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January 10, 2011

Going Forward: Civility and the Picture of Rep. Giffords (and Commander Kelly)

With the shock of the Gabrielle Gifford shooting still sinking in, the story, so far, has been following a few very predictable pathways, including the status of her condition, the meaning of the attack in the context of the political hostility and polarization in the country and the background and nature of the attacker.

A huge factor though, and one that is likely to grow that much stronger, especially if Ms. Giffords survives, is her life story, the unfolding photo album of her life as it propagates across the media and the net, as well as the resonance of her portrait itself.

Of course, the shock — if the shooting victim had been an older, male, not-so-handsome or charismatic and even cantankerous Congress member — would, I’m sure, have been quite profound, likely much more so if that person was a known figure with a significant legislative track record.

In Ms. Gifford’s case, however, there are factors in play which could become very significant in the days ahead.

This Roll Call photo captures some of the uniqueness and power of that symbolism.  What makes this event so profound, and perhaps even a game changer in terms of the enmity and gridlock in Washington (not to mention the career trajectories of divisive figures like Palin, Limbaugh and the like) is the natural counterpoint, visually and character-wise, that the previously little-known Gifford stands to represents.

For example, she not just a Congressperson but a Congresswoman, and how many women in national office have been shot? And, who shoots such a visible woman in cold blood? And she’s not just a Congresswoman but an attractive Congresswoman, a factor that not only matters quite a bit in this telegenic era, but plays out across a demographic (think: Palin, Bachmann) that the GOP seems to be taking advantage of just now. And she was not just a young and attractive Congresswoman, but someone who was smart, well informed and known for going out of her way to help others, a trait that is probably more powerful than any other in the current calculus given how flat out contradictory it is with D.C. politics and the culture of hate. And, she was not just a young attractive Congresswoman who was well informed and would go out of her way to help others, but she was also not easily pigeonholed, being progressive on some issues and conservative on others, which truly resonates, dare I say it, with a more bipartisan spirit.  And, she was not just a young, attractive, independent Congresswoman who was well informed and would go out of her way to help others, but she was also the wife of a military man and a current U.S. astronaut, with all the obvious poetry, reverence, patriotism and uplift that implies.

(By the way, I’m expecting that Commander Mark Kelly’s image — as you can tell from this slideshow published last night — is also going to generate its own symbolic and moral influence. …Because, it’s not every husband who gets to levitate for the United States of America).

Over the next few days and weeks, I recommend you keep an eye on Ms. Giffords’ picture, which particular ones get published and how her image takes on a larger symbolism in D.C. and the media. Serving as she does to center the photo in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall amidst the Country’s greater democratic models, the Congresswoman, completely in white (and helping form a field of red, white and blue), could very well assume an iconic resonance, one which, serving as leverage and a reminder, might act as a powerful influence in modifying behavior and even uncovering some better selves.

(photo 1: Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, gives a tour of Statuary Hall in the Capitol to Shuttle Discovery STS-124 astronauts Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide, of Japan, and her husband Commander Mark Kelly on Thursday, July 17, 2008. photo 2: In this handout image provided by NASA, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, STS-124 commander, floats in the hatch between the Harmony node and the newly installed Kibo Japanese Pressurized Module (JPM) of the International Space Station while Space Shuttle Discovery is docked with the station June 4, 2008 in space. Mark E. Kelly’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head at a public event entitled “Congress on your Corner” when a gunman opened fire outside a Safeway grocery store January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona. It was reported that eighteen people were shot, including members of Giffords’ staff, and six were killed, including one young child.)

  • black dog barking

    The Statuary Hall image reminds me of science and fiction from a time when 2001 was the far future.

  • momly

    I was struck by the difference in pictures published about Giffords as the day went on. The first picture I saw of her her hair was long and brown. As it went on, her hair got shorter and lighter. I suspect older pictures were used first.

    This is a turning point in our living together.

  • Vvoter

    How does this photograph of Giffords brandishing an assault rifle complicate the associations between NRA and the kind of 2nd Amendment rhetoric typically assigned to America’s hard right?

    • Vvoter

      I’ll go first.

      America’s relationship with guns, among other things, is unique in the world. Our ammo fetish runs deep, and it transcends left/right partisanship.

      Amidst all of the Giffords chatter, this underlying problem goes largely undiscussed.

      This is not to say that the condensed version of the Giffords narrative – political vitriol, militant rhetoric, inevitable violence (even if the violence is symbolically, emotionally, though not materially connected) – should avoid giving Palin and the pro-gun right the starring role.

      Yet the actual narrative does not stop there, but moves from the pro-gun right back through our national history to the glorification we give to the revolutionaries (patriots) who took up arms against George III.

      Were it not for the bearing of arms, a tradition in which even Giffords participates, one could argue there would be no 2nd Amendment, not to mention the document that encapsulates it.

      Guns define the American tradition in a way that challenges us as we craft versions of American identity around Rep. Giffords that leave out the irony of gun love in the USA.

    • Michael Shaw

      I sifted through hundreds of photos on the Giffords Flickr site the day after the photo and this is the only photo that appears in which she uses a firearm (and, though I’m not expert, she didn’t look all that comfortable). My take is that, given the far right attack on her credentials, her blue/red district, and her own conservatism (especially when it comes to border security), the Congresswoman on a police shooting range was not an unusual or telling photo op. The key issue and point of distinction, though, is that Giffords didn’t used weaponry or the rhetoric of violence (visual or otherwise) as a method to leverage or manipulate the electorate in contrast to documented behavior of her opponents and also Sarah Palin.

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