Over the weekend I was contacted by Ronald Creatore, whose child was photographed waving a Confederate flag on the Gettysburg battlefield as part of a school trip. After exchanging a few blog comments and emails I decided to extend an invitation to write a guest post. Below you will find his response to a post I wrote that explores what I believe is the correct context of the photograph in question.
First, in your online reply to me you make the point that your www.cwmemory.com website is “not a newspaper, (but) a blog.” I understand the distinction. Your blog gives you the right to post whatever opinion you wish to convey. I respect your right to do that, however, you impress me as a serious academician, and as you are a
PhD MA graduate of the University of Richmond with an impressive list of publications, I would anticipate that you would want to engage in the type of ethics and integrity in research and publication that is expected of a serious academician. To ensure this integrity, in my opinion, requires a more in-depth understanding of both sides of a particular issue before you can contribute something of value to the public discourse, and given that you hadn’t attempted to reach out to me to understand my point-of-view on the “context” issue, I felt that this failure fell short of the standard that you would set for yourself as an academician. This point is moot now that you have graciously offered to engage in this dialogue, and given that you have extended the opportunity for me to provide a guest posting.
Regarding the issue of the photo being taken “out of context,” it is perhaps instructive for me to convey my position by way of a hypothetical analogy. For this hypothetical analogy, consider for a moment that you are a second-generation Christian family whose ancestors were subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust in Poland. You have had the good fortune of being born in the United States, are a devout member of the Christian community, and enjoy a comfortable upper-middle-class life with your spouse and three children. You have raised your children to understand their heritage because that is what you know. While you teach your children to be respectful of the heritage of others, you don’t know the heritage of others as well as your own, and as such, you rely upon those educating your children to develop and teach curricula that expose your child to all unique perspectives.
One of your children is a 17 year-old boy who has never been in trouble, does very well in school, is actively involved in sports and other school-sponsored activities, and counts amongst his many friends people of all color and creeds. Your son has been accepted into the hometown university, and is looking forward to joining the university baseball team. During your son’s senior year in high school, the spring play is The Sound of Music. Your son tries out for the school play and is awarded the role of Rolf, the German boyfriend of the eldest daughter Liesl. You are happy that your son can pursue his passion for acting, and he is quite excited to prepare for the role, studying the script every day for the better part of three months. The play is a smash hit which is well-received in the community. The school newspaper publishes a photograph from a scene in the play, and the photograph displays a Swastika. The accompanying article explains that the play was extremely well-performed, and that due to overwhelming demand, there were additional performances that had not been originally scheduled. There is no negative reaction to the publishing of the photo of Swastika in the context of performing The Sound of Music.
The drama teacher is so impressed with how the children prepared for and performed the play that he thinks it is a great idea for the children to put the play on in Austria, which is the original setting for The Sound of Music. The children are excited at the prospect of traveling to perform the play, so they set out to raise the funds to travel to Austria during Spring Break. The drama teacher is able to schedule the performance of the play at the world-famous Vienna Opera House, which adds to the excitement of the children. The play in Austria is every bit the success that it was when it was performed at the high school.
After the play, but before taking off his uniform [including the armband displaying the Swastika], your son and a few friends [some of whom happen to be Jewish] have their photo taken by another student. Your son likes his photo enough that he posts it to Instagram account with the statement “Rockin’ the Rhineland.” Another person back home, whose identity is perhaps not known to your son, sees the picture on Instagram, notices the swastika and comments “Heil Hitler. Death to the Jews.” Your son is aghast that his photo has been so misconstrued so he immediately types “^^ NO NO” as an attempt to convey that he was not making this type of statement by posting the photograph. Your son immediately begins to get negative feedback via social media, including comments calling him an “anti-semitic homosexual,” “dick,” “faggot”, etc., and because of the misunderstanding over the contextual backdrop of how the photo came into existence, as well as due to the overwhelming negative reaction, your son takes the photo down within 5 minutes of its original posting.
Unbeknownst to your son, a student at another local school sees the original Instagram posting. Even though this student knows that your son was participating in the performance of The Sound of Music in Austria, this student immediately takes a screenshot of the photo, including the derogatory comment “Heil Hitler. Death to the Jews.” This student from the other school Tweets out a copy of the screenshot with your son’s name and social media information, but even though she knows that your son was acting in the role of Rolf in a performance of The Sound of Music, she makes no mention of the context behind the photo. Shortly thereafter, your son begins receiving additional vitriolic comments from 100’s if not 1000’s of people streaming through all channels of social media. Your son, being hours away from your counsel and simply wanting the hateful language to stop, quickly drafts an apology and posts that apology to Facebook. The apology is not all that well thought-out, is made in the heat of the moment, and has a bit of a defensive tone to it because of how vitriolic and hurtful the comments have been. Total lapsed time from the posting of the original photo to the posting of the apology is 10 minutes.
After returning home from Austria, you meet with the Principal of your son’s school. The Principal assures you that he [and the school system administration] understand all of the facts surrounding the photograph, but that he has heard some rumblings that some Jewish children and other members of the Jewish community are upset by the manner in which your son appeared in this photograph callously displaying the Swastika. The Jewish children have come up to your son and said “[w]e know that you are not anti-semitic, but the photograph upset our parents, and as we discussed this further with our parents, we became upset as well.”
The Principal assures you that there is nothing that your son needs to worry about relative to negative repercussions from the school system. However, because of longstanding issues of alleged religious bias that exists between the school system and the local Jewish community, the school is hesitant to make any public statement acknowledging that your son was involved in a school-sanctioned activity under the direction of his drama teacher, nor will they acknowledge any of the specific facts explaining why your son was wearing a Swastika or that the school system actually owned the Swastika as a period-specific prop for a school-sanctioned play. All that the school system will say is that your son was participating with a group of students traveling to Austria when the photograph was taken, and that they have reviewed the matter and taken appropriate action.
Your son, saddened but ready to move forward and finish out his senior year, attempts to return his focus towards completing his senior year so that he can move on with his life. Because of the lack of disclosure by the school system, your son continues to receive negative social media posts containing vitriolic language. Your son moves on with his life having learned a valuable lesson, though he remains worried that the university may retract their admission offer, or that the baseball coach might retract his offer to have your son on the team. Within the next few days, the athletic director at the university sends word to the baseball coach that there is an issue that the athletic director has heard about – the issue appears to be that one of the incoming baseball players has posted an inappropriate photograph on social media with an inflammatory comment. The baseball coach investigates the matter and realizes that your son did nothing wrong as he was engaged in a school-sanctioned event and that the Swastika was a prop owned by the school used in the performance of a school play.
About a week passes before your find out that the local Jewish synagogue displayed a copy of the photograph and comments before a packed synagogue as part of a discussion about how people of the Jewish faith still suffer extreme prejudice within the community. Some of the Jewish parents who have had issues with the school system over a perceived bias against the Jewish community by the school system contact the Jewish Anti-Defamation League [“JADL”], and although these parents know the facts surrounding how the photograph came into existence, they convince the JADL that the school system’s refusal to punish your son represents yet another chapter in the longstanding bias that the school system has displayed when it comes to matters offending those of the Jewish faith.
The parents and the JADL begin to contact local media outlets, and again, without explaining the contextual backdrop of how the photo came into existence, the parents and JADL begin a campaign to use the photograph, and the school system’s refusal to take action against your son, as a clear sign that the Jewish community is suffering prejudicial treatment at the hands of the school system. The parents and the JADL are making demands that include, but are not limited to, the suspension of your son from school. These demands are being made even though the parents and JADL have been told the facts surrounding how the photograph came into existence, and even though the parents and JADL have been told that your son is not anti-semitic.
After the local media outlets begin to air these one-sided reports, the parents and JADL schedule a press conference during which they read from prepared statements. Again, the prepared statements provide none of the factual context about how the photograph came into existence. The prepared statements do not acknowledge the opinion of the speakers that your son is not anti-semitic. The prepared statements make no mention whatsoever of any of the exculpatory information that is so important to having a complete understanding of the exactly what is transpiring – that is, the parents and the JADL do not want the public to know that they are purposely, wantonly and willfully misrepresenting what your son has done for the sole purpose of enabling them to advance an agenda [their desire to bring about change to what they believe is longstanding bias in the school system]. They are sacrificing your son on the altar of their cause, without any concern whatsoever that your son is being harmed by the fact that he is being used as a pawn in their game of chess.
So, when I say that the photograph is being taken out of context, I am not speaking to “context” in the sense of what the Swastika means to the Jewish community [there is no denying the horrors that the Swastika symbolizes to the descendants of all people killed by the Nazi regime], I am speaking to “context” in the sense that the parents and JADL are saying that their agenda is to solely to punish your son for his insensitivity in displaying the Swastika, when in actuality they are using your son as leverage in their pursuit of an entirely different agenda, which is to force the school system to make changes to address what are perceived to be longstanding inequities in the school system [lower test scores by Jewish children, perceived insensitivity to the Jewish viewpoint on subjects being taught in the school system, etc.]. It is, in a sense, akin to a magic trick where the magician employs sleight of hand. The parents and JADL are holding out your son’s photograph and stating that they are concerned about the insensitivity displayed therein, while the other hand is working on the real agenda, which the activist parties are disingenuously failing to disclose.