Second Vermont Republic

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Screening the Homeland


How Hollywood Fantasy Mediates State Fascism in the US of Empire

Every day . . . our children learn to open their imaginations, to dream just a little bigger . . . I want to thank all of you tonight for being part of that vitally important work. -Michelle Obama on Argo, via White House satellite feed to the Academy Awards television audience, 2013

Interested in livening up a sleepy cocktail party in the Homeland? Here’s one way—suggest to your fellow guests that Hollywood plays a deep and abiding role as popular propaganda provider for an ever-expanding United States of Empire bent on “full-spectrum dominance” of the planet and the demonization of all things Muslim. I know what you’re thinking. Most American moviegoers cannot be bothered with so-called “conspiracy theories” about how US film projects advance a larger imperial agenda. Filmmakers and their audiences often argue that movies are just mindless eye candy for purely entertainment purposes. However, if ever a single year of popular film culture were to prove them wrong, it would have to be this past one, which featured some of the most sophisticated propaganda of our post-9/11 era, including two this essay will explore in more detail—Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Unless you have killed your television dead (not a bad idea) and stopped watching movies, you’ve no doubt heard of these two films, which have received mountains of critical acclaim (and a bit of controversy) in the US popular press.

A few points of clarification: I use the word “screening” in this chapter title as a double entendre, to describe both the technique of the narrative process—propaganda disseminated 24/7/365 via ubiquitous screens, including movie theaters, TV, and all manner of mobile devices—and the political process by which the Hollywood industry “frames” audiences’ understandings of vital issues of import, filtering and censoring our cultural understanding of what we might call “real life.” When Hollywood filmmakers insist that certain of their films are “based on actual events” (a claim made by the production crews of both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty), discriminating audiences ought to reach for their collective cultural crap detectors.2

According to popular mythology and rabid pit bull pundits of the Faux News variety, Hollywood “liberals” and the Washington DC Beltway crowd are locked in a perpetual ideological war. The truth is exactly the opposite—Hollywood and DC not only need each other, they are sleeping together in serial multiplex fashion. As former president Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House aide and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) CEO Jack Valenti once tellingly explained, “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.”3 It is here, at the intersection of realpolitik and art, where Hollywood pop culture plays a critically significant political role—producing and deploying powerful image-driven stories designed to legitimize US imperialism abroad. In other words, if we apply to US foreign policy the radical cultural critiques of scholar bell hooks—that Hollywood “fantasy” continually mediates US state “fascism”—what can we conclude?4 That via the silver screen, Hollywood’s job is to prepare American hearts and minds for embracing the collective actions of the state—both domestically and globally—on behalf of advancing US hegemony in the Middle East and around the world.5

A few words about the “fascism”: let’s start with some basics about the United States—“facts submitted to a candid world,” as Thomas Jefferson famously stated in 1776. The twenty-first century US is no longer a self-governing republic, but an out-of-control empire that is essentially ungovernable, unreformable, and unsustainable. Easily accessible federal government documents, such as the vision articulated by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC),6 make clear that the chief goal of the twenty-first century US is nothing less than world domination in the name of waging a sequential, global war for the planet’s remaining fossil fuel energy resources. Looking back over the decade since the 9/11 tragedy,7 the US has quickly morphed into a military–industrial–surveillance state that is obsessed with homeland security and marked by a rapid reorganization and centralization of federal agencies, the curtailing of constitutional rights and liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act and related legislation, and the expansion of corporate commercial power, wedded to an expanding state bureaucracy.8 None of this is news to longtime Project Censored readers, who aren’t afraid to call this “new normal” by its real name—“fascism,” which Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini in the 1930s defined as the marrying of corporate and state power. And Fascism, Mussolini said, ought more rightly be called corporatism.

Looking globally, two-thirds of the planet’s recoverable oil reserves are located in the greater Middle East, a region hotly contested by the US, Russia, and China, featuring repressively governed “client states” propped up with loans from the “international community” (read: International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the US), which are currently experiencing a series of turbulent economic and political upheavals—Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria—simplistically dubbed the “Arab Spring.” A complex and highly misunderstood region of the world, the Middle East is home to the modern Jewish state of Israel—which, since its creation in 1948, has been an intimate ally of the US—as well as the majority of the world’s Arab peoples (most, but not all, of whom are Muslim), who trace Bedouin tribal lineage back thousands of years. To control this strategically vital region, the US has historically blended diplomacy’s “hard power” with “soft power”—sticks and carrots—as well as relying on domestic popular propaganda like Hollywood films and television shows, as researcher Jack Shaheen explains in his book Reel Bad Arabs, to create enduring regional and cultural stereotypes for Western moviegoing audiences. The result? “Islamophobia,” a deeply rooted media-induced fear of the Arab “Other.”9 Not surprisingly, then, do our highly visible Hollywood movies focus audience attention on the relationship between the US and the greater Middle East.

This is an excerpted chapter from the forthcoming Project Censored 2014 book – available in September 2013. for more information.

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This entry was posted on August 29, 2013 by in Arts.

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