What is it about this country and guns and violence?
The Westerns I watched as a kid (John Wayne in particular) had guns in them, of course. Colt pistols, Winchester rifles, an occasional shotgun. And there was no shortage of violence.
But nowadays shows/movies feature much more gunplay with military-grade weapons and armor. The Western isn’t in vogue today. It’s military dramas instead. America’s overseas wars have come home for real on our streets and in mass shootings, but they’ve also come home on our screens, where SEALs are the new heroes.
A short series I recently watched, The Terminal List, features a Navy SEAL who must “go to war” domestically because he’s been betrayed by the U.S. government, which even kills his wife and daughter. Action scenes feature sniper rifles, assault rifles, grenades, explosions, and torture (one man is hung by his own intestines).
Torture and war, common to America’s war on terror, are now here to terrorize us, on our screens but also increasingly on our streets. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone complaining about violence on TV, as people did in the 1980s. It’s now acceptable, par for the course. We are inured to it. Worse: we desire it, or at least some of us do, judging by the success of The Terminal List and similar shows.
The theme is “trust no one” and exact your revenge in the most violent way possible. The SEAL in Terminal List keeps his own kill list: echoes of Barack Obama and his presidential kill list. But a democracy saturated in militarized violence can’t possibly survive as a democracy.
Interestingly, today it’s the MAGA Right that distrusts government with a passion. Fifty years ago, with the Vietnam War running down and Watergate winding up, it was the Left that distrusted government.
One of my favorite movies from the 1970s is Three Days of the Condor, which can profitably be compared to The Terminal List. The hero in the first movie is a bookish guy who’s betrayed by the CIA. The hero in this year’s Terminal List is a Navy SEAL and a violent man of action. In Condor, Robert Redford’s character outthinks his opponents and goes to the New York Times with proof of governmental corruption. The Navy SEAL simply kills all his enemies, or they kill themselves when faced with his demands for retribution, with an impressive range of deadly weapons. (Of course, such violent fantasies of hard men meting out murderous justice are hardly new; think of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo or various Chuck Norris vehicles.)
The Terminal List is truly a series for our times. It’s slickly done, and Chris Pratt is good in it. What it reveals is the profound skepticism so many Americans have in their government and in corporations — and rightly so.
The problem is elevating a Navy SEAL as the principled hero. SEALs make good warriors but are they what America wants for vigilante justice? In real life, SEALs can be loose cannons, as recent events show.
For me, real heroes are not often chiseled men of action like Chris Pratt’s Navy SEAL, with all his guns and violence. Or for that matter Rambo. Think instead of Chelsea Manning, Daniel Hale, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange. They may lack bulging biceps and impressive arsenals, yet Manning and Hale went to prison to reveal war crimes, Snowden is in exile for taking on the government and telling us the truth about wars and our surveillance state, and Assange is being tortured in prison for practicing oppositional journalism, otherwise known as real reporting.
Heroes in life come in all shapes and sizes; a Navy SEAL may be among the least likely of shapes and sizes we’ll see. They often do their best work without guns and grenades and without lengthy kill lists and torture routines. Their strength is measured by their principles, not by their pecs.
The Moon is the brightest object in the night sky. It has so many meanings in our lives, our history, our folklore and myths. Yet we always see it from one side. Until the beginning of the space age, we never saw its dark side. And that dark side presents us with a whole new idea of the Moon, as so:
I love seeing familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. Here we see the battered side of the Moon. In a sense, the Moon acts as a shield for the Earth, with some asteroids getting funneled into its gravitational well and striking its surface rather than possibly colliding with the Earth. Without a large Moon near us, life on Earth may have proved more precarious, with more mass extinctions due to asteroid strikes. (I think I’m right here, based upon my own reading on our solar system, which I admit was many, many moons ago.)
Can we also see the dark side of other objects? See the familiar in strikingly unfamiliar ways? How about America? It’s not easy, because those who try to help us to see are often punished for their probing in darker places.
Who are some of these “astronomers” who seek to show us America in a new light? I’d like to mention a few names here: Daniel Ellsberg, Daniel Hale, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. And let’s throw an Aussie in there too: Julian Assange. And an outspoken Catholic worker by the name of Dorothy Day. Or how about an anarchist like Emma Goldman. These men and women (and many others) sought to shine a probing light on some of the darker sides of American behavior, and you won’t be surprised to learn that they suffered for it.
My point here is not to focus exclusively on the dark side of America. Rather, just as it’s an incomplete picture to see the Moon from only one side and perspective, so too is it a limiting experience to see America from only one side. And that “one side” is typically the one most favorable to America, the brightest one, the least cratered one, even the romantic one.
If we seek to understand the Moon in its entirety, we must see all its sides — especially its most battered one. The same is true of America.
On his new show at The Real News, Chris Hedges recently spoke with Cornel West on the state of America. It’s not easy listening, nor should it be. Brother Chris and Brother Cornel didn’t mince words as they deplored the commodification of American life, the militarism of American society, and the imperialism of the U.S. empire. Here’s the link to their interview:
I jotted down key phrases as I listened to both men. Phrases like spiritual decadence, bootlickers for war, mass incarceration, self-glorification and self-indulgence, the Neo-fascism of Trump followers versus the Neo-liberalism of Democrats, and that the American empire has no moral authority, given its “vicious atrocities” in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Brother Cornel was especially strong on the seductive dangers of nationalism, the grotesque wealth inequality here at home, and a U.S. political system deeply compromised by legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Reality is defined by a corporatized state in which profit maximization is pursued at any cost, including impending ecological catastrophe, where education is reduced to indoctrination, vocations are reduced to professions, and callings reduced to careers.
Sure, it’s grim stuff, but the truth is often grim. Nor are these two men irredeemably grim. Both spoke of the need to be faithful unto death, to resist the paralysis that comes from despair. Both are fighters and truth-tellers; both are men of faith and men of action; both are humanistic. And both are most assuredly worth listening to.
Brother Cornel’s message is ultimately one of love. Of joy-sharing. Of thinking for yourself. Of becoming a force for good and beauty and justice in the world. Of empowering others through an expansive and inclusive humanism. His is the perfect message for this Easter season, a season of rebirth and hope, of salvation through sacrifice and love.
It’s another very warm and very humid day here in the Bracing Views HQ. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to go poorly, at least from the perspective of the U.S. government, I thought I’d reflect on a comment I made with the theme of “Wherever we go, there we are.” In other words, wherever America makes war, we bring certain aspects of ourselves and our culture with us. What do I mean by this?
When America intervenes in (or invades) countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the stated cause of “freedom” (recall these operations were unironically named Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, proving that the U.S. government can out-Orwell George Orwell), we bring anything but freedom. That’s because our “freedom” wars feature an almost total reliance on the military (no surprise there), and the military simply isn’t about freedom. That military is trained for kinetic ops, i.e., murderous violence; and that military features “force multipliers” (bombs and missiles and chemical agents of various sorts, otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction) to subdue various “enemies” while limiting American casualties.
At the same time as lots of foreigners are being killed, Americans generally maintain a stubborn ignorance of the foreign country in which we’re involved. Their history doesn’t matter; all that matters is putting bombs on target and killing the “right” people, the bad guys, whoever they are. Even as the war starts going poorly, predictably because we don’t really know who the “bad guys” are, nor are we sensible enough to recognize we’re the “foreigners” and often the real bad guys, the U.S. military proceeds to engage in a mindless pursuit of “victory,” however poorly defined, which in the end degenerates to a desire not to be labeled a “loser” in any war, no matter how stupid and unnecessary it is.
Related to this is the reality that once a war gets ginned up, there is an overwhelming desire by war profiteers in the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep the good times rolling. Look at how long the Vietnam war lasted, or the Afghan war for that matter. Decades of “good times” await war profiteers as long as American troops are kept in harm’s way, busily hammering away at “freedom,” because “our” troops must be “defended” at any cost.
Americans in general, ignoring obvious evidence to the contrary, have a strong bias that U.S. troops are always fighting on the side of the angels. Who really wants to believe otherwise? Such a bias makes it easier for us to wash our hands of the whole sordid affair. And whether you like it or not, the U.S. military always fights in your and my name.
There are many other factors at work to explain the woeful nature of America’s wars, but the ones I mention above are important, I think, as we examine how dreadful America’s “freedom” wars turn out to be. And when these freedom wars end poorly, as they do, the very last organization to shoulder any blame is the U.S. government.
Perhaps that’s truly the lead feature of U.S. war-making today: Even when you lose, and lose badly, war means never having to say you’re sorry.
I saw another article this weekend about culture war in America. Supposedly, America is deeply divided, and I’m not denying there are divisions. But when you ask Americans what they want, what’s surprising is how united we are, irrespective of party differences. For example, Americans favor a $15 minimum wage. We favor single-payer health care. We favor campaign finance reform that gets big money donors and corporations out of government. Yet our government, which is bought by those same donors, refuses to give Americans what we want. Division is what they give us instead, and even then it’s often a sham form of division.
What do I mean by “sham”? Well, our so-called divided government is strongly united in support of huge war budgets and endless war. Strongly united in support of Israel. Strongly in favor of, and obedient to, special interests and big money in politics. Strongly in favor of business as usual (with a stress on “business”), with sham elections every four years between the center-right Democrats and the increasingly unhinged-right Republicans. Sadly, when it comes to policy that impacts the working classes, there isn’t much difference between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. They are unified in what they deny us.
It’s a war of the have-mores versus the haves and especially the have-nots, and the have-lots-more are winning. Why? Because they’ve bought the government too.
Of course, we do see examples of so-called culture war in the U.S. Consider in the realm of history the “battle” between the 1619 Project and the 1776ers. The 1619ers want to stress the many violent and tragic legacies of slavery to America’s history. (1619 was the first year an African slave was brought to the colonies.) The 1776ers want to stress the ideals of the American Revolution, the proud legacy of George Washington and other founders, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and so on.
What’s the solution to this “culture war” between the 1619ers and the 1776ers? I’m a historian, and I’ve taught U.S. history. The solution is easy. You teach both. America is a land of contradictions. Any U.S. historian worth her salt is going to talk about genocide and the Native Americans; is going to talk about the violent and bitter legacies of slavery; and is also going to talk about the ideals and idealism of the founders, however imperfectly they put them into practice, and the promise of the Constitution and the spirit of liberty. To ignore slavery while singing the praises of the founders would be as flawed and one-sided as focusing entirely on slavery without ever mentioning the proud achievements of those same founders.
America is a complex and contradictory place — and any historian is going to address those complexities and contradictions because that’s precisely what makes history interesting, fascinating, enthralling. Few students want to be comforted by feel-good history or assaulted by feel-bad history. They want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, and historians should be able to teach the same. There’s simply no need for a culture war here over the content of history.
I said there’s no need, but that doesn’t mean a culture war isn’t wanted. Polemicists love culture wars, and so too do the already privileged and the powerful. For if we’re fighting each other, if we perceive we’re divided and simply can’t find common ground, we’ll forget we have so much in common, like our desire for a living wage, affordable health care, and politicians who’d actually represent us instead of the special interests.
Forget culture war. Let’s make war on those who keep us apart and who refuse to work for those so desperately in need.
We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?
Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:
* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.
* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.
* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.
* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.
* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.
* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.
* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.
* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.
* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.
* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.
* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.
* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.
* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.
* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.
* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.
* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.
Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?
Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.
I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.
This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:
Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.
Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.
These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?
The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”
I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:
Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive. A traitor.
To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there. Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment.”
There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?
But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.
Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century. The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico. Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy. Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps. What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)? Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?
I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer. Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West. A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls. Weapons? Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions. But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion. Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.
And wars? However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost. Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future). Today, America’s wars never end. Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.
The point is this: Walls were not us. Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances. Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.” All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.
The Unmaking of American Idealism
As a teenager, I embraced American idealism. The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is. It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.
Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents). Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against. Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed. Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.
But that was then, and this is now. Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old. Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.
Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war. Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind. I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific. I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.
But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture. Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.” These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe. Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.
Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course. But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it). In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him. Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life). Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.
That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military. Why? Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.
That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever. Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same. It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.
Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars
There are two war parties in the U.S. today. We call them Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same. Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more. Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism. Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage. Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.
In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%. Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media. Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus. (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)
Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November. This is no surprise. Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.
And we dare call this a democracy?
Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it. Want to restore American liberty? Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents). Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere. And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere. How did we come to forget this lesson?
If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.
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.
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.
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