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Aug 04, 2006

Sambo Joe And The Visual Blogosphere


If you missed the brouhaha, Jane Hamsher of firedoglake briefly became a subject of controversy in the Connecticut senatorial primary yesterday morning.  Having spent the last two weeks traveling with the Lamont campaign while blasting at Lieberman on her blog, Hamsher led off her most recent campaign update at HuffingtonPost with the image above.

What "inspired" the visual was the scramble for Connecticut's black vote, and what Hamsher pointed to as Lieberman's crass appeal for it.  (John Dickerson of Slate has a good summary of the whole affair, including Lieberman's bloviating indignance, and Lamont's amateurish reaction, distancing himself from both Hamsher, and the blogosphere.)

Obviously, this story is full of visual angles.  There is Hamsher's role (and the "photo-editorial" responsibility of the blogger), there is the image itself (which, after posting, was quickly withdrawn), and there is the peculiar light this illustration cast on the newswire photos of Lamont's campaign day.

What follows is a snippet of Hamsher's apology (or, "non-apology," according to Dickerson) for the photo-illustration (also featuring a link to a Connecticut site documenting a racial flier allegedly circulated by the Lieberman campaign).  What makes the response particularly BAG-worthy, however, is the question Hamsher poses about the relevance of her choice of images.  She writes:

For weeks, Senator Lieberman has attempted to woo African Americans by pretending to be someone he clearly is not.  Meanwhile, his campaign has liberally distributed race-baiting fliers that have the "paid for by" Joe’s campaign disclaimer at the bottom, lying to the press about their intended recipients.

But for some reason, more questions have been asked about me, a blogger.  With so much at stake this election, is the choice of images used by a mere supporter really newsworthy?

First off, Jane needs to step a little closer to the plate.  This "mere supporter" just happens to attract about 450,000 page views a week.  Also, excuse me for being technical, but the phrase "choice of image" is not that forthcoming, either.  As I understand it, Hamsher didn't just choose this illustration -- she conceived it.

More important, however, is the question of whether a blog image is newsworthy.  Interesting question coming from a site that leads nearly each post with an image, a great many of which constitute strong parody, or almost stand-alone op-ed.

Regarding the image itself, it doesn't make much sense unless you're following this contest as closely as Hamsher is.  Beyond that, you have to wonder how much the race question -- in a contest between two well-off white guys in Connecticut -- really involves platforms and qualifications, so much as it does a (Rovian-style) appeal to a strategic voting niche.

On the visual alone, the use of "black face" is so culturally loaded, it's hard to believe Ms. Hamsher wouldn't see this coming back at her.  But then, maybe she truly is missing the visual dynamics of the sphere.  (As a further reflection of the mindset, FDL -- in spite of its prominence and heavy use of graphics -- has yet to adopt photo or illustration credits as standard practice.)

Finally, doctoring Lieberman side-by-side with Bill Clinton only heightens the blasphemy.  But it's based on the controversial campaign flier, you say?  Sure.  But, because Hamsher's post made no mention of the flier, and had nothing to do with race, how were Huffington Post readers supposed to "appreciate" the context?  On the other hand, Clinton's affinity for the black community and black churches is so widely known, it lends an even harsher edge to Sambo Joe. 

(Because the post did have to do with Wal-Mart, maybe a better choice might have been to make Lieberman's head an oversized smiley face.)

Lamont-Sharpton  Lamont-Jesse
(click to expand)

Finally, I'm wondering how much Hamsher's inside knowledge of Lamont's schedule this week inspired this illustration.  Perhaps Jane's (unconscious) motivation was to run interference while Lamont played his own race card.  Either way, as the visual fancy of "one blogger out there," it sure doesn't make these "other" images seem any more natural.

(image 1: Douglas Healey/AP.  Aug. 2, 2006.  Stamford, Conn.  Via YahooNews.  caption: Ned Lamont center, embraces Tommie Jackson, pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church at a breakfast with Rev. Al Sharpton.  image 2: Bob Child/AP.  Aug. 2, 2006.  New Haven, Conn.  Via YahooNews.)


My guess, Jane is so close to the action that, brilliant though she may be, she could not properly evaluate the wider context.

A stupid image all things considered, with little upside except among the congnoscenti, many of who who probably disassociate with it.


What has struck me most about this controversial image (besides the poor judgment of using the image in the first place) is that its defenders keep insisting on putting it in the context of a reasonable response to Lieberman's race-baiting.

However central Lieberman's perceived strategy may have been at the beginning, it became a tangent when no one stopped to consider the impact of that image on the very demographic that is being sought. In fact, I haven't really seen anyone comment on that, with the exception of a few African-Americans who, understandably, complain that we still don't get it. Nor have I seen a genuine apology.

Why was there no thought to how African-Americans would feel or react to this piece, which was destined to become a news story of its own, while hijacking the agenda of Lamont's campaign? A profound lack of racial insensitivity, I guess. Surprising, isn't it? And from a non-racist, progressive blogger.

It occurred to me that perhaps the best question progressive campaigners can ask themselves and each other is: What would Bill Clinton say or do? One thing is for sure, neither he nor his campaign, whatever mistakes they did make, would ever have allowed such a thing to happen. I can only imagine how he must feel as a "hostage" in that odious image. He certainly had enough empathy to feel anyone's pain, a virtue that the GOP likes to mock. Would that the rest of us could be as consistently empathetic before causing our own such unnecessary pain just to make a sarcastic point.

Of course, Lamont's campaign did not allow the image, either, but FDL considers itself an arm of the campaign, if only an unofficial one. So, what does this brouhaha mean for other progressives in cyber-space who wish to help with future political campaigns? Will they be kept at more than arm's length? Probably. That will be the real loss in this story.

Why would we even want to approach the smear tactics that we criticize the GOP for using? Fighting back is one thing; adopting their ways is crossing the line.


great points. had this image been posted on her site and attached to a piece that specifically discussed race and lieberman i think its impact would've been less harsh. i also think the quality of the image contributed to the blowback. the artist darkblack simply nailed this. his photoshop skills were very seamless, and the choice of images--a laughing joe and slick willy in shades--were deadly accurate and created an image that was immediately shocking.

i'm a fan of janes and value her caustic tone in a world that clutches its pearls far too often. i do agree however that in the last week of the campaign where joe is on the ropes giving him anything to run with was short sighted. further, when dealing with anything race related--especially when one is not a member of the race being discussed--one should really take into consideration the feelings of others and act cautiously. i get what jane was saying with the image and even agree with it, but the chance that someone would be hurt by this image and the memories it can evoke within the black community is too great and clouds the message...

Karen M, you've said it all for me -- the photo seems grossly insensitive to the very community it means to support. While I dearly love Jane's work 99% of the time, this particular job falls clearly into the 1% region and makes me cringe. It's in very poor taste.

As to the question of should Jane Hamsher be the news -- no, the photo is creepy and egregious, does not apply to the situation particularly well, and Jane messed up (for once). She should appologize. That's all that needs to be said.
The Lamont/Lieberman primary, as close as it is, and important as it is to the people of Connecticut and, less so, the rest of the Dems in the US, should be the focus right now.

I agree the image should have been used with a post about the racial vote-getting angle, but otherwise, it doesn't get me in the gut, as it seems to get some people. When confronted with a possible prejudicial issue, I reverse it, and see how it feels emotionally. This has given me a very good way to detect real hatred vs editorial comment, and Jane's is clearly editorial. I'm white BTW, but would never find it offensive to portrayed as black, brown, asian, fat, etc. Myself portayed in condemning blackface might be right on if I was pandering specifically to people of color when I'd given their specific issues a pass in my thinking previously. I think Jane missed how "emotion laden" this image might be for some people precisely because she's without racial prejudice herself, and it didn't hold those emotions for her (or for darkblack, who I'm assuming put the image together).

Hamsher's motivation was, no doubt, to get attention for herself, which she did get, a photo in the NYTimes. She has made many mean-spirited attacks on her political opposites, and while paraody and satire are valid forms of attack, meaness says more about the perpertrator than the opponent. She did Lieberman a big favor with this image, and insulted African-Americans who have worked hard for decades to eliminate "black face" in American entertainment.

She is not only mean-spirited, she is insensitive to how other people perceive what amounts to sometimes what seems to be personal vendettas. The language she uses on her website, which is at the gutter level, insults her readers, as well. She has no credibility, as far as I am concerned. I suspect that she is using the Lieberman campaign to further her personal ambition.

I think the reason there is so much handwringing about this image is that it is so sledgehammer effective at making its point. When the Rs say the most outrageous things (swiftboating Kerry, e.g.) Ds essentially note how effective it was while sniffing how above such childish things the civilized Ds are. When a D makes an attack in kind, and her own side is so quick to trash her, perhaps it more than anything else explains why the Rs are still in charge. This image wouldn't be such a flashpoint if there weren't so much truth behind it.

itwasntme: You cannot "reverse it" to understand. That assumes that the White race has the same history as the brown races or non-white races. If you are to "compare" how you would feel, there must be a conversation taken into account in your mental comparison. A translation/conversion that takes into accout, O, manifest destiny, genocide, lynchings, oppression by means of psychological undercurrent in the media, schools, and history books, etc. Of course you wouldn't mind being brown. Brown people are beautiful, and they are the underdogs (We are) who have to struggle against idiotic and aggressive and cruel racism and inertia of racism.

I disagree that Jane used the image because she is "without racial prejudice." What she is, what she has demonstrated she is, is "without awareness of her racial ignorance."

I understand the point she was getting at. But intelligent people understand the collective image pool accessed by the public, the history of those images, and the resonance of such. Ultimately, only a White person would think of using this image here in America to further any point. Period. That tells you all you need to know about it.

"Ultimately, only a White person would think of using this image here in America to further any point. Period. That tells you all you need to know about it." I second that. And I am a white person.

I would just like to add one thing: if I had made the comment that I made above on FDL, I would have been branded a Troll, and it most likely would have been deleted. Just something to ponder...

Jane Hamsher said: "With so much at stake this election, is the choice of images used by a mere supporter really newsworthy?"

This is a classic sentence only a true asshole can utter. With "so much at stake" in this election for whom? For Jane, obviously, since she is compelled to downplay it.

What makes it newsworthy is that Jane's "choice" reveals her to be a SPECTACULAR idiot. Then her inability to see her mistake reveals her to be an asshole squared.

Yep, it's newsworthy, Jane. Just not in a good way.

Oh, and it says something about Ned Lamont, too.

Honestly, I can't believe Jane thought this one would fly. She must remember the scandal that broke out when Steve Gilliard dressed up a pol in minstrel garb before an election.

I have to admit, the image cracked me up, but it's only funny if you're following the Lieberman/Lamont race minute-by-minute. The gag is that Joe painted himself in blackface and that Clinton played along. This is a good metaphor for the offensive, condescending way that Joe Lieberman is courting the African American vote in CT.

Still, the use of blackface for a cartoon aimed at a general audience is insensitive and inappropriate.

Firedoglake has always has a faint Committee for Public Safety vibe emitting from it; whoever the Enemy of the Day is, they go after with no holds barred. The problem isn't that Jane's mean, it's that she's not mean enough; to really give into the full spectrum of rage (a lot of it warranted by current events, IMHO) would mean having to look at the Democratic side of the six-year clusterfuck we've been involved in.

More than anything, though, it proves that bloggers are starfuckers. Groupies. Sure, you can throw up a blog and think you're running with the big boys, but to politicians, bloggers are usable at best. Useful idiots, I believe the phrase is. I think that Jane realizes this, and she wants to get a piece of the action (just like Markos). The problem is that she has absolutely no clue what her actual role is, merely her own perception of it. And yeah, Ned's happy to have supporters and such, but slightly off-kilter woman making bizarre blackface Photoshops to "help"? Why don't you just throw a Nazi armband on one of them while you're playing with unbelievably loaded racial imagery? Never mind the minutae of Lieberman's race-baiting or whatever; it is politically stupid to go near blackface.

And that's what's going to keep people like Hamsher on the outs: they have no clue how the game is played. And if she (or anyone else) thinks the game is going to be changed because people discovered Blogger...then, well, bless her deluded little head.

say what you will about the wisdom of using the image or the sharp elbows at firedoglake, but to claim jane is a self-promoter, star fucker, or anything else beyond a genuinely concerned progressive activist is ignorant. sorry guys, but you're wrong on that account...

Two months ago, just before the runoff election for Duke Cunningham's congressional seat the Democratic candidate for that seat answered a question from the audience that may have cost her the election. Subsequent Republican ads claim she advocated voter fraud by non-citizens, a ludicrous charge. The loudly trumpeted (ludicrous) charge deflected enough attention away from Congressman Cunningham's confessed short comings to keep the seat Republican.

Methinks this "controversy" is taken from the same playbook. I've been around for a while (graduated high school at the height of the Vietnam war) and the only instance of contemporary blackface I recall is from Spike Lee's brilliant Bamboozled, 2000. For me whatever outrage the Clinton / Leiberman image conjures is trifling compared to what I feel looking at nearly any picture having anything to do with Mr Bush's war in Iraq, an endeavor that commands unflinching public support from old Joe. I can understand Senator Lieberman wanting to change the subject.

I think the image is spot on. Lieberman is a poser of the worst kind - he's posing as he panders while being a guy who's done nothing significant for blacks. He's trying to pander votes because he can't face the real issue (and the one that is dropping his numbers) - his position on Iraq. As long as the current mess is going on in the mid-east, his numbers will continue to drop.

It's really fun to watch people using modern tools such as Photoshop to express themselves.
The production quality on this is poor,
but the impact is,
like, holy Joe!

I feel the sentiment, but Jamie ended up shooting herself on the foot. First it makes Clinton look bad (Bill that is) and Dems are not allowed to do that (even when old Holy Joe did it himself back in the day) and second "Black Face" as in WTF!?!?! Had she used words intead of images, it would probably worked better, but then it would not be in theBAG.

I think Jane's heart was in the right place but her judgement (in this case) was poor. She's old enough to have known better. On the other hand, if she ever encounters Ted Danson they'll have something to talk about...

Itwasntme wrote:
Hamsher's motivation was, no doubt, to get attention for herself, which she did get, a photo in the NYTimes.

I've been watching this whole mess with a mixture of Cassandra-esque horror, since, as both a long-time blogger (now on hiatus) and a political operative (the reason I'm on hiatus), I sadly worried about this eons ago. But this morning's NYTimes piece really knocked me for a loop, as it obviously was penned _after_ the controversial event. The photo in the Times was not a "stock" photo - it appears, at least from the article, as one taken to supplement the Times piece.

As a 20 year operative, I just have to say, WTF? Has the Lamont campaign not laid down the law? I'm not saying drop Hamsher like an anchor (that would only keep the story in the cycle for another day or so,) but make sure she now treats the press as if they had avian flu. No one associated with a campaign, even well-placed "volunteers", should speak to the press without the knowledge and/or approval of the offical campaign press secretary. So what was with the story in the Times this morning? This is now the third news cycle running focusing on the event. Hasn't anyone figured out you don't continue to feed a story if you want it to die, especially the weekend before the election? (...insert Dean scream here...)

Jane Hamsher is one of the reasons that we netizens are considered "crazed". Here's an example.

Carolyn Kay

i don't understand what everyone is going on about. Has this image been Photoshopped in some way?

Why is no one mentioning Lieberman's secret stash of fake faces he keeps around? There's a natural explanation for everything.

It shows the world at large that a significant portion of the Democrat/Socialist party thinks nothing of poking fun at people using racially divisive caricatures because they theink that the rules of basic human decency do not apply to them in their superior self-deluded "ivory towers". Pretty pathetic display. A sort of "visual fruedian slip"....

The media is working hard at saying.... "Nothing to see here... Lets move along..."

A really funny event...


Rule # 1 of the Internets: DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS!

Had this been a political cartoon rather than a PhotoShopped photo, I suspect the uproar would have been just a murmur.

The racial slur, if there is one, consists of an attack on white people who pander to an audience by trying to create an image of something that does not exist. The minstrel shows of the last century pandered to a white audience, while Lieberman is pandering to a black audience. Should that make a difference, in a non-racist society?

Or is it an ethnic slur because Lieberman is Jewish? Arab protests show photos of Israeli leaders with Hitler mustaches added. Whose line does that cross? At least they make their point.

Has anyone asked any black Connecticut voters how they feel about this artwork? I guess we'll find out Tuesday, how they feel about Lieberman.

I'm not an FDL reader, but it appears Ms. Hamsher should take a couple of steps back and look at the reality around her. Anyone over 15 should remember the flack directed at Ted Danson (and Whoopie) when he did a black-face routine at a roast. So even a black woman can misjudge the effects of black-face. But Hamsher should have taken note of it. It smacks of willful ignorance.

Incidentally, she is also slamming Clinton by depicting him with 'sambo' when, as The Bag states, his affinity for the black community is so widely known. The Bag also alludes to Hamsher 'running interference' for Lamont. If indeed this is what was going on, I believe she should choose between campaign participant or blogger. As MB said, If hamsher is getting THAT involved in a certain campaign, she should relinquish blogging for the nonce.

I also don't believe any one born in this country (or anywhere else, for that matter) is without prejudice. The best we can hope to do is to recognize it, be sensitive to it and behave above it. If Hamsher had more sensitivity about the feelings of others and less about her own, I don't think this would have been an issue: she just wouldn't have done it.

Does anyone understand the comments by wiesseharre?

I thought Hendrik Hertzberg's single short piece in The New Yorker did more to effectively blast Lieberman than any verbage Jane Hamsher has spewed like a manic double-fisted-venti-cap addict in two weeks of nonstop blogging or Photoshopping this picture. Besides Lieberman's support of the Iraq War and his condemnation of Bill Clinton, there's this little-cited fact about the 2000 election, which to me, is Lieberman's worst offense of all:

"Lieberman’s seat was up that year, and he decided to run simultaneously for senator and Vice-President. Lyndon Johnson had taken out a similar insurance policy forty years earlier, but there was a difference. The governor of Texas in 1960 was a Democrat, so when Johnson resigned his Senate seat after the election a Democrat was appointed to replace him. The governor of Connecticut in 2000 was a Republican. If Lieberman had made way for the state’s popular Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who would have won easily, and if the Supreme Court had allowed Gore to take office, then the new Senate would have split 50-50, with Vice-President Lieberman breaking the tie in favor of the Democrats. But, by insisting on having it both ways, Lieberman single-handedly guaranteed that the new Senate would be Republican—either by a 51-49 margin under a Gore Administration or (as it turned out) by the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Dick Cheney."

I don't think Lieberman is going to win the primary, but I also think Hamsher fantasized a racial issue where there wasn't one. It isn't racist to "pander" to black or any minority voters (if it were racist, there'd be a whole bunch of politicians in jail for doing it), and the term "race baiting" doesn't even mean what ConnecticutBLOG thinks it means. However, creating and distributing an image that depicts a public figure linked to a racist reference is a shocking no-brainer no-no (unless you have hard proof that would hold up in court). That's not momentary thoughtlessness; that's frighteningly stupid. I don't care how "progressive" Hamsher is.

Hamsher may have removed the photo-illustration from her piece at HuffPo, but happily she forgot to remove the credit:
(Graphic by DarkBlack)

I think DarkBlack did a genius job on the illustration, btw.

This image is worse than I could have imagined. It's in shamefully bad taste. It's an insult to blacks, to Clinton, to Liberman, to Democrats. We'll see it again, in other hands and other contexts. Publishing it during a political race was a terrible misjudgment, and damaged the candidate. The creator of it will be radioactive politically. The editor who permitted its posting on another website should also be accountable - if there was an editor.

I kept seeing good things said about firedoglake as a new political website some months back, but after logging onto it a short while, I was disappointed. It was all-Happy-Fitzday-all-the-time, about the Patrick Fitzgerald investigation, the source for all the latest lengthy speculations, beyond all sense of proportion. Look what that hubbub came to... and it's all we're gonna get, too. Here's hoping the constant Lieberman/Lamont hubbub has a better outcome, despite this image.

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