s birthday, posters of Obama in Joker-style makeup appeared on a Los Angeles overpass. The images quickly spread across the internet and have sparked predictable praise from the right or criticism from the left. Whether or not the posters are unduly offensive to President Obama, they are a serious insult to Heath Ledger’s Joker and his gleeful nihilism. What strikes and fascinates me is the poster’s angry incoherence: under the image of Obama is the word “socialism.” Did this artist even see The Dark Knight? Or perhaps I should ask, what does this artist think socialism is, anyway?

Consider that socialism is associated with the concepts of “central planning” or a “planned economy,” in which a centralized authority manages everything (or at least the economy) according to plan. Now, thanks to a conversation with Brooklyn Law prof Nelson Tebbe, who offered a profound analysis of The Dark Knight, I watched that film with the close attention of a serious academic, ready to learn what it could teach me about violence. I even read the script. And the Joker’s worldview seems pretty antithetical to socialism. Here’s what the Joker has to say about planning:

Do I really look like a guy with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan… The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars… I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it… I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s… Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer, I show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.

If the Joker were an economist, wouldn’t he be a free-market guy?

Of course, coherence is no prerequisite for First Amendment protection, and I disagree with commentators who question the artist’s right to compare the President to a crazed movie character. These posters remind me a little of an incident I discussed here on Concurring Opinions a few years ago – a high school student’s suspension for displaying a banner that read “Bong Hits for Jesus.” As I said then, it’s not entirely clear what “Bong Hits for Jesus” means. It seems vaguely pro-marijuana, and perhaps disrespectful to Jesus, but at best it only gestures at ideas. These Obama posters do the same, and I think I get their message: “Obama is evil, and socialist, and I have no clue what socialism is, but I know it’s evil, like Obama.” Sounds like protected speech to me.

Many thanks to Dan Solove and his co-bloggers for the invitation to join them this month.

You may also like...

26 Responses

  1. A bit tangential to the post but…”People speak of socialism. We should speak of socialisms.

    There is an amnesia about the socialist tradition that abandons entire definitions of that ideal made by serious mass movements. There are dictionary definitions—socialism is the pubolic ownership of the means of production and distribution—which are faded abstractions of one fragment of a rich conceptual heritage. There are Marxist statements, often Delphic in their vagueness but always suffused with a sense of history, which are turned into transhistorical truths and chiseled into stone. And there are simplistic assumptions that the antisocialist practice of states calling themselves socialist describes something called ‘really-existing socialism.'”
    —Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future (1989)

    For a taste of “socialisms,” please see the list of titles collected here: http://www.jurisdynamics.net/files/documents/MarxismBibliography.doc The introduction to the material is here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/12/marx-marxism-very-select-bibliography.html

    In particular, and in addition to Harrington, I would recommend Elster and Moene, eds., Luntley, Ollman, ed., Peffer, Roemer, and Schweickart.

  2. A.W. says:

    i think i get the poster…

    The joker says he is an “agent of chaos.” well, isn’t that what obama has been spreading in the economy?

  3. Tenrou Ugetsu says:

    I think Obama is the furthest thing from a socialist. He’s just someone who recognizes the faults in this country and is taking steps to correct them.

  4. A.W. says:


    Mmm, right. So when is he going to fix the deficit, the debt, stop iran from getting a nuke, make our schools actually teach children, reform our legal system so that it is more about justice than a payout, reduce needless and cumbersome regulation, and so on?

  5. To be fair, I think the poster could be read coherently as “Obama stands for a socialism that would be as violent, destructive, and senseless, as The Joker”.

    That is, if you read it as “socialism acts like The Joker”, it’s a pretty standard right-wing trope.

    Note – I am not arguing the point is correct, just saying the poster does have a intelligible possible reading.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    Isn’t there also a racial message involved in having Obama in whiteface? And while I think Seth is on the right track about the coherent reading, and pace Patrick’s more nuanced appreciation of socialism(s), I wonder whether most Americans really would use a relative clause of characteristic to differentiate a violent socialism from any other. I.e., more simply: Joker = bad, destructive guy; socialism is bad; Obama wants socialism; so he’s bad, destructive guy too. The whiteface (along with painted smile) might be seen as alleging insincerity — Obama isn’t really black, and he isn’t really smiling, either. While I disagree with the overall message, I think it’s a far better piece of right-wing political commentary than the usual we’re getting these days.

  7. Alice Ristroph says:

    Apparently, these Joker posters in Los Angeles have a predecessor, an image from November’s election called “The Audacity of a Joke”:


    “The Joker does love to play with politicians with strong moral foundations — so I really can’t see him showing much interest in U.S. politics.”

  8. Anon says:

    Bush is the real joker:


    thanks for wrecking our economy, W!

  9. Jason Mazzone says:

    “Whether or not the posters are unduly offensive to President Obama, they are a serious insult to Heath Ledger’s Joker and his gleeful nihilism”

    Did you think that when Vanity Fair depicted George W. Bush the same way in July 2008?

  10. Alice Ristroph says:

    Jason, I missed that Vanity Fair depiction last July, but I note some commenters there reacted as I would have — to make Bush (or Obama) into Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker misses the genius of that character.

  11. M says:

    The Joker is not a socialist. He is an anarchist.

  12. A.W. says:


    here’s a hint. not every criticism of obama is racist.

    the joker wears makeup to make his face white. See, e.g. here: http://www.cinematical.com/2007/11/30/dark-knight-another-new-joker-photo/

    the “joker obama” also does so. its meant to vaguely invoke a clown mask, though of course i never saw a clown looking like that (nicolson’s joker is more like a traditional clown look). So where is the racial message, here? if anything, the creators of the poster seems blissfully nonchalant about racial issues.

  13. A.J. Sutter says:

    A.W., I certainly agree that not every criticism of Obama is racist, and I even think you may be right that this particular case isn’t racist. Nor was I suggesting that it was — merely that it was an allusion to race. I think there can be a difference between the two, as in my suggested interpretation of Obama’s being insincere as an individual, without any connotation of superiority or inferiority of one race or another.

    Now I grant that it’s theoretically possible for any allusion to race to have been the farthest thing from the satirist’s mind. But the satirist had many possible aesthetic choices when trying to link Obama with socialism. As others have pointed out, there isn’t any obvious link between the Joker and socialism. And the Bush-Joker caricature others have mentioned (which IMHO isn’t even recognizably Bush) is a highly stylized graphic without any text caption, so I don’t find it a credible role model for this more photo-realistic/morphed avatar. So either (i) there has to be some reason why the artist chose to portray Obama in whiteface, or (ii) if he or she sincerely claims to be colorblind in the (Stephen) Colbertian sense and not to have noticed painting most of Obama’s face white, then he or she is really lacking something major in the artistic sensibility department.

  14. A.W. says:


    > As others have pointed out, there isn’t any obvious link between the Joker and socialism.

    Sure there is. Both leave a lot of destruction in their wake. The fact that the connection is not obvious to his supporters, doesn’t mean it isn’t obvious to his opponents.

    > And the Bush-Joker caricature

    But you can equally say there is nothing about Bush that is joker-like, either. The fact is that to a certain segment of the population Bush unleashed chaos in a way that the joker did in the Dark Knight. And to a certain segment of the population (which probably doesn’t overlap very much with the segment I just talked about), obama is similarly unleashing chaos.

    You could also delve deeper into how in TDK, the joker is portrayed as pretending to have certain motivations, but it was a come on. He tells two different stories, for instance, about how his cheeks were scarred, making you wonder what the truth is. And after spending much of the movie pretending he wants to prove something about humanity, he confesses to Harvey Dent he just does stuff, that its not really very well planned. These things can be debated, but I think Alfred’s speech about how some people just want to see the world burn is probably the writer’s explanation for what really drives the joker. You might say then that if the artist has the same understanding of the joker that he is saying that socialism is really a cover for just plain chaos and destruction for its own sake. If true, it is an extremely harsh and probably ultimately unfair critique, but there is nothing racial about it.

    > So either (i) there has to be some reason why the artist chose to portray Obama in whiteface,

    Yes, there is. Because THE JOKER WEARS WHITEFACE. Sheesh.

    Go look at that picture of heath ledger as the joker I provided. It is white face, with darkened eyes and green smeared lipstick, just like what this artist did to obama.

    You ever hear of occam’s razor?

    > if he or she sincerely claims to be colorblind in the (Stephen) Colbertian sense and not to have noticed painting most of Obama’s face white, then he or she is really lacking something major in the artistic sensibility department.

    I am sure the artist noticed the color of the paint. I am sure the artist also noticed that Obama is black. But I see no evidence that the fact that Obama is black influenced the decision to make him look like the joker. Indeed, to dress him up as a character who was famously a white guy suggests a certain disregard for color.

    Look, when we talk about the desire for a color-blind society, we don’t mean that people will never notice that people are certain shades, but rather instead, we will notice and not care. Perhaps then the better term isn’t colorblind, but color-unconcerned, although it is not as catchy. There is no evidence that this artist cared that Obama was black, and your attempt to impute that kind of thinking into this artist’s logic probably reflects more on your state of mind than the artist’s.

  15. A.J. Sutter says:

    Not to belabor the point, but there isn’t any a priori reason to connect the Joker with socialism or with Obama. There are many other ways in which the connection between Obama and socialism could have been suggested, perhaps more effectively — e.g. a morph of Obama’s face with Marx’s, Lenin’s, etc. Cross-racial make-up has a history in US culture, e.g. Al Jolson and the many other blackface performers who preceded him. Given this cultural context for the image, what the artist was actually thinking may be be less important than how the image is seen, e.g. by the people who have made it so popular online, people in L.A., etc. (though Occam’s Razor makes me skeptical that the artist was oblivious to the cultural context, despite the non-zero possibility of that circumstance). Such a racial reference, whether conscious or not on the artist’s part, is neither necessarily racist nor necessarily innocuous, but does deserve to be considered in the context of the claimed semiotic “incoherence” that sparked Prof. Ristroph’s post. I suggest it can make the satire more coherent, i.e., more artistically successful, even if one is not at all sympathetic with the view expressed.

  16. A.W. says:


    So… you can only put white make up on the face of a white man.

    Btw, how “white” does the person have to be? I mean obama is half white. is there a one drop rule involved in your logic? i am being facetious of course. Still, how white does a guy have to be in order to make this all kosher?

    Of course you are right to say that the artist’s intent is at least as interesting as the interpreter, and you as an interpreter are pretty interesting in how quickly you go to “OMG, he put white make up on him. But… but… he is black!”

    You also say there are more effective ways to make the non-racial arguments ascribed to the ad. But gosh, isn’t this a wonderfully effective method. a few posters in LA and everyone is talking about it, the left is beclowning themselves claiming it is racist right as we kind of sort of were getting over the Gates incident. The poster was objectively brilliant.

    And yes, when Obama demonizes a company for honoring its contracts, offers health care proposals that are so anti-business you have to wonder if it is his intent to destroy private insurance, when his FTC pushes an interpretation of the FACT act that is so radically broad that it would declare a full 90% of the American public “creditors,” when he claims he is trying to save companies but then caps their pay so low that they will be hobbled as they try to compete in the market for labor, when he pushes our debt and deficit into the stratosphere, when he takes a full week to condemn the rigged iranian election but within hours condemns Honduras’ attempt to save their democracy from a Chavez and Castro backed would-be dictator, when Congress rushes through Stimulus that is not working as planned and cap and trade which will destroy prosperity, and probably 1,000 other things i am unaware of… yeah, the joker as a symbol of chaos resonates deeply with me. At sixth months in office, i have never seen a president sow this much chaos in the lives of good people. It probably won’t persuade anyone who disagrees with it, but it crystallizes our misgivings in a short, and stunning visual metaphor. In that the poster is brilliant and the claim that there is a racial issue, again reflects more on the minds of those raising it than anyone else.

  17. A.W. says:

    speaking of chaos, frank j. flemming of pajamas media has a very chaotic sense of humor (see his site imao for many examples), and has a great article on this. i will try to get a link to you later, but here is a great highlight:

    Also, the Joker seemed chaotic but was very careful in his planning, while the chaos from the Obama administration seems much more explainable by pure incompetence.

    Furthermore, the Joker was actually somewhat subtle in how he tried to destroy Gotham by psychologically breaking down the will of its people, but Obama’s methods for destroying everything are a bit more ham-fisted, such as proposing expensive new programs while we’re already hugely in debt. Finally, the Joker has always been depicted with normal-sized ears.

  18. Veracitor says:

    All that research and you didn’t notice that (a) the Joker is a liar (he lies to his bank-robbing henchmen, he tells (at least) two incompatible stories to explain his facial scars, really, he lies like a rug), and (b) the Joker does make and carry out plans, often very elaborate plans (e.g.g., the bank robbery, the simultaneous kidnapping and firebombing of the girlfriend and the DA, the rigged-to-explode ferryboats, and on and on)?

    You seem rather foolish quoting the mendacious Joker (who, when speaking those lines in the story, is pursuing his plan to corrupt the DA into a monster) to show that the Joker has no plans!

    In fact, the Joker’s full of bad plans (like Obama) and even his attitude toward money (he steals then burns a big pile of it) seems somewhat akin to Obama’s! (Obama steals by taxation and inflation, and burns by funding Chrysler and ACORN, but the results are the same.)

    I think the Obama/Joker poster shows clearly that the artist considers Obama a liar and a vandal. Since Obama is a liar (“no tax increase on middle-class families,” “you can keep your current health insurance”) and a vandal, the poster is pretty effective.

  19. Who cares? says:

    This is so racist. He has cocaine all over his face and has just finished eating a big juicy slice of watermelon…

  20. Jason W. says:

    Whatever the merits of Veracitor’s argument about Obama (I happen to think he’s dead wrong on all of it), he’s absolutely right about the Joker. Many writers have taken him at face value — I read a billion reviews of the movie describing him as an anarchist — but the Joker is a highly unreliable source of information on his own philosophy.

  21. A.J. Sutter says:

    Paul Krugman’s August 6 column in the NYT, while not discussing the Obama-Joker poster per se, has some comments that illuminate this issue.

  22. A.W. says:

    Yeah, Krugman is very inciteful…

    > So this is something new and ugly.

    As opposed to when the head of the minuteman was shouted down, ann coulter assaulted, etc. okay.

    And he cites the number of people raising hands. Of course the other day krugman asked the Canadians in his audience to raise their hands, and then said “how many of you Canadians think your system is terrible.” He is flustered when almost all of them raised their hands.

    > They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly.

    Actually when you talk about rationing care, it certainly suggests a lack of care for those deemed to be unlikely to live very much longer anyway. Let’s not forget the elderly woman in Oregon who in the same letter was denied treatment for cancer, but offered assisted suicide.

    > That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.

    Krugman says, without a jot of evidence.

    So you get that? If you have anxiety about the president, you are a racist. Never mind that obama is demonstrably incompetent on economic issues (or you could go for door number 2, he understands how bad his ideas are, but chooses them anyway for various reasons). We should all sing “don’t worry, be happy” and trust that the economic illiterate in chief knows what he is doing.

    I mean, look I do think anxiety underlies the birther movement. They are hoping and praying for an easy way out of this nightmare of obama being president. But why should that necessarily be racist? Isn’t the fact he is kind of an economic idiot and socialist enough? Again, occam’s razor, folks.

    And, I might add, that there is kind of a history here of opposing the kind of reform the democrats want. And that was when a southern white guy was the president.

    So white dem proposed socialized medicine… and the people get angry and reject it.

    But when a black dem proposed socialized medicine… if people oppose it, they are racists.

    Notice, that in all of this, no one is defending the reform on its merits. Its all “our opponents are bad.” Maybe so, but that is called an ad hom argument, and is fallacious.

    Of course they can’t defend it and not because the proposal is necessarily indefensible, but because no one even knows what has been proposed. The democrats insist that they don’t need to read it before passing it, or even to understand what it actually does. Now that is hope and change.

  23. R. Alex says:

    From the get-go, I’ve had about the same thought son the subject as Professor Ristroph (whose cousin I think I may be married to, coincidentally enough). The aesthetics of the sign are sharp, but the thinking behind it is incoherent except in the “Stevie Wonder is God” (God is love, love is blind, Stevie Wonder is blind) logic.

  24. D H says:

    The joker was insane.

    The poster means that obama is insane for wanting socialism, and make no mistake, after the government owns the health care system for all intents and purposes, they will begin to own more.

    The more money that is taken from the people and given to the government, the less free the society.

    Besides, the Joker does have similar politics: He believes in a redistribution of wealth to himself and his backers. (And will dispose of his backers once convenient.)

  25. A.W. says:

    btw, they have unmasked the guy who made his face “jokerized.” Turns out to be a white male racist republican… oh, whoops, not really… turns out to be a palestianian american kucinich supporter. Gee, not quite fitting the narrative, is it?

    Of course he didn’t put the word “socialist” there–someone else did that. so in a way i could call him the “half author” of the poster.

  26. sandy says:

    I am a democrat, but I have to be honest, if there is no copyright infringement, let’s not step on our freedom of speech. It’s not just freedom to say what I agree with.

    And to be even more fair, a group of people we don’t agree with is not necessarily a mob.

    There have been peace protests that have turned violent on the protesters’ side. That doesn’t make peace a bad thing.