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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. . . .

December 15th, 2010

Santa and the Problem of Public Safety

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Santa and the TSA.2010-12-14 at 9.29.53 PM

I remember as a child watching over and again the post-World War II movie Miracle on 34th St. (1947), a story about a man who looks rather like the elfish chap above and is institutionalized as insane when he declares himself to be Kris Kringle—the real Santa Claus.  Claiming to be Santa Claus, it seems, can be something of a threat to public safety, and it is only with the help of a lawyer who persuades the local post office to deliver thousands of children’s letters addressed to “Santa Claus” to his client that he is able to get the state to acknowledge his true identity and thus establish his sanity.  And the moral of the story was that sometimes it isn’t such a bad idea to believe in fantasies—or miracles—at least a little bit.

Of course, that was then and this is now.  The late 1940s were something of an age of anxiety, to be sure, but now we live in the so-called age of terror.  And today, not even an army of ACLU lawyers can save Santa  Claus from the indignities of being patted and probed by the woman in uniform wearing the rubber blue glove.  After all, in an age of terror anyone can be hiding a bomb inside his or her clothing: pilots, grandmothers, and even babies in blankets.  Why should Old St. Nick be any different?  And really, what is the loss of a “little” dignity—in some ways just another fantasy of public decorum—in the interest of maintaining national security and public safety?  Or so we are told.

My initial impulse upon seeing the photograph above was to smile at the incongruity of a fantasy figure being treated by the apparatus of a national security state as if he were real and wondering who the sane and the insane might be.  But then it struck me that there was nothing amusing here at all.  That indeed, what we are looking at is a very real and tragic sluice of contemporary life, a world in which even our most hopeful fantasies have been taken away and no one seems to notice … or maybe even care. Notice the man on the left who doesn’t appear to be paying any attention whatsoever—or for that matter to even see—what is going on before him.  Perhaps he is absorbed by the task of preparing himself for the blue glove, or maybe he just doesn’t want to get involved.  But in any case, he remains passive and compliant—rather like Santa himself—and that might be the most troubling point of all as it suggests that just maybe the terrorists have already won.

Credit:  AP Photo/The Repository, Scott Heckel

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