Is this a stupid story? It is worthy of Ethics Alarms’ time and attention? That’s a legitimate question well down the list of issues raised by “Spermgate”—my name for it, and I hope nobody else’s, because it is intentionally silly—regarding whether President Obama’s official portrait contains an intentional representation of a sperm cell, a trademark of the artist, Kehinde Wiley.
But to prematurely answer that question, yes, story is worthy of Ethics Alarms’ time and attention, because the related issues it cracks open for examination are more important than the specific story itself.
I was going to title this story “Stop making me defend Sean Hannity.” Hannity, whom I regard as a blight on multiple landscapes, including national ethics standards, was among the first to assert that the portrait of Obama included a sperm on his face. I heard about this third hand, and immediately concluded that this was just one more anti-Obama Hannity fantasy. And there we have it: bias, one of the themes of this whole episode. I don’t trust Sean Hannity, I don’t respect him, and I question his integrity and motives. As with all bias, the Cognitive Dissonance Scale immediately took over. Here it is again…
Hannity is down around -10. For me, if he declared that chocolate wonderful, and chocolate was at +7 on my scale, his endorse ment would yank it down into negative territory. So I didn’t even bother to check out Hannity’s claims—after all, he’ll claim anything to embarrass Democrats.
Then I stumbled across a mocking piece in the Daily Kos, full of mockery regarding Hannity’s crazy claim and launching the (pretty funny) gag, “Oh the #spermhannity.” The article began with the assumption that Hannity’s claim was res ipsa loquitur ridiculous, and signature significance for an right wing idiot. I accepted this analysis, even though I have about tyhe same level of bias reagrding the Daily Kos that I do regarding Hannity. It seemed as if Hannity himself had doubts, because after the barrage of abuse and ridicule, he deleted his tweet and the article on his website about the “inappropriate sexual innuendo” and the hidden image of sperm in the portrait. I was prepared to leave it at that, but decided to follow up this link on the Kos post:
“If you’re hoping for more explanation than that, you will not find it in the article, which is still available to read via cache. It moves on from there to note that the artist once sardonically used the phrase “kill whitey” in a New York magazine profile, which at least has the virtue of being true, unlike the claim that he put sperm in his painting of Barack Obama, which is objectively not true.”
Through that link, I eventually found the close-up section of the portrait pictured above. Here is the portion of it at issue:
Anyone who says that it is objectively untrue that the section doesn’t include what might have been an intentional representation of a sperm is either lying or is in the throes of crippling confirmation bias and denial. Of course that could be a sperm. Here are sperms…
Here’s that vein in Obama’s head again…
Now, I have a vein on my head something like that, but I don’t have that bulbous section at the end. Does Obama? I don’t know: someone should check. If he does, it means that a lucky portrait artist who has frequently, in the words of Wikipedia, ” used a sperm motif as symbolic of masculinity and gender” just happened to have as his most famous subject a man who already had a sperm-shaped vein in his face. Okay…it’s possible. But don’t tell me that couldn’t credibly be a sperm representation, or the an artist renowned for hiding sperms in his paintings didn’t notice it and take advantage of the opportunity.
Of course, that’s what “non-partisan neutral fact-checker” Snopes does tell us:
But although both sources were correct in pointing out that some of Wiley’s previous works featured tiny images of sperm cells meant to mock “the highly charged masculinity” (as one art critic put it) that so often characterizes classical Western portraiture, they leapt a bit too eagerly to the conclusion that a faithfully-reproduced vein popping out of Obama’s forehead is in fact a giant sperm cell.
Clearly, it is nothing of the kind:
And there I expected a close-up of the painting showing that the crypto-sperm was photoshopped in, or something. Nope, just a photo credit with no photograph. There is no “clearly” there, or anywhere else. There are “clearly” photographs of Obama that appear to show a vein, like this one…
…but it does not show us in sufficient detail that the ex-President has a perfect sperm-like bulge at the end of it. Maybe he does. I hope he does.
Here are my observations and conclusions so far, not just about whether Obama has a sperm on his face, but what this episode tells us or might tell us about our current culture and the people and institutions involved in this episode:
1. The current news media and blogosphere is incapable of objective analysis. Assuming that the close-up of the portrait wasn’t tampered with, and I have seen no evidence of that, the entire episode has been driven by confirmation bias. Obama’s supporters and defenders don’t want there to be a sperm on his face, so they deny it is there, claim that it is obviously not there, and probably really don’t see any possibility that it is. Wow. This is a great demonstration of the power of denial. Critics of Obama, including some racist groups whose immediate embrace of the sperm theory was probably what got Hannity to chicken out and delete his post, want the sperm to be there, so there is no doubt in their minds that it is there, and was placed there intentionally by the artist.
2. Spermgate exemplifies how Americans no longer can rely on being informed by an objective news media. This is a lot more important than whether Barack Obama has a quasi-sperm on his face.
3. Commentators like Hannity are so embedded at extreme ends of the Cognitive Dissonance Scale, and so driven by their own biases, that they are useless for the task of revealing the truth, even when they are right.
4. So are sources like the Daily Kos, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and others that immediately told the public that the plausible sperm was a conservative hoax, and probably a racist one.
5. There is no way, short of a confession by the artist, that we will ever know for certain what he intended, or whether the pseudo-sperm was intentional. Thus the portrait is now firmly in “Da Vinci Code” territory, like the controversy over whether that’s really Mary Magdalene next to Jesus in “The Last Supper.” We do know, or should, that anyone who says that it is “objectively ” false that there is a representation of a sperm is biased, dishonest, and untrustworthy, at least where Barack Obama is involved. THAT is res ipsa loquitor.
6. IF Wiley intentionally—cleverly, skillfully, with plausible deniability—placed his trademark symbolic sperm in the portrait, he is an asshole. Hey, but what are the chances that an artist who said “kill whitey” is an asshole? Come on.
7. If Wiley did this without the President’s permission, he is a huge asshole, a gutsy one, and an arrogant egomaniac who betrayed the trust of a former President of the United States. But who ever heard of an artist being an arrogant egomaniac? Come on.
8. If Barack Obama approved of his face-sperm, he’s an asshole too. Don’t dismiss the possibility: he deliberately chose an artist famous for hiding sperm in his paintings. If Obama didn’t say, “By the way, this is for history: no sperm!”, then the artist could reasonable take that as pro-sperm consent.
9. Signature gimmicks like the sperm are not unheard of in the art world. The famous Broadway caricaturist Albert Hirschfeld famously hid the name of his daughter Nina in all of his portraits. Finding the NINA became a game with his fans. Can you find it in this one?
I’m sure Snopes says that clearly, there is nothing of the kind.
10. What do I think?
- I think it is an incredible coincidence that an artist known for placing sperm images in his portraits to celebrate black masculinity just accurately painted a feature of the President’s face that resembles a sperm and never made a deliberate effort to use it to complete his trademark in the most famous portrait he was ever likely to paint. (Don’t you?)
- I think incredible coincidences do happen, however, and this may be one.
- I think Hannity’s anti-Obama bias may have led him to raise a legitimate question that other journalists should have raised, but didn’t because they knew it would place them in the crosshairs of social media hate.
- I think Hannity was a coward for caving to partisan criticism and not posting the equivalent of this Ethics Alarms post.
- I think Snopes is a disgrace, but you already know that.
- I think the news sources that have stated unequivocally that there is no sperm imagery have engaged in incompetent journalism and public deception.
- I think the fact that so few mainstream media sources have even reported the controversy, probably out of ick, cowardice, or bias, show their lack of journalism standards, competence, and integrity.
- I think it is obviously newsworthy when an official portrait of a President of the United States might have the image of a sperm intentionally painted on it.
And I think the episode, whatever the truth is, has troubling implications for America’s values and culture that go far beyond a painting.