History tends to repeat itself, but we aren’t always obligated to listen. Only rarely is the repetition meaningful, the echoing theme of a grand fugue. More often it is just compulsive, like a little brother antagonizing his sister or a tiny dog yapping at the wind.
The best thing to do, in such cases, is to ignore the irritant until it stops. Unfortunately, we do not live in a time of ignoring. We process the world, compulsively, through our pocket cameras, pinching and poking at the footage on our screens. The louder and more manipulative something is, the longer it dominates our little glass rectangles. We are fatally vulnerable to little brothers and yapping dogs — to all varieties of preening, needling, attention-mongering and weaponized self-regard.
Enter Roger Stone. In normal times, Stone would be a minor historical figure — one of those names near the bottom of the list of dramatis personae, next to the guards and attendants. He would take up the tiniest microfraction of our civic bandwidth. The Republican operative holds no official governmental position and has made a name for himself mainly as a dirty trickster and an oddball popinjay — a man who raises funds by selling autographed rocks and whose inauguration outfit, complete with top hat, was so extravagant it inspired a 105-part viral Twitter thread comparing him to, among other things, “the villain in a kid’s movie that stars a talking car” and “a czarist Mr. Peanut.” Stone is a henchman’s henchman, a voice from the shadows of another era.
But we do not live in normal times, and so, late last month, Roger Stone became an avatar of Breaking News. The Mueller investigation finally snatched him up: He was arrested in a predawn raid, taken to a federal court in Florida and then released on a 0,000 bond. (He would later plead not guilty to seven charges.) Cameras, naturally, sprouted on the courthouse steps, raising the possibility that Stone might rise to a whole new level of peacocking. But he shuffled out of the courthouse with an uncharacteristic lack of pomp, in a short-sleeve polo shirt, standing only half-visible in a large crowd — a man swallowed by his watchers. Half the crowd seemed to be holding up cellphones, and you could see Stone being recorded, in real time, on their screens.
Instead of using this moment to do something new, Roger Stone decided to perform the past. He stretched out his arms and, on each hand, extended two fingers — replicating the most infamous gesture in American political history: Nixon’s flying double V, the official gang sign of Watergate. This was the takeaway moment, the video we all passed around and made exhausted jokes about: a bit of historical karaoke.
Americans associate the V with the fall of Nixon, but its semiotic history is longer and richer. During World War II, citizens threw up Vs all over occupied territories in Europe, not only with fingers but with paint and chalk, as a symbol of unified resistance. The signal was most powerful when victory was least likely; it was an expression of embattled optimism. Winston Churchill, with his beefy face and bowler hat, flashed infinite Vs amid the wreckage of the Blitz.
Two decades later, during the protracted disaster of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s habitual flashing of embattled-optimism signs felt significantly less inspiring. It was even less convincing in the wake of the Watergate investigation, when the most embattled figure of all turned out to be the president himself. His signature use of the flying-V gesture came at the moment of his ultimate defeat: standing alone atop the stairs into Marine One, surrendering to his enemies, leaving the White House for the final time. It was one of the last things we saw him do.
Stone fetishizes Nixon the way a Goth kid fetishizes the Crow. He began his political career as a Nixon volunteer and is so performatively devoted to his disgraced hero that he has the man’s jowly face tattooed on his own back. This Nixon worship feels like Stone’s version of Churchillian defiance: In the face of terrible obstacles (democracy, civility, rule of law), Stone will remain nobly uncowed. Of course he would spend this moment in the spotlight doing Nixon cosplay. It was like a kid seeing himself on the Jumbotron — on some cellular level, he just has to dab.
To quote something, however, is inevitably to change it. Examine clips of Nixon and Stone side by side, and it is clear that the men inhabit different worlds. Nixon stands alone above the watching crowd, and the gravity of the scene is almost unbearable; the supporters on the White House lawn look like mourners. First he waves at them, and when his Vs arrive, his hands fly out suddenly, like doves fluttering from his sleeves, and his suit jacket puckers and strains against the motion. Then he is gone.
Stone’s reprise, naturally, carries much less historical weight. His gesture almost gets lost in the crowd. He has to angle his arms up very high to be seen, and instead of holding his fingers steady, as Nixon did, he waggles them around, just to make sure we all get it. Nixon looked like a pope on a balcony — elevated, isolated, imperious. Stone looks like a kid trying to get a radio signal with a tinfoil antenna. The gesture is premeditated and insistent. He actually makes it twice, first at the beginning of his appearance and then again at the end. The people around him are hardly even paying attention: They mill around, discussing other things. Even those holding up their cellphones look bored. It is a perfect little modern tableau: witnesses recording an act of desperate provocation, with limited interest themselves, mainly so they can show it to everybody else.
This is the world our screens feed us. In hindsight, Watergate happened in a relatively stable news environment — a world in which mounting facts were taken seriously enough that the president had to resign. Americans watched him leave on network news, with its long, steady camera shots overdubbed by voice-of-God anchors. We consumed Stone’s homage, by contrast, on social media platforms and partisan news aggregators and breathless cable networks. The clip was one scrap of a Cubist collage, one rectangle among many. It jockeyed with jokes and memes, manufactured scandals and furious rants, news of new jobs and pictures of new babies. Anchors and subanchors pontificated about it atop chyrons, logos and tiny graphics showing the activity of the stock market.
Nixon’s gesture was the image that defined an American moment. Stone’s was just another flicker in our self-referential chaos of information. People will read it to mean whatever they want it to mean. Surely someone, staring into a screen somewhere, must already be contemplating getting a tattoo of Stone getting his tattoo of Nixon.B:
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“【丑】【八】【怪】，【老】【子】【就】【打】【你】【了】，【你】【来】【打】【我】【啊】，【你】【个】【没】【种】【的】【死】【肥】【狗】……” 【谷】【少】【宁】【嚣】【张】【之】【极】，【反】【正】【没】【人】【看】【见】，【他】【可】【以】【肆】【意】【羞】【辱】【这】【个】【丑】【八】【怪】，【只】【要】【一】【想】【到】【当】【初】【为】【了】【上】【位】，【和】【这】【丑】【八】【怪】【虚】【与】【委】【蛇】，【他】【就】【恶】【心】【得】【想】【吐】。 【肥】【妈】【强】【咽】【下】【恶】【气】，【这】【笔】【帐】【他】【记】【下】【了】，【以】【后】【再】【报】【仇】，【他】【想】【赶】【紧】【离】【开】【这】【儿】，【可】【每】【走】【一】【步】，【谷】【少】【宁】【就】【会】【挡】【住】，【还】买码合作“【你】【的】【意】【思】【是】【说】……，【剩】【下】【这】【些】【都】【是】【吞】【噬】【过】【灵】【魂】【的】【了】，……【那】【冥】【界】【以】【后】【都】【不】【会】【收】【他】【们】【了】【吗】？” “【冥】【界】【我】【又】【没】【去】【过】，【我】【怎】【么】【知】【道】？” 【原】【本】【眼】【神】【异】【常】【明】【亮】【的】【慧】【净】【大】【师】，【看】【着】【大】【殿】【中】【剩】【下】【的】【魂】【魄】，【眼】【神】【又】【暗】【淡】【了】【下】【来】。 【胡】【蝶】【儿】【走】【过】【去】“【大】【师】，【剩】【下】【这】【些】【还】【是】【要】【麻】【烦】【你】【们】【法】【华】【寺】【了】。” 【慧】【净】【大】【师】【双】【手】【合】【十】“【施】【主】