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Main Street, USA … or is it the New American Imaginary?

I am unable to identify a single iconic photograph that represents the naturalization process for those immigrating to the United States, but it is of course not uncommon to find pictures of immigrants being sworn in as citizens at places like Ellis Island, Independence Hall, Monticello, and at court houses across the country in cities large, medium, and small.

And it all makes a great deal of sense, for while no single photo of this process of becoming a citizen may be iconic in itself (i.e., in the way, say, in which Lange’s “Migrant Mother” singularly marks the Great Depression or Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss” singularly marks the end of World War II and the so-call “return to normalcy”), each such image nonetheless locates the ceremony in physical places that are in their own rights icons of the American imaginary. The ceremony of becoming a citizen is thus linked in such photographs directly to a foundational part of the nation’s coming to be — whether historically or at the present moment.

The on-line version of the July 5, 2007 New York Times offered a new twist on all of this, as it reported on a recent surge in applications for citizenship, accompanied by a picture of some 1,000 new citizens celebrating their naturalized status on Disneyland’s “Main Street” after having been sworn in beneath Cinderella’s Castle:

Disneyland Citizens

Being sworn in at Independence Hall or Ellis Island or at some other physical place marker of national legitmacy clearly operates in a somewhat romanticized narrative of American citizenship, and so we should be careful about being too critical here. But surely such places are more real, or at least have more of a connection to who and what we are (or want to be) as a people than the pure fantasy of Cinderella’s castle? Or Disney’s version of “Main Street”? Or maybe not.

In any case, the absurdity of the situation must have quickly registered at the Times, because the picture was shortly removed and replaced by a different photograph. The new image, a cropped version of which was actually part of the original on-line story and the full version which was featured above the fold on the front page of the newspaper (see below), shows a close-up of a group of immigrants in the process of being sworn in as citizens:

NYT.Disney 2

What is notable about this newer photograph is not only that the physical place has been visually obscured (even the caption relocates the event, emphasizing that the ceremony took place “near” Cinderella’s Castle, not “at it” as in the original), but nearly all sense of individual difference has been muted or removed, as the new citizens appear more or less “uniform,” wearing identical rain ponchos (the one clear exception, of course, is the poncho bearing an image of Mickey Mouse). And I don’t choose the word “uniform” here randomly, for on the front page of the Times this image is paired with and placed beneath an image (that was also part of the original and now no longer available on-line story) of U.S. Marines being sworn in as citizens … and where else, but in Baghdad!

New York Times, Front Page

It is hard to know what is going on here. I would be inclined to say that the original on-line story was a parody, something like what we might find at The Onion: “Citizenship Available for an ‘E Ticket Ride’ at Disneyland!” But the NYT is, after all, “the paper of record,” and we would not expect to find satire of this sort here. And of course the front page story seems to play it straight, even though the visual identification between Disneyland and Baghdad could be read in a subtle but cynical register. But then why does the original image of Main Street, Disneyland disappear from the on-line version? The American imaginary is always something of a fiction, to be sure, but here it seems to have transformed into pure fantasy. And one, it would seem, we are all too willing to buy! Perhaps that’s the point. Or maybe not.

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Main Street, USA … or is it the New American Imaginary?

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