What was really going on in that racist Swedish cake photo?

If you spent some time on the Internet yesterday, you've probably seen it already -- the photo of laughing Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cutting into a cake designed as a racist caricature of an African woman. Or Jezebel succinctly put it, "Swedish Official Gleefully Cuts Racist Black Lady Cake, Delights Onlookers." More disturbingly, the cake was intended as a statement on female genital mutilation and Liljeroth was asked to whisper "Your life will be better after this!" before cutting into the crotch. The image has provoked outrage in Sweden's black community and calls for Liljeroth's resignation.

As it turns out, that may have been part of the idea. In a guest post at the always-worth-reading Africa Is A Country blog, Swedish music blogger Johan Palme gives some context for the event. Accoring to Palme, Lijeroth is "reviled by large parts of the art world for her culture-sceptic stance and for previously condemning provocative art in what many see as a kind of censorship," making the atmosphere already a bit tense at the celebration of World Art Day she was attending at Stockholm's Moderna Museet:

The cake is wheeled out and uncovered. The crowd stares, tittering nervously. The culture minister is placed at the crotch end, and starts cutting into the cake – when suddenly the head starts screaming in pain. It’s the artist, Makode Linde, whose own painted head is placed as the head of the cake. The crowd’s tittering erupts in nervous laughter; the uncomfortable humour of the situation, the classic Swedish fear of conflict, triggered by the surprise sound and movement. Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth tries to play along as best she can in what she sees as a “bizarre” situation, reciprocating the laughter.

And on the other side of the cake, placed in the narrow space in front of a glass wall, stands one of the minister’s fiercest critics, visual artist and provocateur Marianne Lindberg De Geer, camera at the ready. And she snaps pictures of the whole series of events, as the minister is egged into doing more outrageous things, performing for the crowd.

It’s of course no coincidence. The whole thing was carefully planned, a “mousetrap” as one Swedish artist puts it. And based on how much traction the picture of the event has garnered, it was a very efficient mousetrap indeed.

Who’s Makode Linde, who staged the whole event? He is a visual artist, and as such has continuously asked uncomfortable questions about race, racial stereotyping and his own position as a black man in a condescending elite art world. The golliwog figure is a consistent image in his artwork, being placed on everyday objects, on paintings grinning nervously at the king, gawking in horror from children’s faces, at times undergoing almost formalist destruction. But just as importantly: he’s a club promoter and DJ, one of Sweden’s most successful, who knows exactly how to manipulate crowds and their emotions.

Palme wonders if the picture of Liljeroth and crowd's nervous reaction was actually the work of art here, rather than cake itself. The full post is well worth reading. You can still question Liljeroth's reaction here, but what's shown in the photo is a bit more complicated than a government minister laughing at a "Racist Black Lady Cake."


Who's whispering in David Ignatius's ear?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration's negotiating strategy toward Iran.

At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America's train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America's must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late -- it's almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.

Let's take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" -- picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."

In exchange, Iran would get ... nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.

Frankly, I don't see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn't visibly benefit Iran --  rather than merely preventing future harm -- will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country's fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.

It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s -- and the Pentagon certainly isn't -- but they don't want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.

Then there's Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant -- the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.

Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.

What will most likely happen, as Time's Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don't expect to be optimistic once you do.