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March 4, 2005

New Head of the Passport Office

Passport1

In the latest State of the Union speech, George Bush announced a new initiative aimed at helping young African-American males avoid gangs and prison.  The program, “Helping America’s Youth,” is a three-year, $150-million initiative under the direction of non-other than Laura Bush. 

At best, this program is a trifling gesture on the part of the administration to bolster its “compassion” credentials.  At worst, it is a trojan horse to advance an ultra-right wing social agenda and further erode the separation of (fundamentalist) church and state. 

And what of the agenda?  The premise assumes that the individual child — through force of will — can overcome learning disabilities, illiteracy, gang participation, sex, drug use, violence and dropping out of school.  According to the first lady, the program reinforces will power through lectures, role modeling and coaching. 

Of course, education and personal support are both important in combatting social ills.  At the same time, by taking dire societal and cultural symptoms and attributing them primarily to weakness of character, you are not empowering a person so much as blaming him for his social predicament. 

What can be really interesting is a set of news photos from the same event taken within an instant of each other.  Within that collection, of course, you will find that perfectly-posed shot which ends up in the newspapers.  If you’re lucky, however, you might also get a shot like the one above — more like an out-take — revealing a more authentic feel of the moment, and the dynamic between the players.  The image shows Mrs. Bush a few weeks ago, attending a program called ‘Passport to Manhood’ at a Boys and Girls Club in Philadelphia. On one hand, you can say a photo op is a photo op.  On the other hand, I would have hoped for at least a little more humanity and connection from Mrs. Bush in between the photo flashes.

The feeling these kids give off is demoralization.  And also defensiveness.  They boy next to Mrs. Bush couldn’t be more distant and pulled in.  It’s stunning how far he projects himself away from her, considering the attention on him.  And what about the kid at the upper left.  That arched shoulder functions like a force field.  Then there’s the kid in the sweat top to the right of Bush’s head.  He’s got that “just do what you want with me” forward slump. 

The only kid that actually looks like he’s breathing is the one with the white shirt and black jacket at the far right. If you’re a kid, and the wife of the President shows up, this is the kind of attentive, slightly self-conscious, slightly-embarrassed manner you would typically expect.  So the question is, are these kids this unresponsive because they are downtrodden?  Or, do they just know that they are props?

Passport2

I was also interested in this photo from the same event.  It shows the children in the back row sitting beneath a blackboard bearing the name of the program. (Notice, there’s the kid with the white shirt and black jacket again.)

I have to say, I’m fascinated with this title.  I can’t help pulling the words apart, especially the first and last four letters.  (…Maybe, if you don’t pass, you end up in the hood?) 

But what really interests me is the concept of a “passport.”  If a passport is something that bestows the right or privilege of passage, what are the terms upon which these kids earn that right?  According to the Bush model of rigid moral conduct, rights are earned if you just ’shape up.’  But then, what are the consequences if you can’t conform quickly enough to their terms (if you can at all)? 

I suppose you get your passport revoked.  And your manhood.

(images: AP/Jacqueline Larma in YahooNews)

  • Jerry Holtaway

    ‘Manhood’ – what did the girls in the class think of that ambition? Plus, to me these images speak volumes about the distance between ‘compassionate conservatism’ and reality. The mood in the room suggests more ‘as if’ that ‘whatever’. Not boredom, but resentment.

  • Michael Akey

    150 million dollars. Well, that should just about solve the problem. Ok, whats next? Maybe if we spend 160 million we can stop alcoholism too. Perhaps an ad campaign or something. That should do it. Now, where did I put those opera tickets…

  • Just Some Liberal Cynic

    Lack of “willpower”, “moral weakness”…you’re right: those do seem to be favored concepts for explaining social ills among the fundamental conservative cabal now pulling the Washington strings. Perhaps it’s based on a simplistic interpretation of “Through Christ/prayer/strong belief all things are possible.” More frighteningly, it could also be based on basic stereotypes that the Ruling Elite have of those of us down here in the streets. Yale professor Yosihi Tsurumi famously recalls GWB declaring that people are poor because they are lazy (http://www.glocom.org/opinions/essays/20040301_tsurumi_president/). Perhaps girls get pregnant because they’re weak, people “get gay” because of a lack of moral education, people start use drugs because they suffer lapses in judgement and vigilance…on and on…in any case, if this kind of thinking prevails, then the handwriting is on the wall for almost any kind of useful social program still in existence today from earlier, more enlightened times: your model of human behavior is not right, so we’re cutting your support. Frightening. JSLC.

  • Jon

    Great critique — that phrasing reminds me of the old Promise Keepers schtick from the mid-90s… Coach McCartney on the Jumbotron praying for the strength to run his domicile with a velvet fist. Perhaps someone from the road crew got promoted to the Message Shop.
    Obviously, another team at the Shop is teasing out the sell-job for the National Biometric ID Card. Maybe they’ll come up with something catchy, like, “Get a job or lick the swab.”

  • aethorian

    Official White House photos of the event here. Obviously a photo-op, the room has been prepped for photography with multiple lights, blue window diffuser, blue tablecloth in back, and a bright red tablecloth up front to draw the eye. The otherwise plain white walls complete the patriotic color theme surrounding the First Lady.
    Given the circumstances, you have to make your subject(s) look as good as possible and include some context. I imagine some video was also shot here, and the room probably needed a little brightening up. This was in a Boys and Girls Club, and “Passport to Manhood” is a guy thing, sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, so it’s not to say that the girls don’t get their due. And maybe, being kids, the boys in the pictures are just bored with all the fuss. At least they’re not models.
    PR shoots aside, I don’t think the White House photographer, Susan Sterner, has an unjaded eye. She’s done her share of hard subjects (“A Gringa Goes to São Pablo” – link): note her Gallery at the bottom of the bio. There’s some nice B&W images there: maybe Howard Dean should give her a call…

  • http://www.slyfelinos.com/slyblog/ jillian

    I want to know, what does Mrs. Bush know about growing up a disadvantaged black boy?
    I think these kids with their street smarts know they are being used as props.

  • Germanicus

    “So the question is, are these kids this unresponsive because they are downtrodden? Or, do they just know that they are props?”
    nice false delimma. the kids do not look too excited, that much is obvious, but i think i would need more than a few photographs to tell if they were demoralized, downtrodden, etc. maybe you are just racial profiling – you see black children at Boys and Girls Club and just assume that are defenseless victims of a cruel society led by an ignorant man who is the cause of their plight.
    what about the hundred other things that might explain why the kids look less than enthusiastic? maybe they had to listen to a long boring lecture. maybe their teacher or counselor or whatever told them he would do something awful to them if they misbaehaved and they are trying not to look like they are misbehaving. maybe the photographer told them to pose a certain way and those are the poses they took. maybe they were fed a big meal before the photos. etc. etc. etc.

  • michaelweaselo

    Riiight. Poor inner city kids fed a big meal right before the photos. I would think that would make them HAPPY, not depressed. I remember similar circumstances when I was a kid. Some state senator or mayor coming to visit your school. The cleaning and painting would begin a couple of weeks before, suddenly new trash cans would appear where they werent before, flowers would get planted, debris removed from the playground, etc. Simple sprucing. Then the big fuss when everyone got there. The kids could not care less. Its more of the interruption of their normal routine that makes them upset, and less of a political statement on their part. They know that all the rich white dudes dont give a shite about them. I agree about that. They also know that as soon as the visit is over, its back to normal and nothing will change. The passport to manhood will be erased from the board and they will go back to substandard materials and education.

  • http://evilqueen.demesnes.net/ Aine

    The boy on her right… he’s embarrassed as hell. Bush herself has painted on this expression of “forceful positiveness.” She hasn’t a clue what it’s like being poor or, of course, growing up black on the other side of town.
    Willpower isn’t going to provide anyone in that room with the opportunities they will need to succeed in life… and they know it.

  • http://zencomix.blogspot.com/ zencomix

    Can you say “Just Say No?” Sure you can…..

  • MonsieurGonzo

    i feel sorry for Laura Bush
    …certainly, the children are being used. we know this not only because of the “staging” of these photo ops, (which is so stiff and, well ~ downright awful that the product ends up being counter-productive, n’est-ce pas?) but also by the shameless political agenda ~ that the First Lady of the United States could actually affect anything whatsoever vis the destiny of inner-city African-American boys ~ by whatever means: media attention; fund-raising; mentoring, etc.
    otoh, OUR conceit is the presumption that Laura Bush (the woman) is not being used, (just like the children ;-)
    frankly, the whole thing is an embarrassment for her. i mean, we look at this picture, her expression, (gulp!) and i’m thinking something outta CATCH-22, you know?
    “Help Her! HELP HER!!”
    “Help… who?”
    “Help the First Lady!”
    “I am… the First Lady!”
    “Then… Help Her! HELP HER!!”

    “I’m… k-k-kold. I’m… k-k-kold.”
    “there there, kid. there, there”

  • pjr

    I can’t think of any underprivileged minority child who wouldn’t instantly connect with a multi-millionaire white woman who just happens to be the wife of the President of the country, especially when it comes to the subject of prospering when you have every fucking advantage that society can offer you. Her incredibly smug expression speaks volumes about her belief that she can relate to these kids in any positive way at all. What the fuck does she know about ‘manhood’ and endless obstacles these kids face as minorities in America today? This is the most obscene ‘program’ yet trotted out by the most out of touch administration in history; but is gives Laura a chance to show off her designer duds where they can be truly appreciated; in front of a crowd of fawning photographers. Can anyone say bullshit is on the march?

  • psv

    I know absolutely nothing about the Passport to Manhood program at the Boys and Girls Clubs, but let’s just say it’s a totally wonderful program that really touches these kids in a positive way. Say that their teacher is a great male mentor for them, and in the context of a boys-only class they are able to have intimate discussions about growing up. It’s a program that BELONGS to them; they are invested in it and feel good about it. Along comes this fancy white lady who seems to want to somehow take credit for what they’ve accomplished, or at least become the center of attention. Kinda ruins the whole thing, doesn’t it? This seems as plausible an explanation as any about the way they look.

  • Emily

    I just found this blog and I think it’s great. I love what you have going on here. The boys do look really bored. They probably can sense when they’re having photo-ops and all that. I agree with the last poster that Mrs. Bush is just there for the photo-op and to appear busy and like she’s doing something. I wonder what happened for her to get this job. She more then likely won’t ever appear again unless they need her to look busy. This program, I think, is going to be another D.A.R.E.

  • http://www.brainshrub.com brainshrub

    The frame manhood-as-a-passport is extremely dangerous to democracy. One gets permission from the government to receive a passport. But in a free society, you don’t need to do anything after a certain age to be considered a man and receive the privileges of adulthood.
    The very concept of a “Passport to Manhood” is anathema to the Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
    One of the verbal weapons white racists used to enforce their perceived superiority over black males was to call them “boys” regardless of age. Seeing a chalk-board with the implied message that black youth need a permission-slip to be a man is so bigoted that it boggles my mind that it is part of a portfolio to promote Mrs. Bush’s program.
    Certainly, manhood can be an honorary designation placed on someone by their religious or cultural beliefs, such as in the Jewish or Catholic traditions. Ultimately, however, manhood is something that is as innate to our personhood as the ability to think or feel. People can refuse to accept their manhood by shirking their social responsibilities, but manhood is not something that one gains or loses with someone else’s permission.
    http://www.brainshrub.com

  • kali yuga

    “Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me . . .”

  • nikto

    Those kids aren’t listless from eating a big meal.
    They’re just tuckered-out from 2 hours of speaking in tongues and rolling about the floor with the 1st lady.

  • RainyPatriot

    Actually, the kids are terrified laura will get behind the wheel of an SUV and try to run them over, as she has done before, with impunity.

  • dave

    Nice. Teaching children that they can control their own destiny, through education and hard work, means that the teachers are blaming the students for their situation. That makes no sense. How the hell else are underpriveledged kids going to have a better life for them? Many times when I see a news article with the “poor kid makes good” theme, the “kid” talks about how his mother (or father, or both) impressed on him/her that “you make your own destiny, you can do anything you want in life you just have to work for it”.
    So what’s your solution?

  • Lisa

    Add me to the compliments of what you do here. It’s fascinating to read.
    These are two great, great shots. I love your discussion of ‘em.

  • Jeff

    All these programs are is a way for churches to get federal money and all they do is say some holy words over the problem and pocket the cash.

  • denallen

    What does Laura Bush know about growing up a disadvantaged boy?
    Probably the same as John Kerry or Ted Kennedy.
    Don’t you think?

  • denallen

    “Nice. Teaching children that they can control their own destiny, through education and hard work, means that the teachers are blaming the students for their situation.”
    How else does one control his/her destiny if not through education and hard work?
    Through federal programs?
    I don’t think so…do you?

  • CapnGravy

    As a male person who frequently has to sit through excruciatingly dull meetings myself, I emphasize with the boys in the picture. Comparing these photos with the “official” press release shots is a pleasant exercise – even the pix approved by the White House have difficulty in conveying the enthusiasm these boys must be experiencing at that very moment.
    Realistically, as MrGonzo put it, all subjects in this photo are being used for other purposes. And if those kids are bored with having the brass come in and speechify for one brief photo op, just imagine how bored Mrs. Bush is in having to schlep to grotty inner city clubs and classrooms? To me this photo is an excellent representation of throwing money at a Problem instead of dealing with the Cause — it betrays a disconnect with the issue and an unwillingness to engage in finding a real solution.

  • Jack

    I am also a black male from canada, in Edmonton and guess what the teacher was white, and I was a drug dealer, lived on the streets, was a male hooker lived as a gay person. Lived in a woman’s shelter, but because a white teacher took
    me in her class when she was not even suppose to. Today I am sober for several years play piano for my church, born again Christian. have a nice home. why? it not because my teacher lived in a black area, no frist she was a human being she cared for people, she gave me the courage to have the willpower to change. come on let’s get beyound Mrs Bush’s color and see who she is in her heart. We also need people who have had life better than we black’s have had. Ever heard the story you want to be nice hang out with nice people you want to be positive hang out with positive people. You people in the States you want a change to find your way in life if you can stay in school and if Mrs Bush comes to help you learn all you can and say thank you. by the way it not a matter of her being white it a matter of being a caring person thank you and God Bless you all.

  • http://www.foxnews.com redstaterepublican

    These children in the photo are a very stark contrast to the students of the inner city I have known. Full of real life and pain and rage, just like the rest of us, the real students that live outside the photo are as wary of adulthood, again, as any of us. The photos do, many of you seem to be correct, freeze what it means to be black and from the inner city and make it answer docilely to the ‘non-other’ [sic] LB. And so what? Are any of you going to do anything about it? You perhaps correctly criticize this particular attempt of the administration as all show. And yet, blogs are not social programs. Progressives need to put themselves where they tend to think they speak from–the supposed moral high ground. How many of you are going to move into Detroit and teach there? I thought so.

  • http://molly.douthett.net molly

    I tutored fourth graders in reading for two years (before we moved) in Dayton, OH. I worked with about 8 kids who had a wide variety of reading skills. We lived in Dayton for nine years.
    Those are my credentials, red.

  • http://www.foxnews.com redstaterepublican

    Hat’s off to ya, Molly. I wish others would help too. The crisis in the cities is real and it will grow with the downturn in the economy. As the Catholics close their schools and the money dries up for the public ones, the burden shifts to those who, blue or red, give a damn about their fellow citizens. Where were you when public education died?

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    Looking at these now, after the flood I’m simply livid.

  • hauksdottir

    SusanMurray,
    “Even when a hurricane hits, the apple does not fall far from the tree.”
    Barbara Bush managed to show just how little humanity the entire BUSH clan really possesses with her trip to visit the refugees in Houston. I am not totally surprised by her unfeeling… after all she didn’t want to think of the deaths in Iraq lest it disturb “my beautiful mind”.
    “Commenting on the facilities that have been set up for the evacuees — cots crammed side-by-side in a huge stadium where the lights never go out and the sound of sobbing children never completely ceases — former First Lady Barbara Bush concluded that the poor people of New Orleans had lucked out.
    “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them,” Mrs. Bush told American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program, before returning to her multi-million dollar Houston home.
    On the tape of the interview, Mrs. Bush chuckles audibly as she observes just how great things are going for families that are separated from loved ones, people who have been forced to abandon their homes and the only community where they have ever lived, and parents who are explaining to children that their pets, their toys and in some cases their friends may be lost forever. Perhaps the former first lady was amusing herself with the notion that evacuees without bread could eat cake.
    At the very least, she was expressing a measure of empathy commensurate with that evidenced by her son during his fly-ins for disaster-zone photo opportunities.”
    ******************
    The only thing which could possibly worry her would be if these poor people enroll to vote in Texas, after the Republicans managed to illegally gerrymander the state between Census counts. There are folks who admire the Bush’s patrician attitude… but we forget so easily that Rome had a wide gap between the owners and the owned. I don’t want to know how she treats her servants.
    Carolly

  • babydeebie

    No, the main stupidity about “PASSPORT” is this:
    WHEN would these kids EVER NEED A PASSPORT IN REAL LIFE??
    It’s like; Now, you know passports are used to travel to foreign countries, right? And you know the only way you’ll ever see one in RL is to join the military, right? Because otherwise, you don’t have the scratch, right, kids?!
    So let’s just use the word “PASSPORT” in a different way! Oh, I know! Life is a journey! And to a black kid like you, MANHOOD is a FOREIGN LAND, well, seeing as how y’all shoot and kill each other and do drugs and all!

  • http://www.amphetameme.org Jonathan

    Passport makes me think of challenges like: “Achtung. Please hand over your passbook.”
    How much longer before we start treating these kids even more like criminals and force them to carry around papers that decry their identities, their credit records, their parents credit records and in turn their right (or not) to be visiting the rich part of town?
    Not too far if I miss my guess. Visits from Bush like this are pure fakery. Just like his handling of 9/11 (which brings to mind his sitting in another classroom when he should be doing something else) and again like his handling of the New Orleans disaster (where he once again should be doing plenty of other more useful things.)

  • DEB

    your emulous jargon is your downfall in trying to be “sincere!” After reading your excretion of “?” pictoral
    investigations, you remind me of Freud, some truth mostly non-sense! Your are quite narccistic yourself only you are also too close to your intellectual mirror to see otherwise! You are a very negative person, I feel sorry for you. So much for this very uncreative website. Fun if you can realise it is just cartoon quality!

  • Hypatia

    It appears DEB is projecting, and just analyzed his/herself. ;-)

  • hari

    I am 21years old. I have completed Graudation major in maths. How to get a job as a Passport officer? please give me advise.

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