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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?

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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)

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