Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Obama In Africa: Hillary In Trouble At Home?

Writer, Philip Kennicott observed, in today's Washington Post Style section, that a silly picture of Barack Obama swaddled in what appears to be an African costume has made its way across the Net, thanks to the Drudge Report, evoking outraged reaction among some liberal bloggers who are accusing Hillary Clinton's campaign of releasing it to Matt Drudge to discredit Obama. Their fear is that the picture could be damaging to Obama because it plays into prejudices about his race and surreptitiously feeds the untrue rumors that Obama is a Muslim. He is actually a Christian.

Not so fast, though. As Kennicott argues, this image is hardly damaging and is an incredibly ineffective attempt to smear Obama. It's already failed and Kennicott gives some insight into why.
Even if it was meant as a smear image, the Obama in Africa picture was only slightly more sophisticated in its insinuations than an old Polaroid with horns and fangs drawn on it. By the end of the day, the only clear message from the strange episode is that whoever was spreading the image was not particularly sophisticated about the way images work in our new media world.

The fact that Obama appears to be wearing khaki pants and a polo shirt underneath the costume limits its power to suggest secret or devious meanings. The African fabric was an overlay on his very Western, very conventional outfit. Even the fabric looked light and diaphanous (as one might expect in a hot climate), suggesting it is a superficial, temporary addition to Obama's usual image.
Kennicott further explains what else made it fail and helpfully explains what was lacking
An image such as this one also needs to circulate first among people inclined to believe the worst about its target. For a smear photograph to function properly, it must begin its journey into the body politic with what one might call a "Have you seen this?" phase. As it circulates under the radar, it gains a kind of credibility momentum, as people inclined to believe begin to think it is actual, documentary evidence of something that is being suppressed. The idea that it is being suppressed -- that it hasn't broken out to a larger audience -- actually helps it build credibility momentum.
So, are you done laughing at the obvious ineptitude of whoever thought this would be damaging?

As most modern users of technology realize, anybody can be caught looking silly by a cell phone camera. And anybody can be photoshopped to look silly too. So, the power of image has been eroded. And in this case, where Obama's real clothing is poking out of the window dressing that he put on, probably to be polite to his guests, there's nothing really damaging.

But to put it into perspective:

If this looks slightly silly

Then also consider this:

Ah, the things you do to suck up to those foreign hosts on diplomatic junkets!

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