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October 11, 2006

The New Political Picture


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Tired of the same old script?

Keith Ellison, running for the House in Minnesota, is virtually assured of becoming America’s first elected Muslim Congressperson, as well as the first black Representative elected from his state.  (NYT link.)  In right wing, race-baiting tradition, his opponent has referred to Ellison as Keith X Ellison or Keith Ellison Muhammad (for a brief interest KE had in the Nation of Islam during college, before he converted).

Besides Ellison’s pride in who he is, this NYT pic previews what visual changes we might expect in a post-Rovian, post-Stepford Administration, post-neocon, post fundamentalist political environment.

Besides the general feeling that we’ve come out of a coma, here are a few differences represented by this single picture:

This image is informal.  It’s closer to a snapshot than a portrait.  It’s more populist than elitist.  It’s not set on government property or in a room specifically rented for the occasion.  Presumably, the subjects didn’t need a background check, a ticket, or a formal invitation to be there.

The shot is a more true expression of ethnicity, as opposed to a heavy-handed, “compassionate-conservative” hugging or hand-pumping gesture of being down with elected or appointed others, or others in uniform; others in Jesus; others as victims; or others as examples of self-reliance.  (As well, the shot is not a tutorial poster of others — in most cases, the children of others — being behaviorally or intellectually re-inculcated in some fashion.)

That said, the photo is a campaign shot, and balances a range of sensitivities.  In his positioning, for example, Ellison stands as a bridge, a protector and also a cultural “go between.”  In body, he directs himself to his tradition and a very key constituency.  In his causal Western dress, however, with his eye to the camera and the unidentified figure, his mind and attention is looking as much to the outside.

…And, oh yeah.  There’s one more thing you can expect to see a lot more of with the demise of the elephant.  That is, images of people having fun, not faking it.

(image: James Estrin/The New York Times.  Minneapolis.  Published October 8, 2006.  via

  • steve talbert

    they look cold. the guy is wearing a sweater and the women have to walk around in blankets or fabric samples to keep warm. Was the accompanied article about high heating bills and low wages? The laughter looks more nervous than having fun. But maybe that’s just me. I hope the guy wins, if only because we need Congress to have to rotate their opening prayers.

  • ummabdulla

    I assume you know this, Steve, but I’ll point out anyway that that’s typical dress for Somali women, even in Somalia. The Somali man looks to me like he’s genuinely smiling, and so does the woman in the lower right corner.
    Muslims in America are usually shown as being white converts or immigrants from the Middle East or South Asia. In fact, a large number of them are African-Americans who are Sunni Muslim converts (or their children), and they often note that they’re pretty much ignored by the media. Many of them were black activists originally attracted by “Nation of Islam” rhetoric, but most of them left the Nation of Islam and accepted orthodox Islam. (It was Elijah Muhammad who founded the Nation of Islam. After his death, his own son, W.D. Muhammad, led many of his followers to embrace the real Islamic teachings, while Farrakhan stayed with the “Nation of Islam”.) I don’t know much about Keith Ellison, but it seems clear that this was the case with him.

  • Ed Kohler

    I live in Ellison’s district and have to say that it’s been one heck of an interesting race considering the results have been a forgone conclusion since Ellison was nominated by the DFL. He’s running for a very safe democratic seat and his opponent’s campaign is a disaster.
    Candidates representing this district are very approachable and visible at local events, community council meetings, etc. I think your use of the term “informal” is right on. We don’t have to place dress up to get things done in Minneapolis.

  • Joseph Plummer

    “…like we’ve come out of a coma…” is right. I just hope our political system hasn’t suffered permanent brain damage.

  • weisseharre


  • Ksue

    Oh, how I LOVE this picture. May there be many, many more just like it in the years to come.
    Our 21-yo daughter has two very good friends who are Muslim, and through them we’ve all met many more. Their primary characteristics? They are REAL, honest, open, a bit naive, and they love to have fun. They laughingly call our daughter “White Girl”, and she calls them “Brown Boy/Brown Girl.” And nobody gets their panties in a twist about it. Imagine that. And they all call me “White Mama” and love to come over here and eat my “White Food.”
    How I long for the day when these toxic, psychotic over-privileged PC yuppies no longer run our country, and we can get back to being real Americans having a real good time with our friends and neighbors in our daily lives.
    Life in America has sucked since the day GWB and Karl Rove took office.

  • Keir

    Funny, I had assumed the taller man in the center of the photo was Ellison until reading to the end of the post. I guess the head covering and the beard would be going too far, too soon.
    I am of course glad for any diversity that will come to the deeply flawed American system of government. But I truly, truly, truly fear what will happen to the American psyche when a smattering of more progressive representatives land in Congress (is Ellison progressive or just not a white neo-con Christian fundamentalist? because there’s a difference. . .) and the insufferable jerks in the executive branch are slightly less insufferable. Big sigh of relief. We made it. Our work is done. Watch, it’ll happen. Everyone wants it to be 1999 again (or at least 9/10/01), as though those were such a wonderful times. They weren’t. The coma Americans have to come out of has nothing to do with the Bush Admin. and everything to do with everything else. It’s not as though “the American way”, with its two-party system (indistinguishable from each other), institutional racism, rampant materialism, ecocidal practices, and megalomania weren’t to be found before the “coma” set in. Just what the world needs, for Americans to start having fun again . . . as long as they stop consuming so much in order to have it.

  • acm

    any chance you could use some of your magic ink to clarify which of the men in the picture is the candidate? I first presumed the one on the left, then switched, and am left with no idea…

  • margaret

    Probably not an important observation, but the camera angle is strange, if you look at the floor beneath the feet of the central figure, it looks as if it’s tilting dangerously forward and down, throwing everything into imbalance. If you take away the floor by cropping, the picture becomes a more benignly-friendly image.

  • charlie

    Keith Ellison is second from left, in the brownish suit. (See the NYT link.)

  • anon

    Sorry, the *very* first thing I notice is the women all covered up and bowing away from the camera. Hope that’s not a harbinger. Color me unimpressed, for all that I otherwise think Ellison’s candidacy is pretty cool.

  • PTate in MN

    I haven’t been following the race closely, but Ellison also has a history of mismanaging personal finances and some other rather questionable ethical judgments. To some of my liberal friends who live in this district, Ellison is an unfortunate choice, and they are looking to vote independent. Ellison, to them, is the embodiment of what has been wrong with liberal politics for the past decade and why conservatives have been able to stick liberals with charges of identity politics. The most important thing seems to have been been that Ellison is African American. The Muslim angle is just a feature. The character thing is dismissed as irrelevant. My friends are also nervous about Nation of Islam connections.
    In light of this situation the picture has other overtones for me–Ellison is trying to associate himself with the Somali community & their gentle brand of Islam, to neutralize his Nation of Islam connections. The faces of the women peeping from behind suggests individuals emerging into their own new Americanism. And I view the odd angles–in light of Ellison’s ethical transgressions–as visual evidence that this candidate does not see our Nation of Laws as I do. He has some different angles on how things should be done. Given the conservative sleaze in DC today, I had hoped for better from Democratic candidates.

  • tina

    The woman in the yellow/green hijab is faceless and in a bowing position, and the woman in pink is turned away from the men and looking over her shoulder. The man in the sweater is facing forward and shows open, confident body language as opposed to the shrinking ladies.
    This picture also serves to remind us of women’s true place in Islam, which is less than nowhere (I was a Muslim convert and can claim the benefit of experience in this). Let’s kindly not forget what this religion teaches about 51% of the world’s population when cheering for a Muslim politician.
    Nobody needs to post reminding me that Christians really don’t hold women in higher esteem. I know that. But a lot of Muslims make fundie whackjobs look like flower children.
    Also nobody needs to post about Benazir Bhutto or the current Bangladeshi prime minister. These women, like others in Muslim countries, were elected for who their father and husband were, respectively, not because anybody in those countries believes in equality for women.
    We all hate Bush but let’s not kid ourselves about conservative Muslims. They are cut from the same cloth as Christian fundies.

  • tina

    And I should point out the woman in the purple/black hijab who is actually kneeling in the lower right hand corner, just in case you missed her–I did the first three times I looked at the photo.
    Invisibility being of course the first requirement of Muslim ladies.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    ethnic chauvinism.
    The Candidate is just another “suit”…
    …i don’t pick up on any “spontaneity = lack of pretension” ~ the whole thing reeks of ethnic conceit; clearly not “informal,” as everyone is all too aware that they are being recorded; sure, the photo itself may have been “grabbed” ~ obviously a very wide-angle lens, i estimate < 28mm ~ but the event = image looks quite staged, to me: a costume drama.
    the problem with ethnic chauvinism becomes all too apparent as soon as you do the “good for the goose = good for the gander” test (eg., Gloria Steinem simply swapping “her” for “him” throughout the works of Freud, revealing his gender chauvinism conceit implict: if penis envy is to remain serious, then why is pussy envy so damn funny? iow, as soon as we lose all the ethnic tags and tells of this image, does it say anything else?
    The Candidate” : is just another suit.
    The overt message of the image is an ethnic welcome: “come sit at our table.” The conceit is that what The Candidate really wants, the reason why he made this picture for someone to take ~ he wants a bunch of guys who normally wear power suits to welcome him, the power suitable ethnic, to their table.

  • ummabdulla

    The woman in the lower right corner is no more invisible than the guy on the far left, so is that a sign that he’s oppressed? To me, she doesn’t look like she’s kneeling; she looks like she’s sitting – or maybe squatting, which is a common position in most of the world – because she was doing something with the things in the box in front of her.
    As for the woman in the yellow and green, I doubt that she’s bowing, since Muslims bow to no one but God. She has a chair right behind her; it may be that she’s just sitting down or just getting up. She looks like she could be old or pregnant… or maybe she just doesn’t want to participate in this photo op.

  • momly

    If one were to simply go by a smile, I’d vote for the guy in the sweater. His smile is open, warm, friendly.
    Why not vote for a smile? It seems to make as much sense as voting for someone who is not Clinton.

  • Guy

    This picture throws me off.
    First, the kind of off kilter feeling of the camera angle which someone referred to earlier. Also the man on the left in the shadows looks like a white guy in a dark suit. Does he represent liberals because he’s standing on the left side of the frame?
    The Somali man and the two women are interesting. He’s clearly taller than they are, and clearly the face of the family/group. The two women turn away from the camera, Ellison and the shadowy man. In my reading of the picture, the three of them seem to represent Islam as a sexist and authoritarian religion and lifestyle.
    Ellison standing between the shadowy man and the Muslims looking back at the shadowy figure, seems to me to be either a tool of the shadowy man, sent out to fool the Muslims OR a tool of the shadowy man, sent out to capitulate to the Muslims. Neither one of those reflects very positively on Ellison or liberals.

  • ummabdulla

    Guy’s remarks made me look more closely at the guy on the left. It’s impossible to tell much about him for sure, but his hand seems to be brown. And from his profile, it could be that he has a short beard and is wearing a cap, like the other man. I don’t think he’s wearing a suit, either; if so, his shirt collar is open. And there’s a white line that looks like a zipper or white trim or something.
    It is a strange camera angle, but is that maybe because it’s a small shop? Some of these people might be the proprietors and some customers; I don’t know which are which. Also, some of them might know Ellison and some might not – the woman in pink seems like she’s kind of thinking, “Who is this guy?”

  • Lope

    This picture is probably meant to show how in touch Ellison is with Muslims. The first thing that struck me is how far he seems to be from the North African man and the three women. The big patch of checkered floor and strange perspective mentioned earlier cause this sense of isolation. It’s as if both Ellison and the tall North African seem unwilling to come closer. This sense of isolation between the two groups is further emphasized by Ellison’s gaze and smile – it’s directed to his compatriot, not the North Africans.

  • Cactus

    Most people in the photo (candid) are reacting to something said by the mystery man. It is obviously some kind of shop and all the clothing hanging around on racks, plus the industrial type of sewing machines in the back room, makes me think it is a dress shop where clothing is made to order or at least tailored to fit. Smiling man and woman in pink appear to be together since she is standing very close to him. The woman in plaid is bending over in such stance that she could be rising from the chair, but her head is decidedly down which appears to be either subservience or old age. She might be the seamstress, a lowly worker and conscious of her societal place. She is in the shadow and apparently not involved in the conversation. Corner woman in purple has more of an air of authority about her. She’s the only woman freely laughing and exhibits confidence. This might be her shop, or the mystery man might be her husband. I don’t know anything about Minnesota politics or the Somali community, but my guess would be that this is a good campaign photo: It shows Ellison (who is probably rather stiff and ‘western’ in their eyes) relaxed and enjoying the company of the Somalis.

  • EK

    It couldn’t possibly be a simple photo of a few people laughing at something someone said. There must be a hidden message in it somewhere. Maybe the woman crouching in the corner is building a WMD and the woman who is between sitting and standing is a yeti. And we MUST figure out the ethnicity of the gent nearest the camera, he could be a new species!
    Honestly, sometimes a candid photo is just what it appears to be. People caught in the middle of a conversation, a few of them smiling/laughing, one of them in the process of standing/sitting, and one of them a political candidate hoping asshats like those posting here don’t try to prove a preconception by reading more into a snapshot than is actually there.
    I dislike religions and ideologies that mistreat women or people of differing backgrounds just as much as you. But this is just a damn photograph.

  • tina

    the point of this blog is to deconstruct visuals on the assumption that there is no such thing as “just a damn photograph”. Intentionally and/or unintentionally they all communicate something about their subjects. We are trying to read that.

  • EK

    Sorry about the tone of that last post I was a bit upset as I usually am in the mornings when I read both blogs that I agree with and some that make me wish I were illiterate (or maybe wish the writers were).
    That being said, this blog falls into the first category – I enjoy a great majority of what I see here, usually without feeling the need to make snide comments. Today was just a failure on my behalf to pinch a momentary case of diarrhea of the keyboard. My apologies.
    By the way, “asshat” is by far the lamest insult I have ever used in years.

  • EK

    I need to remember to proofread.

  • Samantha

    This appears to be an introduction. The participants do not know each other intimately. The shadowy man has said something so striking that all eyes are turned to him, even the eyes of the woman in pink, who is not involved (or invited) into the conversation.
    It appears very comfortable, and I enjoy seeing the tall man in the sweater smiling openly and honestly.
    But what jumps out at me more than anything is the Triad of the standing male, and two bending, covered females. In fact the photo is centered, by accident or not, around them. Culturally speaking, this is a sign of things to come.
    What is worth noting is the cultural difference between American (non-muslim) black families and Muslim black families and the roles of male and female.
    American blacks emerged from a history of slavery and minority status. Out of necessity, the female/wife/mother of the household became more prominent, public, and verbal than the male. It was wise to keep males in the background who might be hanged or arrested or negatively identified. Females were less of a threat, so they stood tall, stood out, and were the go-between between her husband and white society at the door.
    The opposite is true of the type of family represented in this picture. The male is standing open and tall, fearing nothing. The females are minimized, in the background, and have a limited role. They make no eye contact (except for the stolen glance), and their clothing further underlines their invisibility.
    While sexism is certainly ramant in black christian churches, as in most cultures and religions, american black females at least seem not to be starting from 2 steps down.
    As Erika Badu once spontaneously said standing in front of a sea of black faces, sharing the stage with Farrakan and Christian leaders….”people, follow your own damn self.”
    The winds are shifting, and overall it will be a good thing. But as an american woman, with american rights and ideals, I keep my eye on what ramifications there are when the tide brings in new culture along with new candidates.
    I’ve enjoyed all the comments posted.

  • Cactus

    I’m sure EK will grant this distinction of ‘candid’ photos:
    If one of us takes a photo of our kids at a soccer game, that’s candid and the use made of it is to inform friends and relatives of the athletic prowess of our child. Ooohs and aaahs all around.
    However, if we took that photo and published it in an article about us and our campaign for election as dog-catcher next month, then it becomes a political photograph.
    My guess is that Ellison used this photo specifically to appeal to one very particular segment of his ‘future’ constituency.

  • Cactus

    Samantha made a good point about American Muslim males of African descent. If I read it correctly, that is.
    The appeal to black American men is that it puts them one-up on the women that they, perhaps, have felt inferior to for decades. Those of us who remember Shirley Chisolm and Barbara Jordan know well that strong black women have a certain power. Perhaps Islam gives that power back to black men.
    I’d like to see some black voices comment on this. Is it valid?

  • Samantha

    Shirley Chisolm was a heck of a lady, and a wonderful role model.
    In regards to my commentary, I was just noting the historical context, but I never thought of the points you bring up. That is something to think about when talking about converting to another religion. Perhaps something never even consciously aware of when making that choice, but it could be a valid factor for some.
    We just can’t get away from talking about this because the photo is interesting in that it is NOT about the candidate.

  • Cactus

    Another thing I thought of was whether Islam is good or bad for the black family. We hear so much about the absent father or the feminization of the family (read: boy children) in black communities. Is Islam and the attendant subjugation of women the price to pay to give power back to the men? Or is that a price too dear? Will black women put up with that?
    Of course, a similar argument is going on among white southern christianist families with the strong father iconography of organizations like “promise-keepers” and “focus on the family.” Those women seem to be saying ‘yes’ but the rest of us think it’s going way too far.
    I do think, though, that this photo IS about Ellison, in that he wants to be identified with this group, whether in real life or just in this campaign.

  • ummabdulla

    There seems to be an accepted assumption that Islam = subjugation of women, an attitude which colors many of the comments about this picture. I disagree.
    There’s also an assumption that if the man is strong, the woman must be weak, or vice-versa. I disagree with this, too.
    I am an American convert to Islam, as are many of my friends – including African-American friends. Samantha mentions the impact of slavery; some of you might be interested in the book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.

  • ummabdulla

    I agree with Samantha that this might be an introduction. It may be that the man on the left is Somali and is accompanying the candidate around the mall, introducing him to people. He may also be translating – as if the standing man has said something and he and the women in the bottom right corner are smiling about it, but Ellison is looking back to get a translation, and that’s why they’re all sort of looking expectantly to the man on the left.

  • jt from BC

    Unfortunately religion exempts no one when it comes to slavery;
    “Patrick Manning, a professor of World History, states that Islamic legislations against the abuse of the slaves convincingly limited the extent of slavery in Arabian peninsula and to a lesser degree for the whole area of the whole Umayyad Caliphate where slavery existed since the most ancient times. He however notes that with the passage of time and the extension of Islam, Islam by recognizing and codifying the slavery seems to have done more to protect and expand slavery than the reverse. [13]
    Theoretically, free-born Muslims could not be enslaved, and the only way that a non-Muslim could be enslaved was being captured in the course of holy war. [14] (In early Islam, neither a Muslim nor a Christian or Jew could be enslaved.[15]) Slavery was also percieved as a means of converting non-Muslims to Islam: A task of the masters was Religious instructions …”
    Manning taught at Northeastern University, 1984-2006, where he directed the World History Center and directed twelve PhD students in world history. He serves as Vice President of the Teaching Division of the American Historical Association, 2004-2006.

  • jt from BC

    Unfortunately religion exempts no one when it comes to slavery;
    “Patrick Manning, a professor of World History, states that Islamic legislations against the abuse of the slaves convincingly limited the extent of slavery in Arabian peninsula and to a lesser degree for the whole area of the whole Umayyad Caliphate where slavery existed since the most ancient times. He however notes that with the passage of time and the extension of Islam, Islam by recognizing and codifying the slavery seems to have done more to protect and expand slavery than the reverse. [13]
    Theoretically, free-born Muslims could not be enslaved, and the only way that a non-Muslim could be enslaved was being captured in the course of holy war. [14] (In early Islam, neither a Muslim nor a Christian or Jew could be enslaved.[15]) Slavery was also percieved as a means of converting non-Muslims to Islam: A task of the masters was Religious instructions …”
    Manning taught at Northeastern University, 1984-2006, where he directed the World History Center and directed twelve PhD students in world history. He serves as Vice President of the Teaching Division of the American Historical Association, 2004-2006.

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