of a head scarf?
6/25/2008 4:24:00 PM
With all the problems facing this country, the issue of "who sits
where" shouldn't rank very high.
But last week it did, after two Muslim women were denied seats behind Barack
Obama at his rally at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, seats that would have placed
them in full view of the TV cameras broadcasting his speech.
The women were moved away, they said, because they wore a hijab, the
traditional Muslim headscarf. That image, volunteers told them, was politically
sensitive for Obama.
As so the women were moved. And they complained. And it became a big story. And
they demanded an apology. And the campaign apologized. But they demanded a
personal apology from the candidate.
And so Obama, who seems to suffer the unique affliction of too many people
wanting to support him - Muslims, Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Jeremiah Wright -
called and offered apologies from his own mouth.
All because of two scarves.
You'd like to say this kind of thing would never have happened with Abe Lincoln
or Franklin Roosevelt, and you'd be right - but not because they were finer
candidates than Obama. Rather because they didn't have to deal with television.
Today, image is everything. B-roll is everything. Think how many times you saw
Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky, an image used to drive home his
inappropriate relationship with her. Think how many times you saw that photo of
Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983, and how it was used
to dilute Rumsfeld's case against the dictator.
You can say it shouldn't matter. But in a nation where we would rather make up
our minds off a quick glimpse, "Who's In The Picture?" makes a big
Personally, I was not surprised those women were asked to move - I'm just
surprised the askers were honest about it. Politicians have been manipulating
photos since the first tray of developer was tilted. Do you really think
candidates love kissing babies? Do you really think JFK regularly played
football on the beach? Do you really think George Bush lands on aircraft
carriers wearing a bomber jacket?
This business of molding the image is as old as TV itself and has become more
significant in the age of high-def. Whatever demographic a politician is trying
to appeal to, you can bet that demographic will be represented in the frame.
What I'd like to know is who gave the Obama volunteers their instructions to
move the Muslim women? That seems an awfully bold decision for a couple of
campaign workers to make on their own, doesn't it?
As of publication, no one has come forth and admitted giving the orders. The
volunteers are being blamed for their own poor judgment. Maybe that's the
truth. Or maybe they're being sacrificed to keep fingers from pointing closer
In any case, someone in Obama's world is to blame for insensitivity here. But
others are at fault as well. Namely, those who would have used those images had
the women been seated. There are people out there who want nothing more than to
paint Obama as some terrorist sympathizer, who point to his middle name -
Hussein - and hiss it through clenched teeth.
These are people who likely would have used such an image in a subtly negative
way, maybe some TV campaign, tight on Obama and the hijab-clad women, with a
suggestive voice underneath ("When Obama speaks, who's really
The fact is, there is a knee-jerk distrust of Islam in America today that has a
parallel in the anti-Japanese fervor of World War II or the anti-Communism
fever during the 1950s. That kind of fear sparks foolish and regrettable
history. There are plenty in this country who would see those two Muslim women
behind Obama and tell themselves, "If those people are for him, I'm
And that's a shame. If Obama is smart, he will try to frame this as, "Hey,
if my biggest problem is that all types of people want to support me, I'm not
doing badly." Whether others will buy it is another story. As always, it
depends who is in the picture, and who is looking at it.