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The Soiling of Old Glory

The Soiling of Old Glory
March 12, 2008

It was three months before the Bicentennial and a group of high school students in Boston were saying the Pledge of Allegiance. One of them held a large American flag. But this was not the commonplace ritual of citizenship that it might sound. The teenagers, all of them white, were just as swept up as their parents in the protests over court-ordered desegregation of the Boston public schools; and much of the rhetoric swirling around the anti-busing movement appealed to the old patriotic tropes of resistance to tyranny, defense of the rights of the citizen, and so on. The kids who milled around in front of City Hall in Boston were enjoying their chance to share in the Spirit of ‘76 while also skipping class on a Monday morning.

The people in the anti-busing movement were not, they often insisted, racists. It so happened that a young African-American lawyer named Ted Landsmark had a meeting at City Hall that morning to discuss minority hiring in construction jobs. He turned the corner and walked into a scene that would be recorded for posterity by Stanley Forman, a photojournalist for The Boston Herald American. In a picture that won Forman his second Pulitzer Prize in as many years, we see Landsmark in the right-hand half of the image. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he is the only black person in the crowd. But what dominates the scene is the teenager who had been holding the American flag a little earlier, during the Pledge, and now wields it as a weapon, seeming to drive it like a lance into Landsmark’s body. Forman later titled his photograph “The Soiling of Old Glory.”

Frozen in mid-action, the image is brutal. But what makes it especially so is the expression on the kid’s face – a look of pure hatred and rage, his teeth showing, his upper lip curled in what seems to be (according to some research in affect theory) the universal physical manifestation of disgust. Other people in the crowd look on with what seems to be interest or even pleasure. It appears that nobody is ready to help Landsmark. A man standing just behind the lawyer seems to be holding him, so that kid with the flagstaff can get a clear shot.

But according to Louis P. Masur in The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America, just published by Bloomsbury Press, the picture is a misleading in that regard. Masur -- a professor of American institutions and values at Trinity College, in Connecticut -- analyzed the other images the photographer shot that day and finds a different story unfolding.

“The man who, in a a previous image, is in motion racing to the scene has arrived and is grabbing Landsmark,” writes Masur. “It would appear that he has joined the fray to get in his punches and, worse yet, is pinioning Landsmark’s arms so that the flag bearer has a clear line of attack. In fact, the person holding Landsmark is Jim Kelly, one of the adult organizers of the protest, and he has raced in not to bind Landsmark but to save him from further violence.... He dashed in to try to break up the fight. In another photograph taken a moment later, he can be seen holding his arms out wide trying to keep the protesters back as Landsmark stumbles to safety.”

Knowing this, writes Masur, “changes our understanding of the photograph.” To a degree, perhaps, yes. But no degree of recontextualizing can gainsay the interpretation of the scene offered by the victim of the assault. “I couldn’t put my Yale degree in front of me to protect myself,” Landsmark told a newspaper reporter a few days after the attack. “The thing that is most troubling is that it happened not because I was somebody but because I was anybody....I was just a nigger they were trying to kill.”

The image is iconic. It does not simply reproduce an event; it crystallizes something out of life itself.

“The camera freezes time,” as Masur writes, “giving us always a moment, a fraction of a narrative that stretches before and after the isolated instant.” The Soiling of Old Glory reconstructs some of that narrative – drawing for the most part on published sources, especially the account of the Boston busing crisis given by the great American journalist Anthony Lukas in his book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985).

Protesters often insisted that they hated busing, not African-Americans -- but as someone put it at the time, nobody went out to beat up a school bus. Masur treats the photograph itself as a turning point in the crisis. “However strenuously the anti-busing movement emphasized issues other than race,” he writes, “the photograph shattered the protesters’ claim that racism did not animate their cause and that they were patriotic Americans fighting for their liberties. The photograph had seared itself into the collective memory of the city and installed itself in the imagination of both blacks and whites.”

Masur understands the photograph as leading, “at first, to turmoil and self-scruitny, and later, to progress and healing.” Such a perspective is bound to be appealing to many people, especially given the desire now to imagine a “post-racial” America. In any case, the photograph itself certainly sticks in one’s memory – and not just as a document of a particular conflict. An analyst must try to account for something of its power; and this task is not any easier given the relative neglect by scholars of photojournalism itself as a topic for critical study.

Unfortunately, in the course of meditating upon the image, Masur sometimes exhibits rather serious failures of what is sometimes been called “hermeneutic tact.” This is a feel for the limits of interpretation: a sense that ingenuity might, beyond a certain point, involve a kind of violation of what the process will bear. Hermeneutic tact, like the social kind, is impossible to codify. But you know when someone has violated it, because you wince.

At one point, the author claims that the mob member wielding the flag like a spear “suggests the stabbing of Christ in the side by the Roman solider Longinus, who afterward was converted to Christianity and was canonized.” No, it doesn’t – not even if you squint really, really hard. Here, free association leads to something akin to a context salad. Likewise with some musings about the title Forman gave his photograph: “The verb soiling means defiling or staining,” writes Masur. “But with the root soil, it also suggests planting. Flags are thrust into the ground as statements of control, whether by explorers in the New World or by American astronauts on the moon. In an extreme act of desecration and possession, the protestor, it seems, is trying to implant the flag into the black man and claim ownership.”

We now have a precise technical term for this sort of thing, thanks to the efforts of Harry Frankfurt. A good editor would have found a way to remove such passages, or at least buried them in the quiet graveyard of the book’s apparatus. They are distracting yet take nothing away from the lasting power of the image itself. Looking at it, I felt the urge to reread Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro” – a speech from 1852 that Masur, oddly enough, never cites, though it is hard to think of a more pointed and fitting account of how certain beloved symbols may serve as instruments of oppression. More was happening within the frame of Stanley Forman's action shot than any single analysis can quite exhaust.

 

 

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