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November 12 2012

Wochenrückblick: GEMA-Vermutung, US-Netzpolitik, Peter Sunde

Die Regierung hält an der GEMA-Vermutung fest, nach der US-Wahl erwarten Experten neue Vorhaben zur Rechtsdurchsetzung im Internet, der Prozess um Piratebay-M

Weiterlesen

November 06 2012

A case for voting Republican

I’m writing this from an hour-long polling line on the Upper West Side, where no political races will be remotely competitive this year. The presence of so many people willing to put up with the inconvenience of a long wait to cast a vote that’s unlikely to make a difference is inspiring, but under conditions like this one my mind tends in a cynical direction, and when I go cynical I start to think about voting Republican.

That temptation comes not from the party’s position on FEMA or climate change, its willingness to force legislative cliffhangers rather than compromise, or its alertness on issues as diverse as Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the war on Christmas.

Rather, the temptation arises from this map, which shows the concentration of political influence in just a small handful of “battleground” states. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have together visited Ohio 75 times. They’ve visited New York 24 times, almost all of which were fundraisers and media appearances. The political cycle, and the issues it chews over, are calculated to excite voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — hence a focus this year on industrial offshoring and retiree health care. Political campaigns use the same big-data approaches that any clever startup or retail chain would use to segment voters and target them directly. Undecided voters in swing states have enormous leverage. The rest of us have been mostly segmented out of the process.

As much as I hope Obama will win today’s election, I’m tempted by the thought that my vote — which is practically certain to have no impact on the outcome of any election today — might be better spent strategically in making New York a slightly more competitive political arena.

You might point out that the candidates’ fundraising hauls come largely from New York and California, and so my fellow urbanites have perhaps a greater say in the formation of the political agenda than a voter in a closely-contested state. But I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump is not whispering in Mitt Romney’s ear about the need for better rail transportation between New York, Boston and Washington, or the threat to the Northeast of rising sea levels.

If New York were a battleground state, we might enjoy political spoils as lavish as any enjoyed by a subsidized Ohio farmer — and those spoils, in the form of badly-needed improvements to interstate infrastructure, would probably be better for the country than the former, since a modest improvement in the functioning of the New York City area — whose GDP is $1.3 trillion — could have an outsize impact on the national economy. At the very least, presidential candidates would be better attuned to the needs of our big cities, which are the engines of U.S. economic growth but are mostly in electorally uncompetitive states.

Of course, hoping that my vote will make a difference in the competitiveness of this state is probably as far-fetched as thinking my vote will determine the outcome of any election. In the meantime, there are more promising ways to work against the injustice of the Electoral College — like an effort to have states commit to giving their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular election.

As it turned out, I took the safer route and voted straightforwardly, for the candidate I’d gone to the polls to support.

August 29 2012

President Obama participates in first Presidential AMA on Reddit

Starting around 4:30 PM ET today, President Barack Obama made history by going onto Reddit to answer questions about anything for an hour. Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet, has been hosting “Ask Me Anything” forums — or AMAs – for years, including sessions with prominent legislators like Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), but to host a sitting President of the United States will elevate Reddit’s prominence in the intersection of technology and politics. AllThingsD has the story of Reddit got the President onto the site. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Peter Kafka that “There are quite a few redditors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and at the campaign HQ — given the prominence of reddit, it’s an easy sell.”

President Obama made some news in the process, with respect to the Supreme Court decision that allowed super political action committees, or “Super PACs,” to become part of the campaign finance landscape.

“Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” commented President Obama. “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

President Obama announced that he’d be participating in the AMA in a tweet and provided photographic evidence that he was actually answering questions in an image posted to Reddit (above) and in a second tweet during the session.

The timing of the AMA was at least a little political, coming after a speech in Virginia and falling upon the third day of the Republic National Convention, but it is unequivocally a first, in terms of a president directly engaging with the vibrant Reddit community. Many people also tweeted that they were having trouble accessing the page during the AMA, as tens of thousands of users tried to access the forum. According to The Verge, President Obama’s AMA was the most popular post in Reddit’s history, with more than 200,000 visitors on the site concurrently. (Presidential Q&As apparently melts servers almost as much as being Biebered.)

Today’s AMA is only the latest example of presidents experimenting with online platforms, from President Clinton and President Bush posting text on WhiteHouse.gov to President Obama joining rebooting that platform on Drupal. More recently, President Obama has participated in a series of online ‘town halls’ using social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the first presidential Hangout on Google+.

His use of all them deserves to be analyzed critically, in terms of whether the platforms and events were being used to shine the credential of a tech-savvy chief executive in an election year or to genuinely answer the questions and concerns of the citizens he serves.

In analyzing the success of such experiment in digital democracy, it’s worth looking at whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted to see asked (on Reddit, counted by upvotes) and whether the answers given were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. On the first part of that rubric, President Obama scored high: he answered each of the top-voted questions in the AMA, along with a few personal ones.

 

On the rest of those counts, you can judge for yourself. The president’s answers are below:

“Hey everybody – this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover.”

On Internet freedom: “Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform.”

On space exploration: “Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.”

On helping small businesses and relevant bills: “We’ve really focused on this since I came into office – 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.”

Most difficult decision you had to make this term? ”The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban’s momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead – so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.”

On the influence of money in politics ”Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress – to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

On prospects for recent college grads – in this case, a law school grad: I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.”

First thing he’ll do on November 7th: “Win or lose, I’ll be thanking everybody who is working so hard – especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.”

How do you balance family life and hobbies with being POTUS? ”It’s hard – truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I’m spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store – so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I’m in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm – even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to Gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!”

On +The White House homebrew recipe ”It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”

A step forward for digital democracy?

The most interesting aspect of that Presidential Hangout was that it introduced the possibility of unscripted moments, where a citizen could ask an unexpected question, and the opportunity for followups, if an answer wasn’t specific enough.

Reddit doesn’t provide quite the same mechanism for accountability at a live Hangout, in terms of putting an elected official on the spot to answer. Unfortunately, the platform of Reddit itself falls short here: there’s no way to force a politician to circle back and give a better answer, in the way, say, Mike Wallace might have on “60 Minutes.”

Alexis Madrigal, one of the sharpest observers of technology and society currently gracing the pages of the Atlantic, is clear about the issues with a Reddit AMA: “it’s a terrible format for extracting information from a politician.”

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA. Reddit is not a mic accidentally left on during a private moment. The kind of intimacy and honesty that Redditors crave does not scale up to national politics, where no one ever lets down his or her guard. Instead of using the stiffness and formality of the MSM to drive his message home, Obama simply used the looseness and casual banter of Reddit to drive his message home. Here more than in almost anything else: Tech is not the answer to the problems of modern politics.

Today’s exchange, however, does hint at the tantalizing dynamic that makes it alluring: that the Internet is connecting you and your question to the most powerful man in the world, directly, and that your online community can push for him to answer it.

President Obama ended today’s AMA by thanking everyone on Reddit for participating and wrote that “this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.”

Well, it’s a start. Thank you for logging on today, Mr. President. Please come back online and answer some more follow up questions.

Reposted byRK RK

August 07 2012

Obama pictured with baseball bat: a big hit with voters? | Martin Argles

US politicians are routinely snapped with sporting trophies but it pays to be cautious about the objects you're associated with

What's Obama doing fooling around with a baseball bat signed by Hank Aaron anyway? Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth's total of 714 home runs, didn't even play for the White Sox – Obama's favourite team. That bat should be in a museum, not annoying the Turkish opposition.

It's something of a mystery as to why the White House press office thought it a good idea to have Obama photographed by one of their many resident photographers with a sporting trophy. What's the symbolism here? "Listen Recep, Putin may do that weird judo thing, but I can come at you with a 42-inch pole of solid American hickory. So just let the CIA in".

All US presidents are routinely photographed playing golf or jogging, but Obama the ex-smoker-lawyer-from-Chicago is a man for the people's game. Meanwhile, Michelle does her gardening, chats to small children and cheers on the Olympic team from the safety of the stands. It's doubtful if it would work in the UK, even in a post-Olympic glow. Was John Major ever snapped with a cricket bat in the cabinet office, or Gordon Brown with a rugby ball? Does Cameron bring a horse with him to G20 conferences? Politicians in the UK generally stay away from sporting props, and their counterparts down under sometimes share their caution: I once shared a golf course in Sydney with the then-leader of the Australian opposition, John Hewson. A golf buggy was offered and turned down. "I can't be photographed in that", he said. Why? "Makes me look like a wimp". Sport, a vote winner … or loser.

The study of politicians' association with objects is a generally unexplored aspect of political science. Caution is to be recommended. For example if you are Clinton (but not Churchill), stay well away from cigars. But if you are Margaret Thatcher, hold on to your handbag. And if you're Harold Wilson, keep gripping your pipe. I was not surprised to find that Tony Blair had one of those fish in his office that sings "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on demand. Did he ever, even in fun, play that down the line to George Bush?

It's true that one might conclude from the picture that there's nothing Obama wants to do more than to get off the phone and get back to a baseball game with his security men on the White House lawn, but should the Turkish opposition be so frazzled? Baseball isn't even a particularly popular sport over there. One could understand it if the president had been snapped lounging beside the pool in Michael Phelps' briefs, but he hasn't.

Maybe the Turks should get their revenge. How about a return phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured in the costume of a Greco-Roman wrestler? Soon enough, heads of states would all be at it. Now that could be interesting.


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July 06 2011

Platon and the many faces of world power | Emily Kasriel

Platon has photographed leaders from Obama to Ahmadinejad. The sitter can wear a mask, but a mask can be revealing

There aren't many jobs which demand that you perform for a few crucial seconds. Competitive sprinting perhaps. There are even fewer where, in those brief moments, you must establish an intense bond with your "collaborator". Photographing 100 world leaders as they rush through their meetings at the United Nations is one of them.

When you leaf through Power, the latest book by the British photographer Platon, the portfolio of portraits of political leaders reveals individuals, almost exclusively men, who look sanitised, even saint-like, as if they aspire to be elevated above us mortals. What becomes apparent is that in those precious moments of a portrait sitting, Platon has been able to establish a deep connection with his subjects that allows him to glimpse beyond the carefully constructed aura of power.

Platon, born in 1968 in London, has won many international awards for his work. His images of celebrities have graced major magazines such as the New Yorker, Time, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and he now lives with his family in New York. When he talks about his work and his motivation, he exudes an intensity, as if his time with you is also fleeting. He told me that his role is to cure the amnesia of the world's societies. He has a desperate urge to stop time and record the existence of a world leader or a protester in Cairo's Tahir Square, and feels his images allow him to capture an essential essence of their being.

Not surprisingly, convincing so many world leaders to collaborate with a photographer took a little persuasion. "By the time I meet them I have been dealing with their entourage for quite some time, be it 10 Downing Street, the Kremlin, the White House or the United Nations". And Platon admitted that when Vladimir Putin entered the room to be photographed, the process of intimidation had taken its toll. "The hardest thing for me is to let go of this intimidation and be human. You feel so inadequate, and at this stage you want to bow". He is only able to achieve success by cultivating a disregard for authority. "At night I think about how I control my anxiety and focus it. If, for example, a president raises an eyebrow, this is a major event for me, and I have to catch it. The moment is everything. I need to be the most alert person on the planet. I send myself into an intense physiological state so I am hypersensitive from the moment I shake their hand".

Looking through this array of global leaders from Barack Obama to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who face each other in the book), I was prompted to think about the way that power expresses itself in the face. Does the newly elected president slip straight into the mask of power, or does it take time for the face to be transformed? And when a politician loses power, does their face change again? Platon told me of the moment when he captured Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast. "He had complete power, and he was in ecstasy: his eyes half closed, almost like a kid who had had too much lemonade, on a high from sugar." But that look wasn't to last. Months later, after losing a bloody civil war, Gbagbo's image was splayed over newspapers: depressed, unkempt, sitting in a bunker with his wife, waiting for opposition forces to remove him.

Meanwhile, George W Bush was more challenging. Platon told me that Bush demanded to be represented as a guy "who is happy, and not a snarler". If you look closely at the finished portrait, you can see that Bush is smiling, but with a smile that does not extend to his eyes. In a portrait the sitter can wear a mask, but a mask can also reveal.

All the people who Platon has photographed are used to being in control. Yet for a fraction of a second Platon is the one with power. He decides when to push the button determining which momentary truth is captured. Many of Platon's images will become icons, permanently representing these figures in history. When we look at these images, the power is transferred to us: we know their history, we know which ones are dictators and tyrants. We are able to read into their carefully constructed expressions even more than their eyes might choose to betray.


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Power: portraits of world leaders by Platon – in pictures

Gallery: Photographer Platon's new collection of images, Power, provides glimpses of what lies behind world leaders' carefully constructed auras



May 24 2011

Obama's stay at the palace: lunch, then a tour of the priceless art collection

How to entertain a US president who comes to stay? The Queen can go one better than getting out the old photo albums

During her long reign, the Queen has met a quarter of all American presidents, but few have stayed at Buckingham Palace for a sleepover. But Barack Obama – a man almost young enough to be her grandson, younger than three of her four children – was a guest on Monday night with his wife Michelle. Generations and continents apart in experience and age, they seemed to be getting on like a house on fire.

But how to entertain the nice, polite young man after lunch? Some of us might get out the family album, or the holiday souvenirs. The Queen can go several steps better: laid out in her private gallery in the palace, under the Rubens paintings, for the presidential perusal were notes by George Washington and George III, a letter by Abraham Lincoln and two copies of the original edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Not forgetting a 19th-century volume of John James Audubon's Birds of America, in double elephant-sized folio, one of the most valuable books of the world: if you want to buy it, the going rate at auction is $11m.

Nothing quite like that in the exchange of gifts: the Queen gave the Obamas leather-bound facsimiles of the presidential letters in the royal collection, with an antique gold-and-red coral brooch for the first lady. In return Obama, evidently learning from the slight hiatus over his trifling gift of DVDs to Gordon Brown, gave the Queen a collection of photographs from her parents' visit to Washington in 1939 – the first to the US by a reigning British monarch. The duke received a gift perhaps qualifying for the response "you shouldn't have": horseshoes, bits and shanks of equipage from the US champion carriage driving team, engraved with the presidential seal. It was probably the thought that counted.

The royal party, fresh from lunch, were clearly in relaxed mood as they entered the gallery, the Queen pointing out the exhibits as an 85-year-old might show off her begonias. "Jane – you explain," she instructed Lady Jane Roberts, the librarian at Windsor Castle, who had selected the exhibits.

Get any awkwardness out of the way first: a letter from Washington about the surrender of British troops at Yorktown at the end of the war of independence. Beside it, George III's neatly written note, agonising over the loss of the colonies: "America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow?" Spirits evidently rising, he concluded perceptively: "A people spread over an immense part of fertile land, industrious because free and rich because industrious, presently becomes a market for the manufactures and commerce of the mother country." He didn't add, as one of his negotiators of the peace treaty did, "And everyone of 'em speaking English."

"That was just a temporary blip in the relationship," said Obama, looking down genially.

They made their way slowly round the gallery, the Queen murmuring, "Interesting" at Lady Jane's commentary, while examining her fingernails. The duke cheerfully turned the pages of the Audubon to show Mrs Obama, ruffling them as if they were a paperback.

There was some chuckling at a letter, written from Washington during the 1939 tour, by the Queen's mother to "My Darling Lilibet" describing a picnic luncheon: "All our food on one plate – a little salmon, some turkey, some ham, lettuce, beans and HOT DOGS too!"

It was a pity they scarcely had time to glance at the handwritten letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Queen Victoria in February 1862, in the middle of the civil war, after learning of the death of Prince Albert. He sympathised with his "Great and Good Friend" over the overwhelming affliction that had befallen her: "I would fain have your Majesty apprehend … that real sympathy can exist, as real truthfulness can be practised, in the intercourse of nations..." Three years later Victoria was writing to Lincoln's widow, following the president's assassination: "Though a stranger to you, I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you," and Mary Lincoln was writing back in anguish about "the intense grief I now endure."

Protocol directs that after a reciprocal banquet at the US ambassador's residence, the Queen and duke will bid farewell to their guests, who then return to the palace for a further night. Perhaps they will leave the cornflakes out for the morning, with a note for the Obamas to help themselves.


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The oiled west: Obama to see Americana from Queen's art collection

The president will be shown artistic treasures that reveal British enthusiasm for all things American down the years

It is a custom of state visits for the Queen to show the visiting dignitary a specially chosen selection of highlights that may be of interest to them and their nation from her extraordinary collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and objets d'art.

The Royal Collection is one of the last surviving examples of monarchical collections, which in most countries have long since become part of public museums; from a historical point of view, it is the finest collection in the world, with treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and Holbein's portrait studies.

Barack Obama will get a personal view of it this afternoon in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace, where he will see paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Titian. Among these masterpieces, he will see a special "American" display.

This may seem unpromising – after all, the monarchy lost America back in the 18th century – but in fact the Royal Collection has a fascinating haul of Americana in among its Leonardos.

Indeed, this art collection tells of British enthusiasm down the centuries for all things American, offering plenty of material for a presidential private view.

Admittedly, one of the greatest royal collectors was George III, whose reign was marked by British defeat in the revolutionary war and loss of the British empire's richest colony. And it is true that the collection includes a Tarleton cap, a piece of military headgear named after Banastre Tarleton, who was one of the most hated and feared British officers in the attempt to suppress the revolution. Yet the Queen's collection reveals that subsequent monarchs soon fell in love with the young republic.

And that really doesn't seem too strong a description of Queen Victoria's passion for the wild west. One of the most evocative American images in the Royal Collection is a photograph of Buffalo Bill that she purchased as a souvenir of her favourite frontiersman.

It shows the famous hunter and scout posing with his rifle, long hair and cowboy hat, and wearing a leather tunic in the style of a Plains Indian. It was taken in 1892, the year the Queen enjoyed a special performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Windsor Castle. This was the second time she had seen the show. She praised Buffalo Bill, real name William Cody, as "a splendid man, handsome and gentlemanlike".

She also commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer's 1839 painting Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals, a richly oiled canvas of a man lying calmly among wild beasts, after she watched this American lion tamer perform on seven occasions that year. Queen Victoria had a special relationship with American tough guys, it would seem from her art collecting.

You can chart the cultural history of two continents from this venerable art collection. The Royal Collection dates back to the age when, in European eyes, much of North America was untamed wilderness. Some of the oldest images of America that it holds depict exotic flora and fauna of the new world, such as Mark Catesby's picture of an American bison, looking like a survivor of the Ice Age, dating from the early 18th century.

America in the early 1700s was above all seen as a natural sphere of study, a new world to catalogue, in the eyes of the Royal Collection, which also includes Catesby's studies of a skunk and a bald eagle. But by the 1770s, America was producing its own artists. George III appointed the Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West as history painter to the court; West's 1771 masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe is one of the highlights of the Royal Collection. He in turn persuaded the King to make use of a fellow American, John Singleton Copley, to portray the Hanoverian princesses.

So the years that saw the American Revolution also saw American artists working directly for the monarchy, for the simple reason that an art scene did not yet exist as such in Boston or New York. Soon, though, American culture would become proudly self-conscious, and the flora and fauna once studied as objects of curiosity by Europeans would be rediscovered by American romantics as the essence of a new nationhood.

Another photograph collected by Queen Victoria is a portrait of the poet Henry Longfellow, seen in his day as the great national American bard, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Longfellow's 19th-century epic poem Hiawatha draws on Native American myth to imagine the continent in its innocence, as a place where humanity lived in accord with nature. Queen Victoria apparently loved Hiawatha as well as Buffalo Bil, if her purchase of this photo is anything to go by.

In the Royal Collection, there is plenty to fascinate American eyes. It offers a romantic vision of the new world, cultivated by rulers and former rulers who dreamed of it from afar.


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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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July 21 2010

Eine who?

David Cameron's choice of present for President Obama propelled a largely unknown street artist into the limelight. So what does Ben Eine make of the accolade?

'So it's been a weird day today," says the most recent posting on Ben Eine's website. "David Cameron has given one of my paintings to President Obama." Weird indeed. You wake up one morning as a street artist known to few outside the aficionados of Britain's urban art scene, and go to bed as the man whose work the new prime minister, for his first official visit to Washington, chose to present to the president of the United States.

"It's quite mad, really," says Eine (real name Ben Flynn), whose early creative life as a particularly productive graffiti artist earned him 15 or 20 arrests, five convictions for criminal damage and, on the final occasion, a narrow escape from jail. "But it's OK. It's not the kind of recognition I seek or get every day, but Cameron seems quite a positive kind of guy and Obama's a dude. I would probably have had issues if it had been for Bush."

But the gift – and attendant publicity – should bring Eine more than recognition. Described by the Nelly Duff gallery in London's Columbia Road, which has been selling his work for the last five years, as "a screen printer of technical brilliance . . . one of the hardest-working and most prolific street artists working today", he can also expect a considerable improvement in his income.

"We've had very significant interest already," says the gallery's Cassius Colman. "He had a fairly large fan base among people who know about street art, but now . . . If people were considering a purchase, this will push them over the edge. I'd say we were probably looking at a tenfold increase in his sales."

Eine, 39, is best known in and around Shoreditch in the East End of London, where he has worked for several years with his close friend, the elusive Banksy. "They're the best of mates, old friends," says Lindsay Alkin, manager of the Artrepublic gallery in Brighton, which also sells the artist's work. "Banksy would do one side of the street and Ben the other, and Ben did all Banksy's screenprints. He's one of the founders of the whole street-art movement. But this is really going to broaden his audience: we've had a great deal of interest this morning. And we've sold one of his originals."

Eine last came to the media's attention when he persuaded the shopkeepers of Middlesex Street in Spitalfields to allow him to paint the entire alphabet, in his trademark vibrant, cheerful colours, on their closed security shutters. Elsewhere in London, his letters spell out whole words – "Exciting" or "Scary" or "Vandalism" – on walls and buildings, or just stand on their own: a solitary "e" or "a" adorning a shopfront or telecomm box. There's a Googlemap of his London work, but similar typographical totems can also be seen in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Paris, as well as Newcastle and Hastings, where he now lives.

"For me, it's mostly about having stuff on the street," Eine says. "You're walking down the street, you do it every day, and suddenly there's something that wasn't there yesterday: something bright and cheerful and different. It might stay there for a year; maybe it will disappear. But you know, I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have to make a living. So I do the screenprints too." (Among the cognoscenti, Eine is widely admired as an expert screenprinter, and holds the unofficial world record for the number of colours across an edition: 77 across 200 prints.)

It wasn't easy, once Downing Street had called to say Samantha Cameron really liked his work, to find an Eine suitable for a US president. "A lot of my paintings have quite negative meanings, but painted in a bright and cheerful way," Eine says. "All of those had to be written off straight away; you can't give something that might be misinterpreted." Eventually, he remembered his painting of the letters TWENTYFIRSTCENTURYCITY, laid out on black, in seven rows. "I emailed it, and they said yes straight away," Eine says. "It works pretty well, I think."

Will he sell more work now? "I would imagine, people being what they are, that some more of them might want a piece of it. It's definitely good news."


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January 19 2009

TERRA Special Engagement - Grant Park, November 4th 2008

On November 4th, 2008 history changed course. in one of the largest and most dramatic public gatherings to date in the US, President Barack Obama claimed a landslide victory against John McCain ushering in a new era in American politics.

Two graduate students from Montana State University's MFA Program in Documentary Film were on-site in Grant Park that momentous day and produced a film that captures the anticipation and excitement of the masses.

As Obama takes over the White House many wonder what new changes are in store for stem cell reseach, alternative energy, and the preservation of our wild spaces. Important issues in science and nature are once again on the agenda and we at TERRA are hopeful that Obama will move these issues back to the forefront.

December 20 2008

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