The 16th century Venetian painter Paolo Veronese might have painted a photograph in the New York Times, so rich it is in symbolic content. Veronese crowded his paintings with myths, symbolic objects, references to literature and visual connections to contemporary politics. Whether intentional or not, the Times photo on page A 20, by Michael Appleton, does the same.
The photo accompanies a story of a news conference about what the New York City area is doing now to coordinate responses to potential terrorist threats. The photo shows the four principle speakers in this order, right to left, as viewers see it:
- Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie at the far right of the frame
- Jeh Johnson, homeland security secretary, at the podium doing the talking. Johnson is a political appointment, so he profoundly represents the views of President Obama
- Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo
- Democratic Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio, with Elizabeth Warren one of the two most prominent progressive Democrats nationwide.
Christie, Johnson and Cuomo are bunched around the podium, with Christie a little closer to Johnson than Cuomo. De Blasio is way to the left (as the viewer sees it), the gap between him and Cuomo roughly twice what the combined gaps are between the other three.
In short, we see pretty much the spectrum of political opinion in America today, if we lop off the right-wing. Christie, Obama and Cuomo are centrists with not much difference between them, although Christie is to the right of the two Democrats on social issues. De Blasio, by contrast, is far to the left of the centrists.
There are a few symbolic subtleties in the photo. As he speaks, the Obama administration official Johnson stands as a centrist but is looking left, just as Obama acts as a centrist even if he sometimes talks like a progressive. In a similar manner, de Blasio is looking right, but with an uncomfortable expression on his face, perhaps expressing the lack of comfort he feels supporting centrist Democrats like Cuomo in the elections. Or perhaps he understands that in responding to the threat of terrorism, we’ve gone overboard on militarizing society and spying on the private lives of individuals.
To my mind the most powerful symbolic association comes from de Blasio’s position in front of an American flag. The good mayor covers a little of it, but a swatch with pieces of five stripes and 17 states is visible and seems almost to be waving. As a progressive I read into this image a statement—probably inadvertently made by the photographer—that de Blasio’s path is the best one for the United States. De Blasio stands for raising taxes on the wealthy; providing greater support to public education; policies that help unions and raise middle class incomes, like ending support of charter schools; government intervention to make housing more affordable; humanistic policing; protection of women’s reproductive rights; increased mass transit; equal rights for all minorities; gay marriage; and diversity in government.
Funny, the photo would have described the full political spectrum presented in the news media in the 1950s, 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s before Ronald Regan started mainstreaming wacko right-wing ideas. I imagine it would be impossible to place most of the Republican and the Tea Party in the photo today unless it was about three times as long as it currently is.