Thursday, October 01, 2009

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: The Rise and Fall of Shoe Throwing as a Media Sanctioned Political Event

The use of the media for the projection of potent political speech is a dangerous business. News cycles are short; and the power to ridicule is as great as the power to elevate symbolic speech. So it is with shoe throwing. For a brief moment, when the media campaigns favored decisive action against the then sitting President of the United States and the reformulation of American policy in Iraq, shoe throwing became a grand political gesture that earned the appearance of weighty thought, and perhaps even thinly disguised approval.

This was important, especially for those without the backing of a large information producing apparatus. And the media appeared delighted to have a new mode of communication ot describe, analyze and use as fodder in the ongoing political battles of major news makers. Thus, consider Muntazir al-Zaidi:

The Iraqi TV reporter who threw his shoes at George W Bush was finally released from jail today and insisted that he had acted to defend his country's honour.

Muntazer al-Zaidi was released after serving nine months of a one-year sentence for assaulting a foreign head of state after throwing his size 10 shoes at Mr Bush during the outgoing President's final Baghdad press conference on December 14 last year.

The throwing of shoes is considered a grave insult in the Arab world and Mr al-Zaidi's action embarrassed Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, who was standing beside Mr Bush as he ducked the flying footwear. As he threw the shoes the reporter had shouted: "It is the farewell kiss, you dog." Iraqi shoe-thrower Muntazer al-Zaidi freed from jail, Times Online, Sept. 15, 2009.

But shoe throwing has apparently ceased to be a symbolic act in favor with the media--or at least portions of those actors. The difficulty, like those of other weapons, is that its indiscriminate use tends to begin to work against the interests of those who had once lauded the efforts. Now comes the thrown shoes at a disfavored target--the head of the International Monetary Fund. And with the shoe thrown comes an end to the elevation of the act as elegantly (if crudely beautiful) and the beginning of its ridiculing as a sophomoric act by silly people who might be confused about the way things ought to work. Thus it was reported today that
While speaking in Turkey, IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn became the latest world leader to fall victim to an attack by shoe: With this incident, Strauss-Kahn joins the motley crew of shoe-attack survivors that now includes George W. Bush, Wen Jiabao, Indian Home minister P. Chidambaram, and (possibly) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The shoe-chucking innovator Muntazar al-Zaidi was released from jail in Iraq this month. Dominique Strauss-Kahn joins the shoe club, Foreign Policy Passport, October 1, 2009.
Now, rather than being a sign of shame and a popular expression of disapproval for the excesses of imperial leadership and projections of foreign power abroad, shoe throwing has been reduced to the impotent acts of ridiculous actors who do not have the sense to be able to engage in global debates in an appropriate way. "Mr Strauss-Kahn later shrugged off the protest. “It is important for us to have an open debate. I was glad to meet students and hear their views. This is what the IMF needs to do, even if not everyone agrees with us. One thing I learned, Turkish students are polite. They waited until the end to complain,” he told reporters." (Id.).

And so, as easily as the media once focused on the message behind the shoe, now it focuses on the ridiculous and sadly counter productive element of the gesture. It has been stripped of its symbolic value reduced to empty gesture. So reduced, it can be dismissed with a mocking flourish: "So, readers, who do we think will be next?" (Id.). We move on from the symbolism of protection of national honor encased in a dirty thrown shoe and the martyrdom of a jail sentence for such noble acts to expressions of impotence among those who are not worth hearing. Not that there was much to defend about the tactic of shoe throwing--but its power to engage media actors shed important light on reconstitution of the ridiculous into whatever global communications organs suggest. The stage is set for the next phase of media engagement with symbolic acts.

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