The Common Good

Selfie-Gate: Obama, a Funeral Celebration, and a Scapegoat

President Obama’s “selfie” with prime ministers Helle Thorning Schmidt of Denmark and David Cameron of Great Britain has been making the rounds on social media. Many of Obama’s detractors have taken the opportunity to criticize the President’s picture taking prowess, bringing on “Selfie-Gate.” Take John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, for example:

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Obama's selfie with prime ministers David Cameron and Helle Thorning Schmidt ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

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First lady Michelle Obama sits off to the side, somber, dignified, as the world remembers Mandela. Yet next to her like some goofy adolescent who hasn't yet been taught how to behave properly at a memorial service — her husband — is snapping a memorial to himself.

Hold on a minute there, Kass, because South Africa is teaching us a thing or two about how they “behave properly at a memorial service.” Sure they mourn.

But they also dance.

From the video and images that I’ve seen, there was festive atmosphere at Mandela’s memorial service. This leads me to wonder what “proper behavior” at this memorial service looks like.

We humans are mimetic. That means we absorb the mood of our surrounding. Mood is contagious. This funeral wasn’t somber for the South Africans. They danced! Would Kass or anyone else say that dancing at Mandela’s funeral service was improper behavior?

The memorial service was a joyful celebration of the life of Mandela. Because they are mimetic, Obama and both prime ministers were caught up in that joyful celebration. So they took a picture. The only criticism worth levying against the three is that they should have been dancing.

Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who caught the infamous selfie, describes the atmosphere of the memorial service in an article he wrote:

I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing, and laughing to honor their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed — I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the U.S. or not.

Schmidt’s description of the event reveals that the anger levied against President Obama is a clear sign of scapegoating. There are at least two reasons for this. First, Obama’s detractors are neglecting the fact that two other world leaders were involved in taking the picture, but I don’t hear much blame thrown in their direction. Obama’s critics also seem to have a sense of glee that Michelle Obama looks appears critical her husband in some of the pictures. They say she’s giving him a “stern” look. That, of course, is an interpretation, one that the photographer claims is false. Schmidt states that the First Lady was, “In reality, just a few seconds earlier … was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included.”

One wonders if all the negative attention given to Obama misses the point of not only the memorial service, but Nelson Mandela’s life. How would Mandela have responded to three world leaders taking a selfie? I suspect he would have danced, laughed, and asked if he could join them for another selfie. 

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen

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