The state understands that artists can be a useful tool when they’re willing to fall in line, and recognize that they can be fearsome enemies when they refuse to submit.
By Nylah Burton
Like so many U.S. millennials, I can remember exactly what I was doing on 9/11. At six-years-old, I was cowering under cafeteria tables in my D.C. elementary school. A few days later, my grandfather — a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army at the time — left for Egypt on an assignment he never told us much about, although he did return with hearing loss in one ear.
I also remember exactly what I was doing the month after 9/11. I was curled up on the couch with my parents, watching the premiere of Fox’s action show 24 featuring Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a spy whose sole purpose in life is to stop terrorist attacks within 24 hours.
Because I was, you know, six-years-old, my mother never let me watch shows like Sex and The City or The Wire. Birth control and drug dealers? Inappropriate. A white man killing, maiming, and torturing Muslim people to “save” our country? Patriotic and good for children.
Anyway, watching Jack Bauer commit several war crimes per episode shaped my understanding of the nearly 20-year war we’ve been embroiled in ever since. It shaped my understanding of who the heroes were, and what the enemy looked like. It shaped how I saw evil.
Fortunately, I grew up and read some books, changing my views about war and the state forever.
But that early experience of consuming war propaganda (because that’s what shows like 24 really are) showed me how powerful it can be. These forms of entertainment can instill an insatiable thirst for violence and a religious fervor of patriotism. They strip complex situations of nuance. They inspire some to enlist in the military, and they sway in the voting booth. Through the portrayal of evil, they perpetuate Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism.
Movies, TV, and other forms of art are powerful weapons. In light of the current war with Iran — instigated by the U.S. — it’s important to resist being complicit in the wielding of this weapon.
Think of movies depicting The Cold War, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (2011), Farwell (2009), From Russia With Love (1963). These movies, while thrilling to watch, rely on stoking Russophobia — a U.S. obsession that has recently resurfaced — and demonizing the very concept of communism, automatically positioning the oppressive system of capitalism as being imbued with moral integrity.
In these movies, people accused of being Soviet spies are granted empathy only if they are proven innocent. Think of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of spying for the Soviets. They received empathy, largely because people believed they were “innocent,” or at least, had been “framed.” But one can’t help but wonder if they would have received the same level of support had the evidence against them been more clear. Today, Cold War movies continue to shape our opinion of good and evil, of who is a patriot and who is a traitor, who deserves clemency and who deserves death.
Artists who agree to work on these TV shows and films — and a public that consumes them uncritically — find themselves complicit in spreading war-mongering propaganda. The most recent example we have of this imperialist narrative is the Amazon series Jack Ryan, which attempts to justify and whip up support for CIA intervention in Venezuela, as well as crushing sanctions imposed by the U.S. government.
But many people don’t define these mainstream, quality produced, star-studded films like American Sniper (2014) or Black Hawk Down (2001) as propaganda, but that is the function they serve. This is a dynamic that many scholars have pointed out. These movies obfuscate the impact war has on the victims of the U.S., which is why so many have trouble empathizing with how the recent war with Iran has triggered U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s PTSD symptoms as a war refugee from Somalia. And these films serve to rehabilitate the image of our military, which has caused unimaginable destruction all over the globe.
For artists who don’t adhere to compulsory patriotism — or silence, or milquetoast hesitation — the consequences can be severe. The all-female country music group, The Dixie Chicks, had their songs pulled from the radio and were blackballed for years after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush for starting a war with Iraq.
Black civil rights leader and singer Nina Simone raged against the Vietnam war in “Backlash Blues,” singing “‘You raise my taxes, freeze my wages/ and send my son to Vietnam,” and faced heavy legal consequences when she stopped paying taxes in protest.
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When she was 32, anti-war actress Jane Fonda was arrested — the order came from President Nixon himself — for her protests of the Vietnam War. According to the Washington Post, before her arrest “the FBI and CIA had been surveilling her for months. The National Security Agency was tapping her phone calls.”
As the war with Iran escalates, as the occupant of the White House makes every attempt to crawl over the dead to attain his throne, we must be extremely careful about how we consume war films. And if we are artists, we must use our voices and influence to be unquestionably against war and destruction. We must not remain silent, and we must not cooperate.
The state understands that artists can be an immensely useful tool when they’re willing to fall in line, and they also recognize that they can be fearsome enemies when they refuse to submit.
Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.