May 6, 2008

Bill Ayers, The Flag, Steve Clemons, And Going Off The Deep End – Updated

Ayers Flag

Oh please, where does this all end?

Apparently, the hysterical, formerly extreme right-wing “flag attack” on Obama has now wormed itself right into the liberal blogosphere, as evidenced by this image — and the knee-jerk reaction to it — on The Washington Note.

(Sorry for the brief commercial, but this is a perfect example of why we all could use a little more skill when it comes to looking at political imagery.)

Leading his post today, titled “Trampling the Flag,” Steve Clemons grabs a lead image from an on-line Chicago Magazine feature on Bill Ayers.  (I’ll just insert, by the way, that the article and image lighting Steve’s fire in the middle of this stretch of blistering condemnation of Obama, and anyone linked to him, has been sitting there since August of 2001.)

So, let’s talk about the picture, both formally and symbolically.

First, Clemons assumes — as I’m sure many people will now, especially our wingnuts friends  — that Ayers is stepping on the flag.  Short of consulting with Ayers or photographer Jeff Sciortino, however, that’s an assumption.  Taking into consideration the “depth of field,”  what it looks like to me is that Ayers is either standing behind the flag, or standing with the flag at his feet with part of it looping between his legs.

(Because I’m not that technically versed, I also look forward to comments here regarding the following point: If you notice how the walls in this photo — particularly the left one — seem to curve, there is a distinct barrel roll to the image.  How that characteristic, as well as the focus effects the perception and orientation to Ayers and the flag also could also bear examination.)

The larger point here, however, has to do with an attribute that perhaps did die on 9/11.  I’m talking about irony and artistic interpretation.  As a note to Steve, and anyone else who deems to project onto this image, consider that most intelligent people, in a less charged example, would choose to consider this image in context, as a posed portrait with a story to tell about a former member of the violent Weatherman who has since grown up.

In those terms, where is the logic of depicting Bill Ayers stomping on or even stepping on the flag?  How, for example, would that account for any passage of time or personal development from the time when Ayers did, effectively, stomp and piss on old glory?

You see, with a photo like this, you still have to account for the story it’s telling, for what we call the “narrative.”  If you read the article that accompanies and also underpins it, how does the reaction of Ayers wiping his feet on the flag square with the man who, although leftist and unapologetic about his past in many ways, has transitioned into a productive and even generative American citizen?

What I see here is an eloquent representation of a guy whose past will always frame him as an occupant of the back alley.  I see a man who has to stand before the public, before his history and also his country, and account for the tension that is always there at this feet.

But then, I think the Clemons reaction forms a unique picture itself. It’s an image reflective of the current times, and especially, the poisonous, polarized and bigoted atmosphere choking us right now.

Earlier, I mentioned the date of this photo.  Let’s think about that more specifically for a moment.  It was  August 2001.  That was just a couple of months before those planes hit the World Trade Center, causing Cheney/Bush/Rove to hit the paranoia and patriotism buttons equally as hard, which led to the kind of literal, manic, kindergarten, p.c. litmus-testing with the flag that has gotten to America, gotten to Obama, and has now infected the liberal sphere.

(h/t: Miles)

UPDATE: 5/6/08 2:13 AM EST: The reader who informed me of the original Washington Note post was in communication with the photographer today and received the abbreviated notice that Ayers was, indeed, standing on the flag.  This fact changes my reaction about 3%.

What it doesn’t change is my protest and argument against the one-dimensional use of the portrait (any decent one having a complex and ambiguous nature, with multiple stories to tell) as a bludgeon to use against Ayers, and by direct association, Barack Obama.  What it also doesn’t change — and perhaps even heightens — is my concern over reading this photo out of context.  How this particular image resonates in the current political atmosphere is fundamentally and unimaginably different that what it meant for Bill Ayers and this photographer to articulate the past of Joe Citizen in a city magazine in pre-9/11 and pre-“wear your patriotism on your sleeve” America.

God forbid that liberals somehow lose the ability to appreciate the sanctity and the license inherent in visual representation and expressive symbolism.  Lose that, and then what’s the flag worth, anyway?

(Image: Jeff Sciortino, 2001.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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