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May 6, 2008

Bill Ayers, The Flag, Steve Clemons, And Going Off The Deep End – Updated

Ayers Flag

Oh please, where does this all end?

Apparently, the hysterical, formerly extreme right-wing “flag attack” on Obama has now wormed itself right into the liberal blogosphere, as evidenced by this image — and the knee-jerk reaction to it — on The Washington Note.

(Sorry for the brief commercial, but this is a perfect example of why we all could use a little more skill when it comes to looking at political imagery.)

Leading his post today, titled “Trampling the Flag,” Steve Clemons grabs a lead image from an on-line Chicago Magazine feature on Bill Ayers.  (I’ll just insert, by the way, that the article and image lighting Steve’s fire in the middle of this stretch of blistering condemnation of Obama, and anyone linked to him, has been sitting there since August of 2001.)

So, let’s talk about the picture, both formally and symbolically.

First, Clemons assumes — as I’m sure many people will now, especially our wingnuts friends  — that Ayers is stepping on the flag.  Short of consulting with Ayers or photographer Jeff Sciortino, however, that’s an assumption.  Taking into consideration the “depth of field,”  what it looks like to me is that Ayers is either standing behind the flag, or standing with the flag at his feet with part of it looping between his legs.

(Because I’m not that technically versed, I also look forward to comments here regarding the following point: If you notice how the walls in this photo — particularly the left one — seem to curve, there is a distinct barrel roll to the image.  How that characteristic, as well as the focus effects the perception and orientation to Ayers and the flag also could also bear examination.)

The larger point here, however, has to do with an attribute that perhaps did die on 9/11.  I’m talking about irony and artistic interpretation.  As a note to Steve, and anyone else who deems to project onto this image, consider that most intelligent people, in a less charged example, would choose to consider this image in context, as a posed portrait with a story to tell about a former member of the violent Weatherman who has since grown up.

In those terms, where is the logic of depicting Bill Ayers stomping on or even stepping on the flag?  How, for example, would that account for any passage of time or personal development from the time when Ayers did, effectively, stomp and piss on old glory?

You see, with a photo like this, you still have to account for the story it’s telling, for what we call the “narrative.”  If you read the article that accompanies and also underpins it, how does the reaction of Ayers wiping his feet on the flag square with the man who, although leftist and unapologetic about his past in many ways, has transitioned into a productive and even generative American citizen?

What I see here is an eloquent representation of a guy whose past will always frame him as an occupant of the back alley.  I see a man who has to stand before the public, before his history and also his country, and account for the tension that is always there at this feet.

But then, I think the Clemons reaction forms a unique picture itself. It’s an image reflective of the current times, and especially, the poisonous, polarized and bigoted atmosphere choking us right now.

Earlier, I mentioned the date of this photo.  Let’s think about that more specifically for a moment.  It was  August 2001.  That was just a couple of months before those planes hit the World Trade Center, causing Cheney/Bush/Rove to hit the paranoia and patriotism buttons equally as hard, which led to the kind of literal, manic, kindergarten, p.c. litmus-testing with the flag that has gotten to America, gotten to Obama, and has now infected the liberal sphere.

(h/t: Miles)

UPDATE: 5/6/08 2:13 AM EST: The reader who informed me of the original Washington Note post was in communication with the photographer today and received the abbreviated notice that Ayers was, indeed, standing on the flag.  This fact changes my reaction about 3%.

What it doesn’t change is my protest and argument against the one-dimensional use of the portrait (any decent one having a complex and ambiguous nature, with multiple stories to tell) as a bludgeon to use against Ayers, and by direct association, Barack Obama.  What it also doesn’t change — and perhaps even heightens — is my concern over reading this photo out of context.  How this particular image resonates in the current political atmosphere is fundamentally and unimaginably different that what it meant for Bill Ayers and this photographer to articulate the past of Joe Citizen in a city magazine in pre-9/11 and pre-”wear your patriotism on your sleeve” America.

God forbid that liberals somehow lose the ability to appreciate the sanctity and the license inherent in visual representation and expressive symbolism.  Lose that, and then what’s the flag worth, anyway?

(Image: Jeff Sciortino, 2001.

  • mcc

    Taking into consideration something called “depth of field,”
    Pfah! There is absolutely no scientific evidence for the existence of this mythical “third dimension” you keep harping on!

  • Phil Sheehan

    After years of feverish socio-political blogging, I finally realized I was doing nothing more than or different from twenty million other people. (Or is is a hundred and twenty million?) Anyway, I’ve recently stepped back so that I can focus, for my readers and for myself, on stuff which is less lilkely to increase the blood pressure. However, I do keep full-time links to a few of the top-shelf blood-pressure-boosters. (We need them, desperately, but we just don’t need so freakin’ many.) This picture, and the analysis, are perfect examples of why BNN is on that list.
    ps: It should be noted that most of the replies to Clemons called him out for a blunder, which he says he still cannot see.

  • Mark @ News Corpse

    For some context, you might want to take a look at this picture of Bush stepping on the flag.
    I guess it’s OK if you’re the President.

  • black dog barking

    Very first glance fired synaptic connections with another man standing in another alley a billion years ago, in the days before steamships, filming one of the world’s first music videos.
    Sorry Mr Clemons didn’t connect with his outrage. Kinda hard to miss when one’s aiming for outrage these days. ‘Course Clemons targeted a narrow band of outrage, one that skewers Sen Obama alone, doesn’t touch Sens Clinton, McCain, or anyone making administrative decisions anywhere in this country any time in this century. Threading the needle on that one, Steve. Better luck next time.
    That alley creeps me out. The green shoots poking up out of what(?) dirt(?), the bricked in canyon closing all around in a claustrophobic reminder of Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, a grim afterlife for the 60s revolutionary. How’d that flag get there?
    Surely this alley isn’t really intended to remind us of young Dylan’s –

    Keep a clean nose
    Watch the plain clothes
    You don’t need a weather man
    To know which way the wind blows

    Don’t follow leaders.

  • Puka

    Are other nations as fetishistic about their flag as the U.S.? Recall the iconographic photo of the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. Recall: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” (oh, and by the way, to the republic for which it stands).

  • black dog barking

    Crooks and Liars posted a link the other day to a unique analysis of national flags. Scroll to the bottom for the stars and stripes.

  • cab91

    And the Republicans will use this photo to full effect if Obama is indeed the nominee, which I guess doesn’t mean much to you since you seem to believe that the average voter should be as sensible as you are:
    What I see here is an eloquent representation of a guy whose past will always frame him as an occupant of the back alley. I see a man who has to stand before the public, before his history and also his country, and account for the tension that is always there at this feet.
    Oh brother.

  • Bill Reilley

    Fox news tried to have some fun with this photo at Obama’s expense. But the feet and flag were obscured by that text bar they have across the bottom of the TV screen. It was amusing to watch the show host try to generate some viewer outrage while not being able to show the viewers the feet and flag.

  • Ed

    What I see here (looks pretty obvious) is some old jerk standing on the American flag. What I see is an opportunist photographer who’s savvy enough to know that it will surely get him and the old jerk press and of course, money. What I see makes me a little nauseous and violently angry. Isn’t democracy awesome?

  • lowly grunt

    I am 43 and had no idea who this guy even was until I read teh article. I’m still not sure why this makes Obama look bad.
    I first thought this was a picture of some dude walking down an alley who came along a discarded flag and he is standing there as if to say, “See how America has trampled on its heritage?”
    But what do I know?

  • clyde

    Whether he is standing on the flag, which the photographer has confirmed, or merely has it at his feet is not important to me. Ayers has political beliefs and a manner of expressing of them that is his own. I do not agree with either his beliefs or his manner, but I am glad the 1st Amendment is there to allow him his space without fear of official retribution.
    What we are seeing in the political process is what the Framers intended – social commentary, social repudiation, and social support.
    All I want out of this election cycle is information. I will sift through the shallow political shots to come from both parties. If I am not presented with the information I want, and cannot find it on my own, I will simply not vote. That is my freedom to exercise as I choose.
    I hope Ayers does remain an issue. It would mean that his views will become known, and those that agree may be swayed to vote in a manner consistent with his views – and those that disagree, may be influenced in the other direction.
    Information is never bad. Lack of critical thinking, an inability to discern – those are bad.

  • Deela

    I respect the flag, not this American Terrorist, Ayers. My daughter salutes that flag with the respect it deserves, as her forefathers did, and at the same time she VOTES her preference. She does not stand on the flag to pledge her hate towards this country….she VOTES.
    There is a HUGE difference.
    Ayers’ message is hate and disrespect, and not necessarily in the order.
    And the by the way, his 1st amendment rights? I’ll be sure to tell my daughter, who is in Afghanistan, VOLUNTARILY SERVING THE MILITARY, that he thanks her for those sustained freedoms that he receives while she is fighting.

  • Nick Freitas

    Wow…that was some of the worst spin I have ever seen.
    Especially since it was supposedly passed off as thoughtful analysis.
    Will Republicans use this photo…I sure as hell hope so, because it speaks volumes about the circles Obama has CHOSEN to run in.
    And the liberal rush to defend this action tells us allot about their TRUE feelings as well.
    I hope people like you get a very wide readership…its always nice to see liberals give us a glimpse of their true feelings…allot of you guys are smart enough to hide such positions…but by all means, continue to be bold! because I really have no desire to live in Obama’s socialist utopia.

  • R. Stiltskin

    How can lefty whackbags just keep making excuses for Ayers & his ilk?
    If I didn’t remember the 60’s, Id be at a loss, but moonbattery is apparently timelees, not to mention clueless.
    7 states.

  • Sambo

    I hope he burns in hell, and takes Obama with him

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