August 19, 2014

On that Picture of Obama Dancing During the Ferguson Turmoil

Although I mostly know better than to chase these things, I’m always interested in right wing attacks on Obama when there’s race and an image involved.

In this case, the noise machine turned up the decibels (1, 2, 3, etc.) after a local commercial photographer, Elizabeth Cecil, Instagramed this photo at a private birthday party, including the President, the Clintons and 150 guests, at the Farm Neck Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard. Cecil then quickly removed it from her feed after the Washington Times and a phalanx of others attacked Obama for partying while the civil disturbance in Ferguson endures.

Do the people beating the drums really think the President was being insensitive, though?  And what is their prescription? That Obama should be locked down in the Rose Garden or the Situation Room until a judge in Missouri hands down an indictment — or not?  Until white right-wing critics suddenly become the official arbiters of political correctness, let’s just say the President has many roles to play in public.

If there is something worth noting, however, it’s how the intimidation and static led a photographer to pull her picture. This isn’t about the President and race so much as it’s about social media and self-censorship. Woven in there, as well, is the larger theme of class, privilege and political access, and one more pet peeve of mine, which is the near blackout of private political parties embellished by public servants, bubbly, shrimp trays and fat cats.

But back to Ferguson.  There is just a false equivalency here, period. In a couple of tweets published in the links above, you’ll notice that George Bush’s NOLA fly-over was a popular reference point.  Not surprisingly, conservatives — still smarting from George Bush’s disastrous response to the environmental, than political bombshell in 2005, were compelled to elevate and compare Ferguson to Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in US history killing or disappearing 2,500 people. One difference among multiple, however, is that the racial violence perpetrated on blacks by the law is nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, it’s more like an everyday occurrence.

Finally, that this photo could have a dog whistle effect raises its own racial red flag. Specifically, what we see above is the right wing failing to grant to Obama what it likely would a white president – which is discretion over the day-to-day execution of the office.

Update 8/11 9am PST: A tweet by John Edwin Mason offers a worthy critique:  that this post, in exclusively addressing the right wing lens, speaks to what the photo isn’t more than what it is.  The point there is that the photo unavoidably captures Obama’s distance from Ferguson.  If there is a moral dimension to that, too, it more than raises issues of politics and leadership, race and Obama’s psychology. In illuminating the issue through that lens, Mason points to Peniel Joseph’s post at The Root which focuses on the gap Ferguson has exposed in the black community between youth and the older generation, highlighted by the presence “on the ground” and the ineffectiveness of the older generation of black civil rights leaders. Ezra Klein opines on Obama’s inaction from a different angle, based on the country’s political polarization and what he sees/rationalizes as a practical perception on the part of the White House that wading in strongly will only make things worse.

It’s not that Obama hasn’t weighed in on the turmoil, of course, or made moves on the federal level. It’s that his actions, given his moral and rhetorical options … as characteristic of the man, have been overly tactical. All told, whether the perspective is knee-jerk and antagonistic or more political and cultural, what the photo does seem to capture is a President at distance.

(photo: Elizabeth Cecil)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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