During a recent excursion to Iran, Brandon Stanton — creator of the wildly popular Humans of New York (HONY) blog — posted some shots of humans in the Islamic Republic. One of them features a father and his 10-year-old son in the city of Tabriz, with the accompanying anecdote from the dad:
“One time when he was five-years-old, he came with me to the store and we bought two pounds of fresh apricots. I let him carry the bag home. He walked a little bit behind me the entire way. After awhile, I asked him to hand me an apricot. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I’ve given them all away.’ I knew then that I was raising a humanitarian.”
The post elicited a Facebook comment from none other than Barack Obama, who praised the “inspirational story” as one that “really resonated” with him. Before signing off as “bo,” Obama pledged to “continue doing whatever I can to make this world a place where [the Iranian boy] and every young person like him can live up to their full potential. (And if I ever get to meet him, I hope he’ll save me an apricot!)”
Rapidly accruing over 160,000 “likes,” the president’s comment also spawned predictably sappy media coverage. The Huffington Post reported that Obama had “pulled at America’s heartstrings.” Over at Vox, Max Fisher lauded Stanton’s photographs for “doing important work in humanizing a people who are too often vilified in America and in Washington particularly.”
At first glance, it’s a convenient arrangement. Stanton humanizes the vilified Iranians, while also giving the U.S. president the opportunity to humanize himself. And we the viewers get to feel all warm and snuggly at the sheer abundance of emotion transiting the internet. Which means everyone’s happy, right?
Not so fast.
Let’s start with the president and the nature of his office which generally excludes anyone with genuine human qualifications. Obama is no exception, having presided over an impressive amount of suffering worldwide, and especially in the Middle East. One can safely assume he would not have felt inspired to comment on a photograph of a regional father accompanied by, say, this quote: “When he was five-years-old, my son was obliterated by a U.S. drone.”
Obama’s undying support for Israel, meanwhile, ensures that a lot of young people are categorically barred from living up to their full potential. These include south Lebanese youth massacred at close range by Israeli helicopters, as well as the children of the Gaza Strip, who are among the top global contenders for no future whatsoever.
An essay at Warscapes by Melissa Smyth highlights the thoroughly problematic nature of Stanton’s “humanizing” project — the very substance of which, she writes, is “the triumph of sentimentality over empathy, of platitude over inquiry, of imitation over creativity.” The problem with sentimentality, she emphasizes, is “the funneling of emotion into mute forms, preventing the marriage of thought and feeling that produces the most concentrated social action.”
Indeed, the encouragement of action against injustice appears to be far from a priority at HONY — as does any attempt to engage on a meaningful level with the structural causes of human plight, from racism to social inequality to imperial hobbies like military devastation. Furthermore, Smyth notes, “the pretension of representing all of [humanity’s] diversity through the lens of a single individual” is naturally complicated by the fact that Stanton’s subjects are restricted to those who, for example, “do not take offense to an intrusive white man’s request to commodify their images.”
Drawing attention to Stanton’s remark to the New York Times that “I purposely and pointedly try to avoid infusing any meaning in the work,” Smyth determines: “Like so many other cultural products of the day, HONY buttresses the status quo through a poisonous insistence upon its own apolitical nature.”
Vox’s Fisher, on the other hand, has infused meaning into Obama’s Facebook tribute: “…[T]he fact that the president chose the unusual step of leaving this comment, and that he chose to leave it on a photo of a father and son in Iran of all places, seems meaningful.” Never mind that Obama’s rhetoric vis-à-vis the Iranians in general has not evolved much beyond the idea that, nuclear deal or not, they are sponsors of terrorism — and that, because of this alleged reality, the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf countries must collaborate to keep them in check. Forget the apricots; this prescription isn’t good for any living thing in Iran.
During my own trip to Tehran earlier this month, I, too, was able to interact with some humans. Beyond the briefer encounters — the sheikh who handed me a Post-it note with his phone number and yahoo address on it, in case I needed anything in the country; the university student who wanted to know if Obama was gay — I spoke at length with Shohreh Pirani, the widow of Dariush Rezaeinejad. A researcher and academic and a deputy at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Rezaeinejad was assassinated in front of his wife and daughter in 2011 at the age of 35, reportedly with the assistance of the Mossad.
The couple’s daughter, now eight-years-old, leaned over her mother’s arm and offered suggestions as to which family photos to show me on the mobile phone. In one of them, taken shortly before the assassination, father and daughter are looking contentedly at the camera, heads tilted together. Reflecting on the terrible experience, Pirani told me she felt nothing but sorrow and pity for the perpetrators of the crime.
Now that’s humanity.