John Pilger’s columns have increasingly despaired at the narcissism of a particularly facile and pervasive brand of identity politics which is concerned only with the various ways in which we as individuals can claim to be oppressed. He touches on it in this piece (linked in the title) with the line observing that “”Identity” is all, mutating feminism and declaring class obsolete”, themes he has explored with regards to Julia Gillard’s idiotic adoption as a feminist heroine or the liberal obsession with gay marriage over basic human rights issues such as the treatment of Bradley Manning. This particular column from March, which I missed but has been brought to my attention by Organized Rage, nails this egotistical individualism and connects it to the “submissive void” spoken of by Leni Riefenstahl as being crucial for the success of propaganda.
It’s a particularly timely read for me because of this section:
Hollywood has returned to its cold war role, led by liberals. Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning ‘Argo’ is the first feature film so integrated into the propaganda system that its subliminal warning of Iran’s “threat” is offered as Obama is preparing, yet again, to attack Iran. That Affleck’s “true story” of good-guys-vs-bad-Muslims is as much a fabrication as Obama’s justification for his war plans is lost in PR-managed plaudits. As the independent critic Andrew O’Hehir points out, ‘Argo’ is “a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.” That is, it debases the art of film-making to reflect an image of the power it serves.
This leapt out at me because last night I became aware of this:
It’s the latest part of a tie-in promotional campaign between Man of Steel and the American National Guard. Like me, chances are you’ve been completely unaware of this but this video quickly spread because the guy who plays Superman has his top off in it. No, I’m not joking. It’s kinda difficult to take issue with the ‘submissive void’ idea when people are so eager and willing to spread blatant propaganda because you can see some flesh in it. And what propaganda it is. The campaign’s website proudly boasts “National Guard and the MAN OF STEEL. Two American icons who put on the uniform when duty calls.” It links through to a page clearly aimed at encouraging people to sign up. The promotional videos were directed by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder, who apparently made them because the National Guard appear in the movie and he explicitly draws parallels between the “basic principles” and “patriotic spirit” of the NG and Superman. So far, so awe-inspiringly creepy. The National Guard have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan (making up 43% and 55% of the respective front-line forces, apparently) so we’re not talking saving kittens here. As with the wider military there are problems with suicide, sexual assault and much of its recruitment is drawn from “young people with limited economic and educational opportunities” (an issue Michael Moore looked at in Fahrenheit 9/11).
Clearly, the tie-in is an attempt to depoliticise and neuter the military. Further, it seeks to link the very notion of being ‘good’ to the military, just as it tries to link citizenship to it. It’s a common tactic, not least here in the UK where “our boys” are frequently and uncritically referred to as “heroes” and their partners reach number one in the charts. It’s depressing that a film which will be viewed by millions of kids is explicitly promoting militarism as a heroic path. It’s not exactly unexpected – the Dark Knight trilogy demonstrates hugely reactionary politics, for example, but the Man of Steel tie-in is so brazen that it is quite breathtaking.
Make no mistake, though, that criticisms of this nature would be scoffed at by many who would claim “it’s only a film” or wonder why it shouldn’t promote “our boys”. This takes us back to the “submissive void” as the eagerness and/or ability of many to critically approach the world is sorely and pointedly lacking. Hence we end up with smug, superior atheism or self-congratulation that we’re not homophobes in place of actual thought. If the timing of the Pilger piece appearing on my feed seemed apt, this article from David Wearing which was published yesterday is serendipitous. Titled ‘Duty and the Conscientious Objector’, it’s a review of a book by Joe Glenton, a former soldier who faced jail rather than return to Afghanistan. His is a study of a kind of bravery which the makers of Man of Steel (and implicitly much of its audience) could never comprehend. A bravery which depended on the ability to think for oneself and, most importantly, understand that you have agency and what you do impacts on the world around you. A bravery which has been so clearly demonstrated by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. If we can’t be brave, we can at least attempt to be smart and think about the implications and meanings behind the culture we consume. In other words, be active and destroy the “submissive void”. A superhero film which actively serves power and seeks to encourage kids to put themselves at risk for unjust wars and imperialist flights of fancy is not entertainment, it’s propagandising garbage.