Politics is hard, so The Baffler has employed expert comic mind David Rees to give us a visual rendering of the day’s signature political controversies. The only problem is that David can’t draw, so his cartoons are word pictures—which is to say, words.
This week’s cartoon is about the Panama Papers and ’80s fashion.
When I was in the twilight years of my elementary school career, two of the hottest fashion brands were beach-based and aspirational: Panama Jack and Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax. (I had misremembered the latter as “Dr. Zog’s Sex Wax,” but online research reveals that Zog never did get the medical degree I imagined him having, which is disappointing.)
In sunny contrast to the vaguely fascist aesthetics of the era’s legendary Members Only jackets—with their muted, gun-metal colors and narrow epaulets—Panama Jack and Mr. Zog’s and Ocean Pacific (the coolest corduroy micro-shorts of all time) promised lazy days at the beach: endless waves and good vibes.
Even though I hated the beach—I was self-conscious about my body, which I realize is incredibly, astonishingly unusual for a sixth-grader—I wanted a piece of those vibes. Of course, there was no chance my parents would let me wear a shirt declaiming the virtues of a “sex wax,” even if it was just a (literally) tacky brand of surfboard wax rather than an erotic tincture. Only the edgiest kids donned Mr. Zog’s gear. (From Wikipedia: “[Mr. Zog’s]) slogans, such as ‘The best for your stick’, included innuendos of non-surfing uses. The materials confirmed their counterculture status by being banned from schools and amusement parks.”)
And so I became a Panama Jack loyalist. I wore a purplish-grey long-sleeved T-shirt with the brand’s avatar: a gentleman sporting a mustache, a monocle, a linen jacket, and a straw hat. Looking at that logo now, I can see clearly that Jack was not a native Panamanian. (The actual founder of the company was one Jack Katz, a former Florida Gators football player.) In order to survive the fashion-imperialism of my adolescence, I donned a cotton costume with vaguely imperialist cartoon iconography, and thereby instantiated the entire history of modern American geopolitics in one stroke.
His name is Panama Papers Jack. He is ominous, inscrutable. His mustache is helpfully marked “zero-sum financial machismo.”
Did I know anything about Panama? Of course not! I had no interest in Teddy Roosevelt’s grand ambition, or canals, or failed French infrastructure projects, or isthmuses in general. (I realize that this, too, was quite unusual for a sixth grader.) But Panama Jack was a cool brand, one that didn’t mortally offend my parents’ sensibilities or clothing allowance, so I swore (and wore) my allegiance to it. Reader, I rocked that T-shirt until Panama Jack’s smug face started to fade into nothingness, as if disappearing into some long-forgotten isthmus of history itself.
What does all this have to do with the Panama Papers revelations? The following cartoon will make everything clear:
We see a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land. We don’t understand what we’re looking at—until we see, in the lower left-hand corner of the cartoon, a dictionary, open to the definition of “isthmus.” Ah! We understand that we’re looking at an isthmus. In fact, it’s labeled “Panama,” which we only now noticed. So we’re looking at Panama. We smile. We’re doing a great job understanding this cartoon so far! We pause to take a sip from our fruity cocktail.
We see a gigantic man towering over our isthmus. His name is Panama Papers Jack. He is ominous, inscrutable behind his bushy mustache and his enormous monocle and his dumb straw hat. He wears a spotless linen suit and a Windsor knot. He’s surrounded by arrows and labels. His bushy mustache is helpfully marked as “zero-sum financial machismo.” His enormous monocle, which obscures his eye, is dubbed “deliberate, deafening lack of transparency.” His dumb straw hat is labeled “dumb straw hat” (that is to say, his dumb straw hat has an arrow pointing to it, and said arrow contains a second, smaller dumb straw hat). His spotless linen suit is called “discrete financial transactions that leave no trace of blood or criminality in their wake, how marvelous it is to be obscenely rich,” while his Windsor knot is labeled “the chokehold of propriety, the moral suffocation of keeping up appearances, or rather, eliding appearances altogether as one dwells in the shadow world of the 1 percent,” which has got to be some kind of record for a political cartoon’s explanatory label’s word count.
Oh! And in the lower right-hand corner, we see countless hordes of victimized, impoverished people, suffering needlessly through no fault of their own, as is typical in cartoons like this one, insofar as they reflect the world we live in rather than the world we’d like to see.
And the strange thing is, although Panama Papers Jack was invisible to us only days earlier, his presence now isn’t a surprise. The long shadow he casts over fair play and human decency is dark enough to register as a shadow, but not so dark as to shock our sensibility. We always assumed there was a Panama Papers Jack, we say to ourselves knowingly. We are savvy readers of the press—we know that obscenely rich people will act with obscene self-interest. The only stunning thing about this whole affair is how few Americans seem implicated in it, at least for now.
By the way, I desperately wanted one of those Members Only jackets. All the coolest sixth-graders had them. But they were expensive, so my parents and I reached a sensible compromise: they bought me a knockoff version with the label “Private Club.” If there’s anything sadder than a knockoff brand using an obviously second-tier iteration of exclusivity-denoting semantics, it’s probably to be found in the world of upper-middle-class financial advisers and their slightly panicked clients, those who secretly wish they could afford to enjoy the company of our man with the bushy mustache.