In previous generations, Americans have enjoyed mafia anti-heroes, morally questionable wild-west lawmen & outlaws. They’ve celebrated the guy running from the law, they’ve thrilled at rule-breakers and loners who get the job done. Investigative journalists were once a staple hero of film and TV as they uncovered the truth about what those in power did to those without. Authority was always suspect.
America’s cool new fascism
What does the current output of america’s TV studios say about the country now there are more shows about people WITH power, doing unto those without. There seem to be a lot of shows about law-enforcement. From the sinister conflation of Policing and entertainment of Police! Stop! Kill! (or whatever), reaching it’s apotheosis with Steven Segal actually becoming a Lawman and the even more ridiculous Dog the bounty hunter which feature real-life shoot-outs.
Policing as entertainment is troubling enough, but it is the raft of interchangeable shows showcasing the myth of an alphabet soup of ultra-competent hi-tech law-enforcement agencies which trouble me the most. Does anyone imagine the world’s forensic labs are staffed by genius savants with a thirst for the truth a-la CSI? Or are they banging out DNA matches to order on a production line? ‘The Mentalist’ and ‘Lie to Me’ at least have interestingly flawed characters at the centre, but still essentially support the authoritarian submission to law-enforcers, who are ultra-competent, all-seeing and incorruptible. Then you have the deeply creepy NCIS, a spin-off from the equally suspect JAG in which military legal people are trying to be cool, whereas everyone knows everyone hates the monkeys. Even court-room drama, like Shark, is now more likely to see the prosecutor as the hero, not the defence lawyer, nor the guy uncovering mal-practice against the wishes of those in power. The investigative journalist is just as likely to be portrayed as a traitor than a hero these days. Finally you have the 192 episodes of 24, which serve together as an apology for the Bush/Obama policy of extra-judicial execution, rendition, torture and extra-legal detention. The metaphor of the ticking bomb made into highly a watchable televisual torture-fest.
The myth of the the ultra-competent, all-seeing intelligence agency able to swoop on “terrorists” who in these shows are rarely anything like the terrorists in real-life, and are instead generally painted as “the guy next door” serve to make people watching them comfortable with the idea of surveillance being for our own good because it helps the good guys catch the bad, who could be anyone, anywhere. This is a comforting myth to hideously overweight middle America that there are young, good-looking people protecting them while they sleep amongst their fast-food cartons in front of the telly.
The reality is a different. Forensic labs are understaffed, by underpaid biology graduates. Police are more interested in performance targets, overtime and the location of the nearest doughnut emporium than they are in ‘justice’. They are more than happy to fix-up the usual suspects if it means they get home in time for 24 on the telly. Intelligence agencies rely on guess-work and hearsay and certainly don’t have access to all the nation’s cctv from one central control room with inexplicable cool-blue underfloor lighting. Have you ever beein in a Government building that looks like CTC/LA from 24?. Intelligence operatives are not cool, they’re civil servants who are 43% fatter & uglier than the national average*. No-one ever, in any public-secotr organisation anywhere, has ever used a fucking Mac, let alone an iPad.
America is sleepwalking into facism. They already lock up 1% of their adult population, mostly for possession of small amounts of drugs, mainly of the kinds used by poor people. They are developing a surveillance culture as bad as our own, and as for bureaucracy – well you think Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs is bad? Wait till you try dealing with the US equivalent. This is all OK because thanks to the Black Propaganda of NCIS, 24 and the like, all that oppressive apparatus of the state is deployed for people’s “security”. If you can persuade them of the existence of bogeymen, they will pay and suffer intrusive surveillance to protect themselves from bogeymen.
Western power comes from wealth; our wealth comes directly from our liberty. Our freedom to think “how can I do this better” and freedom to apply those insights leads directly to economic growth. Freedom to question the Government’s policies and those acting in it’s name means an absence of piles of corpses in western political discourse. How long can this last? Timid and cowed people, brainwashed into not rocking the boat, not questioning why that camera is looking at me, nor why there’s armed men at the airport, are less likely to question their boss’s stupid man-management or the government’s latest plan to lock up ever more ‘bad people’, and shoot in the head those it can’t catch. Not only is everyone a’frit to go out but everyone’s doing as they’re told. No-one’s happy. And we get poorer. As we get poorer, we get weaker, magnifying the threats and yielding more excuses for repression.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but it seems everyone’s watching the wrong shows.