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Behind the Facade of Modernization

Let me be perfectly clear: this post is not a criticism of either China or India.  Their economic development, social services, and security measures are hardly perfect, but that is true of every society, not least the one that I know best.  The images below are distinctive, however, for at least two reasons: they belie the dominant narratives of modernization and the triumph of capitalism that now define coverage of those nations and many others as well, and they expose a truth about human mortality that is never likely to be carried in the parade of well-dressed shoppers, shiny new automobiles, and gleaming office buildings that otherwise define the Asian miracle and the Indian takeoff.


Welcome to the other China, the one where 150 million still live below the poverty line.  This photograph of an HIV patient could double as a template for modern poverty.  Aluminum and electricity are there, but dented and run in via an extension cord.  The daily calendar is there–symbol of the modern work day-but stuck on a wall where it looks like a hospital room number, a sign for a place where time only passes instead of being harnessed to measure productivity.  The walls themselves have seen a lot of time pass, as they are old, chipped structures from another era.

Time passes also as our gaze is drawn slowly into the recesses of the room, which becomes an image of stasis.  The man is not moving, may not have moved for awhile, may never move again.  The pathway goes past the stove, then the bag of rice, then to the man himself.  It is hard to imagine him getting up, measuring and cooking the rice, and walking out the door.  The low-grade disorder of the table and bed is just one notch above the almost complete inertia of the scene as a whole.  This is not an image of dynamic progress.  The future may be bright, but in this case it is not likely to arrive in time.

Corpse and cop-in-Srinagar

And here is certainly is too late.  One police officer accompanies another who was killed in a shootout with insurgents in Srinagar, India.  Some hint of the vibrant street life of the subcontinent is evident outside the van, but, again, this is an image about an interior space. Although ringed with windows, the van is almost a small, funereal world onto itself, a temporary tomb for one dead body and another in waiting.  And, again, the shabby seats seem to confirm the overall inertness of the place, as if nothing ever really changes there.

Others can see into the van, but the man seems to be staring blankly, as if lost to inward reflection.  He has reached out a hand as if to steady the corpse, but it may be a last gesture of connection taken to steady himself inside.  A gesture not evident in the first photo, but one that can be made by the spectator, were we to take the time to reflect on what is being revealed.

Political violence is the low-grade disorder affecting the Indian nation–and many more as well–and its alignment with stasis in this image is another sign of the persistence of violence within modernization.  Gandhi called poverty the greatest violence, and it, too, seems to persist all too easily within modern development.  Closer to home, all the marvels of the modern world will not save any one of us from death or from the isolation that can precede death.  Whatever the date, at the end of the day we all end up behind the facade of modernization.  As that is so, perhaps we might do more to reach out to those already there before us.

Photographs by Reuters and Altaf Qadri/Associated Press.

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Visual Traces of a Democratic Public Culture


The above photograph is nearly fifty years old and I doubt that very many people recognize it—or for that matter have ever seen it before it was recently included in a slide show at The Big Picture—or can identify the event that it depicts and marks.  I couldn’t. But it is nevertheless interesting for several reasons.  For one thing it is a reminder of how homogenous the press corp was as recently as the mid-1960s. The site for this image is the Treaty Room in the White House and so it is possible that Helen Thomas can be found somewhere in the vicinity, but she certainly isn’t in this photograph which is not only lily white, but masculine to the core.  For another thing, notice the flood lights that are illuminating the table and document being photographed, a reminder that image events and photo-ops have long been part of the political process.  But what is perhaps most interesting is that apart from the journalists, there are no obvious political agents of action here.  If we can assume that event marks the signing of a treaty, there is no direct evidence of who might have engineered or negotiated it and no evidence of who might take credit for it.  The painting of presidents looking down upon the scene would seem to suggest that whatever victory is to be claimed here inheres in the presidency as a democratic institution and not an individual president.  It is hard to imagine such a photograph being taken today.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the photographers are huddled around the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by then President Kennedy on October 7, 1963.  It was an incredibly important historical event given that concerns about above ground nuclear testing had been on the international public agenda since the middle of the Eisenhower administration in 1955. But no less important are contemporary efforts to manage nuclear arms through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a treaty that as recently as September 16, 2010 was endorsed by four republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as a number of Republican stalwarts of national security, including Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Schultz.  Even Patrick Buchanan notes that the Presidents he worked for—Nixon and Reagan—would have supported it.  As of this morning, however, it appears that only one Republican Senator—Richard Lugar of Indiana—supports the treaty, while congressional Republican leadership in general seems determined to deny any and all initiatives by the Obama administration, notwithstanding any value they might have for something like national security or the possibility of movement towards a nuclear free world. Of course it is possible that Republican senators such as Christopher Bond of Missouri have good reasons to be skeptical of the verification standards built into the New Start treaty, and one can only hope that he will reveal the “secret” information he claims to have that supports his worries. Or perhaps John Kyl of Arizona is correct to try to “negotiate” for additional support to the $84 billion dollars already dedicated to “nuclear modernization” in return for his support, though its not clear how much would be enough to meet his concerns.

What does seem clear is that once a treaty is signed—and it is virtually inevitable that some treaty will be signed–whether in the lame duck session of Congress or once Republicans take control of the House in the new year we are unlikely to see a photograph like the one above where the Treaty itself is perhaps more important than those who brought it into being.  And for future generations looking back on the politics of this time that too will offer interesting evidence of the state of our so-called democratic public culture

Photo Credit: Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Library


Out of the Mists: The Fire this Time

What if you were to ask yourself what happened while you were asleep?  A simple question, unless one doesn’t take it as a literal question–that is, regarding what happened during the night or while one was napping.  It’s a different question if it pertains to dogmatic slumbers, chronic indifference, or collective amnesia.  That kind of sleep can go on for a long, long time.  And, of course, it can occur while you otherwise are fully awake.  Awake, for example, but shrouded in myth.

Afghan laborers

This is a remarkable photograph, not least because it imparts such a sense of calm.  Three laborers in Afghanistan have become transposed into profound elements of Chinese culture: the misted mountains that are the backdrop for so many paintings of natural beauty, and the three sages of Confucian philosophy who exemplified the virtuous conduct required for social harmony.

Against the pacific backdrop of the ancient mountain softened by fog, the three figures strike unaffected poses of disciplined conversation.  One expounds, another offers a counterpoint, while the third listens reflectively.  Each is self-composed, seemingly capable of serenely walking the earth without care or imposition, and yet they are joined by the intent concentration evident in their gestures.  Whatever the whirl of events in the modern world, they seem to be safely ensconced in a time out of time where philosophical conversation and unhurried labor are all one needs to be content.

As it happens, the simple labor involved spreading dirt on an earthen barrier for a police station.  We don’t know what they were discussing, but they definitely are caught up in the war.  The photograph, which rightly reminds us that there is more to contemplate in Afghanistan than the war, also becomes a template for the mythic interpretation that I set out above.  Stated otherwise, the photographer may have captured how some would like to think of Afghanistan: as a timeless place, graveyard of empires, that will endure unchanged regardless of the current occupation, and that can be conveniently put out of mind, forgotten, left to itself.

Well, that’s one country.  And here’s another:

Afghan firemen

Not so calm.  This enormous fireball is erupting from an oil tanker that was lit up by an IED.  That kind of fire only comes from modern fuel, and so there is little question that this is a contemporary scene and that the war is front and center.  Instead of the laborers (now known as firefighters) dominating the picture, they are smallish figures set off to the side, obviously dwarfed by the enormous force of the flames.  The sense of time is hardly mythic, as it is clear that the fire will have a relatively predictable burnout, and that the hoses then will be rolled up, the crowd will disperse, and everyone will move on to whatever is going to happen next.

The firefighters appear skilled, properly equipped, and very much an extension of a modern system of command and control.  Look closely, however, and you will see something more: note how closely they stand to the flames, and how unhurried they appear–even calm.  They are exhibiting another kind of serenity: the confidence that comes from having done this job many times before.  And so they have: tankers are being detonated constantly in Afghanistan, and the firefighters and other first responders there are becoming all too experienced in managing disaster.

And so there is something timeless about the second photograph after all.  It’s a modern scene, but also a story of continuous repetition: of bombings that are occurring over and over and over again.  And don’t tell me that the incidence of explosions has decreased in this or that province, or that new headway is being made in the effort to win the hearts and minds of the people.  The fires are burning, and they will continue to burn.

What happened while you were sleeping?  Nothing much, just the war.

Photographs by Chris Hondros/Getty Image and Rahmat Gul/Associated Press.


Sight Gag: Erehwon Airlines


Credit: Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Press

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.

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The 2010 Election: Was Voting Enough?

It’s not easy to find a distinctive photograph on election day in the US.

election official's hands hold voting stickers

This certainly would seem to qualify, but it is one of three very similar images that I found in a few minutes of looking through the slide shows at several major papers.  Each of the three was close cropped to feature a hand or hands, voting stickers, and nothing else.  I think this is the best of the set, and the best image overall, but the bar was pretty low.  The ritual event seems to bring out the conventional in all of us: red, white, and blue clothing, lines of people at the polling places, a few contrasts between the official paraphernalia and local culture, early morning voters or rows of candidates’ signs, representative examples of The Common People voting and finally of the suits themselves: candidates voting, winners raising their arms in victory, losers standing bravely before their tearful supporters.

And what would you expect?  it is precisely the ritualized character of the event that is so important: democracies may have bitterly contested electoral campaigns, but the transfer of power is supposed to be peaceful, orderly, routine, and–although in one sense momentous–entirely unsurprising.  This is not to be a drama of succession among the nobility, not a story of cabals, intrigue, and violence, no tense transition from one ethnic group to another.  The public art in this case reflects the polity’s lack of recourse to anything but its most ordinary version of itself.  The aesthetic dullness is a sign of democracy’s strength.

Even so, the images may be doing more than reporting the conventional features of election day.  The photograph above, for example, seems to be a poignant celebration of the root belief that democracy is the government of all the people.  The rough-hewn hands and skin color channel a great deal of American history, not least the 14th Amendment, while their pose is almost religious, as if praying or holding a communion vessel.  Or, if they are the hands of a working man, the stickers could almost be seen as food, perhaps that given out at breadlines in the depression of the 1930s.  (I mention the date as we now have to be a bit more specific than was necessary a few years ago.)  Thus, the image beautifully celebrates democracy itself, as if the vote is both substance and sacrament of the common life.

That’s the good news.  I think we also need to consider how the image may be inadvertently pathetic.  This image of citizenship shows us a truncated citizen, just as it has reduced civic participation to the sheer act of voting.  What’s wrong with that?  On a day that celebrates civic unity after the divisiveness of the campaign, nothing.  As a symbol of what the country really needs, however, it’s not enough.  This country needs not only elections but good decisions, and not only winners but leaders, and not only control of the House or the Senate but also consensus on behalf of serious policies to address real problems.

To get that, much more is needed than merely voting.  If all that is asked of citizens is that they vote, their citizenship can be reduced to something like the sticker itself: a cheap display of temporary virtue that really doesn’t change anything.  If all that is asked of elected officials is that they mouth platitudes while consolidating power and obstructing effective government, you don’t even need to vote.  So, before you take that sticker next time, ask yourself, what are you doing, really, on election day?

Photograph by Luke Sharrett/New York Times.


When the Bank is Worse than the Weather

A recent New York Times story featured this photograph of a woman walking toward a yak herd in northern Afghanistan.  The photo was taken in August.

Afghan woman, August snow

She lives in the Wakhan Corridor, a region beyond the Hindu Kush mountain range that has been remote enough to usually escape the ravages of war.  It doesn’t seem hard to see why.  Sans oil or accessible mineral deposits, the combination of geography and climate should suffice to maintain relative isolation.  That was the point of the story and certainly of the photograph: some modernization is underway, but the people there are likely to continue to live largely as they have, that is, in pastoral cultures bound by the simple routines and set traditions that equip them to survive in a harsh natural environment.

The woman in the photograph exemplifies this portrait.  She is layered in the colorful clothing assumed to be the mark of ethnic authenticity, and if she looks apprehensive, it has more to do with the intrusion of the photographer than any hesitation regarding the challenges of separating her yak from the herd spread across the frozen landscape.  She trudges out into the cold dutifully, as she really has little choice: the yak has to be milked, and her family needs the milk, and what else is there to do anyway?  This is not her world from the inside, of course, but the image draws on a long history of travel photography carrying these assumptions.  The bottom line is that she may be doing well enough–look closely at her clothing, for example–but that few readers of the Times would want to change places with her.  Yak milk in a yurt on a frozen plateau is one thing, and a latte in an urban coffee shop is quite another.

Foreclosure victim

If those were the only two options, the world might be a pretty good place.  But there can be worse environments than those created by the weather.  The market economy, for example, particularly when people have to depend, not on their animals, but on predatory mortgage companies.  This woman was featured in another Times story on the same day.  She is standing before her house in Colorado.  This could be a picture of the American Dream: a single women can own her own house, complete with a terrific view of the Western sky.  You can sense that’s not the case, however, as her rueful expression is reinforced by the dark tonality of land and clouds.  The weather is warm enough that she can be sleeveless, but the scene nonetheless feels cold and ominous.

And rightly so: she is having to defend herself against foreclosure by Deutsche Bank, which, after a mortgage company changed her locks without cause and then encouraged her to skip a payment while restitution was arranged, has moved to seize the house on grounds of non-payment.  Having done nothing wrong, she now is having to incur legal fees just to hold on to the home and the equity that was rightfully hers.  And I’ll bet that her sense of security and social trust is not doing so well, either.   Maybe having your own yurt wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Photographs by Gilles Sabrie and Kevin Moloney for The New York Times.


Sight Gag: Late Modern Halloween


Credit: G. Campbell

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.