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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

October 22nd, 2007

Performing Humility

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

condihumility.png

[Note: Michael Shaw wrote about this photograph at BAGnewsNotes over the weekend. We too have been thinking about the image since it first appeared late last week and offer our allegorical reading of it as a complement to Michael’s analysis.]

Virtues are dispositions to action that guide moral and intellectual choices. In the political world they are attitudes that mark one’s character, and their performance becomes a public sign of trustworthiness or duplicity. Writing from a Christian perspective in the 4th Century CE, St. Augustine, one of the early Church Fathers and a source of just war theory, noted that “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” I was reminded of this passage when I saw this photograph of Condoleezza Rice this past week in the Washington Post. She is entering the Church of the Nativity through the “Door of Humility” while visiting Bethlehem in an effort to prepare the way for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Door of Humility is the only entrance into the Church. It was created in Ottoman times as a defensive barrier designed to keep marauding barbarians and looters from entering the basilica on horseback. But there should be little doubt of its additional symbolic significance as it requires anyone—kings, noblemen, beggars, thieves—to perform their humility by bending over as they enter the church, thus forcing even the most powerful among the secular world to acknowledge their human frailties by crouching in humble obeisance to the sacred.

The ironies in the image are just too rich to ignore. Rice’s visit to the Church of the Nativity was an obvious photo-op designed to promote American diplomacy as the (easy) solution to the deeply rooted cultural and religious differences that divide this part of the world. It may well be that a political resolution is the only way to solve this problem, but the notion that the U.S. can be a neutral arbiter in such negotiations is not only arrogant, but surely seen by all involved as a modern day fairy tale ineptly performed by contemporary marauders and looters—and no less surely doomed to failure.

This contrast between the fantasy of US virtue and the behavior of the administration is underscored by the photograph. Rice, the face of the U.S. in the Middle East, a woman who describes herself as “deeply religious” and who, upon leaving the Church, linked herself directly to the mission of the “Prince of Peace,” nevertheless needs the help of two handlers to shuttle her into and through the “Door of Humility.” And look at how much effort Rice is putting into balancing herself as she stoops to enter the church. Clearly this is not a familiar attitude for the Secretary of State.

One can hardly find a more emblematic representation of the Bush administration. They have touted their Christian piety and commitment to freedom and world peace, only to express disdain for world opinion while unleashing the dogs of war. We should not be surprised that they are utterly incapable of persuasively performing anything like pious humility. It is little wonder that few in this part of the world treat the altruism of American claims to peace and freedom as little more than “mere appearance.”

Photo Credit: David Furst/AP


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  1. on October 23rd, 2007 at 5:10 am

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