Monday, November 10, 2003
Another photographic smear attempt
In a post entitled "No Girls Allowed," and in a follow-up post entitled "'No Girls Allowed' Gets Legs," my young and liberal friends at Burnt Orange Report republished this photo of Dubya signing into law the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003." Referring to the people in the photograph who are standing behind the President, they argue that it's "really important that we emphasize that the people behind banning a women's health care procedure are a bunch of old white men." (They in turn credit this post on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, a blog I hadn't seen before, for the original observation.)
Referring to a similar photo of the bill signing ceremony (one apparently taken from a different angle and cropped to display fewer legislators), New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg makes the same argument in a column in yesterday's "The Week in Review" section entitled "A Bill Signed, but It's Not Picture Perfect":
The ink from President Bush's signature was barely dry when the photograph of him signing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act began circulating on the Internet. There he was, surrounded by the bill's Congressional sponsors: a bevy of white men wearing dark suits and smiles.
Ms. Stolberg reports that when asked about the all-male photo, Claire Buchan, a "White House spokeswoman," said that "too many members of Congress, including women, attended the ceremony to invite all on stage with Mr. Bush." As a result, according to Ms. Buchan, "only the 10 sponsors, all men, were invited" on-stage for the ceremony. But reporter Stolberg also reports that others, especially "[liberal] advocacy groups [acting like] Kremlinologists," are skeptical of the "happenstance" explanation, and instead theorize that the all-male composition of the photo-op "was no accident."
Not to be left out, WaPo has a similar take on the subject:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she found the picture — "of a group of men celebrating depriving women of a medical procedure that could save their health and their lives" — "disconcerting."
I've written before about "photographic smears" — the deliberate, out-of-context use of a photograph that has a powerful visceral impact to make an argument that would dissolve and evanesce once the missing context is supplied. In that post, I argued that when taken in context, a photograph of then-General now-candidate Wesley Clark wearing the hat of a Serbian war criminal fails to prove that Clark supported, or was even "soft on," war criminals; likewise, a photograph of Dubya accidentally dropping his dog in front of an astonished girls' softball team fails to prove that the President is cruel to animals. The same is true of the fallacy that, according to the NYT column, liberals would like to use this bill-signing photo to promote:
David Sirota, spokesman for the Center for American Progress, theorized that the picture was no accident. "Karl Rove is too brilliant to allow a mistake like that," he said, referring to the president's senior adviser. "The question for them is, did they ask women to be in the picture and couldn't find any?"
Well, duh. Of course they could have found women who support the statute being signed into law who would have gladly shared in the photo op. For instance, about two minutes of Googling brought me to a screencap photo of Congresswomen Sue Myrick of North Carolina "leading debate on the House floor against Partial Birth Abortion." As part of that debate she said,
As an original cosponsor of this legislation, I am very pleased to see this conference report reach the floor of the House of Representatives. I have been waiting for this day to come since 1995. I am sure that President Bush is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put an end to this horrific act of human violence by signing this legislation into law. Finally, we have a President in the White House who will not veto this monumental legislation.
There's probably no other issue on which Americans are so deeply conflicted; depending on how you phrase your questions, you can easily commission polls that "prove" any imaginable proposition regarding public opinion.
But to suggest that no women are "pro-life" or "anti-abortion" is just stupid — as stupid as it'd be to assert that all women are "pro-life" or "anti-abortion." Everyone who has half a brain — and yes, I know that's a loaded but very unfunny double entendre in this context — knows better than to think that all women or all men have a monolithic and uniform position on this statute, or on the abortion rights issue more generally. The spectrum of beliefs in our society about abortion rights is extremely broad, and there are voters distributed all along it. I'm not entirely sure where I myself am along that spectrum — although I've almost certainly moved rightward on it since I was in law school. Nevertheless, the notion that only "old white man" support, or are responsible for passing, this particular statute is absolutely a nonstarter — and this photograph absolutely fails to establish anything of the sort.
I wish that when they trot out some photograph as "proof" of something, folks from both the left and the right of center would ask themselves "what racist or sexist stereotypes am I indulging in when I argue that this photograph shows ____." Life is rarely that simple, friends and neighbors. And when it comes to the abortion controversy, nothing is even remotely that simple. To suggest otherwise is to insult your audience and the public as a whole.
UPDATE (Mon Dec 10): Here's a photo from the White House's website that shows more folks, and yup, they are indeed white males.
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