American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

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What kind of fire is rising in America today?

In a recent article for TomDispatch.com, I argued that Americans have embraced weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and guards, all supported by a steady stream of fear.  The end result has been a cesspool of violence largely of our own making.  In such an environment, a man like Donald Trump, more opportunist than populist, more power-driven than public servant, more cynic than idealist, has ample opportunities to thrive. 

The complete article is here; in this excerpt, I focus on Trump’s rise as well as the rise of a uniquely American anti-hero, the vigilante Dark Knight, AKA Batman. 

Since the end of the Cold War, America has been exporting a mirror image of its domestic self — not the classic combo of democracy and freedom, but guns, prisons and security forces. Globally, the label “Made in the USA” has increasingly come to be associated with violence and war, as well, of course, as Hollywood action flicks sporting things that go boom in the night.

Such exports are now so commonplace that, in some cases, Washington has even ended up arming our enemies. Just consider the hundreds of thousands of small arms sent to Iraq and Afghanistan that were simply lost track of. Many of them evidently ended up on sale at local black markets.

Or consider the weapons and equipment Washington provided to Iraq’s security forces, only to see them abandoned on the battlefield and captured by the Islamic State.

Look as well at prisons like Gitmo — which Donald Trump has no intention of ever closing — and Abu Ghraib, and an unknown number of black sites that were in some of these years used for rendition, detention and torture, and gave the United States a reputation in the world that may prove indelible.

And, of course, American-made weaponry like tear gas canisters and bombs, including cluster munitions, that regularly finds its way onto foreign soil in places like Yemen and, in the case of the tear gas, Egypt, proudly sporting those “Made in the USA” labels.

Strangely, most Americans remain either willfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, what their country is becoming. That American-made weaponry is everywhere, that America’s warriors are all over the globe, that America’s domestic prisons are bursting with more than two million captives, is even taken by some as a point of pride…

Increasingly, Americans are submerged in a violent cesspool of our own making. As a man who knows how to stoke fear as well as exploit it, President Trump fits into such an atmosphere amazingly well. With a sense of how to belittle, insult and threaten, he has a knack for inflaming and exploiting America’s collective dark side.

But think of Trump as more symptom than cause, the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual disease that continues to eat away at the country’s societal matrix. A sign of this unease is America’s most popular superhero of the moment. He even has a new Lego movie coming. Yes, it’s Batman, the vigilante alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich philanthropist and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.

The popularity of Batman, Gotham City’s Dark Knight, reflects America’s fractured ethos of anger, pain, and violence. Americans find common cause in his tortured psyche, his need for vengeance, his extreme version of justice. But at least billionaire Bruce Wayne had some regard for the vulnerable and unfortunate.

America now has a darker knight than that in Donald J. Trump, a man who mocks and assaults those he sees as beneath him, a man whose utterances sound more like a Batman villain, a man who doesn’t believe in heroes — only in himself.

The Dark Knight may yet become, under Trump, a genuine dark night for America’s collective soul. Like Batman, Trump is a product of Gotham City. And if this country is increasingly Gotham City writ large, shining the Batman symbol worldwide and having billionaire Trump and his sidekick — Gen. Michael Flynn? — answer the beacon is a prospect that should be more than a little unnerving.

It wasn’t that long ago that another superhero represented America — Superman. Chivalrous, noble, compassionate, he fought without irony for truth, justice and the American way. And his alter ego, of course, was mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter no less.

In Trump’s America, imagine the likelihood of reporters being celebrated as freedom fighters as they struggle to hold the powerful accountable. Perhaps it’s more telling than its makers knew that in last year’s dreary slugfest of a movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the bat rode high while the son of Krypton ended up six feet under.

Let me, in this context, return to that moment when the Cold War ended.

Twenty-five years ago, I served as escort officer to Gen. Robinson Risner as he spoke to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Risner’s long and resolute endurance as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War — captured in his memoir, The Passing of the Night — had made him something of a real-life superhero to us then.

He talked to the cadets about public service, love of country and faith in God — noble virtues, based on humility, grace and inner strength. As I look back to that night, as I remember how Gen. Risner spoke with quiet dignity of the virtues of service and sacrifice, I ask myself how America today could have become such a land of weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and fear, led by a boastful and boorish bullyboy.

How did America’s ideals become so twisted? And how do we regain our nobility of purpose? One thing is certain — the current path, the one of ever greater military spending, of border walls and extreme vetting, of vilification of the Other, justified in terms of toughness and “winning,” will lead only to further violence and darker (k)nights.

Be sure to check out TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media.

America: Land of Extremes

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He said he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  Why does that seem so much more far-fetched today?

W.J. Astore

This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses?  Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit?  Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists?  Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science?  Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans?  Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders?  Lushes or teetotalers?   Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?

The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on.  Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers?  Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.”  A devoted family man with one very successful marriage.  The Donald?  Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president.  And I’m not talking skin color.

A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism.  What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in.  Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along?  My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?

As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.”  Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”

I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment.  I first saw it in a bicycle repair book.  The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”

Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America.  We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world.  Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.

That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice.  That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants.  What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other.  We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.

Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable.  That they meant something.  We need to get back to those times.

Impossible, you say?  We won’t know unless we try.

Islamophobia Must be Fought and Defeated

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Muslim-Americans have given much to America.  Some have given their all.

W.J. Astore

When I was a lieutenant colonel on active duty, I supervised an officer in the U.S. Air Force who was (and is) an Iraqi-American. He came to the U.S. as a boy after President George H.W. Bush’s call to the Shia to revolt against Saddam in the aftermath of Desert Storm, which was ruthlessly suppressed by Saddam as Bush and company did nothing.

As an Iraqi-American in uniform, he served as an interpreter attached to the 101st Airborne in Iraq in 2004, if memory serves–dangerous times indeed for U.S. troops in Iraq.

He wrote to me, rightly outraged, after Ben Carson made his anti-Muslim comments back in September of 2015 during the presidential primary season. It made him so sad, so angry, as a U.S. Air Force veteran and as a Muslim-American to hear such ignorance, such bias, such Islamophobia. And it made me angry as well.

So many Muslim-Americans have served this country with distinction, troops like Navy veteran Nate Terani, who has written an eloquent article at TomDispatch.com on the prejudice he faced as an Iranian-American.  Terani is doing his best to fight a new enemy, Islamophobia, the irrational fear of Islam fed by the unhinged rhetoric of candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

Here is how Terani puts it in his article:

In Iran, theocratic fundmentalists sowed division and hatred of outsiders–of Westerners, Christians, and other religious minorities. Here in America, the right wing seems to have stolen passages directly from their playbook as it spreads hatred of immigrants, particularly Muslim ones. This form of nationalistic bigotry–Islamophobia–threatens the heart of our nation. When I chose to serve in the military, I did so to protect what I viewed as our sacred foundational values of liberty, equality, and democracy. Now, 20 years later, I’ve joined forces with fellow veterans to again fight for those sacred values, this time right here at home.

As America builds walls and weapons and wages war all over the globe, as our leaders look outward for enemies, we’re forgetting the enemy within America, the enemy that is a much more serious threat to our national security.  That enemy, which exists right here in America’s heartland, is ignorance, hatred, fear, aggression, compounded by a cowardly desire to “get even” and to “make America great again” by ostracizing other Americans who are considered “different” and “untrustworthy.”

But spreading fear and bigotry is not a way to national security; it’s a way to national insanity.  Islamophobia, like all other irrational fears, must be fought and defeated.

The MYOB Foreign Policy

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Listen to my parents, America!

W.J. Astore

My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings.  You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB.  Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.

What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations.  Think of the USA.  We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on.  Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others.  How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?

Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military.  We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700.  We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.”  To what end?  Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements.  The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.

This is not an argument for isolationism.  The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist.  With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

No – not isolationism.  Rather a policy of MYOB.  Don’t intervene when it’s not our business.  And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military.  Why?  Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.

The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense.  It’s not an international charity.  Even military aid is somewhat questionable.  And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.

As a good friend of mine put it:

I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age.  The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient.  We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind.  The rest can pound sand (no pun intended).  Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.

My friend then added the following caveat:

The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can.  That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines.  Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.

That’s an excellent question.  Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers.  Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa.  Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia.  And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.

Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military.  The USA itself will never return to isolationism.  What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.

We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs.  Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.

America the Fearful

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My dad in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Oregon, c.1937

W.J. Astore

America.  Land of the free, home of the brave.  Right?  Peter Van Buren, who spent a career at the State Department, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that highlights the way in which America has changed since the 9/11 attacks.  In sum: too many wars, too much security and surveillance, and far too much fear.  One passage in Van Buren’s article especially resonated with me:

Her [Van Buren’s daughter] adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that’s too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.

Van Buren’s reference to Depression-era kids: Well, that was my dad. Born in 1917, he endured the Great Depression in a fatherless family. He really wasn’t certain where his next meal was coming from. Decades later, he still saved everything: plastic bags, twist ties, newspapers, old vacuums and toasters and other appliances (good for spare parts!), scrap wood, and so on. He wasn’t a hoarder per se; he just couldn’t throw away something that he might need if the times grew grim again.

My Dad would cook and eat broccoli rabe greens, then drink the green juice from the cooking. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he’d say.  When he ate corn on the cob, there was nothing left on the cob when he was through. He stripped it bare like those crows I watched as a kid on Saturday morning cartoons.

He came of age in a time of want and later served in an armored division in World War II. My dad’s generation knew, like FDR knew, that the only thing they truly had to fear was fear itself. He became hardened to it, but the Depression indelibly marked him as well.

How is today’s generation being marked?  Compared to the Great Depression, these are times of plenty.  Few Americans are starving.  The new normal for this generation is living in fear. Being surrounded by security guards and surveillance devices. Being immersed in celebrations of “patriotism” that involve steroidal flags and deadly military weaponry. Hearing about distant wars fought largely by the children of the working classes.

Looking overseas, they see an American foreign policy defined by perpetual war and an economy driven by perpetual weapons sales. Domestically, they see penury for social programs and profligacy for the national security state.

Is it any wonder that so many millennials seem detached or disenchanted or even defeated? They sense that America has changed, that the focus has shifted, that the American dream has darkened, that America the home of the brave has become the land of the fearful.

Fear is the mind-killer, to cite Frank Herbert.  My father’s generation knew this and overcame it.  Yet today our leaders and the media seek to generate and exploit fear. America has turned to the Dark Side, giving in to anger, fear, aggression.  Just look at our two major party candidates for the presidency.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen

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W.J. Astore

As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, “The Forever War.”  The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting.  Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.  But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.

For the United States today, something similar is true.  Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war.  Our military leaders have bought into it as well.  The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies.  One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The next it’s Al Qaeda.  The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS.  Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past.  One thing is constant: war.

Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace.  For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time.  I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.”  Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.

Why the “forever war”?  In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives.  The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us.  In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.

War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset.  When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them.  Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action.  Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.