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SIght Gag: Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em …*

* Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run!

Credit: Bennett

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Peter Turnley, “La Condition Humaine”

Chelyabinsk, Russia, 1991

Marines in basic training taking part in an exercise known as the “Crucible.” Camp Pendelton, Oceanside California, 2002.

La Semana Santa. Seville, Spain, 2010

War in Iraq, near Basra, 2003.

“La Condition Humaine,” an exhibition of sixty photographs by Peter Turnley, has opened at the Galerie Agathe Gaillard in Paris.  The show provides a retrospective on Turnley’s work over several decades.  If you can’t get to Paris, you can see some of the work at websites that also offer an interview or commentary on the show.

The exhibition closes on November 3, 2012.

Photographs courtesy of Peter Turnley.


Free Market Football

It’s not a particularly good photograph, but it’s spot on as a metaphor for Republican ideology.

The caption could read, “Scab referees blow the biggest call of the Seattle-Green Bay game.”  One of these replacement workers is signalling a touchdown, as if the Seattle Seahawk receiver had caught the ball, while the other one is signaling a touchback, as if the Green Bay Packer defender had caught the ball, which he did.  Earlier in the play, the receiver had committed offensive interference, which was not called.  I probably don’t need to mention that this was the final play of the game and that it decided the outcome.

The reason competent referees are on the field is that the NFL owners have locked them out.  Anyone can do their job, right?  Well, no, not even close.  The lack of competence and the corresponding deterioration of the game has been evident from the start, and it has gotten worse, not better, as the weeks have gone by and the stakes have gotten higher.  Monday night’s incident may break the stalemate, as now Everyone is incensed and saying so.  I hope the pros are let back onto the field, but once that happens a teachable moment will be over.

What the referee lockout demonstrates is nothing less than the stupidity of excessive deregulation.  Referees are regulators, after all: nothing more and nothing less.  And their work is very important: if the players (and coaches, are you listening New Orleans?) don’t follow the rules, you don’t have a more aggressive or competitive or entrepreneurial game–you don’t have a game at all.  More to the point, those who are watching the game–people like spectators and investors–lose confidence in it and go elsewhere.

So, the refs need to be there, and they need to be competent and have sufficient enforcement power and have adequate resources such as good salaries and pensions so that they can work effectively and without corruption.  When they work well, you largely don’t see them, although someone is always a bit aggrieved because they got caught, and everyone can prosper.  When they don’t work well, just about everybody loses.

Business culture loves to compare business to sports.  The CEO is the quarterback, we’re all on the team, discipline and hard work and uniforms are expected, . . . you know the score.  But the comparison disappears the minute government regulation comes up.  Then we are to pretend that no rules are necessary, that any regulators should be underfunded lest they become tyrants, and that rules benefit only the weak and not the strong.  Tell that to the Packer who actually caught the ball.

As a friend likes to remark, we need fair markets, not free markets, because there is no such thing as a free market.  The choice is between fair markets and unfair markets, good referees or putzes.  Only then is the better athlete likely to win, and only then can other people trust the game.

Which brings us back to the photograph.  It might seem to be a bad photo, and certainly so by the standards of sports photography.  The focus isn’t on the players, who are clumped awkwardly after the play has ended.  The refs call for attention, but because one is looking at the other whose face is obscured, the focus is diffused there as well.  And then there is everything and everyone else: the background is packed with other figures, tiered masses of spectators, stadium decor and signage, and even a stray hand waving in the upper left.  Contrast this with the daily output of high definition, close-cropped, freeze-framed dramatic clashes and balletic action shots, and there’s no contest.

Nonetheless, it’s a good photograph. As we’ve noted elsewhere, photographing economic realities may require giving up other aesthetic conventions to get inside banal, ordinary, everyday experience.  That’s where the work is, and that’s where the damage is done when the Lords of Finance and their ideologues rig the game.  By capturing how the decisive competitive moment actually depends on competent application of a set of rules, and how not just the few players but the general welfare benefits from fairness, the photograph provides a lesson in how a modern society should be governed if it is to have sustainable prosperity.

And so maybe life is like sports.  If you want to enjoy the game, there have to be rules and people paid to enforce them.  If you’re not adult enough to understand that, fine, take your ball and go home.  But don’t spoil it for the rest of us.

Photograph by Joshua Trujillo/, via Associated Press.  You can read more about the incident here.

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The Ritualistic Means of Politics

“War,” say the realists, is the “continuation of politics by other means.”  But of course war—whether symbolic or actual, whether fought with bullets or with words—is also arguably the last resort of the incompetent; a means of managing power when all other manner of negotiations have been frustrated and exhausted.  War, of course, inevitably leaves carnage in its wake, whether it is fought on a literal battlefield or in a legislative chamber.  And so rather than to concede the purportedly “essential truth” of the realist mantra and all that it portends we should perhaps consider the possibility that the political process operates best when it dances to a different drummer.

“Dance” is not an idle metaphor here, for it calls attention to the artistic and ritualistic quality of politics.  Politicians, after all, are courtiers, and whether they are courting votes from their constituencies or courting an opposition with which they must co-exit, they are engaged in an important ritual of cooperation.  I submit that this is important in almost any political system, but that it is especially so in a democratic polity where the very legitimacy of the process relies on the mutual commitment of any opposition to a common cause that supersedes any particular outcome.  Rituals of cooperation that underscore civic friendship, whether feigned or not, prefigure the grounds on which the dance of political compromise might precede.

And so we come to the photograph above which appeared in numerous publications this past week, both in print and on-line.  Representatives John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the Majority and Minority leaders of the House of Representatives respectively, ritualistically cooperate in the building of the platform on which the winner of the November election will be inaugurated in the new year.  Of course, it is perhaps one of the few places at which they have cooperated at anything over the past four years, and so one might read the image as cynical political theater. We should not ignore that possibility too quickly, and truth to tell the photograph was cropped in some publications so as to focus tightly on Boehner and Pelosi and the somewhat surprised look on her face in a manner that cast the scene as one of awkward discomfiture. But rituals need to be seen against a broader horizon of activity and interaction, situated in a context that locates the performance in a symbolic history of repetition that underscores their longevity and normative significance.

That is why I like this image shot from below and with a wider angle that takes in an emblematic representation of the presidential seal, a reminder that the inauguration platform–which here, and importantly, is a work in progress–is the physical site of a formal ritual that presumes to stand above party in the name of a united “people. ” The photograph also features the smiling and interested Senator Lamar Alexander as he observes the ritual, and he appears to do so approvingly.  Senator Alexander is not only from a different legislative body, but more to the point, he is one of the more bi-partisan members of the U.S. Congress.  A member of the Republican party, and one time candidate for his party’s nomination to the presidency, he nevertheless breaks ranks when conscience and good sense tell him that it is the prudent thing to do.  Of course, such bi-partisanship is hard to find in Washington these days, but perhaps the simple staging of this event for the photographer’s lens—itself a political ritual—is a small sign that even those who have failed to cooperate in recent times recognize the need to keep the longer, historical possibility alive.

Photo Credit: Like Sharrett/NYT


Sight Gag: The Smirk Seen ‘Round the World

Credit: Thomas Dolina

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Lying: The Essential Republican Strategy

No matter how wealthy, no matter how handsome, any American presidential candidate is still out there on a smile and a shoeshine.

He has to be a pitchman, a crowd-pleaser, the guy who can sell snowballs at the North Pole.  Anyone with any experience in electoral campaigns knows that, and we all ought to cut the candidates some slack when it comes to stretching the truth or getting tripped up by an open mic.  Even so, whatever the concessions made to wrapping oneself in the flag and playing the role of Someone for Everyone, there are limits.  At some point, you are supposed to be talking about real problems and workable policies, and you are supposed to be making sense, not talking nonsense.

And eventually there is a tipping point.  It seems that point was crossed this week by the Romney/Ryan campaign, and what had been a long series of increasingly implausible or disturbing or offensive campaign statements has become a cascade of distortions, false insinuations, and outright lies.  The latest news in this regard–but soon to be outdated, I’m sure–is that the claims of massive campaign donations far in excess of Obama’s were, well, just a tad inflated: OK, actually five times greater than what Romney could actually use on his own race, with the rest committed to other Republican campaigns.

And I’m shocked, shocked to hear this.  Just as the Bush administration was not going to be fettered by the “reality-based community,” the Romney/Ryan campaign, in the immortal words of their chief pollster, Neil Newhouse, is not going to “be dictated by fact-checkers“?  Google “Romney lies” or “Ryan lies” or “Tea Party lies” and you’ll see that there is a cottage industry developing just to keep track of the deceit.

At some point, however, you have to ask: why are these guys lying so much? The short answer is always the same: because they have to pander to the far right, Tea Party, Young Guns, Jacobin core of the contemporary Republican Party.  Those are the people who controlled the nomination and are the activist base for the election, and they seem to thrive on delusion.  OK, fair enough, but the general election is all about the swing voters in swing states, and by definition they don’t qualify as right-wingers.  So, why do Romney and Ryan have to lie so much?

The answer is simple: they are caught in the contradiction of running for office in a democracy, but in order to govern on behalf of the wealthy.  They need mass support to get elected, but their policies benefit only the few and the very few.  Those policies involve the abandonment of public institutions and infrastructure, and destruction of the ideals and the social contract that have been the basis of America’s promise and its prosperity, and only to continue the massive transfer of wealth upward that began in the Reagan administration.  They would make most Americans poorer and social mobility ever more difficult, so that those who have the most could get most of the rest.

And who would vote for that?  As a result, the campaign for a feudal America has to lie.  You might say we need a new word in the language: a word for policies so far removed from reality or decency that they cannot be advocated without lying.

We don’t really need a label, however, but rather better, more centrist Republican policy proposals–the kind that don’t have to depend on deceit–and a similar return to more sensible public discourse.  Indeed, I remain open to the idea that Republican candidates can tell the truth.  And if they want to prove the point, they can start any time.  If that means that they have to adjust their promises, alter their policies, return to bipartisanship, and make a good faith effort to help the American people thrive in difficult times, so much the better.

Photograph of Romney on the stump in Omaha, Nebraska, May 10, by Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Bonus link: Don’t miss “A Conservative History of the United States” at The New Yorker.


Someone New is Working the Edges of a Post-Racial Society

Now that the Chicago teachers strike has been resolved, the Monday morning quarterbacking can begin.  One question of likely interest to readers of this blog is whether the Chicago Tribune should have refused to publish this ad:

The interesting thing here is that the Tribune did refuse to publish the ad.  Given that the paper has not exactly been known to be either a supporter of unions or a bastion of unbiased journalism, or in such sound financial shape that they can kiss off full page ads, they must have believed that something important was at stake.  Supporters of the ad say that the reason given was the ad’s “‘racial overtones,'” but that “‘the message of the ad has nothing to do with race.'”

And it is even more interesting to consider that they may both be right.  It seems that both sides agree that the photograph of The Stand at the Schoolhouse Door was all about race.  Alabama Governor George Wallace may not have liked unions either, but he was standing to stop racial integration–first, last, and always.  But a photo of injustice and intransigence in one domain such as race relations certainly could be appropriate to use in another domain–for example, progressives would not be likely object to the image being used to oppose gender discrimination.  And enough change has occurred socially and demographically that one can imagine that a group once oppressed now could themselves be part of an organization that is blocking reform.

Indeed, some progressives have argued unions are obstructing progress. Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer set out this conundrum in two sentences: “Unions are a crucially important part of our economy and society.  Unions have become overly protectionist and are in need of enormous amounts of reform” (The Gardens of Democracy, p. 7).  So, one could conceivably use a racially charged photograph with a post-racial intention.  And one might believe that the message of the ad had nothing to do about race, because “message” would mean what those making the ad intended to say.

But as we all learn, it is easy to say more than one intends, not least because the meaning of what is said (and shown) also depends on how it is interpreted.  It could well be that the Chicago Tribune was connected closely enough to its readership and its community to believe, perhaps correctly, that this photo from the civil rights era could be incendiary or at least distort and damage the negotiations and public discussion by making race more of a factor than was right.  More to the point, some might have felt that its use was a slap in the face for African-Americans: indeed, how could the ad not be insulting when it equated union negotiations over working conditions with white resistance on behalf of a society that was profoundly unjust, inhumane, vicious, and destructive, and suggested that poor schooling was not the legacy of racism and poverty but rather the work of a multiracial union.

To which the reply would be, again: “But that’s not what we meant.”  And it might not have been; if you look at the other ads put out by The Center for Union Facts, they do not look like a Tea Party organization.  I mention the Tea Party for good reason, as it has provided many–way too many–examples of people making patently racist jokes, drawings, Photoshopped photographs, and other vile statements about Barack Obama and then claiming that they were not being racist.  And maybe they really did believe that about themselves: to lack that much sensitivity requires staggering deficits in both knowledge and empathy, but ya know. . . .

But I digress.  Some scholars of rhetoric argue that persuasion, and particularly the ethical dimension of persuasion, comes down to our assessment of the speaker’s character.  (See, for example, For the Sake of Argument, by Eugene Garver.)  Thus, once you get enough evidence of a person’s character, you can start making judgments about whether to trust what they say, and what they say about what they say.  Some of that evidence is provided in the saying, but sometimes you simply can’t tell.  In the case before us, one photograph intentionally taken out of its original context may not provide enough evidence to judge.  Or once again, where you stand may depend on where you sit.

In any case, we might want to avoid becoming too wrapped up in one photograph and one ad.  On the one hand, it is but one example of many, many cases of how people–particularly conservatives, but some progressives as well–are working the edges of the idea that the old identitarian politics no longer apply since Obama has moved beyond them.  On the other hand, there are many photographs that suggest that something beautiful already has happened: that a multiracial society really is emerging in the US.  If that is so, it doesn’t resolve the controversy about the ad, or about how to best improve urban schools.  It is interesting, however, that to see that change you need look no farther than the Chicago Tribune slide show on the teachers strike.


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The Real War

If you grew up south of the Mason Dixon line you probably know it as the Battle of Sharpsburg, but of course the Union won the war and so its official name bears the northern nominative: the Battle of Antietam.  In either case, today is the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history—then or since—with more than 23,000 casualties in a twelve hour period, including at least 3,500 deaths.  To gain some sense of the magnitude keep in mind that this is almost a third again as many people who died in the 9/11 attacks, but the U.S. population in 1862 was approximately 31 million people, while according to the 2000 census the U.S. population was 281 million strong.   Nearly 4,000 reenactors showed up this weekend to restage the battle—the second of two such events in a two week period—as well as 2,000 spectators per day over a three day period.

Reenactors are typically known for their commitment to authenticity, right down to the socks they wear, the number of buttons on their uniforms, the instruments and music they play, the food they eat and the ways they prepare it, the tobacco they smoke and chew, and so on.  Indeed, their encampments are a living museum and there is plenty to be learned by attending such festive events.  But what we can’t learn, of course, is what it is like to be at war.  It is an old bromide that war is unrepresentable, an experience that defies our ability to communicate it to those who have not experienced it in anything but the most trivial of ways.  There are those who do the fighting and those who view wars at a distance, a dialectic that has become all the more pronounced in late modern times, and as the photograph above underscores, the boundary between soldier and spectator is discrete and discernible, perhaps one more way in which such reenactments (inadvertently?) reinforce their commitment to authenticity.

But the larger point is that however accurate such events might be in some regard, they ultimately reduce to an instance of play acting.  The sheer boredom and tedium of waiting for battle is erased by a carefully prescribed schedule of events.  Supply shortages are not an issue. There is no disease and dysentery. No bones are crushed, no limbs are blown apart, no bodies are invaded by musket balls.  No one stays around the week after such events to recover and bury the rotting corpses left behind. In short, the real war experience is nowhere to be found.  And it is little wonder how such events—cast as a family outing—contribute to a romantic understanding of war and the warrior.

Such was a prevailing attitude prior to 1862 as well, before the viewing public was introduced to an exhibit at Mathew Brady’s New York City gallery titled “The Dead of Antietam.”  The photographs (actually shot by Alexander Gardner who did not receive credit at the time), many of them employing the new stereographic technique that produced something of a three dimensional quality, led the NYT to report that Brady’s exhibit “bring[s] home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.  If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”  For the first time the American public qua public was confronted with a reality of war that could not be captured by the report of daily body counts or the public readings of lists of the names of the war dead.

The realist aesthetic of Gardner’s photographs, seventy in all, gave the lie to—or at least seriously challenged—the romance of war and were eventually important resources for Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

It would be a tragic mistake simply to turn tables and assume that somehow these photographs tell the “real” story of the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg all by themselves.  But it would be equally tragic to assume that we could understand the battle without the “terrible reality and earnestness of war” they put on display.

Photo Credit:  Ric Dugan/Herald-Mail; Alexander Gardner


Sight Gag: The American Caesar

Credit: Mario Piperni

 Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.


Watching Men About to Die in Aleppo

We typically forget that photography–and life itself–happens faster than the blink of an eye.  And death, too.

The camera caught these Syrian rebels at the instant that they were bathed in fire from a tank blast.  The moment is uncanny: they stand exactly as they were a a split second before, and yet the fire and shock wave is already unleashed upon them.  Before, they had been picking up their weapons in anticipation of the tank that had been reported coming into the vicinity.  Now, they are caught in the fraction of a fraction of a second before being killed.  It’s as if the camera has isolated the invisible crack in time between cause and effect.  And between life and death.

The men caught in the light died from the blast, while the one darkened to a silhouette escaped with minor injuries (if we don’t count the psychological damage).  The camera uses both light and darkness, but there as elsewhere we depend most upon the light.  Yet here the flames both reveal and kill, while the dark clouds of dust and debris in the next image obscure the rest of the dying while sparing the lone survivor.  (The sequence of still images and a video are  here.)  As with war more generally, things are inside out or backwards, defying our ordinary sense of moral order.  Being in the right and dedicated and prepared didn’t help one bit, and men who seem to be living in the fire without harm are about to die.

I won’t pretend to account for all of this incredible photograph, much less the remarkable sequence of images that comprise the visual story.  Discussion is already underway–for example, at Michael Shaw’s prompting at BAGnewsNotes–and there are a number of issues in play.  For the record, I don’t think there need be any moral failing in showing or marveling at or being moved by the image.  The men and the moment are treated with respect, nothing disturbing beyond the inescapable fact of their being killed is shown, and that fact is so salient that there is little room to aestheticize the violence.  In any case, one set of moral qualms can displace other resources for understanding and judgment.

To that end, let me make two quick points.  The first is simply that the image is a perfect example of what Barbie Zelizer has identified as the genre of the About-to-Die photograph.  I won’t summarize her extensive analysis of the genre, which you can read for yourself in her excellent book, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. Suffice it to say, however, that there have been many images that confront the public with this unique moment, and that they can offer the spectator an opportunity to reflect on the event itself, and on how it is or is not tied to the narratives and other interpretive contexts that surround it, and how our knowledge and reactions depend on the camera and the larger apparatus of the news, whether for good or ill.

One can ask these questions any time, of course, but some moments seem more fraught with significance than others.  One reason the about-to-die photo matters is that it reveals how any moment can be incredibly significant regardless of how it fits into a larger narrative, geopolitical conflict, or moral order.  There is no other moment left for those in the photograph above, and by ignoring it one would demean life itself.

My second point is that the image above has both literal and metaphorical value, not least because of how it exposes a moment of unexpected rupture.  I’m writing in the immediate aftermath of the attack on American consulate in Libya, and so it is easy to think of a flash point, and of the world changing in an instant, and of specific individuals going from life to death senselessly.  With each of the four Americans who were killed at the consulate, there will have been a moment and then another and another where things went from bad to worse, until each got to the last, thin crack in time.  With each attack, wherever it occurs, nations around the globe pass through a moment when hidden causes explode violently, and the idea that we can live within the flames is exposed as sheer illusion.

Photograph by Tracey Shelton/Global Post.