Friday, July 28, 2006

Third Rail Blues

Earlier this week a good friend sent along a link to a New York Times story, "Democratic Opponent of Clinton Criticizes Actions of Israel" (July 26, 2006), which featured this photo right underneath the headline:

The "Democratic Opponent" in question is the guy with the tie: Jonathan Tasini, who's running for the Senate in New York against Hillary Clinton. The story focuses on how Tasini has (gosh) criticized Israel for committing "many acts of brutality and violations of human rights and torture." Well, actually, no—the story focuses on how spokespeople for Clinton and for a Jewish organization have excoriated Tasini for daring to criticize Israeli conduct: Tasini's views, we are told, are "stunning," "outrageous, offensive, and beyond the pale," and "his ignorance is appalling." My friend, however, called my attention to the photo:

Okay, check out the photo with this story, literally framed by a brown-suited man wearing an armband of some type. Tell me if you think I'm crazy for seeing the subtle suggestion that these peace activists might as well be wearing swastikas, because they're criticizing Israel. You know.
Hmm. I must admit that the first thing I noticed about the photo is not the brown sleeve and armband but the fact that in it Tasini—ostensibly the center of attention—seems almost an odd afterthought, standing there all stiff, suity and balding with his arms around the little old lady with the Terminator shades and the scraggly old guy with the hippie hat and hippie beard. Further to one side we have another old guy with a funny hat, and to the other side—hey, dig it, a peace sign! Radical, dude! What I noticed first, that is, is that the photo seems chosen primarily to belittle and marginalize both Tasini and his peacenik friends—who, according to the caption, were participants in a rally of New York City Veterans for Progressive Change. I stress "according to the caption" because that's the only place in the story where you'll find anything about this rally; the story itself is primarily about reactions to comments Tasini made during a conversation with a New York political blog. (WARNING: This page is basically a collection of thirteen audio clips woven together with some snarky commentary; the damn thing crashed my browser twice. Caveat auditor.) The caption says that the photo was taken "in Manhattan on Tuesday"; I believe we can conclude that it must have been taken at this rally:
Rally to Support NY'S Veterans
Tuesday, July 25th 2006 11:30am
New York, NY USA

On July 25th from 11:30 AM to 1 PM, veterans and supporters from around New York City will rally at City Hall to tell the Mayor and City Council that with our country at war, we are tired of hearing them continually proclaim that the city should honor our sacrifices yet they continually put no real resources towards helping veterans and our returning troops.

City Hall New York NY

Sponsored By: United for Peace and Justice-NYC, NYC Veterans for Progressive Change, Veterans for Peace

The New York Daily News story about this rally characterizes it thusly:
At the hour-long rally Tuesday on the steps of City Hall, veterans decried the paltry $180,000 allotted to the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs last month as part of the city's $52.9 billion budget deal.
There's not a mention of Israel to be found. Why, then, run a photo from this rally about veterans' issues to accompany a story about controversial Israel commentary? Could it be that the Times just wanted a photo that would make Tasini look, well, small and marginal? Does the Times have no other photos of Tasini? Photos of him speaking at a podium, for example, as politicians so often do? Hell, does the Times have no other photos from that rally? I mean, how often do you see the Times run a photo taken from such a cramped perspective, looking over another photographer's shoulder? I've seen photojournalists at work; indeed, one of my best friends in college was a photo stringer for both UPI and AFP. I know that photojournalists typically burn lots of film (or, nowadays, electrons) when documenting the average event. Is this the only photo the Times had available?

Then I thought a little more deeply about the "subtle suggestion" my friend mentions—how the photo foregrounds not Tasini (as one might expect) but that brownshirted arm, replete with armband. Unintentional? Unavoidable, because this was the only photo the Times had? (Unbelievable.) Someone's idea of a joke? Or someone's way of adding an extra layer of suggestion: Tasini and his Israel-criticizing friends are not just marginal whackos but modern-day brownshirts? I hate to speculate, but tell me: how often have you seen the Times run photos wherein half of the frame is taken up by another photographer's arm? I'm just asking. I mean, hey, it's not like the Times has a history of burying inconvenient facts about Israel or anything.

For the record, I am neither an anti-Semite nor a New Yorker, and I have nothing at stake in the struggle between Jonathan Tasini and Hillary Clinton. I will say, though, that I find Tasini's comments here far more cohesive with my own values than I do Clinton's Pavlovesque leap to Israel's side in the current conflict. I will also say that I agree with the sentiments expressed in this statement from the Center for Constitutional Rights:

The bedrock principle of humanitarian law is the obligation to distinguish between civilian and military objectives in the conduct of armed conflict. That principle is being shamelessly violated by all parties to the current conflict, including Israel, Hezbollah, and other groups. However, any objective assessment of the facts on the ground must lead to the conclusion that Israel's conduct cannot be equated in any way with that of its enemies but is vastly superior in its catastrophic consequences.

In waging war against the civilian population of Lebanon and its infrastructure, Israel is violating not only the principle of distinction between military and civilian targets, but also the principle of necessity, which forbids action greater than that required to achieve a military objective, the principle of proportionality, which forbids action disproportionate to the antecedent provocation, as well as the prohibition of collective punishment.

The media report hundreds of civilian casualties, many of whom are women and children. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble. Five hundred thousand persons have been made homeless or fled whatever homes may still be standing. These are war crimes, for which those responsible should be held to account.

I am also deeply sickened by the fact that my own government seems more willing to cheer on (and resupply) Israel's out-of-all-proportion assault on Lebanon than it is to use its considerable clout in the service of peace and decency. The current administration has already soiled our national name with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Lucky us: we hit the trifecta.

Please consider joining the CCR in its campaign to stop U.S. complicity in Israel's current amok-running. (I'm happy to help Israel defend itself, but they're a regional superpower now—and their current campaign in Lebanon goes well beyond anything that can legitimately be called a "defensive" war.) As for the New York Times, maybe they'll luck out and catch Tasini sticking his arm out just right at the next rally.

I keep having visions of Edward G. Robinson asking, "Where's your Messiah NOW?"
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