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On Not Seeing the Homeless

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Homelessness in the United States persists. Estimates vary, but by most conservative accounts 3.5 million people experience homeless each year. That said, it is only a mere 1% of the population. And the number has actually declined a small bit in the past few years. No problem, right?

But consider this: 35% are families with children, 25% are under the age of 18, 23% are military veterans, 30% have been the victims of domestic violence, and, no surprise here, 25% suffer from some form of mental illness. The problem is significant, in other words, and many of the most vulnerable are in little position to do anything to help themselves. And so the socially conscious continue to pursue awareness campaigns.

The photograph above is from Cape Cod, MA, where 27 high school students “slept in cardboard boxes and took turns playing in a 10-hour continuous soccer game throughout the night.” The effort is well-intentioned and even honorable, but the question is: what do we see? Or perhaps, more to the point, what are we being shown? Not the homeless—or their condition—that’s for sure.

There is something of an irony here. At its heart, a huge part of the problem with homelessness is that it is a human condition that we are conditioned not to see; indeed, it is a social phenomenon that we actively turn our head away from: as children we are told not to stare and as adults we look through the homeless on our streets as if they were altogether invisible. And so, of course, the need for awareness. But there’s the rub: As much as we seem to try to animate awareness we do it by turning attention away from the thing itself and to those who no doubt feel righteous in their service to a larger cause. And as with this photograph we complicate the problem further by substituting faux homelessness for the real thing.

Look closely at the photograph. Those sleeping “in cardboard boxes” is a bit of a misnomer. They look more like children who have constructed a play fort in their living room or basement more than anything approximating a homeless person consigned to sleeping in a tattered and used cardboard box. They all look well fed. While they are surrounded by a wall of cardboard they are actually sleeping in what look to be clean and warm sleeping bags with more pillows than they know what to do with; comfortable and content, they rest with their faces fully exposed to the world as if without a care in the world. And why not. After all, they are not exposed to the elements. There is no rain or snow or cold to contend with and the bright lights of the gymnasium add an extra level of security that those sleeping in parks or alleys or under highway by-passes and bridges can rarely if ever rely upon. Those not sleeping are playing soccer, another sign that all is safe and secure. And, of course, when morning comes they will return to their homes—no longer homeless!—where breakfast and their own warm beds await.

So again, what are we being shown? The all too easy answer is the efforts of young people working to right a social wrong the best way that they know how. And the photograph certainly does that. But more than that it also shows how easy it is to sentimentalize a profound and complex social condition, to invoke the pathos necessary to action—and for that matter to access our very humanity—and at the same time to contain and direct such emotions away from the actual problem itself. Instead of seeing the homeless and the common problem that it poses for a liberal democratic society, once again we are encouraged to look elsewhere.

Credit: Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe Staff

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Going Gaga Over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

WP.Lady Gaga. 2010-09-21 at 4.54.10 PM

Notwithstanding the oratorical skills of Lady Gaga, the U.S. Senate voted today to block debate on a bill designed to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  It might be easy to lay the blame on the forty Republican Senators, bolstered by two renegade Democrats (plus the majority leader whose vote was a procedural ploy that allows him to reprise the bill at a later date), who voted against letting the bill come to the floor for debate, but that would be to ignore any number of complicating issues, such as efforts by the Democratic majority to add contentious amendments to the bill concerning immigration policy.  All of which is to say that its not exactly clear what specific interests were being served here on either side of the aisle.

One might imagine this as standard operating procedure for a legislative body that seems intent on letting partisan political self-interest stand in the way of national interest, and hardly worthy of note but for the presence of Lady Gaga.  What is interesting here is how the national media has given significant attention to her ersatz protest rally without fully recognizing the way in which her transparently self-conscious spectacle is not just an appeal for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but is also (and maybe more) a parody of the mass mediated political process itself.  To get the point, notice how many if not most of the reports on her rally are primarily if not exclusively photographic, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of what she actually had to say. The irony, of course, is that a quasi-faux rally cast as political spectacle received far more coverage than the presumably unintentional spectacle of actual Senators deciding the fate of the military.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of the Lady Gaga rally occurred in the pictures of the day slide show at the Washington Post.   Despite the possible significance of the Senate filibuster on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the pictures of the day at WAPO feature a photographer at a photo fair in France trying on a pair of 3-D glasses, a child in Slovenia sitting next to his friends on a curb and with a bucket on his head, and Bristol Palin displaying her legs in a PR shot for the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”  There are no pictures regarding the debate over gays in the military.  Or at least not at first glance.  But as one moves through the thirty seven images in the slide show one eventually comes across the above photo of Lady Gaga, public advocate, characterized as “rail[ing] against what she call[s] the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service, while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.” The alternative she prefers, we are told, is to “target straight soldiers who are ‘uncomfortable’ with gay soldiers in their midst.” That the caption fails to acknowledge either the irony or the parody of Lady Gaga’s performance is underscored by the two photographs that follow.

The first of these photographs shows a “former” member of the Air Force taking a picture of the rally.

Standing Agsint the Flag for Lady Gaga 2010-09-21 at 11.07.37 PM

Perhaps he is one of those “good hearted gay soldiers,” but nothing in the photograph suggests as much.  Indeed the photograph suggests incoherence as much as anything. Shot in long distance we see only his face and hands as they peek up from behind a poster to take a picture for Twitter of the anonymous and faceless audience waving hands.  The background shows a large American flag, but its meaning is made ambiguous by the somewhat incomprehensible legend on the poster that implores the audience to “Leave them Speechless.”  Lacking any reference to context, the overall effect of the photograph is one of clutter and confusion. And as a result, the political and parodic effects of the rally are muted, or worse, made to appear senseless.

It is the second photograph, however, that by contrast politicizes the slideshow, suggesting an antidote to the apparently incoherent spectacle of Lady Gaga’s rally.

Leaving for Iraq2010-09-21 at 7.12.21 PM

Here we have a member of the Army National Guard preparing to leave for a training assignment in Texas and a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Shot in medium close-up, a soldier (not a “former soldier”) and his wife say goodbye.  It is a tender moment.  The two lovers gaze into each others eyes as he offers solace by placing his left hand on top of her right wrist, while her right hand gently supports her chin in a gesture that suggests a degree of vulnerability.  It is hard to tell if she is smiling or crying, and probably she is doing a little of both given the stresses and strains of the impending separation.  He is apparently “straight,” but it is hard to imagine him harboring “hatred” towards anyone, let alone why he should be “targeted.  Indeed, though this is a scene of separation and not reunion, and while he is not a sailor nor she a nurse, one can nevertheless imagine them embracing in Time Square to the nodding approval of the public that views them.

And therein lies the problem. For what gives this photograph its affective power is the way in which it visually repeats the conventions of the famous Times Square Kiss. It not only foregrounds traditional, heteronormative assumptions, but it does so by valorizing a private moment in a public space.    Of course there is nothing especially new here.  We have long sought to manage our anxieties about war and the military by normalizing our understandings in the context of a sentimentalized heteronormativity.  To get the full effect, imagine two men or two women in the same pose.  And, that, of course, is the point.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Sentimentality, it seems, trumps parody … or at least in this case.  But in truth, both scenes are media spectacles that demand more careful attention than the tired and nonchalant glance they are too often given by contemporary media.

Photo Credits: Joel Page/Reuters, Pat Wellenbach/AP, Joe Jaszewski/AP

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes

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