Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXVIII Number 1
Fall 2005

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sailor kissing nurse in Times Square
National Archives Photo No. 80-G-377094

John Lucaites
John Lucaites
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Robert Ivie
Robert Ivie
Photo © Tyagan Miller

American Icons

by Ryan Piurek

A naked and terrified Vietnamese girl, her skin ablaze, runs from a village that has been bombed with napalm. A sailor and nurse celebrate the end of World War II with a passionate kiss in New York City’s Times Square. An anonymous man, acting alone, stops the advance of a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in China. Three New York City firemen raise the U.S. flag at the World Trade Center ruins, just hours after the 9/11 attacks, recalling the moment when U.S. Marines hoisted Old Glory on Iwo Jima in 1945.

These moments are historic snapshots in time—literally. Each produced a famous photograph that transcended the moment and took on a life of its own, says John Lucaites, an associate professor of rhetoric and public culture in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. While it’s debatable how many of these iconic photographs exist (Lucaites estimates around 40 to 50), the majority of the public recognizes them, even associates entire decades with them.

Lucaites, along with Robert Hariman of Northwestern University, has devoted the better part of the past decade to studying these images and how they have been appropriated over time. Their co-authored book Icons of Liberal Democracy: Public Culture in an Age of Photojournalism is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.

Lucaites believes that photojournalism and documentary photography do more than help us remember powerful moments. These “visual rhetorics” also provide us with a way of seeing ourselves as a democracy and disseminating democracy’s core principles to others.

“Photojournalism, in general, underwrites liberal democratic public culture,” he says. “It’s a technology that helps school us in how to ‘see like a democrat.’ It can range from photographs of our leaders giving speeches, which put them on a pedestal and privilege them as great men or women, to the photograph of the little child and puppy dog licking ice cream together on the Fourth of July, which reminds us of a different dimension of our citizenry.”

Iconic images—those famous images that we all remember—may well be the photojournalist’s “command performance,” Lucaites says, teaching us what it means to live in democratic society. Iconic photos can serve as allegories, helping us understand the tension between the individual and the collective (are we individuals living in a nation or a nation of individuals?), address how to deal with dissent, or explain the risks associated with industrial and technological progress.

In a recent article, Lucaites and Hariman examined the tension between progress and risk by studying iconic photographs of the explosions of the Hindenburg and the Challenger Space Shuttle. The two photographs, which are separated by nearly 50 years to the day, function as a sort of visual debate about industrialization and technology and the catastrophic risks that can accompany modernization. Lucaites was stunned by the nearly identical discourse surrounding both photos.

“(The discourse) is based on human error—‘if we had just done a little more research, this wouldn’t have happened’—but there are some stark differences as well,” he says. “The Hindenburg explosion gets cast in really dystopian terms. It’s a very dark image, whereas the explosion of the Challenger is a utopian image, the white cloud. In President Reagan’s terms, it was seven astronauts ‘touching the face of God.’”

Focusing Our Worldview

There is no greater issue confronting democracies than how to “fight the good war.” An image such as the flag-raising on Iwo Jima offers a narrative to help us negotiate this question, Lucaites says. It has become the symbol of World War II and a way for Americans to remember and understand why the nation sometimes must fight wars. It has been reproduced more than any other iconic photograph, sometimes in ways that call attention to a cynical view of American presumptions about freedom and democracy. The U.S. flag has become a cigarette, a McDonald’s banner, a Best Buy shopping cart. Likewise, in the Tiananmen Square photograph, the man becomes a cow and the tanks are transformed into bulldozers in an ad promoting Chick-fil-A chicken.

Shopping carts, cows, and chickens aside, these images are powerful rhetoric, Lucaites says. “It’s not rhetoric in the sense of bombast. [The images] become central to the way we see and constitute the world, and since seeing is something we take as a natural phenomenon, once we’re schooled to see through a particular lens it becomes hard to imagine the world otherwise.”

Seeing through a particular lens can help us comprehend democracy’s biggest problems. But it also can be problematic, Lucaites explains, particularly when Americans try to export democracy to other parts of the world. Exporting our version of a liberal democracy—one based on a commitment to individualism and capitalism—to an Islamic country such as Iraq is an “incredibly difficult, if not a failed project,” he says.

“If you were trying to promote a more radical form of democracy in the United States that approaches socialism, there’d be a strong resistance to that because we want to promote the individual,” Lucaites continues. “We believe in the Marlboro Man. We believe in Horatio Alger and the American Dream, all of which presume this notion of individual acquisition of property, the notion of the self-made man or woman. That’s anathema to most fundamentalist countries. They’re typically not sympathetic to liberalism, and they’re not schooled to view the world through the lens of the individual. So even if there are people who want to promote a more democratic polity, the idea that our version of liberal democracy is going to work is a fantasy.”

Iraqis celebrating in the streets of Baghdad. The toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. U.S. soldiers handing out candy to Iraqi children. Americans were shown these images at the start of the war in Iraq to remind us that we were fighting the good war, a global war on terror that threatened core American values like freedom and democracy. But after images of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad surfaced in the media, our worldview slid out of focus. The Abu Ghraib photographs, along with accounts of prison guards desecrating the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay camp, have provided a much different view of the country’s war effort.

“There was nothing about Abu Ghraib that we didn’t know beforehand. The Taguba report [the U.S. Army report detailing prisoner abuses] made it clear exactly what was going on,” Lucaites says. “It was the photographs, released and disseminated on the Internet, that gave significance and presence to that event and got people exercised about it. Those photographs told us nothing new. But they visualized it. They put us in the position to see something about democracy that upset us.”

Many foreigners now view America through the prison images, Lucaites says. “I think the evidence is pretty compelling that those things happened, but even if they didn’t literally happen, it’s irrelevant,” he says. “The Abu Ghraib that is in the photographs did happen. That’s what [others] see. That becomes their vision of America. Democracy is not just how we see it.”

Lucaites believes that how we negotiate with foreigners or, for that matter, how we negotiate among ourselves, is a central problem facing American democracy in the 21st century. In a nation neatly divided into red and blue states, where the level of angry rhetoric has increased on both sides and respectful disagreement seems like a thing of the past, the problem of negotiating with others—what Lucaites calls “stranger relationality”—promises to get increasingly familiar.

A Republic of Fear

Enter Lucaites’s colleague Robert Ivie, a professor of communication and culture whose research focuses on rhetoric as a mode of political critique and creating popular culture, with an emphasis on war and democracy. Ivie has been actively seeking ways to create a more “robust” democracy, one that he hopes will encourage healthy debate and active citizen participation and move us closer to a time of peace and peacemaking.

A former U.S. serviceman who served during the Vietnam era, Ivie has always been troubled by how America talked itself into that conflict. Throughout his professional life, he has examined how Americans deploy terms like “freedom” and “democracy” to justify wars, while posturing as reluctant belligerents. After the tragic events of 9/11 and the launch of America’s global war on terror, Ivie began to explore the use of these words more closely. He discovered that Americans spend little time discussing the many varieties and implications of democracy or debating the various tensions that iconic images reveal. Talking about democracy has become more “patriotic ritual” than “serious discussion,” he says.

Listen to America’s leaders, and you’ll learn that we’re engaged in a battle between the forces of good and evil. And you’re either with us or against us. But talking in such absolutes fails to acknowledge that democracy, in its purest form, respects multiple perspectives and leaves room for debate and dissent, Ivie argues. The prevailing rhetoric has created what he describes as a “republic of fear,” one that vilifies those who don’t agree with it, actively discourages participation, and makes democracy into something risky and threatening.

“The dominant metaphor in the language that contextualizes our understanding of democracy is that of a troubling disease,” he says. “You can catch it. It’ll kill you. We think of it as an infection that can get out of control, and rationality, meaning the reason of the leaders, is an antidote.”

Ironically, we are proud disease-carriers, engaged in a mission to spread democracy around the world. But Ivie, author of Democracy and America’s War on Terror (University of Alabama Press, 2005), contends that it is not true participatory democracy we’re trying to deliver. There’s a strange subtext to our Wilsonian rhetoric about making the world safer for democracy, and it suggests that the last thing we want is democracy, he says.

“We have this democracy movement now, this theory of the democratic peace. We are called upon to achieve that universal peace by democratizing the world. We have a crusade of democratizing. But there’s not a strong sense of participatory democracy,” Ivie says.

“There’s not a sense of ‘let’s submit ourselves to a democratic world in all of its messy and imperfect ways and all of its variations,’” he continues. “We have this very limited idea of what a democratic institution would look like, and it’s driven a lot by fear. If we’re not in control, we’re in trouble. To be one among many is scary. We don’t know how to deal with that. Culturally, we get ourselves caught up in this idea that it’s a struggle between the forces of good and evil. There’s no room for the gray areas.”

Ivie is careful to point out that the notion of democracy as distemper is nothing new. In America, it dates back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and their fellow revolutionaries, defenders of reason who also mistrusted real democracy and feared the mob mentality that too much dissent could produce.

“There is a tradition here of dissent as democracy, but we tend to think of dissent in the most extreme forms,” Ivie says. “Instead of thinking of dissent as akin to a Supreme Court justice’s dissenting opinion, we think of it as the most radical person out there doing the most radical thing.”

Still, Ivie remains hopeful that Americans can overcome fear and get in touch with the democratic potential that he feels exists in the culture. New media is bringing us closer together, he says, and we’re becoming increasingly aware of the value of diversity. For his part, Ivie is beginning to think about how dissent can be a doable, everyday practice and how to engage others in the type of serious give-and-take that a healthy democracy requires.

Both Ivie and Lucaites encourage their students to bring their differences to the fore- ground and not be afraid to disagree with one another. Ivie also travels to remote areas of the country to discuss complicated issues that divide us into simple factions like red and blue states, liberals and conservatives. A recent trip to northern Indiana resulted in a serious discussion about the state’s racist history and the terrorists who live within our nation’s borders.

“I’m thinking about how to connect to where people are, about where the starting points are. It’s not to pander. It’s to use where people are as a way to be respectful, to understand that this is an environment of persuasion and someone else will be coming from another direction,” he says.

Ivie is confident that after “two centuries of fear,” America has entered an age of renewed interest in democracy. And he pledges to take advantage of it.

“If you have a democratic environment of give-and-take where people can respectfully disagree with one another and keep the game open and working . . . if we can begin to develop a way of articulating differences so that you don’t have to efface difference . . . it’s that idea of democracy that I’m trying to milk.”

Ryan Piurek is a media relations specialist in the IU Office of Media Relations and is a freelance writer in Bloomington.