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With Political Memes, the Medium Matters

In October, a video depicting the murder of a United States congresswoman made a brief, explosive Twitter debut. The 90-second clip, created by Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, was a doctored anime depicting Mr. Gosar (flying around like a superhero) slashing the throat of a character with the face of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York (and also attacking President Biden with swords).

On Nov. 17, the House voted to censure Mr. Gosar and strip him of committee assignments. In his defense, Mr. Gosar insisted that the cartoon was merely a “symbolic portrayal of a fight over immigration policy.” (The video also contained images of the U.S. southern border, migrants and Border Patrol officers.)

Mr. Gosar had borrowed an excerpt from “Attack on Titan.” The popular anime series, by Hajime Isayama, features a small community of humans being menaced by the Titans, a race of gigantic rampaging monsters.

As James Stone-Lunde, a historian of Japanese culture, told me, “The story explores themes of genocide, militarism, the importance of bloodlines and the need for ethnic self-determination,” which has led some readers to interpret the series as, “ethnonationalist apologia.” Mr. Isayama however has never endorsed or acknowledged any such political intent, and has apparently sought to distance himself from this interpretation.

In his tweeted version, Mr. Gosar replaced one of the Titan’s heads with that of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, granting her the role of a naked monstrous alien. He put his own head on the body of the soldier who slays the evil creature. Mr. Gosar also doled out heroic cameos to Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, and Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado.

In her remarks during the censure hearings, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez made the points that the cartoon constituted an implicit death threat, and that circulating such a threat against one’s colleagues would be wrong in any setting, “a school board, City Council or in a church,” regardless of political differences.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez made a deeper, subtler point too, denouncing the implication that the anime should be dismissed as inconsequential, which perpetuates “the “illusion,” she said, “that what we say and we do does not matter so long as we claim a lack of meaning.”

The “meaning” to which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez referred resided in a series of pictures. Mr. Gosar did not simply find and retweet some images. Rather, he (or someone on his staff) actively altered them, exercising some skill in animation graphics to achieve a desired end. This was an act of visual pop-culture manipulation.

Mr. Gosar on Capitol Hill on the day of the censure vote.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

No one mentioned this fact. And only rarely did anyone even refer to the cartoon outright, save for a few vague references to a “depiction,” or as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, called it once: “a disgusting video.”

Instead, the Congressional debate seemed to recast the images as speech. Condemning the cartoon’s potential to incite violence, Ms. Pelosi said, “When a member uses his or her national platform to encourage violence, tragically, people listen to those words and they may act upon them. Words spoken by elected officials weigh a ton.” She addressed, that is, the effect of words on those who hear them, instead of the real issue of pictures and those who see them.

Even Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, whose likeness lay at the center of the whole debate, spoke of the need to grasp the meaning behind “what we say and do,” omitting any reference to what we see.

Why? Perhaps the representatives feared that addressing the video directly risked amplifying or perpetuating its violence. And Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, as the victimized party, should not be expected to delve into the minutiae of the offending material.

But there’s more behind the odd elision of the video.

We live in an image-saturated world, yet, debating language is a national obsession. Images may entertain us, but words govern and regulate us.

But images can affect us emotionally. “Images affect us in ways that are hard to predict, that have the power to shock us, that tell us something that we should have known. The power to push the boundaries of political discourse,” said Kenton Worcester, a political scientist at Marymount College who specializes in cartoons, in a phone interview last week.

This may be why decorous members of Congress refused to engage directly with the video. It bordered uncomfortably on some of our culture’s most disturbing, albeit ubiquitous, images; depictions of victimized or brutalized women that abound in slasher films, murder mysteries, the openings of countless TV police dramas and of course violent pornography, including cartoon (and sometimes anime) pornography. As Andrea Horbinski, a historian of Japanese animation, told me, “The Gosar clip seems like an intersection of right-wing anime fandom, and the revenge-porn, or deep-fakes, impulse to keep women in their place.”

So the entire House debate centered on images that streaked through the national consciousness in a flash, then disappeared, first when they were swiftly removed from the internet, and then — figuratively — by dint of the collective refusal to confront them again. The House voted almost entirely along party lines to censure Mr. Gosar (only two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, joined the Democrats). But on the matter of acknowledging the power of violent imagery, the House was united in upholding a division between words and pictures.

Yet that divide lies at the heart of this matter, for no one in Congress has disrupted this division more than Ms. Ocasio-Cortez herself. In addition to being a serious, contributive member of Congress, she is also a telegenic young woman. No other new representative, not even the other Squad members, has garnered as much media attention. No one else has worn couture on the red carpet at the Met Gala, or filmed a makeup tutorial for Vogue. No one else, that is, has dared to embrace the world of pictures and popular culture to this extent.

This has only intensified her status as a lightning rod. And the power inherent in her high visual quotient is part of what led to her being featured in that violent video. It’s an attempt to use her visual power against her, to reposition her in a violent visual world that could dominate and silence her.

Mr. Gosar claimed that he chose Ms. Ocasio-Cortez because, “as a proud member of the open borders caucus, she is representative of the plague of illegal immigration.” But beyond whatever “plague” she may represent to him she represents something else that many men find threatening: the power of a woman unafraid to harness the realm of the visual, of feminine and popular culture, while remaining perfectly at ease in the traditional realm of words — the realm of Congressional speechifying.

The anime was a violent and disturbing internet meme. Perhaps greater familiarity with this visual currency could defang rather than magnify such memes. By looking away so resolutely, Congress may actually have relinquished visual power to Mr. Gosar. The proof? Minutes after his censure, he retweeted the offending cartoon.

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