Video Games as the Fear-Mongering Pop Adjunct of America’s post-9/11 ‘forever wars’
Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.
And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?”
Activision’s Modern Warfare series has a well-known, morally dubious (yet best-selling) record of brutality-celebrating, militaristic, war-glorifying gaming, but invoking Oliver North’s pseudo-gravitas for right-wing street cred must be a new low. Is the first-person shooter genre now politicized too? So Sarah Palin’s ‘Real Americans’ blow away commies and terrorists with extreme prejudice, while you wimpy liberals play girlie games like Final Fantasy or something? The red state-blue state divide has come to your Xbox too. How nice; how healthy for democracy. Is it necessary to remind all those Tea Parties who adore the Constitution that North blatantly, repeatedly violated the appropriations clause of said ‘sacred,’ ‘holy’ end-all-be-all document?
At a time when the President is asserting an unprecedented right to kill overseas Americans without Constitutional protections, we really don’t need yet another wildly overhyped, quick-cut, paranoia-inducing threat assessment. Somewhere neocons are smiling, because I guess we all need our own drone now, right? But this stuff is pummeling our democracy and leading to all sorts behavior, like warrantless wiretaps or the Patriot Act, that we’d never tolerate otherwise and about which we will one day be ashamed.
The irony too is how baldly this ‘documentary’ contradicts the actual social science work on war – you know, from people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about, like Pinker, Goldstein, the democratic peace, nuclear peace, Long Peace, or security community theorists. War seems to be becoming less frequent, less cost-beneficial, more hemmed-in with rules and norms, and less general (i.e., not involving all the system’s big players anymore). If there’s one thing just about everybody in IR today seems to agree on, it’s that the US spends way, way more money on defense than it needs to. But I guess there’s no money in a game entitled ‘Threatlessness,‘ so let’s amp up the fear-factor by rolling out the Gordon Liddy of the Reagan administration to freak out the consumer.
More generally, I find it pretty worrisome just how brutal post-9/11 American geopolitical entertainment has become. I don’t mean violent; many movies and games are violent, even graphically so. Rather I am thinking of the unabashed relish for pro-American killing, the zealous bloodlust that’s morally fig-leafed by American patriotism so as to be defensible to the viewer. The same people who cheered for Rick Perry’s talibanic enthusiasm for the death penalty and waterboarding are thrilled to see the gleeful embrace of pro-American torture, mass-killings, and executions in even mainstream, hugely popular franchises like Modern Warfare, 24, or Transformers.
24 constantly found a way to work in torture by the good guys, as if to say that real men, genuinely committed to America, don’t have time for rules and due process. Lawyers are for sissies and liberals; patriots will gladly go over to Cheney’s ‘dark side’ beat the hell out of anyone, violate any law, to defend America. Modern Warfare 2 became globally notorious by requiring the gamer to participate in a mass atrocity (machine-gunning hundreds of civilians). In Battle: Los Angeles, the American hero performed a battlefield vivisection on wounded opponent. In Modern Warfare 3, the protagonists shoot a defenseless, surrendered enemy in the face even after he has cooperated in giving information. Homefront portrays the execution of parents in front of their screaming child, has the gamer hide under the bodies in a mass grave, and later encourages you not to waste ammunition on enemies on fire after an airstrike. Transformers 3 includes four battlefield executions (because it’s a movie for kids you know) and gives the antagonist the startling, downright revelatory post-9/11 line: ‘We will kill them all in the name of freedom.’ Wow – why not just give Michael Bay a job at some neocon think-tank? EA’s Battlefield 3, in the same year as the US is debating striking Iran, spun up a story of Iranian-sponsored MWD use in Western cities, which then provokes an in-game US invasion of Iran in which the gamer participates. Good lord; Bill Kristol himself could have written that script. And I have no doubt after this paranoid video above that Black Ops 2 will include some gratuitously vicious sequence packaged as ‘defending’ America.
The basic trick in all these the-defense-of-America-requires-cruelty narratives is to structure the story with such extreme bad guys and circumstances that the viewer can morally excuse the American hero for egregious violations of the law or rules of engagement that would otherwise get the cop/soldier/good guy rightfully thrown in jail as a dangerous sociopath. 24’s constant portrayals of torture justified by the wildly unrealistic ticking time-bomb scenario is the most obvious example. So long as Jack Bauer can say he’s trying to save a million people in LA, he’s allowed to do anything – torture, maim, execute civilians, violate due process, steal passwords, etc.
This stuff is tea party nirvana – strong, a—kicking men stand-up for America while liberal sissies at the ACLU worry about lawyers for terrorists. Conveniently the hero’s brutality is shielded/morally excused by some lame narrative fig-leaf about MWDs or alien invasions. But the real point is to show vengeful, post-9/11 killing on behalf of America without feeling guilty about it. This is why it’s terrifying.
So if you wonder why stories about American misbehavior in Afghanistan, like trophy taking or killing squads, get so little attention, consider just how coopted the post-9/11 geopolitical entertainment industry is, constantly presenting America’s opponents as unworthy of any rights, justifiably tortured, and fit to be wiped out with extreme prejudice at all time. Conversely, if you wonder why Apocalypse Now or Platoon are vastly more gripping and engaging, while you can’t even remember the story of last summer Transformers, it’s because in the real world, the moral certainty imparted by the ticking bomb scenario (much less cartoonish alien invasions) almost never happens. Jack Bauer’s 100% certainty in the bomb threat, which justifies his tearing out some Muslim’s fingernails or something, is a narrative figment. Lots of studies of war and intelligence gathering have told us just how much confusion and uncertainty there is. This is the whole reason we have the rules of engagement.
This why Jack Bauer would be in prison for life in the real world, no matter how much the right thinks he should be a role model for GWoT CT. Real world bad guys usually aren’t all wholly unredeemable villains – unlike in the black-and-white, ‘moral clarity,’ tea-party/neo-con dreamworld of Michael Bay, John Milius, Keifer Sutherland, Fox News, and even Peter Jackson. Even after the ’good war,’ de-nazification didn’t lead to mass executions of the Wehrmacht. Someday we’re going to look back on this post-9/11 bloody-minded entertainment with cringe-inducing shame, in the same way we think about Rambo or Red Dawn today.
I don’t want to sound like some boring old dude who doesn’t get this stuff. I like gaming. I waste too much time on it also. I enjoy action movies and FPS’s like Halo; I’ve played Modern Warfare and even Homefront. What unnerves isn’t the thrill of the violence. (That is also morally dubious, of course, but given that it underlines the viewing rush of every action movie ever made, hold that for a moment.) What I find really noticeable and increasingly disturbing is the post-9/11 gleeful depiction of pro-American carnage. 9/11 ‘took the gloves off’ and allowed so many directors – Bay, Milius, Sutherland, the Activision guys – to unleash their chauvinistic, reptilian id, all their inner xenophobia, cruelty, militarism, war-glorifying machismo, and sheer bloody-mindedness. And the Tea-Party loves them for it.
Every time I see one of these movies in Korea (Battleship and Act of Valor just arrived), or whenever my students tell me how great some new shooter game is, I always wonder what foreigners must think of us and this endless diet of jingoistic movie and gaming violence we produce. One movie after another game of over-the-top violence, huge CGI, American flags waving, uniforms and saluting, troopers barking canned, macho dialogue like ‘Marines never give up,’ killing, and then more killing, flirtation with torture. I understand why my students tell me America is an empire; we sure entertain ourselves as if we are, and foreigners can see this stuff. I know the Tea Party couldn’t care less what foreigners think of us – that’s they whole point, right? And I know that the Pentagon approves Hollywood scripts before it lends its hardware, but I can’t imagine that even the brass really wants only this kind of jingoistic, bloodthirsty pap. Who wouldn’t exchange one Apocalypse Now for all these awful, cruel, rah-rah post-9/11 movies and games? But they gross huge amounts, of course; as will Black Ops 2, I have no doubt. And what self-respecting tea-partier wouldn’t want to help Oliver North’s rehabilitation to credibility?
Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.
|The 15th Century take on Shrek
A friend of mine linked to a fabulous post by Lindy West at the Guardian “The Five Most Pathetic Female Film Characters of All Time”. Okay, not the most inspiring International Women’s Day post. But if I’m honest with you, I think she’s spot on with her list (although I haven’t seen Twilight so I can’t really judge that… but it seems to confirm everything I’ve heard about Bella.)
There is nothing worse than a horrible female companion/character/lead in a film. I find it like being on a long car ride with a whiney companion. And that’s the very least damage they do. At worst, they confirm stereotypes and just simply send the wrong message to young girls or women about what they need to do to be saved by some moronic hero.
At the end of her post West invites readers to list the characters that are letting down the female gender. So I thought that I would make a quick list (in no particular order) in between marking essays. Since I think today needs to be about empowerment, I’ve also listed those women at the end that I think are relatively kick-ass and do their thing for the cause.
It’s an interesting thought experiment (or at least a fun distraction) to think about what makes a good female character. I’m not sure I have a definitive list, but I would certainly want a certain degree of self-reliance, an ability to think under pressure (and not, say, faint), an ability to work well and communicate with others and not be overly whiney. I don’t think women have to be violent in order to be awesome, just have some witty talk and a normal freaking brain.
Also – I’m sure I could come up with more on both sides, but here are a few that pop into my mind (from the world of film at least – I’m well aware that several Duck contributors would find the lack of Buffy on this list to be disturbing.) I would be interested in hearing other people’s lists. Or perhaps other ideas of what makes a good female role-model.
Lady Losers (Boo!)
Dale Arden – Flash (AH-AAA!!!) Gordon
The fact that this woman could walk and breathe at the same time, let alone with that gigantic 80s hair astounds me. Pathetic dialogue and ‘cheerleading ‘ while your paramour is trying to football fight his way through Ming’s army of doom IS NOT HELPING.
Having seen only clips of the series, I’m not sure if any of the other Dales were any good, but I have my doubts. If I was Flash I probably just would have stuck with Ming’s daughter.
|Okay, this poster is rad.
Okay – I’m certain that this is going to be the most controversial one up here, but seriously, she is a total let-down. It’s like the adventures of naked, sexy Pearl Heart in space. Maybe it’s because I watched it for the first time n the 1990s, but I was expecting a lot more from “The Queen of the Galaxy”. Sure, I get that the was about free love and seeing Jane Fonda naked in the 1960s, but really.
Mareen O’Hara as Lady Margaret in the Black Swan.
|O’Hara did work the beach curls.
Maybe it’s because I can’t stand a film of Sabatini novel without, as a minimum, Errol Flynn or Olivia De Havilland in a starring role, but I just thought this film was pretty bad. Captain Blood is all kinds of awesome – and De Havilland manages to put some kick into an otherwise kind of flat character (although movie enhances her character’s role). But this film is just kind of creepy and rapey. And despite O’Hara’s attempts to be feisty, she comes off as lame. Her character is helpless and annoying. Or maybe I just can’t the fact that no one even bothered trying to put on a British accent.
|Clever, but not clever enough to avoid silver lamé! .
Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian – Robin Hood
The 1936 film takes a character that has plenty of potential to be useless and turns it into someone who was pretty kick-ass for the Great Depression. She bests Robin at conversation and masterminds his escape when his ‘Merry Men’ can’t get it together. She doesn’t swoon, faint or cry. She changes her mind through reason and debate. When she spends a little while in the dungeon, she remains stoic and determined. Sure she’s not fighting her way out with a broadsword, but I’m going to give her my pre-1945 award for being pretty kick-ass.
Eowyn – Lord of the Rings
Sure she’s kind of winey and moany and in love with a guy who is going for the hot elf princess. (Isn’t that always the way?) But she WANTS to kick ass. They literally have to forbid her from going out to fight. And she STILL manages to go out and kill the King of the Nazgul. Basically this woman is all kinds of awesome – and she gets Faramir in the end. Niiiice.
Princess Leia – Star Wars
I feel that I almost have to put this up out of obligation – although I thought she kind of got wussified by Return of the Jedi. However, she is an amazing character in the first film. She’s a career woman (diplomat), rebellion leader and pretty gung-ho. She withstands torture and only gives up information when the lives of others are threatened. And she can pull off that hair-bun look while shooting-up some baddies.
EDIT: Looking at this list, I think most of my heroines could safely be described as liberal feminists (well, 12th Century liberal feminists for Marian). Could film ever produce a critical/stand-point feminist? Maybe I just haven’t seen enough ‘good’ movies. Anyone have any ideas on this?
Up front, I’ll admit that Michael Moore movies appeal to me. My politics lean left, I embrace populist sensibilities on many issues, and I strongly believe that humor can be employed to levy an effective critique of politics.
- “Roger and Me,” which told the dismal story of the relationship between General Motors and Flint, Michigan, was a personal story for Moore since it concerned his hometown and was a strong beginning for his career as a documentary film maker.
- “Bowling for Columbine,” which used the infamous Colorado high school shootings by two teenage boys to examine America’s love affair with guns, was an outstanding work — certified by its Oscar victory.
- The polemical “Fahrenheit 9/11” revealed some interesting truths to a wider audience concerning the Bush administration, the “war on terrorism,” and its application to Iraq.
- Finally, Moore’s health care movie, “Sicko,” had some strong moments and made Americans think about the U.S. system compared to systems available in other countries. Not every sector of the economy, he seemed to be saying, should be ruled by free market principles.
In his latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Moore extends this critique more widely.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Unfortunately, even though the film included some very fine moments, such as the focus on the 2008 worker sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in Illinois, I did not enjoy most of Moore’s latest film. Too often, it seemed like Moore lost his narrative thread by exploring weak tangential points.
For example, consider the fairly long section revealing that companies sometimes take out life insurance policies on their workers. It does seem crass, particularly the way Moore framed the issue, but it is also pits one for-profit enterprise (the company buying insurance) against another (the insurance company). Actuarial tables and luck play a big role in deciding who earns and who loses in individual cases. Moore implied that companies had a profit motive in the death of their employees, but the insurance companies likewise have a profit motive in their life. Why is this a generalized critique of capitalism?
Moreover, rhetorically, I think the film would have been better targeted at the corporate and financial sectors of the economy rather than at the economic system as a whole. This is especially important given that the film offers very little about what he thinks might supplant “capitalism.”
Like Moore, I am very sympathetic towards FDR’s second bill of rights and share many of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 concerns about Americans’ worshiping self-indulgence and consumption. Yet, these ideas are not introduced in the film in such a way as to suggest a viable alternative to capitalism. Indeed, the men who originally offered those ideas likely saw them as means by which to counter the power of “economic royalists” (to use FDR’s phrasing). Reforming capitalism to make it more European doesn’t seem like a death sentence.
Worse, I thought that this film’s populism teetered awfully close to the anti-bailout arguments made by the tea party members. I’m not sure Tim Geithner (read this terrific profile) is an economic genius, but Moore’s criticisms of the bailout used many of the same rhetorical devices employed by those who don’t understand Keynesian economics. Moore seemed to be criticizing the size of the bailouts and the government efforts to stimulate the economy as much as he was the corporate recipients.
Yes, many of the funds were employed in dubious ways, but the TARP repayments provide a major counterargument to Moore’s apparent thesis. Moore’s populism works better against corporate greed (when he focuses his camera appropriately) rather than against government efforts to stimulate the economy. FDR would have designed different programs, but his thinking was similar
:“Into the ears of many of you have been dinned the cry that your Government has been piling up an unconscionable and back breaking debt. Let me tell you a simple story. In the Spring of Nineteen hundred and thirty-three, many of the great bankers of the United States flocked to Washington. They were there to get the help of their government in the saving of their banks from insolvency. To them I pointed out, in all fairness, the simple fact that you couldn’t make bread without flour. The simple fact that the government would be compelled to go heavily into debt for a few years to come in order to save banks and save insurance companies and mortgage companies and railroads, and to take care of millions of people who were on the verge of starvation. And every one of these gentlemen expressed to me at that time the firm conviction that it was all well worth the price and that they heartily approved”.
The film’s ending, featuring Moore trying to make a citizen’s arrest of AIG executives, backing a Brink’s truck up to various banks and asking for “our money” back, and wrapping “crime scene” tape around Wall Street’s famous bull, all seem like self-indulgent publicity stunts rather than valuable symbolic acts of political protest. By comparison, Moore lining up Cuban health care for some needy Americans in “Sicko” seemed high-minded, poignant, and effective.
I think “Capitalism: A Love Story” is worth viewing, but don’t expect to be wowed. This Michael Moore fan wasn’t.
I know Dan and Charli have been diligently (and quite helpfully) blogging about war, but it’s the weekend and I went to see “Dark Knight” yesterday.
After it ended — and if you’ve seen it, you probably already know why — I kept thinking that every Batman and his villain antagonist(s) simply reflect their times. In their own way, they are social constructs.
If this is true, what, exactly, is this latest Batman film trying to say about post-9/11 America?
If you want to read about Russia’s latest war, skip this post. You might also want to skip over the remainder if you haven’t yet seen the movie (spoiler alert!!).
Otherwise, make the jump. Note that I originally posted a similar entry on my blog, but decided it might be fun to have a few additional readers.
In the “self-reflexive” campy 1966 “Batman” movie and TV series, Batman was a good guy and Joker was a criminal, but both seemed fairly harmless. The “clown prince of crime” declared
A joke a day, keeps the gloom away!
The too-serious Batman always saved the day and stopped the Joker and his criminal pals, but he was typically captured first and was almost always dependent upon some chemical antidote to a poison or some other modern invention.
Why was Joker a comical character and why did Batman depend upon what then passed for high tech? Well, the entire “Batman” TV series and movie was a parody of the era:
Batman incorporated the expressive art and fashion of the period in its sets and costumes. It also relied excessively on technological gadgetry transforming the show into a parody of contemporary life.
Remember the scene in “The Graduate” when young Benjamin is offered one word of advice? “Plastics.”
That was essentially what “Batman” was saying about America in the mid-1960s. I’d add fake. Cheap. Disposable. Oil-based.
In the 1989 “Batman,” by contrast, both Batman and the Joker were far more serious. Joker made modern life unlivable for the residents of Gotham City, but that’s because he threatened individual lifestyles. Joker invented and distributed a toxic chemical additive that convinced people to give up their hair gel, deodorant, and makeup. Indeed, this Joker was born from a vat of toxins. His crime revealed the colorless and unappealing reality beneath the veneer of 1980’s opulence and chemical dependence.
Batman was needed to clean up the mess. He was like Rudy Giuliani prosecuting high-profile mafia dons and insider traders — and later closing down porn shops and graffiti artists. This is a line spoken by Joker, from IMDB:
Now, I can be theatrical, and maybe even a little rough – but one thing I am not, is a *killer*. I am an artist. I *love* a good party. So, truce. Commence au festival!
Batman closed down Joker’s party and made it safe for citizens to enjoy their city’s official and commercial adornments.
Today, in the latest “Dark Knight,” Batman is deadly serious and the joker is an Über-terrorist. Joker is not motivated by money; he sets fire to millions of dollars even after he has stolen it from the mob. Joker wants to disrupt and destroy the fabric of modern civilization — not merely expose its underbelly. The results are predictably loud and explosive. Some innocent people are casualties, but there’s nothing especially personal about the deaths. The most personal killing is turned into a provocation, which is a typical terrorist goal in any case.
IMDB has this choice Joker monologue to bed-ridden and badly burned district attorney Harvey Dent:
You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, [Police Commissioner] Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how, pathetic, their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say, ah, come here, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth.
It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.
The most unsettling aspect of the movie comes in the resolution of the story. Batman can only stop the Joker by employing secrecy, extrajudicial means, and rendition of foreign nationals. An important public servant becomes an outright criminal and the public is tempted to tolerate mass killing to preserve their own safety.
In the end, however, director Christopher Nolan seems to be at least somewhat hopeful about post-9/11 America. An oversized convict in an orange jumper seizes a bomb detonator away from a jail warden and tosses it out a window before the public official can kill 100s of innocent people to save his own skin.
That’s something you should have done 10 minutes ago, the prisoner tells the warden.
Batman is still around at the end of the movie to continue his personal war on terror, but his reputation is scarred. Presumably, neither his high tech toys nor his strong personal will can restore his public standing.
Presumably, the sequel will reveal how he seeks redemption.
In my world — currently Acting Department Chair — PTL stands for “part-time lecturer,” not “praise the lord.”
I’m looking forward to May 22, when the ultimate part-time lecturer returns — to the big screen: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
Apparently, the plot concerns…
According to MTV’s Shawn Adler:
1:26: The biggest spoiler of the trailer: a shot of a box with the words “Roswell, New Mexico 1947” etched on the side in white paint. Assuming that Lucas has decided to follow the tradition, here, finally, is indisputable evidence as to what the powers of the crystal skulls are. Again deferring to the expert, Dr. Zender posited that one theory on the origin of the crystal skulls was that they were ancient alien “supercomputers,” akin to modern-day silicon chips. After “protecting the power of the divine,” Indy is now after an even greater weapon — ultimate knowledge.
Gee, what happened in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947?
Perhaps this will job your memory of history:
I know this isn’t a typical topic for IR blogging, but I received an email link to this related piece on “exopolitics” in the buildup to the Iraq war.
I’m a proponent of transparency in politics — but the Disclosure Project takes that idea and runs with it.
The author was at AU, though I don’t know if he’s known to PTJ or Peter.