May 19, 2013
Feb 01, 2010
May 21, 2017
Mar 04, 2015
Nov 18, 2009
Jan 06, 2010

Memorial Day, 2010: They Too Serve

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

On Memorial Day we want to honor the memory of all who have given their lives to the nation.  In the photograph above the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance commemorates gay veterans at Congressional Cemetery.  Some day soon we hope that they can be honored in Arlington National Cemetery as well.

Photo Credit: Katherine Fray/Washington Post


Photographer's Showcase: A (Southern) Civil Rights Memorial

Till, Store

We are pleased to introduce NCN readers to Jessica Ingram‘s “A Civil Rights Memorial,” a photographic exploration of the ways in which important moments in the struggle for civil rights in the American south are remembered—or perhaps more to the point, the ways in which such events risk being  forgotten as they fade into the landscape of time or are otherwise awkwardly remembered as part of the local context in which they occurred.  The above photograph  is the contemporary, unmarked site of of the store in Money, Mississippi where in 1955  Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was accused of whistling at a white woman, an event that led to him being beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. To see the exhibit click here.

We first encountered Ingram’s work at the Visura Magazine Spotlight—a site designed to support emerging artists and students. It is a web resource that we strongly encourage NCN readers to visit.


A Second Look: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Fence


When I first wrote about this photograph two years ago I marveled at the utter insanity of thinking that we could actually establish a 700 hundred mile wall fence across an otherwise barren dessert that would secure the 2,000 mile border that separates the US from Mexico.  And, of course, I was right as there is no evidence that the wall fence has done anything to slow down illegal immigration (in fact there is some evidence to suggest that the number of people sneaking past the borders has increased), though there is strong evidence to suggest that it has resulted in “borderland frgmantation” leading to serious destruction of the border ecosystem.  Notwithstanding the continuing need for serious immigration reform, then, the idea that we can maintain an impermeable barrier to secure us from “undesirable” outsiders is a preposterous fiction that only the likes of Stephen King can really pull off.  And, of course, the above photograph underscores the futility of thinking that this can actually work.

I was reminded of this photograph earlier this evening when I read a report that President Obama has ordered 1,200 National Guardsmen to the borders in order to “provide support to law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official border crossings” and to “help analyze trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drug shipments.”  But for all that, “they will not make arrests … something they are not trained to do.” As with the photograph, the absurdity of the situation is pronounced, no matter which way we think of it.  If the troops are going to be used for interdiction, it makes no more sense to think that we can secure a 2,000 mile border with 1,200 troops (that’s one soldier for every 1.6 miles—and it assumes that each soldier is working 24/7/365) than that we can do it by building a wall fence.  And yet, if their primary purpose is not active interdiction, but to “help analyzing trafficking patterns,” one can only wonder why so many are needed on site to accomplish that task.

The bigger point to be made, however, is that we are not going to be effective in addressing the problem of our borders by resorting to simplistic and piecemeal military solutions.  I’m quite sure that President Obama knows and believes this, and were he to allow himself to be guided by the “better angels of his nature” he would move in a different direction towards more progressive immigration reform.  What is troubling is that he is doing it anyway, and for what are no doubt pragmatic political reasons that sadly (and ironically) belie an increasingly militaristic society.

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti/LA Times


After the Disaster: Why Not Get Back to Better?

The image below is a not very good photograph of a tar ball on the beach at Dauphin Island, Alabama.  Despite the many more dramatic shots of  the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this low-grade photo of a mundane object might be the better image of things to come.

tar ball Dauphin Island

Tar balls from this big spill will be washing up for years, but that’s only part of the story.  What I envision is that the beaches will be cleaned and booms strategically placed and signs put up for the kids–“playing with the tar balls may be hazardous to your health”–and generally the Gulf will get back to normal.  That is, to a new normal that is a somewhat degraded version of what was there before.  Boats will still launch for both commercial and sport fishing, although now they will be working more tightly zoned catch basins (or not, and risk the fines that will be part of loosely enforced regulations).  The oil companies will continue to place drilling platforms throughout the Gulf, although now with two blowout preventers instead of one.  The damage suits and insurance claims will keep a legion of white collar workers driving to work in cars having everything but good gas mileage, and life will go on.

This new normal is already evident in photos of vacationers and clean-up crews on the same beach.  What was the couple on the blanket supposed to do, cancel their plane reservations?  This continuity is hardly limited to the beach: New Orleans is still struggling to recover from the Katrina disaster, but, hey, the Saints won the Super Bowl, and so the city puts on a good face while quietly adjusting to a smaller population and neighborhoods still a long way from recovery.

One reason I fear for my country is that there seems to be so little commitment to replacing damaged infrastructure with state-of-the-art public works.  The stimulus money was largely used for patch jobs; that may be expected when you have to spend money quickly, but there was little talk of what might have been: a grand program of civic renewal.  So much of the US currently is just being maintained–and now vast swaths of the suburbs have to be added to that list as they, too, are aging.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal wasn’t used to return the country to 1928.   After World War II, the Marshall plan wasn’t used to recreate the Europe of 1939.   The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 didn’t merely repave existing roads but went on to create the Interstate Highway System.  In each case, the money was used to get back to better.  The same needs to be done in the US today.

The most obvious cases are in response to disasters such as the big oil spills, but that is only part of the challenge.  There also are the slow moving economic disasters that have been destroying the cities and towns in the industrial Midwest and elsewhere.  (Detroit wasn’t hit by a hurricane, but it’s in worse shape than New Orleans.)  The same holds even in relatively prosperous sections of the country: bridges, rail lines, subways, parks, pools, beaches, boulevards–there is so much in the US that could look a lot better.  Add to that the need for redesign and serious negotiation of complicated structural problems (say, such as supporting recreation, fishing, and extraction industries in the same ecosystem), and there is more than enough work to be done.

What is missing, however, is political will and a genuine commitment to the future.  Both deficits can be traced to the Republican hegemony since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  Reagan rebranded government as the problem while proclaiming that the marketplace would provide nothing but solutions, and now several generations have become habituated to the degraded environments that are the result of that ideology.

And so here we go again.  The usual response will be to clean up the worst of the mess and then make do with a bit less than you had before.  But why settle for that?  I’d like to think that the time is coming when, instead of getting back to not very good, the country can get back to better.

Photograph from The Huntington Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

 1 Comment

Sight Gag: Government Never Does Anything Right!


Credit:  Pat Bagley/Salt Lake Tribune

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Photographer's Showcase: Touching Strangers

“Bumping into strangers in the dark is a figure for democratic citizenship.”

— Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers, 2004


When crowded onto an elevator we strain to fix our attention straight ahead and to avoid touching one another; when we can’t avoid the touching we try to find ways to ignore that it is happening.  These are habits of civic life in late modern society.  Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” exhibit challenges these habits by asking us to reflect upon them within the broader citizenship of photography.  The premise of his project is simple: Renaldi stops strangers on the street – strangers both to him and to one another – and asks them if they will consent to being photographed together while touching one another.  His catalog of photographs helps us to see how “notions of trust, love, social conventions and taboos are expressed through body language” and thus implicate the stranger relationality fundamental to life in late modern democratic public culture.

Those in the New York area can view his exhibit at The Gallery at Hermes through May 28, 2010.  For the rest you can see a selection of the exhibit here.  An interview with Rinaldi is available at Conscientious Extended.


A Show of Hands

Hans Deryk

We tend to think of oil as having relatively low viscosity, largely because most of us encounter it once it has been refined and readied for consumption.  But here we see it as the sludge that it becomes after floating about in the gulf for several days – a gloppy, brown, glutinous mess that resembles nothing so much as tar.  Notice how it clings to the protective rubber gloves and when it drips off it does so in globs that will attach to anything solid – rocks, sand, reefs, water reeds, marine life … what have you.  And there are plenty of other pictures that make the point.

What I find most striking about this photograph, however, are the hands.  These hands belong to a Greenpeace marine biologist testing the waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, but of course we can’t tell any of that that from the picture itself.  Rather, what we can tell is that it will be impossible for any of us to keep our hands clean as we deal with the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

The image stands in stark contrast to another photograph that appeared this past week of the Presidents and chief spokesmen for BP American, Transocean Limited, and Haliburton.

Andrew Harrer

The smug expressions on their faces belie their efforts, against all credulity, to “deflect blame and responsibility for their respective companies.”  But notice their hands. Folded or resting on what is probably the transcript of their prepared statements, they suggest a uniformity of indifference, perhaps even a degree of nonchalance.  And note too that they are as clean as the white colors on their dress shirts.  The metaphor, of course, is rich and altogether ironic.  Or at least we can only hope so.  If the photograph at the top of the page is correct, the sludge from Deepwater Horizon will stick to everything it touches.  It would be a crime if Congress doesn’t make sure that these three all get their fair share of greasy hands.

Photo Credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters; Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Elena Kagan's Sexual Orientation Certificate

We might as well admit that American politics is insane.  Where else could selection for the nation’s highest court involve debate over a photograph of the nominee playing softball:

Elena Kagan playing softball

Really incriminating, isn’t it?  Do we really want a Justice who bats right?  But wait: if justices, in the immortal words of Chief Justice Roberts, are supposed to call the balls and strikes, then Elena Kagan’s experience at the plate might prove to be an important–dare we say empathic?–resource when on the federal bench.  Jokes aside, this snapshot is being used to raise the question of Kagan’s sexual orientation.  Softball + short hair = lesbian; didn’t you know that?

The use of this image is indicative of how easily photographs can be coded strategically.  Were it a photo of a male nominee, for example, it could be a sign of his being an ordinary guy who has not lost touch with the common life.  Were Kagan married, it might have been used to show that she is a team player.  And keep in mind that millions of American women have participated in pickup softball games, often as part of teams organized at the office or at church picnics; in short, it really shouldn’t mean much at all.  Instead, and thanks to the Wall Street Journal, the picture has become the excuse for public discussion of Kagan’s sexuality.  A topic, one might add, that has about as much relevance as baseball to the job description of a Supreme Court Justice.

What strikes me about the controversy, however, is how it is part of a larger pattern of denial.  Consider how Kagan’s having to declare her sexual preferences is similar to demanding proof of President Obama’s citizenship.  A gay justice is almost as unthinkable as a black president, and so the question lurks.  Is she?  And it gets repeated regardless of the answer she has provided.  And the discussion of whether she looks gay is about as intelligent as asking whether Hawaii is a state, but there it is.

Regardless of Barack Obama’s manifest qualifications for the presidency, his election continues to be traumatic for those who want to insist that the first citizen has to be white.  (Since they can’t deny he is black–although that was tried–they have to deny that he is a citizen.)  Likewise, the selection to the Supreme Court of someone who might be gay is part of the sea change in American life that will never make sense to those who believe that heterosexuality is a principle of American national identity.  And so, despite her superb qualifications for the job, Elena Kagan is being asked to supply her sexual orientation certificate.

The good news is that, whatever is the case regarding Kagan’s private life–or that of the Senators who will be questioning her–America already has changed for the better.  (For example, a majority would support a gay nominee.)  The attempt to out Kagan or discredit her or continue to keep others outside the charmed circle of citizenship is becoming another lost cause.  To appreciate what that means, I’d recommend another photograph of the nominee.

Elana Kagan high school picture

We don’t know her batting stance, but this is an image of youth at its best: bright, joyful, and full of promise, ambition, and hope.  Thus, it also is an image of the American Dream.

Photographs by the University of Chicago and Hunter High School/Associated Press.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

 1 Comment

Sight Gag: The Reagan Legacy

Stuart Carlson

Credit: Stuart Carlson/

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.