Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: Popular Culture's Partial Truths

After 9/11, pundits weighed in on how the popular culture was going to treat this unique, horrific event and how it would change because of what happened in America on that fateful day. I remember comments about the immediate death of irony, pace Roger Rosenblatt in Time magazine, and musings about a supposed new seriousness in American culture. Well, neither has happened, as in many ways the U.S. has gone further along a superficial route with its TV reality shows still thriving and becoming even more idiotic and fatuous. Much of Hollywood’s output is increasingly given over to tedious remakes, unimaginative sequels and empty-headed comedies. You can also see that disintegration of thought in the political arena where complex issues are routinely debased with cheap sloganeering and carelessly used language such as Rick Perry’s recent labelling the act of U.S. Reserve Chair’s Ben Bernanke’s printing of U.S. money as ‘almost treasonous.’ In the case of depictions of 9/11, however, popular culture has taken a different route, not making light of the tragedy, but for various, sometimes complex reasons, refusing to look at it in a clear light and thus veering away from examining the reality of the terror attacks and what they actually meant.

If you understand the meaning of 9/11 – that it was the most prominent salvo to date in the war between militant Islam, or Islamofascism as the wise Christopher Hitchens terms it and the secular West – you can’t help but wonder why the popular culture, TV and the movies, was so determined to avoid dealing with that uncomfortable truth. But their general refusal to tackle that head on has to do with liberal values, political correctness and a laudable if misguided attempt to not stigmatize America’s Muslim/Arab community.

You had only to watch the long running TV series 24 to see this. Initially that show, which premiered soon after 9/11 – and which featured Canadian Kiefer Sutherland as an American intelligence agent who over the course of a day foiled various terrorist plots against his country – seemed to be the harbinger of the new, painful world that had been revealed by 9/11. It even predicted the country’s first black president – Denis Haysbert’s David Palmer. Along with Alias, another (very different) drama also revolving around an American intelligence unit, which began in fall 2001, the two series promised much but delivered less than expected. Alias, which was more in the realm of science fiction, didn’t really deal with Islamism as such, but 24 started out promisingly in that regard. Admittedly, it took until Season Two for the ramifications of 9/11 to be dealt with, but that season certainly looked courageous at the outset. (Season One, crafted before 9/11, dealt with Serbian terrorists avenging the loss of their own in a U.S foray into the Balkans, a mission, ironically enough, that was undertaken to save the Muslim population when their own brethren did not care to do so.) It was gratifying, in fact, to see an honest portrayal of terrorists who clearly used Islam as the rationale for their horrendous acts of violence and even plot-lines about the local terrorist threat from American Muslims and their naive sympathizers/dupes. But as 24 continued – it ran eight seasons in all – it began to succumb to political correctness and moral equivalence.

Foreign Muslim terror groups were routinely balanced out by American ones or the Muslim terrorists were manipulated by them. Anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Zionism, was never once mentioned by the Arab or Muslim groups on the show. This is simply unrealistic as that odious viewpoint is always mentioned somewhere in Islamist diatribes against the West.Were the show’s creators worried about generating animosity towards Israel as uttered through the mouths of fictional characters? Not likely true, since Americans by and large support Israel over its Arab foes. Eventually 24, at least in the six seasons I watched, moved away from telling the truth about today’s terrorism – unfortunately, it’s almost exclusively Muslim-based no matter where it occurs – towards some multicultural vision of both Christianity and Islam being capable of excess. Villains started popping up from all over the religious/cultural map, like a reverse Benetton ad. (As David Churchill pointed out in his review of reporter Mellissa Fung’s book Under an Afghan Sky, the examples of violent Christian acts are always from the past; Islamic terror is part of the present.) The chief criticism of 24 that it condoned the use of torture, which it sometimes did, always struck me as a rather narrow reading of the show.

The Road to Guatanamo
As for the movies, not the few Hollywood films (World Trade Center, United 93) that dealt directly and responsibly with 9/11, a subject that has routinely failed to generate interest at the box office, but the American independent ones, the emphasis, in those movies like Civic Duty (2006) and The Visitor (2007), was on the paranoia of the authorities and the ensuing supposed loss of civil liberties in America, a point of view that, despite some questionable actions by the government, was always exaggerated. Foes of the Bush administration were plenty and last I looked neither Noam Chomsky nor Michael Moore (who assailed his government in Fahrenheit 9/11) were sitting in jail or dead. Even intelligent filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom in The Road to Guatanamo (2006), which dealt with the real life case of three innocent British Muslim men who were rounded up in Afghanistan soon after 9/11 on suspicion of terrorism, showed a certain myopia regarding the trauma inflicted on America on 9/11. Yes, the men turned out to be innocent, but the intelligence agencies, British and American who were understandably suspicious about the fact that they were so far from home at that moment in time, were never given their due in the movie, as if they must automatically be succumbing to anti-Muslim prejudice. (I won’t use the term Islamaphobia as it’s been hijacked by the left which uses it to suggest an unnatural fear of ordinary Muslims, which few of us share. We’re worried about the extreme elements in the community who only occasionally are condemned by the moderates who vastly outnumber them.) That Winterbottom followed that movie up with A Mighty Heart (2007), which examined the murder of Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl by Islamists in Pakistan, always struck me as atonement for a view in his previous movie which he likely knew was wrongheaded. Either that, or he wanted to play devil’s advocate and present the opposing view, the understandable concern about genuine terrorism versus false accusations against men who happened to be Muslims, problematic since the two are not in any way approximate. Interestingly, it was a movie called The Siege, released three years before 9/11 occurred, which first examined how the American Muslim community would fare in the aftermath of a terror attack on New York. Its view of American-Arabs locked up willy nilly in detention camps whether they were innocent or not, has, thankfully, not come to pass, even if some leftists would posit otherwise.

Why that blinkered depiction of Muslim terror, suggesting it’s not all that different from other religious-based atrocities, emanating in Judaism or Christianity or Hinduism? And also the equation of a civil liberties-denying U.S. government as similar to the murderous jihadists? Well for that you can go back to two examples of the past, the portrayal in the gangster movies of the '30s of organised crime, and how the AIDS crisis was initially handled on television. The former was partly due to the censorious Hays Code, enforced in 1934, which was supposed to bring a moral perspective to the movies: crime must always be punished; adultery could not be shown on screen; and no race or religion could be denigrated. But also it was out of traditional Hollywood liberalism which didn’t want to appear to be singling out any one group for approbation – the bad guys in those films, usually portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft and Jimmy Cagney, were almost always (Scarface excepted) showcased as non-ethnic, generic WASPs. This was at a time when Jews and Italians (‘Dutch’ Schulz, 'Bugsy' Siegel, Al Capone, ‘Lucky’ Luciano) were actually the most prominent (but not the only) mobsters active.

Similarly, at a time back in the early '80s, when almost all North American AIDS victims were gay men, popular television seemed intent on depicting heterosexual men and women as being at equal risk. Thus, Dr. Caldwell on St. Elsewhere contracted AIDS from unprotected sex with prostitutes; ER’s nurse practitioner, Jeanie Boulet, became HIV positive because of her husband, who was entirely straight (neither gay sex nor drug use was a factor in the act of transmission as was almost always the case then). And Degrassi Junior High, a laudable show given over to periodic bouts of excessive political correctness, had a story arc centering on a male student who became infected from unprotected sex from his girlfriend, the least likely scenario for contracting AIDS. In each case, and going against the grain of what was really happening in the outside North American world, the writers on those shows wanted to drum up concern for AIDS’ gay victims, at a time, unfortunately, when the public at large didn’t and wouldn’t have cared if the only victims of this then fatal disease were exclusively homosexual. (We’ve changed a lot in our views since then.) How else to do that then basically lie, for a good cause and promote the myth that we, straight and gay, male and female alike, were equally at risk of getting the disease. (Even in the present, gay men are overrepresented in AIDS stats but not to the degree they were in the '80s.) That presentation, like the whitewashing of the ethnicity of 1930s mobsters and the refusal to recognize the unique characteristics of present day Islam as an incubator of terrorism, comes from perhaps noble motives, but it has the effect of purveying an untruth at the same time. (It can also, in the real world, have tragic consequences, as in the case of the Fort Hood shooter, an American-born Muslim psychiatrist, who in 2009 gunned down 42 people, killing 13, on a Texas military base. His increasing fundamentalism, and frequent anti-American diatribes, were ignored and overlooked by military authorities until it was too late.)

James Cagney
Of course, popular culture has only itself to blame for those decisions. If in the '30s there had been actual, positive portraits of Jewish and Italian-Americans (few and far between, actually, even though so many screenwriters were themselves Jewish), then negative portraits of some of their criminal class would not have been so dangerous. By doing this, the screenwriters tried to avoid stirring up hatred against those ethnic groups, something that manifested itself during Prohibition when those ‘ethnic’ gangsters became front page news fodder. Similarly, if there had been more gay characters on television shows prior to AIDS, there would have been no need to disguise the realities of AIDS because there would have been sympathy for the gay community in the first place, as did happen a few years later when actor Rock Hudson's plight came to light. And if there were actual portraits of Arabs and Muslims on American network TV – shown as the shop keepers, doctors, lawyers and educators that they mostly are – then the unique nature of Islamic violence could have been dealt with honestly. British-Iranian Omid Djalili’s starring role as Whoopi Goldberg’s Iranian sidekick in the 2003/2004 hotel comedy Whoopi was arguably the first depiction of a regular Muslim character on American TV (Incidentally, in the field of stand-up comedy, Muslim/Arab comedians are now a staple presence.) Popular culture and those publications that cover it, are influential to such a degree that it can change people’s views, be it a two-page article on country star Chely Wright’s same-sex nuptials in mainstream People magazine next to articles on stars' heterosexual marriages, or an incisive portrait on the news of the tragic story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, the Pakistani-Muslim American emergency medical technician who died heroically trying to save victims in the 9/11 rubble and was first thought to be have been one of the 9/11 terrorists himself.

Denis Leary in Rescue Me
Naturally, some 9/11 truths do filter through in the popular culture, from the ongoing look at the emotional toll taken on the surviving New York City firemen in FX's Rescue Me, whose final episode aired in the U.S. on Sept. 7 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (and whose last season debuts on Canada's Showcase tonight), to the chilling portrait of Muslim terrorists in the short lived HBO series Sleeper Cell (both shows were on cable, which takes more chances than free TV). And some interesting tidbits about how subtly America has changed since 9/11 are also evident. The Wire’s first season mentioned, almost in passing, that the budget to fight the war on drugs had been slashed in favour of funds spent on fighting the new war on terror, something that seemed far fetched to me – what did one fight have to do with the other? – but is in fact accurate. And The Visitor made the salient point that since 9/11 the U.S. immigration service is not content to overlook the presence of illegal immigrants in the U.S. as they used to prior to the bringing down of the twin towers. In so many ways, the United States has changed demonstrably since that day, from the permanent presence of (some) intrusive security measures, to a jittery feeling that 9/11 can and will happen again. I think it will too – the enemy has not gone away – but as scared as I was when I exited a movie during Toronto’s film festival, not knowing what had happened earlier that morning and suddenly being confronted with the TV coverage of the towers and the Pentagon being hit, I am equally scared about how so few people get what 9/11 actually symbolizes. Ex-British PM Tony Blair put it best when he said that 9/11 was a wake up call for him but also that most people soon “went back to sleep.” If the populace at large refuses to understand what went down on Sept. 11, 2001, and what it means for dealing with Islamic terror, as well as the left's coddling/excusing of those murderers and the right’s demonizing of all Muslims, which President Bush was always careful not to do, then sadly, the popular culture is partly to blame for that ignorant state of affairs.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment