I spend a lot of time thinking about the pop culture that’s broadcast out to the rest of us, and the end of 2015 is a weird time. This past year, it’s become clear that there’s an extraordinary gap between the messages that the culture industry puts out, and what we’re told is their value. The messaging of these texts occupies a very limited part of a spectrum, both homogenous and uninspiring; at the same time we’re being told that what we’re being sold is simultaneously daring, progressive, multifaceted, and challenging. The thing charmingly called pop culture is getting more bland, reactionary, and corporatized while we’re being told it’s the opposite. A few recent things have illustrated this divide very starkly for me, although they come at the tail end of a year’s worth of similar texts.
The first is the trailer for Eye In The Sky, an upcoming release directed by Gavin Hood. Hood, like many of his contemporaries making films about the endless conflict once called the War on Terror, describes himself as something very similar to a journalist, working to “generate…discussion” and “engage the public in the issues of the day.” Under George W. Bush, Hood made the film Rendition, a thinly veiled adaptation of the kidnapping of Khaled al-Masri. With Barack Obama in office and the War on Terror now the “Overseas Contingency Operations,” Hood’s contribution to the public discourse is something very contemporary:
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a secret drone mission to capture a terrorist group living in a safehouse in Nairobi, Kenya. When Powell learns that the group plans to carry out a suicide attack, her objective is changed to kill the terrorists. Drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) targets the safehouse for destruction but reports a nine-year-old girl entering the kill zone. Powell contacts politicians and lawyers to determine whether or not to take action. [Wikipedia]
In just over 2 minutes, the trailer for Eye In The Sky manages to contain almost every liberal imperialist trope.
Like all the films in the current cycle of liberal imperialist movies, the film uses a lot of performative moral anguish to cloak the reactionary myth on which it’s built. Like other faux “morally ambiguous” films, Eye In The Sky has an imminent threat at its core, to drive the narrative and compel the viewer to accept the police state-tactics its good liberal heroes will use. In this film, it’s another literal ticking time bomb—once the scenario used to justify a global torture regime, now resuscitated for liberals. The film’s narrative is a tense, legalistic parsing of the supposedly “intricate morality” (-The Guardian) of drone murders. Couching war in these ambivalent terms—masking imperialism as a complex question—is the hallmark of liberal imperialism.
Eye In The Sky’s trailer is entirely made up of various characters wringing their hands over these “complex” questions, while reinforcing of the necessity of this state terrorism and the essential goodness of the killers. An incredulous White House aide intones gravely: “you are putting the whole mission at risk because of one collateral damage issue?” The threat is suicide bombers—including a Western-born “white widow,” under whose lily-white breast beats the savage heart of a jihadi. “No one wants to take responsibility for pulling that trigger,” says Helen Mirren, representing Team Blast ‘Em. However, since this is a war film for liberals, Dame Mirren speaks like a liberal warrior: “we are locked into this kill chain,” she says litigiously, “I need legal clearance to strike.” Towards the end of the trailer, to emphasize the gaping moral chasm between the NATO powers and the savage terrorists, a sour-faced suit-wearer says “If they kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war, if we kill 1 child, they do.” Like all liberal war films, it’s built on the fraudulent narrative that the killers who protect “us” will brook no civilian casualties their quest to keep us safe.
This film is conspicuously built on identical signs and narrative choices to an entire cycle of liberal war films. Every film recycles the same tropes, the same dourness, and all the same messages. At the same time as these films are repeating imperialist propaganda with the same thudding regularity, there’s endless claptrap about their alleged complexity and what a rewarding time this is for discerning filmgoers. For the skeptics out there, it’s not just grating and alienating, but tedious. Liberal imperialist propaganda, supposedly so narratively rich and rewarding, is all so damn predictable. With a few weeks left to go in 2015, I’ve been thinking about how monotonous and reactionary the best that pop culture allegedly has to offer really is.
I was thinking about this back in August, during a round of fawning profiles over David Simon. I’ll cop to something that Patrick Higgins once mentioned, about how an outsider perspective born from even a petty dispute can lead to good analysis. For me, that was tedium over how praise of Simon boils down to about 4 points (his shows are novelistic, he looks at America through the lens of Greek tragedy…) repeated ad nauseum. For people employed as cultural commentators, whose job it is to replicate the dominant ideological messages, this means career incentive to praise endlessly. However, since the people we’re told are such monumental figures are totally politically uninspiring—cyphers with centrist cores—this means a limited number of concrete things to praise. Consequently, it’ll get to the weird point of critics apologizing for not having praised enough. I bring this up not because it has much to do with David Simon; he’s just one artist who enjoyed a full-court press campaign for our attention. I say this because for all the supposed vibrancy and creativity of the American culture industry, it seems like every few weeks it’s mandated that we focus on a new celebrity, and the same few notes of progressive-sounding praise get disseminated with thudding, Pravda-like uniformity. The forcefulness and frequency of the demands for our attention, the monotony of the praise, the political shortcomings of the new heroes all feel like they’re getting worse.
Take John Oliver. A smarmy little dip with shitty politics, Oliver isn’t just praised for being fun to watch. In the accounting pushed by the media, he’s a valuable democratic corrective, a putative Howard Beale one thinkpiece entreaty away from leading the rev against his corporate masters. Similarly, over the course of about a month last spring, Amy Schumer went from someone who had a funny new show out to someone who was suddenly the vanguard of feminism. As with all these figures, Schumer’s politics are totally uninspiring, with some mainline liberal cant to paper over the “hipster” racism. But we’re told she’s not only the funniest woman alive and a feminist triumph, but along with John Oliver and other comedians, she represents a new breed of much-needed thinker. “Comedians are the new public intellectuals,” as an Atlantic piece declared in May, having been anointed by people in some pretty high places as the ideal figures to dictate our concerns. The Atlantic author praises comedians for tackling race and gender issues, in keeping with what they see as comedy’s core of “a kind of productive subversion.” However, the essence of comedy is the enforcement of hierarchy, not its subversion. In simple terms, a joke is only funny if it makes someone laugh, and someone laughs in recognition of and agreement with a sentiment. The more widely shared a joke’s premise is, the more it’s legible as humor. Despite what comedy fans may argue, cognitive research bears out that “humor is an act of aggression,” to let people know who’s in charge and re-enforce social norms.
Still, despite how conservative comedy really is, we’re told that “Revolution is telling authority figures to fuck off…in a funny way.” This is the sort of reality-inversion that seems to happen a lot these days, like the popular meme that principled anti-imperialism is actually an expression of privileged chauvinism. If comedians are the new public intellectuals, this means that instead of coming from academia or activism, the truth-tellers” who act “as guides through our cultural debates” (as The Atlantic put it) will first go through countless stages of corporate vetting before they reach the public eye. Once they’re there, they serve at the pleasure of their corporate benefactors. And as Jon Stewart has demonstrated countless times, comedians can put forth a political line but immunize themselves from criticism by claiming they’re “just” comedians.
This came just a month after the smear campaign publicly declaring Cornel West “a ghost.” Prior to the coronation of John Oliver, West was one of the ersatz, “purist” variety of public intellectual, a figure who stubbornly insisted that any appeal for justice worth being called such has to include a class component. One of West’s earliest liberal “critics” was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in 2011 compared the academic to right-wing hack Dinesh D’Souza. This is one of the oldest and most beloved liberal smears against radicals, used to paint abolitionists as tyrants and equate Rev. Jeremiah Wright to Fred Phelps. During the sliming of West, Coates publicly characterized West’s contention that Barack Obama serves a set of interests as a marker of obvious unseriousness. Immediately on the heels of the “new public intellectuals” meme, Coates released a new book that earned him near-universal acclaim as the heir to James Baldwin. As always happens, someone of high status said it, the next day it was conventional wisdom. America’s new premier commentator is someone who supported the Iraq War, refuses to entertain the idea that the US president has any agenda other than his stated intentions, and cites as his inspirations Andrew Sullivan and that guy who said that a thousand dead Bangladeshi garment workers are just the price we have to pay for cheap clothing. However, anything other than unanimous praise is unacceptable; even an out-of-context joke about his readers set off a twitterstorm of discipline.
From the campaign against West onward, we’re talking about a matter of roughly 5 months. Each of these events ramps up almost instantly, produces what seems like the maximum amount of noise, and then shifts the spotlight seamlessly. Each time, our gaze is directed to a new mediocrity with fairly shitty politics. Though some are more neoliberal than others, most of these figures place somewhere close to Richard Nixon on the political spectrum. Despite this rightward slide, people are supposed to take a few more diverse faces in high places as signs of progress. Take this thinkpiece from a popular left-branded commentator intimating that a marketing blitz masquerading as a movie is proof not only that things are getting better, but evidence that capitalism no longer exists. Or this article forwarded to me by friend of the blog Walter Glass, claiming that Jon Stewart’s successor Trevor Noah is proof of some kind of radical conspiracy pumping out black revolutionary agitprop straight from under the nose of Sumner Redstone.
After declaring that “Trevor Noah hosted the most racially and politically radical debut in Late Night TV History,” the article correctly but misguidedly points out that “Nothing happens on television by accident.” Rather than adducing this truth to argue that Viacom wouldn’t hand millions of dollars and 5 nights a week to an actual radical, this point is made to connect Noah to the legacy of Malcolm X. The flip-side of this is that in my twitter mentions, I’ve started to encounter at least one person after a given post asking something to the effect of “why are you criticizing a thing I like and not just offering a straight-up review?” What this attitude reflects is a tacit rule that any criticism from the left of a high-status cultural producer or text, no matter how substantive, is imperious ideological purity, derangement, nonsense, or preening moralism. When it comes to praising one of these bourgie figures, though, no amount of projection, idealistic wishful-thinking, or self-evidently absurd assumption is too specious and wacky to get printed in the organs of culture creation.
As someone who writes and studies film, I’ve been most sensitive towards the rollback of politicized cultural criticism, which tellingly has origins in Marxist theory. Someone would probably winge about me commenting critically on the Eye In The Sky trailer, since high-status liberal Serious People are shutting down that sort of thing at the same time that thousands of collective hours are devoted to dissecting, sharing, and commenting on movie trailers. I see related expressions of it throughout the media industry. For instance, according to a great accounting from twitter user Cordeliers, the Academy (as in, “the academy awards”) has continuously shifted their rules to shut smaller documentaries not backed by big studios out of the Oscars. He speculates that it was in response to Hearts and Minds winning best documentary in 1975, during which telecast producer Bert Schneider read a message of solidarity from the ambassador who had represented North Vietnam at the Paris peace talks. From Hearts and Minds to Citizenfour 40 years later, the politics being celebrated have shifted from a third-world anti-imperial liberation struggle to “what people used to call ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ we now call [internet] privacy.”
Or to use another example, there’s a quote from the trailer for Eye In The Sky, from a Variety review favorably comparing the film to Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove is, in the words of filmmaker Alex Cox, one of “the most politically powerful anti-war films ever.” Cox speculates that the reason the film is still shut-out of British Film Institute best-of lists is due to the film’s messaging. As an anti-war film, Strangelove not only took aim at Birchers, Herman Kahn-style RAND Corp technocrats, and Operation Paperclip alike, but the entire logic of Cold War conflict. It rejected the narratives churned out by the ruling establishment, revealing them as so much speciocidal madness. In contrast, Eye In The Sky is built on a framework of establishment narratives, giving them two hours of life so that the audience can learn the intended lessons and repeat the desired conclusions. Compared to anti-war films that deserved to be called such, today’s “anti-war” films make a mockery of that concept. I’m reminded of Roger Cohen’s positive review of Zero Dark Thirty in the New York Times, comparing that Kathryn Bigelow’s film to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Zero Dark Thirty could only look like Guernica if Picasso’s classic painting depicted the tearful anguish that a Nazi pilot from Hitler’s Condor Legion felt after bombing Basque civilians.
I live in a country that was basically part of the Soviet Union, and one of the things I hear from young liberals is how much better America’s free and unconstrained media is compared to the rigid, dreary, “ideological” culture of the socialist era. As a skeptic, though, I wonder where all this alleged dynamism and diversity of thought is? The celebrities sold to adults as the funniest, most incisive, and necessary are all tedious neoliberal mediocrities. Kids can conceivably get literally 100% of their programming from the Disney corporation. The trend each year seems towards greater corporate consolidation and attendant reaction, and the demands for skeptics to shut up and like it are ever more strident, even thuggish. I don’t see it getting better in 2016—though I wish I could claim that I did. If I could cobble together a few thousand words a week talking about how increasingly indistinguishable corporate product is slowly-but-surely moving us towards a post-capitalist and post-racial utopia, I could make a pretty penny writing for the New Statesman or The Atlantic.
Update: Evidently George Lucas agrees with me on the USSR comparison, telling Charlie Rose that commercialism makes American filmmakers less free than Soviet ones: