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May 06 2011

Incendiary image: Osama bin Laden's body

Obama's decision not to release the photograph of Bin Laden's body speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph

President Obama's decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden's corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.

Revealingly, Obama chose to frame his decision in both practical and moral terms. "It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool," he said. "You know, that's not who we are."

Others – most notably more hawkish Republicans and their supporters in the US media – argue that the images should be released precisely to show that this is "who we are": an America that wants the world to know in the most graphic terms what happens to those who attack their country. Photography, for better or worse, possesses this immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed forever.

History has shown that the intended message of such photographs can backfire. Back in 1967, when Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia by troops loyal to military General Barrientos (with the help of the CIA), his corpse was photographed to leave the world in no doubt of his identity. With his unkempt hair and beard, the dead Che resembled the dead Christ in a Renaissance painting. In his biography of the insurgent, Compañero, Jorge G Castañeda wrote: "The Christ-like image prevailed ... It's as if the dead Guevara looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering."

Could an image of Bin Laden's bloodied corpse send out the same message to his followers? Almost certainly, and we will no doubt see that power soon enough when the photographs leak out into the media, as they surely will – with or without Obama's sanctioning.

More problematic for Obama's moral reasoning is the fact that other graphic images of the aftermath of the attack on Bin Laden's compound have already been leaked, showing the bloodied corpses of unidentified men. Why is it acceptable to show these bodies but not that of their leader, a figurehead for global terrorism? Indeed, why show such graphic images at all?

In her recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, the American academic Susie Linfield argues that, in the internet age, we must regain our ability to distinguish between gratuitous images of violence and hardship – including "the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings and other forms of barbarism" – and more morally defensible images of war and conflict, however explicit.

"If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn't merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat," she writes. "We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be." One senses that Linfield would support Obama in his decision, especially at a time when many Americans are in no mood for painstaking and self-searching moral debates of this kind.

Interesting, too, is the group photograph of President Obama, Hilary Clinton and their retinue of advisers in the situation room watching Bin Laden die via a camera fixed to a soldier's helmet. It gives some indication of the horror of the moment, if only in Clinton's look of shock and disbelief as well as in the president's stern gaze. Why, though, was this image released? Perhaps because it shows no trace of celebration or gloating – "That's not who we are" – but instead a grim acknowledgment of the horror of what is happening in all its cruel radiance. It is a fascinating document, for what it doesn't show us as much as what it does. That is the often-overlooked power of great photography: to suggest rather than to shock.


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May 03 2011

The west goes wild as Obama and the Democrats ride again

With one cool shot, the US president brought down both Osama bin Laden and Republican claims to the mantle of western hero

Westerns have never been seen as Democrat movies. But this is based on a misunderstanding. The western genre of American film is generally thought of as morally crude, politically reactionary and so on, but in reality it was always more complex. From Fort Apache with its depiction of military folly to The Searchers, a dark tale of racism and otherness, the master of the western film, John Ford, always explored ambiguous themes and invested his films with deep intelligence.

Many other classic westerns portray characters who abhor violence – although they always use it in the end: Destry Rides Again and Shane both have heroes who are reluctant to take up arms. In these and other westerns it is only the bad guys who shoot for the sake of it and relish the wild side of the law. Yet somehow, in myth and political symbolism the bad guys are remembered as the good guys, the films of the wild west associated with the law of the gun. And it is Republican America, most successfully in the persona of Ronald Reagan and most dangerously in the would-be heroism of George W Bush, that has claimed the heritage of the mythic west.

This is why cool-talking, straight-shooting President Barack Obama has just changed history. He has overturned more than three decades in which the Democrats looked through the lens of the western like wimps from back east, and Republicans posed as tough sheriffs. Now there is a new sheriff in town and a new message: if you want years of bumbling, messy, murderous war, a Republican is best, but if you actually want a president who gets his man like a real US marshal of legend ... vote Democrat in 2012.

For a long time, Republicans have cast themselves as brave gunfighters. But President Obama actually measures up much more closely to those heroes of movie history. Shane and Destry were as measured and calm as he is, upholders of law who had no time for martial bluster. Being a true gunslinger hero in American myth does not mean making a lot of noise and it does not mean being a tinpot patriot. It means talking soft and when you go after the real bad guy, getting him right between the eyes.

Short of actually pulling the trigger himself, the president could scarcely have got more personal credit from the killing of this outlaw. It may seem trite to reduce it all to a western. But in the political imagination, where elections are won and lost, this is a game-changer. The bad guys have been chased out of town in more ways than one. A clear mind and eye outshot the blusterers. The myth of superior Republican patriotism is headed for Boot Hill – and Destry Rides Again.


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December 02 2010

The Smithsonian 'Anty Christ' censured and censored | Jennifer Abel

I don't think artists should be publicly funded, but that's not the issue. This is the religious right masquerading as fiscal rectitude

Despite the lip service American politicos pay to principles like "freedom" or "limited government", it only lasts until one sees something he personally doesn't like. Once you understand this, it makes perfect sense that Republican congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor set about establishing their small-government bona fides by ordering an art museum to alter one of its displays.
 
The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is hosting an exhibit called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which explores gay and lesbian themes. Naturally, this offended conservative Catholic political activists, who made a point of viewing the exhibit firsthand. Having seen it, they decided nobody else should; CNS News indignantly reported "images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show's catalogue as 'homoerotic'."

CNS expended most of its ire on the "ant-covered Jesus" – a video of ants crawling on a crucifix, which the artist (now deceased) said symbolises the suffering of Aids victims. When CNS brought it to Cantor and Boehner's attention, they ordered the Smithsonian to take it down.

Boehner's spokesman called it "symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions", and said "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January." Cantor, meanwhile, interpreted the video as "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season".

Under this pressure, the Smithsonian caved and removed the video. It's hard to blame them, if they thought the alternative might be the shutting down of the entire museum a few months hence.

Government art funding is a perennial sore point with culture-warrior Republicans; in the 1980s, Senator Jesse Helms – another limited-government advocate – brought complaints about Andres Serrano's Piss Christ to the floor of the Senate.

Such anti-art crusades are often couched in the language of limited government, saying the feds shouldn't be involved in the art business. At least, Helms and his allies had some valid – albeit spittle-drenched – points about public grant money subsidising individual artists: private people can become artists' patrons if they wish, but government has no business favouring one group of artists over another, and taxpayers shouldn't have to fund the privileged few chosen by bureaucrats with artsy pretensions.

But that's not the case in the Smithsonian controversy. No tax money went to the artist; indeed, the only public money involved was that from the Smithsonian's general operating budget. Boehner and Cantor aren't stopping a controversial artist from sucking on the public teat; they're ordering the Smithsonian to avoid displaying anything that offends the religious right's sensibilities.

There's merit to the argument that, especially in this dismal economy, taxpayers shouldn't be required to fund things they find offensive. I agree, which is why I'd like to cut all tax funding not only for art projects, but also for the dishonest anti-drug propaganda of DARE and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or worthless abstinence-only sex education programmes.

But Cantor and Boehner won't extend their small-government principles that far. Cantor surely believes Christians have the right to insist no tax money ever help anything they find offensive; but he wouldn't extend that right to Americans in general.

Cutting all government art funding won't do anything to solve the deficit, but it would have one undeniable advantage: next time congressmen speak out against an art exhibit, they'll no longer be able to drape their bigotry beneath the cloak of fiscal responsibility.


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May 05 2010

Why is the US mocking our 'Harry Potter' election? | Hadley Freeman

British voters and politicians have been treated to quite extraordinary levels of condescension from American commentators

There have been many irritating elements to this election, not least the unignorable, looming realisation that this country's finances are about to be put in the hands of a man whose only qualification in the study of money seems to be that his wallpaper-designing family has a lot of it.

But perhaps most trying of all has been the degree of curious condescension British voters and politicians have been treated to from American commentators: "America's Deadbeat Older Brother, the United Kingdom, is holding an election for Best Wizard! Or Prime Minister, or something," snarked the reliably snarky website Gawker. Only four weeks long! No smear campaigns! And those cute accents!

Even Saint Jon Stewart slipped into this all-too-easy mode on The Daily Show last week, when he amusingly yet not entirely fairly managed to reduce the UK election down to a little squabble about bus passes. "You all know you used to rule the subcontinent, you do know that?" he asked, while unscrewing a salt shaker and slicing up some lemons.

To characterise America as the Champions League and England as the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final suits both American self-aggrandisement and British self-deprecation, and is an easy source of lazy laughs. It's the Grumpy Old Nations approach to international relations, and as someone who is lucky enough to pay taxes in both the UK and US, I try to avoid this cheesy stance. However, there are times when it's hard not to think that, yup, we Americans sure do things bigger and better

Last week, something happened in Rochdale that you may have heard about. A pensioner demanded that Gordon Brown inform her of the origins of eastern Europeans, Brown muttered in his car that she was "bigoted", the pensioner huffed to the Mail on Sunday (reportedly for £80,000) that she was more outraged that he referred to her as a "woman" than a "bigot", and the UK media dubbed this ripple in a teacup "Bigotgate". You want Bigotgate? I'll show you Bigotgate.

The same week that the UK rightwing press was crowing that Brown's "gaffe" proved that "immigration is this country's most incendiary issue", America was facing the prospect of it being illegal to not be, if not racist, then let's say race-ish, in one of its states, Arizona. Read that again, slowly.

Thanks to the passing of a law – known officially as SB1070, and unofficially as "nazism" by a Cardinal Roger M Mahony, as quoted in the New York Times – police are now not only required to demand documents from anyone of whom they are "reasonably suspicious", but Arizona citizens can sue the police if they think they have failed to harass a "suspicious looking" person.

As several politicians, Democrat and Republican, have pointed out, this sounds distinctly like racial profiling. Arizona's governor Jan Brewer has denied this, but has failed to specify quite what kind of looks count as "suspicious". And Gawker's accusation on Monday that the Arizona State Senate majority leader and proponent of SB1070, Chuck Grey, was following not one but two white supremacist groups on Twitter doesn't exactly help Brewer's claim. Nor – as Frank Rich pointed out in last Sunday's New York Times – did Rush Limbaugh's recent linking of the birther movement and SB1070 ("I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers. Maybe he's afraid somebody's going to ask him for his." Um, if memory serves, they did, Rush and he produced them). Not that Brewer seems to give a damn what people think.

If I have failed to convey the true nature of this bill, maybe this will help: the Bush family finds it offensive. Perhaps SB1070's supporters should use that as a tagline: "SB1070: the law that's so rightwing, it makes the Bushes look moderate."

One person who does like it, though, is the politician formerly known as Maverick John McCain. Again, this is an example of America doing things on a much larger scale than the UK. If you think Labour has lost its moral compass over the past 10 years, meet John McCain, the man who three years ago said that America needed to find a "humane, moral" way to deal with illegal immigrants. Two weeks ago he told – Fox News, who else? – that these "illegals" are "intentionally causing accidents on the freeway", a statement that manages to make querying where eastern Europeans flock from sound intelligent.

The setting for McCain's announcement is telling. The engine that has moved America's Republican party to the right of the Bushes has been Fox News, home of Glenn "Obama's a racist" Beck and Bill "I just wish hurricane Katrina had hit the UN" O'Reilly.

Where America has highly partisan TV and neutral broadsheet newspapers, Britain takes the opposite approach, and Fox News's equivalent in this country is not, surprisingly, a Murdoch product but the Daily Mail. There are many, many complaints one can make about the Mail but, so far, the Conservative party has managed to resist having its policies dictated by it (it remains to be seen for how long Cameron resists being dictated to by Murdoch), and, reluctant as I am to defend the Mail, at least that paper speaks out explicity against the BNP – unlike Fox News which actively champions looney pockets such as the Tea Party movement.

So yes, Britain, we Americans may recently have been mocking the "laughable tameness" of your political system and election. We might make jokes about the election being decided by Harry Potter's sorting hat. But the truth is, we're just jealous.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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