Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture that's been making the rounds:



The back story is this: Racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso, among the victims are two parents of a very young child. The parents die protecting the child, the child survives with minor injuries. The President, Donald Trump, visits El Paso in the aftermath, and there are photo opportunities. In this photo, the President's wife, Melania Trump, is seen holding the injured child.

The left reads this as Donald and Melania Trump being sociopaths with the collective empathy of a stick, and perhaps a dopey grin reflex when confronted with a camera. They find the grins and thumbs up gesture in the midst of tragedy to be repellent, vile, and tone-deaf. This is the narrative promoted by leftists of all stripes. Notably it is promoted by leftists who consider "reading" photographs to be an important part of their job. As usual, the establishment photographic theorists treat this politically charged picture as having only one possible reading, their own.

The right reads this picture as Donald and Melania Trump celebrating a ray of light, a triumph of life over death. The gunman intended the baby to die, and was thwarted. Among all the tragedy, one victory for the good guys, as it were. Hooray for the good guys.

Ones reaction to the photograph and its back story depends entirely on where one stands politically. Nobody except, possibly, Donald and Melania know what was in their minds in this moment. You and I certainly don't. We are looking at a pattern of pixels and reading meaning in to them based entirely on the suite of ideas and biases we bring with us.

Humans are good at reading faces, I will tentatively allow that almost everyone regardless of political persuasion will read this as the Trumps projecting a facade of good cheer and optimism. They are performing, as Presidents and First Ladies always do. An expert could probably point to specific features of the facial musculature as evidence of a performance rather than a natural emotional response. That this is performance is in no way surprising, nor really a judgement. This is a photo-op.

The meaning we read diverges when we try to imagine why this particular facade, why this performance?

13 comments:

  1. Agreed. Those of us on "the left" (a category that has ceased to have much political meaning, really) have a blind spot which we could label "hypocrisy". We think exposing it in others is a killing blow, and therefore avoid it in ourselves at all costs. I think this has a lot to do with the role of the churches and concepts of "morality" in the early days (anti-slavery, equal voting rights, etc.). Result? The inability to deal with the necessary lies, postures, and ugly compromises of Realpolitik. Lenin despised liberals.

    A lot of this sort of work is based on the assumption that hypocrisy is (a) visible and (b) damning. If I read that smile, it says, "I know exactly what you're thinking, and I don't give a fuck, losers..."

    Mike

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  2. I'm certainly no Trump lover, but I don't feel outrage when I see this photo. As you say, it's a photo op. What I do wonder about is why you chose to crop out the baby's uncle and aunt, who are Trump supporters, apparently, and will no doubt treasure this photo on their sideboard for ever.

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    1. I just snagged it out of a twitter stream, to be honest, someone else cropped it down. Since this contains the elements I was interested in, I let it be.

      But yes, this is a crop from the original published photo.

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  3. You left out the part of Trump demonizing hispanics and basically siccing white supremacists into murdering them, then staging a photo-op with dead victims' baby, all shit-eating grin and thumbs up. Yeah, that part.

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    1. Because you dispute the narrative, or don't think it's relevant to how the picture might be interpreted?

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  4. "The right reads this picture as Donald and Melania Trump celebrating a ray of light, a triumph of death over life."

    I think you're wrong. To Trump's pavlovian supporters, it's a dog-whistle of approval.

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    1. There are 50 million people who voted for Trump, I think there might be room for a few variations of opinion. In particular, I am loathe to imagine that the world consists exclusively of Good Lefties and Racist Scum.

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  5. I tried to view this as a picture of "A" President and "A" First Lady, disregarding the Trumpness, a PO- and FLO- visiting a murder scene, surrounded by those who have been affected in the most profound fashion. I could not. Such events are surely sombre affairs which demand humility and empathy from visiting dignitaries, qualities which have (to my knowledge) always been displayed by previous heads of state. I have to decide whether those depicted are incapable of this or have decided against it and I think it's probably the latter. So that's my reading of this photograph - they know their responses are inappropriate but they don't care because this facade serves their political purposes. They also know that they can behave pretty much as they wish with total impunity just as politicians in the UK have learned.

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  6. “ ... a triumph of death over life.”

    Shouldn’t you have meant “a triumph of life over death”?

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