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A national consciousness of fear

April 25, 2016

During the past few years, an interesting trend in American film and television has become more explicit than ever before.  Look at the common thread running through some of the more high-profile films of the period.  American Sniper.  Blackhat.  White House Down.  Olympus Has Fallen.  The same theme is apparent in television.  Consider The BlacklistScorpion, Madame Secretary, Quantico, Homeland, Intelligence.  And that’s without counting all the forensic dramas and police procedurals that are the backbone of the major networks, which make the same point in a slightly more subtle manner.  Of course this is nothing new in thrillers, but it is happening much more often than it did a decade or two ago.

All of these productions portray the nation-state, with its immense capacity for inflicting harm, as a victim under constant assault from aggressive outsiders, usually individuals.  Imagine for a moment that this reflects how American writers and producers and viewers see the world.  They picture the United States government, with 2.5 million soldiers and 700,000 police at its disposal, as a victim.  By extension, it suggests they see themselves, all three hundred million of them, with the highest rate of civilian armament in human history, as victims too, but that’s beside the point.  In the films they make, the state is always under attack, and it’s always forced to retaliate with violence in order to preserve its existence, which is usually justified with the codewords “saving lives”.

This shared style has another aspect worth mentioning.  In most cases, the state is never hinted to have deserved the assaults it suffers; instead, they are depicted as irrational and arbitrary.  The criminals, the terrorists, occasionally the third world country – they have no possible reason for attacking the Americans save sheer perversity and a desire to maim.  Their reasoning is rarely mentioned and even more rarely taken seriously.  And when they become in turn the victims of the state’s counterattack, their defeat is presented as not only justified but inevitable: the logical triumph of the nation over the individual.

Perhaps, given that the state and the Grand Old Flag always win, these stories are not so much about victimhood as they are about a sort of inherent conservatism, conveying the same kind of message that The West Wing was so good at delivering: The United States government may have its flaws, but it’s the best government humans have ever devised, and it’s here to stay.  Production teams take the state for granted.  They cannot picture life without it, and they feel threatened by attempts to challenge its authority – hence their need to show it in the ascendant above its defeated, puny foes.  New threats to state supremacy arise every year, which has forced Hollywood to switch sides.  No longer is the prevailing fantasy one in which the status quo is successfully challenged.  Instead, the preferred outcome preserves stability and the state, because the state is desirable and worth saving.  It is the same sort of attitude that induces a writer to opine that even a weak state or a tyrannical state is better than no state at all.

And that isn’t the voice of a society that pictures itself as a victim and is busy pitying itself.  It’s the voice of a society that is still fighting, but which is in deadly fear that it will lose more than its existence: it will lose its template for understanding existence.  So it fights back with pretty pictures to reassure itself.  It’s running scared.


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