my president prop plop.

What's been interesting for me during this ongoing Katrina debacle has been the visual
aspect of its dissemination to the public. Particularly since I've never been to New Orleans, and am not there now, and I'm forced to consume the imagery provided by the media. Of particular importance has been two images, both almost instantly inflated to archetypal dimensions:
figure 1.

figure 2.

I think most people would agree that these are important images. But important because of their very non-importance.
The first picture was taken on August 30th, three days after a state of emergency was declared in Louisiana. At the very instant this photograph was taken, people were drowning in New Orleans. Wait a minute... who cares?
Were we expecting Bush to jump in and tug them out himself?
The second image occurs after Bush's drastic shift in mood in relation to the disaster. As has been widely noted, those firefighters were taken away from their work in order to pose beside the president. Everywhere the president went, hurricane victims were run through metal detectors, phony reconstruction backdrops were constructed and promptly abandoned. If anything, the presence of the president hindered rescue efforts.
The first image fuelled a massive burst of outrage among liberal commentators, and polls showed less than half of the public was satisfied with the president's performance. And here, the characterization of just what the president does as a 'performance' seems remarkably apt. It seems to me the only reason for outrage might have been that the president did not excrete enough crocodile tears in public.
Like most of you who read this scrawlie, I find myself harbouring a particularly venomous hate for this president. Beyond his reprehensible policies, beyond even his access to insurmountable power, I find myself hating the man. I think probably that he's a prick in real life, but who's to know? For Bush, there is no real life. Even his so-called leisure, his 'ranching' vacations, are sculpted by exterior forces of public approval and wish fulfillment. George Bush, the man, is probably no more disagreeable than the old guy that screamed at me for jaywalking at College and Manning.
Like haggard junkyard dogs rising one more time to bait, the left snapped at the image of Bush posing with a guitar, and the right oozed at their action figure leading a group of firefighters. It didn't matter that neither image, in a sense, was true. Bush is a film prop; he poses with whatever is thrust into his hands; he has been conditioned to do this. The real story is how FEMA became so enfeebled as a wing of Homeland Security, and how the levees were left to disintegrate without adequate funding. But even here, saying that "Bush cut FEMA's funding" is a misnomer; he merely signed the bill. Again, probably a Pavlovian response. I very much doubt that Bush reads every bill that he signs off on. I also doubt that he was interested in the minutae of flood response. One might also point at the incompetence of FEMA director Michael Brown, who probably 'won' the position as a reward for party loyalties. Even so, can't say that corruption within a government bureaucracy surprises me much.
What surprises me is the utter pettiness of these rhetorical offensives. Let's look at the second image again. The (occasionally voting) public, the pseudo-We, are an audience inside a lecture hall. (soldiers bar the exits) The background of the photograph, the firefighters, are the subject-- a powerpoint image of surprisingly narrow focus. The president is the red dot of a laser pointer, dancing over the image and emphasizing its points. It hits me: why do we insist on putting a president in all these images? Maybe you can answer that question by looking back at those family albums-- that time you visited the Big Rocks in Big Rock national park: mother and sister are instructed to stand beside the Big Rock, partly to indicate the physical proportion of the rock and partly to reassure ourselves: indeed, we were beside the Big Rock... anyone who believes that we only bought a postcard and inserted it into our photo album is mistaken; there's mother and sister right there, plain as day... you can't buy a postcard with your likeness in it. Wipe your brow in relief... phew! There exists no commodity to erode the authenticity of a family photograph. (at least not then... now we have photoshop.) In all of these pictures, it should be clear that Bush is a film prop; also a yardstick, indicating proportion... but also constraining proportion. In image 2, the photographer must zoom in, in order to keep the president's features visible and recognizable... otherwise it could be just anybody walking there. (and what a crisis of faith that would be!!) In the absence of a president, the photographer might be free to zoom out, to minaturize the firefighters until their individual identities are invisible, and more importantly, reveal a more realistic scale of the destruction, dwarfing those miniscule human monkeys crawling over the wreckage... and so, you have to have a president in there, to constrain the scene... the camera must never zoom out to capture the totality of the thing.
So, the president (or let's be honest here... the mere image of the president) acts as a film prop, as a focus of public attention, as a source of proportion, and one other thing. The president must be a actualizer of public desires. The image of a president is an empty vessel, infused with whatever meaning we bring to it. No other president has understood this as well as Bush. Thus, again, contemplate the fiction of image 2. America sees itself striding along not as a mere firefighter, but in the president's shoes. As long as they believe that his power is representative of their own, their very real personal disempowerment can be disregarded. Confronted with the utter fiction of image 2, most Republicans don't care. To perceive the president's fiction is to perceive their own, to finally see the bullshit of 'United We Stand' dissolving amid calls of 'shoot the looters' and 'welfare checks.' And the Liberals, criticizing image 1, calling the performance an 'abject failure', evoking the chin-thrust of Mussolini, complaining that they would have handled things differently. Why, by this time, their man would have hugged two dozen displaced mothers, would have cheered up an entire truckload of crying children, and maybe even strode purposefully beside fifty firefighters of many ethnicities (remember, United We Stand even if we don't really). A Democrat might even wonder aloud why it's mostly people of colour left to drown like rats, but a Democrat would never challenge the status quo, just ruminate silently and emotionally to polite applause. In image 1, you can fault president Bush for following the wrong script. But don't insult the public's intelligence by insisting that there was no script, that the president is grinning because he honestly doesn't care, and not because it is the expression that is expected of him.
The reason we put our president in disaster photographs is to establish what we imagine are our own hopes and intentions in the scene. If we can see the embodiment of government-- at least in terms of spectacle-- striding through a sound-stage of disaster, we can believe that Things are Being Done. But not only is the president not symbolic of the public's empowerment, but the power he represents-- the goverment's-- remains largely ineffectual. For example, the broad reach of history has brought upon us this thing called Global Warming, which will probably flood most coastal areas in the world and negatively affect the weather. The flooding of New Orleans might be an indicator of what's to come. In order to change the process of Global Warming, governments of the world, all of them, would all have to enact serious policy to curb carbon dioxide emissions. No government on earth would be allowed to interfere with the economy, which relies on the continued release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. No government wants to be the first to destroy its economy and their continued riches, not in this competitive global marketplace. And after all this, it might already be too late to change the trend at all. In a very real sense, governments have no control over what happens to us. But their continued existence depends on the illusion of potency.
So, to paraphrase Bob Black, who are the anarchists? Are they the left of the ultra-left, the ones complaining most stridently about the president's performance, or are they something else entirely? And what can they offer a populace that has been so disempowered, that it craves and demands the illusion of power strutting on their tv sets?


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