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politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.26: Ideology in America

Superbowl commercials are an American art form, inspiring blogs, analysis and audience interaction. Last Sunday, watching my first live Superbowl in some twenty years, one stood out – though for reasons somewhat different from the ensuing controversy.

“Half time in America” – these ads even have their own names – is an ad for Chrysler fronted by Clint Eastwood. Recalling the title of Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign commercial (“Morning again in America“), this Chrysler ad played off last year’s commercial featuring Eminem, recycling some clips and developing the theme of Detroit’s renaissance.

Moving from the dark shadows of a dimly lit road to the warm glow of sunlit scenes, Eastwood’s narration presents a story of adversity, struggle and redemption. Although it was presented in terms of the collective ‘we’, it relied on the ideology of individualism and hard work to identify how the people of “Motor City” forged a path for the rest of the country as it faces the future. “We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one,” Eastwood intones. (See here for a transcript).

The Chrysler ad certainly had the feel of a campaign commercial. But to me it was a commercial replete with the recurrent tropes of American exceptionalism that abound in any presidential campaign (and about which I have written a lot in my book Writing Security). It’s also an ad that plays on post-9/11 military metaphors. Accompanying the lines about rallying around to act as one after the tough trials, are still photos of families followed by two fireman, recalling the members of the FDNY who responded to the falling towers in Manhattan. It is then that Eastwood says: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.” Perhaps that roar comes from new (but still inefficient) cars.  Or perhaps, more menacingly, it comes from the military machine that has been in action in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now being readied for action against Iran.

Read as an homage to the individualism and militarisation of American political culture, the Chrysler ad swept under the carpet the largest factor in Detroit’s recovery – what Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne calls the “socialist” or “state capitalist” bailouts of Chrysler and GM that are one of the Obama administration’s policy successes for the way they saved an industry and preserved employment. You don’t hear Eastwood speaking of the government’s bold, multi billon dollar intervention – begun, incidentally, by George W. Bush in 2008 – in the commercial. Nor do you see any images of unions at work. Instead politics appears only as the site of discord and division.

The right wing, it turns out, sees the world rather differently and loves discord and division. For the likes of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, this Chrysler ad “offended” them because it was pro-Obama propaganda that overtly lauded the role of big government, and was nothing less than corporate payback. The Daily Mail, no less, has a good overview of how this ruckus is playing out.

The rabid response to the Chrysler ad tells us a lot about American political culture and this year’s presidential race. For a non-American, the representation of the Obama administration as left-wing is laughable. For the right to read a commercial that reeks of American exceptionalism as an ideological tool for a socialist paymaster is a remarkable inversion that demonstrates how fervent is the now permanent culture war in the United States.

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photography politics

Thinking Images v.25: Iran as perpetual enemy

Iran has a prominent place in America’s geopolitical imagination. The Shah assumed absolute power after a 1953 coup engineered by the UK and the USA removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, only to be overthrown twenty five years later in a revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mutual animosity was secured through the 1979 hostage crisis, during which US embassy staff were held captive in Tehran for 444 days. Add to that Iran’s lamentable human rights record, and concerns over its regional military posture, and Iran has long been a part of the ‘axis of evil’ around which the US structures its strategic outlook.

Against this backdrop are occasional attempts to offer a different view of Iran. The Atlantic’s In Focus 6 January gallery “A View Inside Iran” is one such effort, with 42 pictures from agency photographs capturing prosaic scenes over the last year. This is a good and worthwhile mining of the visual archive to make a general point. It is structured in terms of implicitly providing the inverse image to the stereotype. Other than two shots of crowds engaged in Islamic rituals (#6, #19), we see individuals, artists, sports people, and religious minorities (including Christians and Jews) going about their business peacefully. Against the vague notion of Iran being backward, we see common markers of modernity, including city scenes, internet cafes, people on mobile phones and market traders. To ensure balance, the captions are careful to note the contradictions of Iranian life. The July 2011 photo (above) by Reuters’ Caren Firouz shows mother and daughter Shahrzad and Noora Naraghi practicing on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran. After detailing their commitment to the sport, it states “women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran.” Likewise, the Raheb Homavandi photograph (#41) of the internet cafe makes clear how official censorship works.

Another challenging view of Iran emerged this week through Tyler Hicks’ extraordinary images of the US Navy’s capture of Somali pirates, and the release of thirteen Iranians the pirates had held for a month. Detailed in a series of revealing images, and supported by the vivid writing of C.J. Chivers (here and here), this event would have likely gone unrecorded had Hicks and Chivers not been on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. I was interested to see one reader’s comments on the Chivers/Hicks story, marked as a ‘NYT pick’:

This was a great saga, proving the greatness, compassion and the ability of our military and our values as the most blessed nation on this earth. We show kindness even to our enemies. What sacrifice our armed forces made and courage they displayed!

This rescue notwithstanding, and in contrast to the benevolent American exceptionalism imagined by this reader, US policy towards Iran remains hostile (as does Iranian policy towards the US, Israel and others). Indeed, there are worrying signs that Iran is being embedded in a bellicose narrative reminiscent of the run up to the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Before Christmas US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta conducted a network television interview on board the US nuclear command aircraft (the “Doomsday Plane”), to make the point that the US would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran and that all policy options for responding to a potentially nuclear armed Iran were on the table. He reiterated much of this message yesterday in another CBS interview. And in an unfortunate echo of the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times has been called out for misleading readers by overstating Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

More complex, nuanced photographic accounts of Iran – including those of the many fine Iranian photographers, such as Newsha Tavakolian – are not going to halt misleading journalism or militaristic policy in its tracks. But they might just make some of us pause and think about Iran’s automatic status as a perpetual enemy.

Featured photo: Noora (right) and Shahrzad Naraghi practice on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran, on July 3, 2011. Shahrzad Naraghi started riding motocross eight years ago to spend more time with her daughter Noora who became interested in the sport after watching her father compete in races, and began riding motorcycles at the age of four. The pair raced against each other at first and in women’s only motocross races in Iran in 2009. In 2010, Noora travelled to the United States, completed training courses and raced in competitions sponsored by the American Motorcyclist Association. Women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran. Copyright: Reuters/Caren Firouz.

Second photo: In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month. Sailors detained the Somali pirates in a small skiff. Copyright: Tyler Hicks/New York Times, 6 January 2012.

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photography politics

Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

The global controversy surrounding Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables is a moment in which media, politics, visual culture and war intersect in complex ways. There has been no shortage of good commentary on the story, as evidenced in the range of views curated by Alex Madrigal’s post “how to think about Wikileaks”. What I want to do is contrast the visualization of the story with some the main elements, some of them somewhat buried, in the current coverage.

Coverage of the Wikileaks this week has been a classic case where a political story is personalized to the detriment of its context and complexity. As Michael Shaw noted, Julian Assange has been demonized as ‘public enemy #1’ via an oft-repeated screen shot from Interpol’s most wanted web page, and then criminalized through ‘perp walk’ photos from his court appearance in London. One Reuters photographer was open about how his portraits of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson were designed to capture the supposedly covert nature of the organisation.

I have no view one way or the other on the sex crimes Swedish prosecutors allege, other than to make the obvious point that we should regard someone as innocent until proven guilty after due process. What is telling, though, is the way Assange’s private issues have become the focal point over and above the larger public questions of diplomacy and war. In part that is because of the way his London court appearance intersected with the extraordinary and escalating rhetoric from America that he be charged with espionage or treason, dealt with as an enemy combatant or terrorist, or even assassinated. The effect has been to make the story a media event driven by a personality rather than an account of the larger issues at stake.

Although it too centres on the person of Assange, Peter Macdiarmid’s July 2010 photo of the Wikileaks founder at the Frontline Club in London (featured above) places him in a relationship with three elements that direct us to the context of the overall issue. Assange is holding up a copy of The Guardian displaying a front-page story on the earlier release of the Afghan war logs. He is standing with his laptop. In the background is Don McCullin’s famous 1968 photograph of a shell-shocked marine from Hue in Vietnam. Signifying, first, the relationship between Wikileaks and its media partners, second, the role of the Internet, and third, the historical memory of the Vietnam War that hangs over current American military operations, this picture provides the basis for reflecting on some crucial elements in the Wikileaks story. I would emphasis six points:

  • The leak of the war logs and diplomatic cables came from within the US military, with an army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, the suspect. Manning was one of 3 million people cleared to access the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors to distribute classified material. In July this year The Washington Post published a remarkable investigation, “Top Secret America,” on the rise of the clandestine arm of the security state in the wake of 9/11. It revealed that more than 850,000 Americans have “Top Secret” security clearance, which is a level above the diplomatic traffic Manning could allegedly access. Given the number of people involved, the only question is why there has not been a leak like the war logs or diplomatic cables earlier.
  • Wikileaks is a web publisher and not an espionage or hacking organisation, making calls for Assange’s prosecution for spying or treason ludicrous. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court held that while it was a crime to leak classified material it was not a crime to publish that material once leaked. In the current story, Wikileaks occupies the position held by The New York Times in 1972, so that all journalists should be chilled by the threat to free speech that US politicians are now making. Shutting down Wikileaks is on a par with shutting down a major media company. The next time the same politicians demand that countries like China cease Internet censorship and back a free press, what do we think the response from those countries is going to be? Journalists involved in “shameful attacks” on Assange should think very hard about this.
  • For both the war logs and diplomatic cables story, Wikileaks has partnered with major news organisations like Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. If Assange is in the sights of the US politicians riled by the most recent leaks, what about these organisations? Senator Joe Lieberman has already called the New York Times publication of some of the leaked material “an act of bad citizenship.” What does that say about the state of the free press in his eyes? Where does that leave American moral capital the next time they want to press for international press freedom?
  • While many have claimed Wikileaks is ‘indiscriminately dumping’ all 250,000 cables on the internet without review, one of the least recognised parts of this story is that Wikileaks is publishing the cables only after its media partners have reviewed them and written about them. Moreover, when Wikileaks does publish the cables it does so with the redactions made by those media partners. (The Guardian explains how it does this here). So at the time of writing, Wikileaks (as the picture above from its site makes clear) has released only 1,203 of the 251,287 cables contained in the leak. This makes the coverage of the cables a prime example of networked journalism from which all partners, including the public, win. (Though note how even this positive commentary perpetuates the myth of the document dump).
  • Efforts to shut Wikileaks down – apart from failing to understand its role as publisher rather than spy – are failing because of the willingness of many to establish mirror sites on the Internet where the material can be accessed. At last count, there were 1,368 mirrors. Here, then, is a good lesson in the open structure of the Internet. You can close a domain, but you cannot remove material from the system if others a willing to host it. The more domains you close the more mirrors will appear. There are also many other organisations and sites similar to Wikileaks, such as cryptome.org, that don’t have the same public profile but can host leaked documents.
  • The structural impossibility of running someone off the Internet means that state authorities will try and find new ways of exercising power. This is where the pressure on companies to end commercial relationships with Wikileakes comes from. US authorities and politicians have pressured Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa, among others, to cease trading with Wikileaks and these companies have all to readily complied. This is a form of indirect power in which private actors become “points of control” for state policy. This also means that so long as “cloud computing” is a commercial operation there are going to be potential limits to openness in this system.

In 2009, Wikileaks and Julian Assange won the prestigious Amnesty International New Media Award for exposing hundreds of alleged murders by the Kenyan police, an act which led to a United Nations investigation.

Other releases have included a list of websites banned by the Australian government, copies of the Scientology “bible”, and emails from inside the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. When Wikileaks focused on foreign regimes it was a beacon of freedom. After its releases this year, it has become an entity ‘at war’ with the United States and its allies. In moments like these we need to understand the context, retain a critical perspective, and avoid the personification of the issue.