President Nixon once remarked that the student protesters against the Vietnam War should be spanked. And, as it happens, one of them was.
It took place in London’s Grosvenor Square, just outside the US Embassy, during the historic anti-Vietnam demonstration of March 17, 1968. Things got ugly, and the police began making arrests: demonstrators were seized and carried none too gently across to the paddy wagons. One bespectacled girl, miniskirted but studious-looking, was wrestled to the ground, then picked up by her wrists and ankles. In the course of the struggle, she got turned over, and an officer seized his chance:
It has been claimed elsewhere that this photo is posed, or even a photoshopped fake. It isn’t either of those things. The girl’s struggle with the police also appears in footage shot on the day, though it’s not available online and the extract I’ve seen ended moments before she was spanked. The photo itself was published very soon after the demo (needless to say, decades before the invention of photoshop) and it was syndicated to several countries, its popularity no doubt helped by the powerful erotic triggers it contains, over and above the spanking itself. The press followed up afterwards with a quote from the girl herself, who said that the publicity hurt her more than the policeman’s palm across her panties!
There was one bit of subsequent fakery associated with the picture, though. Reporting the incident, the German press wrongly suggested that it was Vanessa Redgrave being spanked.
Vanessa was indeed present at the protest, but she was wearing something completely different.
Well, that was in England. But over in the US, on May 4, 1970, four student protesters at Kent State University, Ohio, two of them young women, got something a lot worse than the trip to the woodshed Nixon had in mind: they were shot dead by riot police.
With hindsight, there are few people today who would deny that the students were right: Vietnam was a pointless, senseless, wasteful war that was needlessly prolonged by Nixon’s administration.
So with that in mind, how do you feel now about that girl protester being spanked by the British police?
Let’s take a softer example involving the gay, socially liberal pop star Lady Gaga.
She has, incidentally, been spanked – by her musical collaborator Lady Starlight.
She has also had occasional brushes with senior Republican figures over issues like gay equality. And the political right seems to find her so distasteful and dangerous that one of their cartoonists brought out the most powerful weapon in the G.O.P. arsenal:
I don’t mean the hairbrush but the man wielding it: Abraham Lincoln, here presented as a specifically partisan figure, the first Republican President and the most admired and iconic of them all.
This isn’t an ordinary political cartoon about a particular conflict over a specific issue. Lady Gaga is not being spanked for her stance on gay rights. She’s not even being spanked for her style or her music. As the heading makes clear, she is being spanked merely for being a liberal. And she is being spanked not by a contemporary Republican who might have some cause to be offended by her behavior or her views, but by the historical emancipator of slaves and champion of racial decency. There is something profoundly, unpleasantly disproportionate about it.
The point I’m making is the contradiction in my response to the spanking in these images and the politics of them. They invite a sexual response, especially the Lady Gaga picture which is a wholly created artifact, not a record of an event that actually happened. But we have to be careful not to allow that sexual response to dictate anything else. I get a lot of private pleasure from the 1968 demo picture, but I still think the policeman was in the wrong. And I’m not alone:
I can’t pretend to be ‘horrified’ by the picture, but sexuality aside, I’m still a lot closer in attitude to ‘Miss A. T.’ than to the News of the World editor who wrote that curtly dismissive reply.
This is important because, although it is quite possible for decent, intelligent people to have sincere disagreements on matters of principle, political debate is frequently intemperate, often stupid and sometimes just plain nasty, and occasionally that nastiness deploys spanking imagery. To illustrate just how distasteful it can get, well beyond the examples I’ve shown so far, a prime exhibit is James Sears, a far-right would-be player in Toronto city politics. In 2014 he ran for office against Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon:
Part of Sears’ platform was to smear her as ‘Marxist Mary’, a spendthrift with public money. His campaign website included an interactive game in which she gets spanked in front of cheering taxpayers and Jesus Christ, with each smack returning tax dollars into a tax rebate bucket.
The game offers the option of three ‘anti-Marxist heroes’ to do the spanking.
Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:
And Adolf Hitler:
It is utterly, fundamentally hateful, but you can play it here if you wish.
Mary-Margaret McMahon was asked about it, and replied: ‘That thing where he spanks me? I don’t call it a game.’ But she also decided not to dignify it by making a complaint. ‘I don’t want to waste one minute on that vile man or his vile ideas.’
The vile man himself, who claims to be, among many other things, a ‘professional shrew-tamer and spanking administrator’, replied to public criticism:
In the same way that ‘slapping one’s wrist’ is not a literal slap, but a mild non-physical punishment, the ‘spanking’ of Marxist Mary is not literal, but instead will take place at the ballot box.
He was right about one thing: it was indeed settled at the ballot box. Mary-Margaret McMahon was reelected with 15,762 votes, compared with 797 for Sears. Never mind spanking: chalk up one to democracy!