(A new look at, through, and beyond Brian Ulrich’s quiet masterpiece of post-9/11 American paranoia)
In March of this year, while Trump was touching all bases en-route to his electoral four-bagger, I found myself thinking back to this photograph of Brian Ulrich’s. It’s a quiet little picture. A gas station window. A sign. A scene, essentialized.
As you step into Ulrich’s view, you come to know three things:
In the ten years since I first saw this photograph, it’s rattled around my mind in a way that’s unlike all the other new photographs I’ve seen in the last ten years. It’s the essence of memorable; meaning, I can’t forget it.
Like this, from Walker Evans.
The photographic legacy of signs is that they make for fun pictures; easy juxtapositions, there for the taking. Or at least Evans thought so — if he didn’t explicitly write it down, his photos showed the way.
And by extension, the inescapability of this odd old favorite from down the road in Macon in 1972, via Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces:
Signs as markers, as warnings, as advertisements, yells, hollers and cat-calls at your imperfections. Signs that remind you how far you have to go before you get home.
I can’t think of a contemporary photograph of a sign that’s stuck with me more than Brian’s, but what’s lingered is how much the photo’s message has changed with the times (and the medium?)
In the early aughts, we looked to the skies and worried about attacks from above. Fear wasn’t abstract. The approaching whine of a low-flying jet made people duck their heads and wince.
The fear then was external. On the morning of 9/11, my mother-in-law was delayed getting to an appointment at the World Trade Center. The sky was was “severe clear”. Our response to that day’s carnage was understandably forceful. We were so scared we went halfway around the world to kill some people in caves, and in doing so, some of our own were killed, and when we weren’t scaring our enemies and ourselves on the battlefield, we scared ourselves back here with Homeland Security Threat Levels, and tried to calm down by handing over our shoes and belts to TSA.
For most, the American sky has proverbially been as wide as the land and open for anything, but after 9/11 (and for the first time for many) the wide-open American sky felt suffocating, it represented a kind of known unknown, a trigger that just might blow. What was unimaginable had struck New York, DC, and Shanksville — unlike lightning, it might strike again.
Flash forward to 2016, this unending year of awful, and specifically March 1st, when Trump stole away to Louisville, Kentucky, to rouse his rabblers into a froth no one had let them feel in public for years. Trump rallies were a safe space that embraced their hate. Airing it out felt good to them. Airing it out felt good to men.
It felt so good to Matthew Heimbach that he yelled and threatened Kashiya Nwanguma until others joined-in to shove her and she was ejected from the rally.
Here’s Matthew on the left, in the red hat, passing along his anger to a veteran, who likely fought alongside men who died for Kashiya’s right to safely attend and protest a political rally.
This isn’t news. You’ve seen this (and episodes like it) on repeat all year: you know the story.
Perhaps in some way, you became the story. You had doors slammed in your face in Pennsylvania while canvassing for Hillary. You made calls to undecided voters in Wisconsin. Perhaps you lifted your finger to the wind while driving home for Thanksgiving and thought, “you know, maybe we shouldn’t talk about politics this year.” Maybe that was your story.
Maybe back in February, when Hillary had competition, you took your four-year old daughter to a Bernie Sanders rally, and you both stood in the cold rain as a way to create a teachable moment that sacrificing something as small as comfort for a few hours is a good thing to do in a participatory Democracy, and on the way into the venue, a Secret Service agent looked at the small American flag your daughter was carrying, and told her it had to be thrown in the trash.
And when you threw Old Glory in the trash, and heard the other people in line sigh and groan at the sight of it — upside-down beside a half-eaten cold-cut sub, a Super-sized Mountain Dew — your daughter was near tears because It Didn’t Make Sense, you knew there was no bigger metaphor, but this was a literal moment, with real people shaking their heads at the sight of it — a little too concrete, actual.
We’re trashing America, aren’t we?
When a child-sized American flag in a girl’s hand is a threat, we’re pretty far down a misbegotten road. When a woman gets kicked and shoved out of a political rally for the color of her skin, we’re so far out of town, everything starts to look the same. We’ve been running this down since September 12th, 2001. Ulrich’s photograph is chilling reminder of the early days, when we knew we were heading some place new, but didn’t know exactly where.
And now, we’re so far away, it’s hard to tell how we’ve arrived here, exactly, and where the hell are we, anyway?
Trump supporters aren’t terrorists. (Though they’d be quick to equate progressives and Black Lives Matter protestors with Al Qaeda, if given the chance.) Yet, at some point this year, there was a hand-off of fear.
Some Americans began fearing that our worst, most bigoted impulses might be as damaging as a bomb blast. That the wounds (both emotional and physical) might last longer, that their scars could not be easily rubbed away. That each tweet and boast propelled the rise of a culture of white triumphalism, as pernicious as the lasting kind from The Old South.
It called itself “the alt-right” and strutted around. It hitched-up its big boy pants and did a spin for the cameras while pointing at the cameras, admonishing their gaze. It was normalized.
Here’s Chelsea Handler, doing a sit-down with Heimbach for the 3rd episode of her Netflix show, Chelsea Does, which aired three months before Heimbach shoved Nwanguma in Louisville.
As outlined on any site you care to search, Heimbach’s goal is to geographically divide-up America into zones that separate us by race and religion. Full stop. No link necessary.
Which is why, when I talk to liberals and progressives who shrug off the current state of politics, or the fact Dems lost the election (thanks to Russia, thanks to Hillary not campaigning in Wisconsin, thanks to misogyny and a thousand other reasons) I can’t understand how they’ve cleanly and quickly tuned-out the growing threat.
It’s stressful to stay plugged-in, to keep-up with the day-to-day efforts of the incoming administration, I get it. It’s easy to tune out imaginary policies not yet proffered by Heimbach, Bannon, Spencer & Co. when you’re not close enough to people of color, Muslims, Jews, the LGBTQ community, immigrants or anyone else who feels literally threatened by actual threats from Trump and his cronies.
It’s all too easy to look the other way.
When you say, “oh, we’ll just see what happens,” here’s what happened, starting November 9th:
Here’s what happened at my daughter’s school, where she’s a pre-K student, less than 10 days after the election: a man approached the school, waving a large American flag, yelling “I HATE NIGGERS! I HATE NIGGERS!” Cops were called and the school went on lock-down.
Threat Level Orange.
Not included on the map of hate crimes, violence, harassment, and threats are the small, micro-moments in which people have asked themselves, “did he really just say that? Did he say what I think he said?”
Not included on the map is the fact that earlier this weekend the President Elect went in front of a crowd in Orlando, Florida (a city leveled by the physical and emotional violence of a mass shooting in 2016) to talk approvingly about how his campaign reveled and thrived on its vicious, violent, mean, & nasty supporters.
President-elect Donald Trump calls his supporters "vicious and violent" at a rally in Orlando Florida. pic.twitter.com/3Vbf9wC5UI— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) December 17, 2016
There’s a way to say what should be said, but I can’t find a way to do it here without sounding shrill, apoplectic, or like another outraged fool.
The morning of 9/11, I was in the wilderness on the border of Nevada and California, surrounded by some of the oldest-living things on earth. The skies were quiet. That night, the stars were so close, I could feel the earth’s rotation — the whole thing slipping slightly, right beneath my feat.
In time, I changed; you changed. Photographers changed. Cashiers at gas stations became different cashiers who knew fewer details. Over time, the woman or man who owned the gas station felt like everyone was passing her by on their way to some other place, some better place where news was made, where people were fancy and proud about where they went to school.
The photographed present-tense of the gas station became a kind of passed-over prison, locked in place.
The skies stayed blue, and over time, were filled again with planes. You flew over, I flew over, and everything we flew over was easy to ignore. Barack Obama somehow became President. He was as flawed as anyone, but was one of us, efforting to make the best of impossibly grim calculations, weighing forces we can’t imagine, with human lives in the balance, for better and worse.
Back at the gas station, the cigarette trash can outside the window smoldered under the weight of all those burned butts, smoked for years under furrowed brows, through pursed lips, each extinguished in the sand on the trash can’s top floor, a smoking tower of its own.
The decal stayed on the window until it started to peel from old age. Maybe it came down in 2011 when Janet Napolitano phased out the Homeland Security Advisory System for a renamed, National Terrorism Advisory System.
The threat pulsed through all the newly-laid fiber, mixing with the bits that comprise your family photos, the bytes about how you went ahead with building that urban chicken coop. The threat sprinted up power poles and leaped into the air, a new kind of virulence, exploding into the wind through the trees, over hills outside places you once drove through and have long since forgotten.
The threat now surrounds us, and we’re so used to it, we barely notice. A bunch of it even settled down in the house of the guy at the end of the street, who’s a good neighbor, keeps quiet, and doesn’t really bother anybody.
This is where we’re I’m supposed to take a turn.
To encapsulate and somehow call-back how we started — with that photograph, get back to the photograph — but like a great picture, sometimes you can only ask questions. The emotionally satisfying call-to-arms is a predictable dessert. You already know it ends with a patriotic hoo-rah.
When I used to race bicycles, the most satisfying thing was leaning into the apex of a switchback while descending, and that part of the turn was as literal and as metaphorical as anything else, even window washing fluid.
You’d lean into the apex and feather-off the brakes and let your speed blast you through to the far side of the road and you’d just fly…
An editor would tell me to ride back to the top of this section and try again. What is it about this year that’s made you think the threat from an emboldened and Trumpified right is as big or larger than the threat from global terrorism in the early aughts? How exactly did you recall Ulrich’s photograph when you saw the violence at Trump rallies in the spring of 2016?
Quit stalling. Make another GIF if you have to.
Post 9/11, the jingoistic fervor that coupled the word Homeland to Security looked like a referral link to 80s-era Russia. Growing-up then, governments that called their country “The Homeland” had guys named Ivan Drago who fought Rocky Balboa on Christmas Day.
While filming Rocky IV in Wyoming, a stand-in for the wasteland of Russia’s cold countryside, Dolf Lundgren punched Stallone so hard he spent eight days in intensive care. It’s hard to know what’s more prophetic, that tomorrow, three electors from Wyoming will vote for Donald J. Trump to become the 45th President of the United States, a candidate who benefitted from strategic Russian interference and a digital disinformation campaign, or that in Rocky IV, the movie from 1985 where America kicks Russia’s ass at the height of the Cold War, Dolph Lundgren nearly killed Sylvester Stallone with a single punch.
In the last decade, there became a point when politicians (especially on the Right) had lathered themselves with enough Homeland and enough Security that the combination began to feel normal, even when the Department of tried to hack Georgia’s voter registration database on election day. It subsumed itself as normal with terminal velocity. We embraced the idea so hard, as if the more we said the words, “we must protect the homeland,” the safer we’d be.
Can “the homeland” be defended from an idea? Will we wage a war against the kind of hate, fear and intolerance promoted by Team Trump, or will we treat it as a business we can sell ads against? When Google says they’ll allow themselves to be gamed by SEO rather than do what’s responsible when linking to Stormfront, where are we then? Where are we when a Heimbach or Spencer are verified-Twitter users, leveraging a platform idealistically built around mid-90s libertarian/Bay Area’n values into a worldwide mouthpiece for hate-speech?
When “an existential threat to Democracy” takes office, are we fools because we allowed ourselves to be convinced of the threat, or are we fools because Zuckerberg and Moonves will be cashing the checks written-out from the bank account of our depleted attention?
Everyone wants to make money while Rome burns. It’s the American way! If we’re not going to check ourselves collectively, perhaps we can start now, and ask the hard questions personally, internally if need be. You can even whisper. Sure, put tape over your laptop camera! Use TOR and Signal! We’ll all be safe then, right?
In Ulrich’s photograph, the threat is empty, transparent, unrealized, over-the-shoulder, easily conscripted into whichever color needs current demonization. Flavor-of-the-month threat. Threat of what’s unknown or hard to define as the fill-in-the-blank threat — Mad Libs threat.
Threat as the color of sky. Threat as a never-ending supply of window washing fluid. Threat as silent bogeyman, always replaceable. Threat as fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to develop mortgage-backed derivatives. Threat as our own reflection in a window, staring back through a decal.
Threat as January 19th, the Day Before. Bannon, Tillerson, Sessions & Miller threat. Threat of nepotism and whatever’s good for me and my family is good for America threat. Threat as a military veteran blind with race rage. Threat as a lie cleanly stated as fact. Threat as thousands of lies stacked from here to your newsfeed.
Threat as both confusion creation, and creation confusion. Threat of all the information all the time. Polonium threat, Pussy Riot threat, hop on this bus and I’ll tell you how I grab what I grab, when and why threat. Threat you’ll start sounding like your uncle who went wild for the Tea Party and wore tea-bags from his eyeglasses at weak and half-embarrassed rallies threat.
Threat of what you’ll never know nor understand. Burkini threat. Bhangra threat. Boys who might be girls — I think they’re girls — now on the cover of National Geographic threat. Threat you’ll awake one morning and not recognize the world around you threat. Watchlist, sanctuary or passport threat. Just walking right across the border as easy as they damn please threat.
Maybe the 2nd amendment people threat. Gabby Giffords on the ground in front of a Safeway in Tucson threat. Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States Presidential Daily Briefing threat. Reagan’s idea of Morning in America woke-up and became Mourning in America threat. False flag threat. Threat there are Americans who believe Sandy Hook was a staged event threat. Threat the President will have to sing Amazing Grace in another church before January 20th threat. Threat from pizza, threat from ping pong, from comets, because they come back threat.
Threat you might get exactly what you wished threat. Compassion threat. Loving kindness threat. Meditating while the world burns threat. Save yourself first threat. Bar the cockpit door threat. Pay your fore-caddie to lie so you have plausible deniability when you cheat at golf threat. Big threat, small threat, the kind of let’s smear this all across America’s face and see if she still smiles threat.
The threat you might get exactly what you deserved threat.
— MDM, 20161218
Update: 20161229 — In the days since this was published, Google has apparently altered its algorithm to change the results that are presented when you search for “did the holocaust happen?”. Your results may vary.