Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Obama as Anti-American: Visual Folklore in Right-Wing Forwarded E-Mails and Construction of Conservative Social Identity

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Obama as Anti-American: Visual Folklore in Right-Wing Forwarded E-Mails and Construction of Conservative Social Identity

Article excerpt

This paper investigates the group-building potential of forwarded e-mails through a visual analysis of negative images about President Barack Obama. We argue that these e-mails are a form of political digital folklore that may contribute to constructing participants' individual and group identities. Images amplify the impact and believability of the messages, especially when linked to familiar cultural references and experiences and may lead to increased political polarization and hostility.

electronic media link distant others like never before. This connective power is evident in all areas of social life, including e-mail, social networking sites, video aggregators, and affinity websites. In the political world, electronic communication has become central to campaigns and to uniting like-minded individuals. Opting to receive e-mails from a political organization or politician opens the floodgates to daily digital communication about partisan perspectives on current issues.

Through the Internet, those in agreement can gather irrespective of geography to share opinions, reinforce their own manifestos, and argue for their viewpoints. Digital communication among groups thus serves a similar purpose as a political rally; groups are defined, differentiated, and strengthened based on shared ideology. This paper explores the group-building potential of digital political discourse, particularly forwarded e-mails, through a visual analysis of image attachments that are highly critical of President Barack Obama. Responding to JoAnn Conrad's earlier call for a critical approach to the political nature of folklore (1998:409), we draw on the concept of these e-mail forwards as a kind of digital folklore that is politically motivated, showing how their political dynamics may contribute to constructing not only group identity but also the individuals' social identity within their e-mail group. Further, we argue that images may amplify the impact and believability of the messages, especially when they are linked to familiar and sometimes demonized or beloved cultural references and experiences, at times through a process known as visual appropriation. Here we respond to Stephen Gencarella's more recent call to critically read folklore as rhetorical acts (2009:187); our methodology deconstructs the images using Jacques Durand's ([1970] 1983:34) visual rhetorical matrix to better understand how the potency and intent of their constitutive rhetoric may be recognized as salient by an audience.

The study was sparked by the many right-wing forwarded e-mails one researcher received, messages that ranged from anti-liberal or anti-Obama polemics to blatantly racist communications. The e-mails could be loosely grouped into various categories. One involved joking or commenting on Obama gaffes-some factual, some not-and some presented as inadvertent ("he's incompetent") and others as intentional ("he's plotting the downfall of America"). Another category offered critiques of Obama's political allies, family members, friends, and acquaintances whose activities presumably cast Obama negatively. Many e-mails recounted events that evidently sought to reveal Obama as un-American, un-Christian, power-obsessed, weak, or Nazi-like. The dichotomous portrayals of Obama as both diabolical and incompetent expressed many of the fears of conservative voters: that the United States would become a socialist nation with government control of all businesses and institutions, overrun with minorities and immigrants and run by politicians who glad-handed despotic foreign leaders, particularly those from Muslim nations. In other words, Obama was illustrative of everything "anti-American." Some of the reports in these e-mails were factual, though framed according to a conservative political perspective; some were entirely fabricated; and many were a mix of fact and fiction constructed to paint Obama in extremely negative ways.

O ne of the most fascinating categories involved images of Obama that were created or re-purposed playing off images and characters from popular culture and cultural ceremony/ritual. …

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