In Praise of Civil Discourse

By now, many of you have read the still gathering storm that is the Jill Greenberg/McCain/Atlantic monthly debacle, in which Ms. Greenberg, aka the Manipulator (a term that is now meaningful on so many levels) during a commission for The Atlantic Monthly purposefully creates and then digitally enhances images of  Republican Presidential candidate John McCain in a way that makes him appear,er, malevolent, to say the least.  I don’t feel like posting the work here you can find it quite easily on any of the number of blogs that are and will be covering this topic. I just really need to say this:

1.  Ms. Greenberg has succeeded in joining the ranks of Jason Blair, and Stephen Glass, in singlehandedly damaging the reputation of a respected magazine and by contributing to the public’s often poor perception of objectivity and ethics in journalism, (i don’t want to get into a debate about the possibility of objectivity – i agree it is impossible to be totally objective, but what is not impossible is to try one’s hardest to suspend one’s bias in the carrying out of work when working for a journalistic entity).  I know she is not a journalist per se, but she was working for a news magazine, and therefore, (does this need to be spelled out??) she is expected to behave in keeping with the profession for the duration of her shoot and the post-production. This is a pretty reasonable expectation, which Ms. Greenberg subverts gleefuly with the comment,” Some of my artwork has been pretty anti-Bush, so maybe it was somewhat irresponsible for them [The Atlantic] to hire me.”

2. Ms. Greenberg has given the Republicans some fantastic material to mobilize anti-liberal sentiment.

3.  Ms. Greenberg had every right to do what she did, legally. She negotiated a short embargo, the pictures were hers to do with what she would.  Just like the Klu Klux Klan has a right to march around in sheets and burn crosses during public marches with the necessary permits.  People have the right to do many unsavory things, but rights don’t always make it right.

3.  The photographs that Ms. Greenberg has created are entirely in keeping with the infantile discourse about this election that is preventing us from delving deeply into any issues that will actually affect us.  I don’t give a shite about hockey, pit-bulls, and lipstick, but this seems to be a great unifier for the American public.  And don’t kid yourself, this cult of superficiality happens on both sides of the aisle (just look at Greenberg’s work).  The American public might be better served by actually unplugging and reading some analysis in magazines like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The National Review and using their own noggins, and poorly developed analytical skills to determine what one thinks is right for themselves.   Yeah, that’s right, I said The National Review.  You might actually want to familiarize yourself with both sides, so you can weigh and argue intelligently. (And yes, I assume everyone reading this blog is leaning to the democratic side, my apologies out there if I am incorrect).

4. I doubt that this is going to have huge lasting impact on her career, at least vis a vis Hollywood, where the tendency is to speak liberal while simultaneously putting movies out that are violent, sexually graphic, and demeaning towards women.  (As an aside, does anyone else but me find it hypocritical that Angelina Jolie puts out some of the most violent movies out there – i truly appreciate her humanitarian efforts, but I find her choice in many movies to be at odds with the agenda she promotes off-set).

5.  We can demonize people all we want, if it makes us feel like better people, but that is not going to make the world a better place.  Be the change you wish to see in the world, Jill Greenberg.  I have no idea what you stand for, your stand against John McCain hasn’t told me anything about him, but it’s told me a lot about you.

Oh yeah, and thanks a lot for making our jobs a whole lot harder.  How long will embargoes be now? How much more paperwork are we going to have to sign? And no more cross-outs on the indemnity clauses.  Yeah, it’s End Times, all right.  But not the way she thinks.

PS Kind of scary too how bad her technique is when she goes off-piste.  I can think of some much better executed portraits of evil.


18 thoughts on “In Praise of Civil Discourse

  1. When I first heard about this, I saw only the cover and the photo lit from below to look sort of horror-movie-ish, and I did find the latter somewhat amusing (though I thought her attitude about the whole thing was disturbing in its arrogance). Later, though, I went to her site and saw the altered versions–I can’t even imagine what was going through her mind, and I’m a liberal Democrat.

    I hope people separate The Atlantic from Ms. Greenberg; I don’t hold the magazine responsible for her unethical and unprofessional behavior. And I hope magazines recognize that Ms. Greenberg is no more representative of all photographers than she is representative of all liberals, which is to say not at all.


  2. I would like to echo David’s sentiments. With so many in the field trying to rationalize Greenberg’s actions under the guise of art, it is refreshing that there is a voice of reason that looks at the larger issues at play.


  3. I lean the other way on enough issues to identify more closely with the GOP platform (if not their execution). No need for apologies, I’m always happy to have my faith in humanity restored in part by those who can speak to an issue without ad-hominem attacks or blanket statements – whatever their political stripe. Thanks for being a part of that process.

    I too wonder what the repercussions will be when the dust settles. I’m pretty sure this was Greenberg’s last opportunity to do something like this. I know that if I were an advisor for any politician, actor, corporate head, etc. I’d have an “anybody but Greenberg” clause before signing on for photos of any kind. Yeah. Lots more paperwork coming I feel…….


  4. thanks one and all. i learned a long time ago that our point of view for the vast majority of us is affected by this place we are in space, time, and environment (umm, at least that is what i got out of literary theory) – and i try and maintain a viewpoint that most people mean well – but we are all inhabiting different spaces. besides we are always saying “celebrate our differences” this applies to politics as well as ethnicity. that said of course, i don’t agree with everyone (far from!), nor they me, but we should learn to respect people who are honestly articulating their philosophies.

    i just read this interview with doris kearns goodwin on abe lincoln and how he hired his three most vigorous opponents to be in his cabinet. he knew that we all have to work together, and that by uniting the different viewpoints into his cabinet it would aid him in uniting the different factions in the united states. his situation was not so different than the balkanization of our society: dealing with abolitionists and free-staters etc. above all he wanted to keep the union together, and he knew this wasn’t achieved by alienation. i appreciate this. i agree with billy bragg when he says (though in another context) there is power in a union.


  5. Nicely put, but recommending The New Republic? With its track record of publishing phony war diaries by Scott Thomas Beauchamp after the fantasist Stephen Glass blew up on them, I’d take anything from them with a bucket of salt.


  6. thanks james, by this reasoning then we should eliminate The New York Times (Wen Ho Lee, Jason Blair); the Washington Post (Janet Cooke), and a host of other news organizations run for the most part by honest people trying to enlighten us. The point is, take what you will, but be informed. Yes, people will lie to us, mistakes will be made. Your best defense against this is to try and read as many good sources as possible. I think we should take a look at everything with a bucket of salt. Question everything. But then find an answer too.


  7. oh james, and i meant to write william f buckley’s the national review instead of the weekly standard – i am messing up my liberal and conservative magazines. whoops! see you can’t even trust Look Underfoot! ; )


  8. let’s see.

    1. it’s not that she’s not a “journalist per se”, it’s that she’s not a journalist. she’s an artist who is hired specifically to create her artistic style. you clearly almost understood this, but if you really understood it your whole point would be moot. which it is.
    2. this risible argument, that any strong statement A made by a democrat leads to B strong republican response, so let’s make sure all democrats are timorous and quiescent is a joke. karl rove does not care if you are nice or naughty. he will hit you over and over and over, no matter how many times you try to be civil.
    3. you mention the new yorker and the atlantic. funny story: jeffrey goldberg, the author of the piece greenberg illustrated, wrote several articles for the new yorker using sources who were at the time already known prevaricators. these sources inevitably told him that sadaam had WMD’s and so on. goldberg, knowing these sources were lousy, used them nonetheless. his articles in the new yorker were used by many in power to justify going to war (including dick cheney). goldberg’s sources were proved even further to be liars after the first phase of the war ended–goldberg never apologized. in fact, he got rewarded with a plum job at the atlantic, one that came with a pony for his daughter (no, really, it did). his actions were evil and unethical, but no one cared.
    4.not germane.
    F is for FAIL
    5.really, none of this tells you anything about mccain? for instance, that he’s REALLY old. not important? that he cheated on his first wife after her terrible accident? doesn’t matter? that he is on record as calling his current wife a cunt in front of reporters? did you already know that? does it not give you pause? have you not maybe learned something?

    it may tell you a bunch of things about greenberg, but one of them clearly is that she puts her political beliefs before her mercenary ones. she will lose jobs because of this. in a better world, that would be a badge of honor. in this (and the strobist) world, you guys just line up to toady to power so that you can grab a paycheck.

    you aren’t a clever enough person to take on such a weighty subject. you didn’t do your research, you just spouted off. that david hobby of strobist thinks you are smart…that doesn’t tell me much about you, but it tells me a lot about him.


  9. Susana, just stumbled across your response to this, after writing one of my own at my blog. I’m glad to see a practicing photographer had many of the same feelings I did.

    I think the response of people like anonymouse (commenting above) is so unfortunate: they honestly think that because McCain is a bad guy, it excuses any sort of behavior – and if you don’t agree with this, you must be greedy, stupid, or weak. It’s a fascinatingly simple worldview, isn’t it? But in the end, I don’t usually use Karl Rove’s behavior as a model for my own, because I think it’s kind of important that we’re better than that. Or at least that we try to be better.


  10. thanks bioephemera. anonymouse pretty much plays into my whole tenet anyway. it’s about civil discourse. I mean since I’m just a half-wit, I don’t think the arguments i’ve laid out here should be so difficult to understand. and since anonymouse is so smart i don’t understand why he/she fails to recognize that throwing insults around while you are arguing a topic is precisely the kind of behavior i am against. i thought about deleting it, just b/c it is anonymous – but then i thought, “who cares?” i’ve moved on.


  11. Frankly, the fact that you are talking about Hockey Mom’s instead of true american Soccer Moms, Football Moms, and Basketball Moms is more proof that the Great White Menace to your north is continuing with their unabated, stealthy takeover of America.

    Any day now you’ll wake up to find yourself mired down with the evils of universal health care, the metric system, and official bilingualism.

    Don’t beleive me? Our latest inroad was getting colours other than that drab green on your paper money. Resistance is futile, you WILL be assimilated!

    Oh the horror….. 😉

    And yeah, what she did was both totally legal and incredibly juvenile and unethical. Using someone elses dime to gain access and then doing such a hatchet job is really, really low.


  12. thanks anonymous – if someone wants to write anonymous they shouldn’t be punished for it. And i know this is ridiculous but i can’t believe you are calling out angelena jolie about what movies she makes – we should be grateful to someone with money giving so much back, how much money and time have you spent this year giving back? And your “art” doesn’t count. Comparing what Jill did to the Klu Klux Klan . . . come on, is everything really that black and white?
    Lets all hope to God that crazy woman and out of touch old kook don’t make it in the white house. If Jill thought she was helping then more power to her – please register everyone.


  13. chris, i don’t think i was punishing anonymouse – just disagreeing with him/her. it’s obvious from the endless comments on more popular blogs than my humble offering that the photographic community is very much in disagreement. as for what i’ve given back, if you must know, i tithe 10% of my income to charity and volunteer my services to a few favorite worthy causes – i’m sorry i still feel that the modality employed by ms. greenberg is more akin to schoolyard taunts than cogent arguments – if you feel differently, great. re the klan analogy, my only comparison with ms. greenberg to the klan is that some people consider their activities completely unsavory, but they have the right to do that under our constitution (public displays they have the right, i mean), not that jill would persecute a whole sector of people. i think we have all made up our minds on this, and i was not attempting to sway anyone’s opinions as much as vent about what i do feel is the dirtying of discourse. Mr. and Mrs. Smith included. I do believe I said that I appreciate her humanitarian efforts. I doubt that Angelina is losing any sleep over my comments, nor should she. THOSE comments did not come from a malicious place. I did not say she was an evil-doer. Rather I asked if anyone found it ironic? You, obviously, do not. So thanks for answering my question. I don’t think the world is black and white at all, much to the contrary. I am sorry if this is unclear from my post and that you find more vitriol in it then was intended.


  14. Thanks Susana for this nicely penned commentary. I find it very telling that anonymouse gets so many things confused, decides to be insulting, and then does not even dare sign his/her name. Unfortunately that post did say much about his lack of cleverness, anger, and unmindful disposition at the moment.

    I think what Ms. Greenberg did was not right at all. She confused genres, and beyond that, she chose to make a political statement where none had been requested. I understand arguments for artistic license, but here she is not the sole author, nor is this her project. She was, a contributor to the piece, but not the maker of the argument. She took advantage of the moment and did not think about the reasonable consequences of her actions, and the suffering they could and would bring, for others. Ultimately, I think she went as a performance artist instead of completing the journalistic work for which she was contracted. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, she did not meet the journalistic standard, nor the political goals, nor earned good artistic merit. A shame that her ability was so misdirected.

    I agree with you also on the call to be mindful of how our actions promote our goals. As a progressive person, I think that Ms. Greenberg’s actions are very counterproductive (and I’m no stranger to protests, performances, and/or actions of various kinds). She could have done the images outside of this context, added a better performative twist, etc. and perhaps achieved her political goals in better fashion.

    Thanks for posting about it so wisely. And anonymouse, please join a civil conversation that respects difference and good engagement with each other. No need to fear meeting others in that “narrow ridge” (Buber) of humanity.


  15. Hi Nacho – Thank you for chiming in. And thank you for working to express yourself and your views. We should all take advantage of our freedom to express ourselves and our beliefs, and thus take a stand for what we believe in. I feel that one problem with America, and probably many other countries, is we have been too sated by our relative prosperity to care about taking a stand on anything. Cable tv and air-conditioning have done a lot in terms of keeping us indoors and relatively numb to the world at large. As George Washington said when leaving office, “Cultivate harmony and peace.” But we can only do that by not rolling over and playing dead, and by treating people with respect. It’s difficult at times, no doubt, but it’s a goal for which to strive. When the runner stumbles, pick yourself up, and regain the course.


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