This year’s Golden Globes award ceremony stood out for the adulation and ovations heaped upon the CIA. Whether for Argo, Zero Dark Thirty or Homeland, the projects’ creators provided gushing thank-you’s to the heroic agency and its covert operators – in Argo’s case taking this to the level of pure fetish: A real-life CIA officer was brought out like a museum exhibit and he proceeded to offer a stiff and awkward introduction to the film based on his involvement in the Iran hostage crisis.
Hollywood and the television industry have always been complicit with the master narrative of American foreign policy, reverence for the military, the theatre of terrorism and American shenanigans abroad. While we may be living in a world that seems to have been birthed by the 9/11 attacks and the ripple effects of violence and policy-making that have been generated in their wake, the obsession of the entertainment industry with the “war on terrorism” is decades old. The motifs that form the crux of Ben Affleck’s Argo – the heroic American rescue, the overarching patriotic ideology and Iranians as either mindlessly violent or befuddled – were set in motion, in terms of mass media, during the actual Iran hostage crisis. If the Vietnam war beamed the violence of the war into American homes every night, solidifying the importance of war reportage, it was the Iran hostage crisis that catapulted the story of television itself into the next phase with terrorism, captivity, Iran and Islam as its most enduring themes.
The history of inter-connectedness between culture, media and US interests in the Middle East offers a great contextual window into the ways in which the entertainment industry at once mimics and solidifies foreign policy. The nightly television spectacle of not just the actual hostages, but the greater “American family” under siege in Iran put “terrorism” on the foreign policy agenda for decades to come. The subsequent “war on terrorism” allowed the Reagan Administration to initiate a massive military build-up and formulate an even more aggressive military hegemony in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in the media, many careers were made. Ted Koppel of ABC News became a household name, among others. In a symposium that Koppel himself mediated in 1984, prominent journalists and columnists came together to discuss the relationship between media and terrorism. Koppel claimed that the media and the terrorists had developed a symbiotic relationship. “Without television,” he said, “terrorism becomes rather like a philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: no one hears it fall and therefore it has no reason for being. And television without terrorism, while not deprived of all the interesting things in the world, is nonetheless, deprived of the one of the most interesting.” While disagreements and discussions followed, the underlying conclusion was that media coverage of terrorist acts invariably leant those acts legitimacy.
Terrorism meant ratings, and it was no surprise, then, that the hostage story took root within the entertainment industry and inspired films, TV shows, novels and true-story narratives. (1) Faux “Progressive” In the post-9/11 universe, we find ourselves at a particularly potent time in this respect, as themes of terrorism and Islam are depicted with renewed energy in the media. One would hope that, with so much cultural space devoted to the war on terror, the American public might comprehend and protest the massive financial and moral compromises that the $1 trillion effort to put a 50-cent round into the head of Osama bin Laden have entailed. But, somehow, Americans struggling in the current economy laid low by two wars are willingly drawn to the box office to pay $13 for a ticket to the celluloid false catharsis (and plain falsities) offered by the exquisitely produced Zero Dark Thirty or subscribe to Showtime’s fantasies regarding drones, terror, the CIA, torture and relationships to the Muslim world as depicted in the ultimately facile and crude thriller series Homeland. Even more perturbing is the notion that these films and shows somehow straddle a left-leaning ideology. That film and television are meaning-making activities is a well-understood fact, but the way in which mainstream culture co-opts and subsumes multiculturalism, race, sexuality and gender while constructing a cohesive, unquestioning and pro-government national identity is rarely taken into account.
Whether it’s in ads featuring African-Americans in US military recruiting campaigns, television shows about career-minded single women, sitcoms about gay lifestyles or unconventional family units, the message being flashed in our faces is that culture is now “progressive” and “liberal.” It is imperative, now more than ever, to understand how these very terms have to come be diluted and bleached out for the meaning-makers and the meaning-receivers. And to what extent does this process deepen American cultural isolation instead of creating connectedness to a complex world? Take Homeland, for example: Here, a distinctly multicultural/”liberal” vision of the United States is projected. The CIA Director (David Estes) is an African-American man.
The Middle East specialist (Saul Berenson) is a Jewish man who speaks painfully of having experienced anti-Semitism in small-town America and offers Hebrew prayers at Islamic terrorist Abu Nazir’s sea burial. The main lead is a strong white woman (Carri Mathison) who does not bend to the pressures of domesticity, maternity or other conventional expectations. There is even a young CIA recruit (Danny Galvez) who is half-Guatemalan and half-Lebanese and speaks dotingly of his parents, who owe their romance to American multiculturalism itself, having met at the DMV. Marine-turned-terrorist (Nicholas Brody) exemplifies the archetype of the “questioning” American whose experience of a drone attack while a prisoner in Iraq has left him scrambling for answers regarding his religion and politics. This multicultural, liberal-seeming structure masks, first and foremost, a virulent Islamophobia that runs through Homeland, and secondly, it recruits a patriotic, nationalist and obedient audience ultimately in support of the government’s morally bankrupt and endless war on terror.
The producers of Homeland draw from some of the oldest and most rampantly Orientalist stereotypes of the Islamic world. In the first season, an ambitious young prostitute auditions for a spot in a Saudi royals’ “harem” (the harem of a Western male’s fantasy). The woman (Lynne Reed) putting together this troupe of girls pointedly asks one young woman if she enjoys anal sex, implying that this is a prerequisite. The next week’s episode shows Lynne herself being taken from behind by an unnecessarily menacing royal. That anal sex itself is being demonized in a style harking back to the medieval ages goes without saying, but the larger point being made is that Arab men are unable to participate in “conventional” intercourse – the face-to-face kind being practiced by all the non-Arab characters in the show.
These Arab “deviancies” are further developed as a middle-aged Saudi diplomat (Mansour Al-Zahrani), who we’re told has three wives, is shown to engage not just in polygamy but also sleazy spa sex with young males. The West has always had an unhealthy fixation with Arab sexuality, imagining it ranging from licentious and promiscuous to, now, backward, closeted and repressive. The other chronic fixation in the West is with the veil, accompanied by a disproportionate interest in Arab and Muslim women’s rights that the veil has come to connote. Homeland treats us to the usual tropes of the well-meaning white woman (Carrie) rescuing an abused wife of a Hezbollah leader, and also of a young imam’s wife betraying her own loving husband in the service of the CIA. Carrie’s wig-and-veil disguise, in the episodes in which she rushes through what, in real life, is actually one of the trendiest cities in the world, Beirut, is a perfect example of a deliberately taunting approach to the representation of Arab society.
No one on the production team was capable of even a simple Google search for what Beirut really looks like? Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, a utopianist show about a fake American TV newsroom, manages to also arrive at the same place. All of the show’s seemingly pointed questioning of the US’ political direction and the paeans to journalistic integrity go out the window in Newsroom’s jingoistic episode about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, which implies that this is a sentient moment not only in the characters’ lives, but indeed for all of “us.” The very idea of giving us a complex story comprising multicultural characters signifies openness, cross-cultural bonding, deeper religious journeys, but when push comes to shove, this becomes mere pseudo-complexity serving as an effective shield against having to tackle larger questions: from racial issues to financial hegemony to patriotic justifications for war.
The Practice of Confusion The entertainment industry’s stake in the war on terror is only a small part of a broader problem afflicting the TV and film world today. As more and more superficially ambitious productions reach our screens, billed as serious fare taking on critical issues of history and society, the gap between technical and artistic mastery on one hand, and intellectual and linguistic depth on the other, has widened considerably. These hollowed-out treatments, from history to current events, promulgate an oversimplified national narrative, ultimately sapping the impulse for engagement or critical thought. As the viewer salivates over the kinetic performance of Claire Danes in Homeland or the astonishing recreation of the 1889 Johnstown Flood tragedy implicating Andrew Carnegie in The Men Who Built America (the History Channel’s elegy to early rampant capitalism), the striking emptiness of these show’s narratives is simultaneously disorienting. It is precisely at this crossroad that The Men Who Built America fails; its oversimplifications bring history onto a neutral terrain, a very dangerous one. In chanting the gestures of its heroes – Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Ford – the six-part series presents an intensely scary one-dimensional story of achievement and grandeur while downplaying the enormous social context of suffering and death that went hand in hand with those very “successes.” Unsurprisingly, not once is the concept of achievement itself questioned.
Worse yet, the show offers up formulas easy to digest and repeat – oversimplified narratives that become easy to lean on when it comes to building up “our own” historical understandings. An even larger wave of narrative megalomania is in store for us as the History Channel, again, brings forth Mankind (!) – a larger than life production that promises to tell “the story of all of us” in six comfy episodes. To make sure to mark its territory properly, the show premieres “worldwide” (though just how wide that world is it is quite unclear; did it air in Burkina-Faso? Cyprus? Bangladesh? Tanzania? Gaza?). A few minutes into the first episode (in which one must come to terms with the fact that the narrator, actor Josh Brolin, will not make the bare minimum effort to pronounce non-Western names properly), we are suddenly introduced to a series of hyper-masculine military experts with clean-shaven heads and a uniformly aggressive dedication to violence.
Here, the impoverished and empty storytelling reaches new heights; in the grotesque context of historicizing mankind in a few hours, the viewer is subjected to stereotypical sentences on evolution and survival. Richard “Mack” Machowitz, whose only credential seems to be that he is an ex-Navy SEAL, explains that “tools make me better, weapons make me more powerful.” Sam Sheridan, author of A Fighter’s Heart and its sequel, A Fighter’s Mind, has more wisdom to share, explaining hunting-gathering techniques: “You have half a second and you eat and you will survive, and if you blow it you are dead.” The show establishes a scary precedent as it inverts, once and for all, the tendency of historical documentaries to have dense commentaries and some grounding in basic scholarship. Mankind dives shamelessly into the practice of oversimplification. This is a pill to be digested in seconds, the viewer is spoon-fed tiny bites of easy information so as to ensure his thirst for knowledge is quenched as fast as the six episodes pass. At one point, Machowitz claims, “It comes down to yours versus mine. That is my land, I worked hard for that land, if you try to come in here and steal it from me I have to do something about it or I am dead.” The show is littered with dozens of these staggering gems while at the same time it turns out to be a visual feast: a fatal juxtaposition. So, at the height of this audiovisual confusion and despair, a more ambitious audience is likely to turn to some old-time heroes.
As the long-awaited Untold History of the USA by Oliver Stone finally hits the airwaves, there is an expectation that the viewer will be in for an audacious piece of TV, but here, the unpredictable happens: Stone’s documentary is boring beyond belief, and he flexes his egocentric muscles talking, talking and talking non-stop while old pieces of celluloid are rolled out from archives. There is a lot of important information here – that US intervention in World War II was not the heroic feast we have been told time and again it was, and that the hated Soviets’ sacrifice was the key to bringing about the end of Hitler. He tells us the truth about Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president, and the fraud beyond Truman’s election. But at the same time, we feel that we are stuck watching TV from the 1950s. The work on montage may be excellent, but Stone fails to connect with the very viewers he sets out to reach as he offers substance but fails at the level of technical and artistic innovation. This becomes a testament, then, to the problem that is plaguing American entertainment today: the inverse ratio of an audiovisual feast achieved through immense technical wizardry juxtaposed with impoverished storytelling and dumbed-down language. And we are not referring to the self-proclaimed superficiality of reality television, talent shows or sugary sitcoms, but rather only to shows that purport to offer a kind of political, progressive and innovative content.
The American instinct for preserving its own master narratives and the problem of impoverished language is, unfortunately, a marriage made in hell. Attempts at self-reflection and self-criticism end up taking place within the very finite box of a simplified narrative. This new, impoverished language literally causes a kind of collective aphasia. A weakened language leads to cultural isolation. The self-imposed progressive dryness depletes the very tools required to understand the wider world both politically and culturally, but also at a level of basic curiosity and openness. It becomes a language disorder born within the paradoxical context of a superpower like the United States, which desperately wishes to breathe life into a beaten up hegemony.
The viewer is, unfortunately, forced into awkward choices: It seems almost better to embrace the visual salivation of Claire Danes roaming a fake Beirut covering her blonde hair, or the gorgeous re-enactment of the Rockefeller standing against white curtains billowing contemplating his next ambitious move, or even the epic battles of Mankind with its bald, energetic military experts telling us our story! How can we locate this movement or passage within mainstream cultural productions that took us from an approach that raised questions, created new audiovisual language and cultural metaphors (Twin Peaks, for example, or Werner Herzog’s documentaries) to contemporary productions in which a prepackaged vision of basic, simplistic narratives dominates?
It is enough to simply analyze History Channel productions from the early 2000s to be able to literally measure the striking shift? It is essential to start to study how within this very transition a new language has been formed and is now spoken both within the shows and outside of them, rendering these overall into an effective tool for a generalized, impoverished and easily digestible political narrative. A depleted language that is related to the corporate world and the larger necessity to box-up history is a language that is locked in a deep aphasia. Such a language creates a dramatic incapacity to invent new metaphors and real linguistic movements that could eventually lead to a dynamic understanding of complex world events – and which, in turn, should bring a new awareness within the viewer to generate an independent questioning of world events.
This is the first, essential step in unlocking any conflict, let alone world conflicts. (1) From Melanie McAllister’s Epic Encounters: Culture, Media and the US Interests in the Middle East since 1945, pages 220-221. Bhakti Shringarpure is the founder and editor of Warscapes magazine. Flavio Rizzo is a writer and filmmaker based in New York.