19 August 2010

Talkng Back ~ Susie Linfield on Time and Afghanistan

"Bieber’s photograph of Aisha . . . is disgusting. I am very glad that Time ran it." So says Susie Linfield in this pointed essay at Dissent online. As is usual, Linfield offers smart and insightful comments on the fracas surrounding the image. She insists that "the photo, taken by South African photographer Jodi Bieber, did the opposite and is, in a sense, a model of how photography can be used."

Interestingly, though, Linfield doesn't actually discuss the use of the photograph as much as she excoriates "the antiwar Left and . . . feminists" who "[w]ith a couple of notable exceptions," have responded to the Time cover with "a dispiriting lack of appropriately complex thinking, or, one might say, a distressingly reductive reading of events and of what feminism, and leftism, might mean." Since I have already posted on the cover in a highly critical way, I feel as though it is important to engage Linfield. So, here goes.

In the first place there is ample room for agreement:
There were, however, some thoughtful responses to the Time photo and the larger issues it raises. And in this case, thoughtful means uncertain. (Contrary to what readers of this piece might think thus far, I am not an advocate of “staying in Afghanistan.” In fact, I am thoroughly confused about what the “right” thing to do is; the only thing I’m certain of is that there are no good choices—and certainly no unambiguously good choices—on offer.) For some, the agonizing question is how to respond to conflicting demands.
OK. That is a more or less accurate depiction of where I stand. Conflicted. However, nothing Linfield says there is incompatible with the following.
[1] Attributing a significant helping of hypocrisy and disingenuousness to the people at Time. As I noted earlier, to the best of my knowledge the editorial staff there showed scant concern with women's rights when, for instance, the "moderates" in the U.S. Congress negotiated to have the demands of our own fundamentalists (e.g., the Catholic Bishops on abortion rights) incorporated into the health insurance legislation.

Moreover, the notion that this story is not a brief for staying in Afghanistan is simply not credible. Linfield bemoans the fact that the Time story has not generated any debate. But, having read the report, let's be clear that it accords roughly zero attention to any alternative beyond 'stay the course.' If, as Linfield rightly insists, we read the report for evidence of what Afghan women think, why not read it for evidence of what the folks at Time think? Absent an argument to the contrary, it seems entirely appropriate to charge Time with trafficking in propaganda.

[2] Acknowledging that the Taliban are barbaric thugs and that the Afghan people and nearly everyone else would be significantly better off if they could be eliminated. Nothing I've said so far reduces to the position that "the ousting of the Taliban [is] inconsequential, or that a commitment to women’s rights is only a form of hypocrisy." I think ousting the Taliban is quite consequential. But not in the abstract. How many lives - Afghan and American and other - are we willing to expend? What means - torture, imprisonment without trial, assassination, imprecise drone attacks - are we willing to use? These are political questions, not as Linfield insists, questions of "conscience." And, beyond a protest about simplistic thinking she offers no answers to them.

On the charge of hypocrisy, let's agree that the matter is best addressed by attributing bad faith not to some indeterminate "we," but to identifiable actors and agencies. When discussing members of the Bush administration, various right-wing war-mongers, and, as I've just suggested, the folks at Time and other bastions of corporate media, I have no problem claiming that the newly discovered commitment to women's rights is "only hypocrisy," false concern trotted out to rationalize a disastrous policy. (By disastrous I mean a policy that has been poorly executed from the start and for which there is no plausible criterion of "success.")

[3] Questioning just what it means to speak, as Linfield does, of "the NATO presence." If this is not to work simply as euphemism for a war prosecuted by American troops, we need to be clear. How many non-American military personnel are in Afghanistan? I don't know but I suspect the answer is someplace in the vicinity of "few." And what about consequences? I recall hearing a report on npr recently that stated that Taliban and other 'insurgents' cause roughly three-quarters of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. American troops and their allies cause the remaining quarter. But, the report went on, many Afghans remain convinced that something like the opposite is the case. If we grant that our campaign in Afghanistan is of a 'hearts and minds' sort, this is troubling. Continued military intervention may simply be a losing strategy on that dimension. I am not certain of that, but absent some evidence to the contrary, it is hard to discount skepticism.

Likewise, Linfield rightly insists that we "at least call barbarism by its right name." OK, let's do. The various tactics I just mentioned - torture, imprisonment without trial, assassination, 'collateral damage' caused by drone attacks, and so forth - are barbaric. Agreed? (And recall that I've already conceded that the Taliban and their terrorist tactics are barbaric.) What are the alternatives? Neither the Time piece nor Susie Linfield offer any suggestions. But that is where we ought to be headed - a discussion of how to proceed that does not simply assume that our current policy and tactics will "work" (whatever that means).

[4] Questioning what it is that Afghan women (is that a homogeneous category?) "want"? There is a strange ambiguity in Linfield's essay. On the one hand she thinks we ought to be paying attention to what Afghan women say (at least as the Time folks report that). On the other hand, she dismisses those who are concerned with attributing "agency" to those same women. This ambiguity is perhaps unavoidable. I agree that the downtrodden generally are not going to, without significant aid and support, throw off their oppressors. Conversely, it is unclear that clauses in the constitution alter underlying realities in the hinterlands. And I am not so sanguine that the Time report offers an even-handed assessment of the views that Afghan women articulate. Those views, as I have noted here before, are complex. They are not, in short, determinative. They do not mitigate the uncertainty that Linfield herself feels. To assert otherwise, I think, displays a dismaying level of credulousness.

[5] Recalling that much of the current disaster in Afghanistan is the result (wholly or partly) of U.S. policy. We funded the precursors of the Taliban against the Soviets. And we prosecuted a war in Iraq instead of dealing with the Taliban and their links to al-Qaeda. How confident are we - Linfield, I, others who think the Afghan campaign is a mess - that the folks who brought us those policies can clean up even part of the mess they've made?
Being a progressive or a leftist indeed requires avoiding knee-jerk reactions. The latter, after all, make one a reactionary. Insofar as the Time cover story has prompted debate it has proven valuable. But, I suspect that any such debate has been an unintended consequence. The folks at Time used the cover photo for a quite specific purpose - to shore up support for continued American military intervention. In other words, they are seeking to thwart debate by painting those who criticize the war as fools who are willing to sacrifice women's rights. (How does their report differ from the claims of BushCo to which Linfield refers?) In my view, they have undertaken that task in what I think is a hypocritical way. That brings me round to my initial claim: Time has used photography for propaganda.
Update: Lest you think I am overly suspicious of the good folks at Time, I recommend this post which not only claims that the CIA has been pushing the "women's rights" angle on defending the Afghan mission, but makes the following point, which should be especially pressing for a news weekly:
It’s worth noting that the Taliban are Sunni, not Shia, and that the US-backed president has enacted a law for the non-Taliban sector of society, rolling back rights for women that were written into the constitution. Before the elections, the Times Online reported that “the United States and Britain [were] opposed to any strong public protest [against the law] because they fear[ed] that speaking out could disrupt [the] election.” The bill was pushed through parliament in February of 2009 and came into effect in July of last year. Afghan women fumed, while US and UK leaders stood by, and where was Time’s cover advocating for women’s rights then? Here are the covers they ran in February 2009.
Update 2: See also this post at Conscientious.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

Bravo, Jim. Rational, incisive thinking & well-stated. This kind of discussion is sorely lacking in most university photo/art programs.

Thanks for sharing

- peace

21 August, 2010 09:42  

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