Sony recently caved to threats and cyberattacks lobbed in response to the briefly-canceled release of The Interview, a comedy including the assassination of North Korea despot Kim Jong Un as a plot point. While the controversy around The Interview most likely supercharged its success, a North Korea-based Steve Carell movie in the works was canned for good amid the threats.
The power of a good story doesn’t reside only in its mass appeal, but in its effect on the audience it does have.Before that, we learned that Jack Bauer, the main character from the hit show 24, served as inspiration for actual interrogation techniques in Guantanamo. Whether or not Bauer’s torture methods were directly picked up by military officials, Dahlia Lithwick of Slate notes that the character’s run-ins with situational ethics are incongruent to real life:
Jack Bauer encounters a “ticking time-bomb” an average of 12 times per season. Given that each season allegedly represents a 24-hour period, Bauer encounters someone who needs torturing 12 times each day! Experienced interrogators know that information extracted through torture is rarely reliable. But Jack Bauer’s torture not only elicits the truth, it does so before commercial. He is a human polygraph who has a way with flesh-eating chemicals.
When 24 is a significant frame of reference for legal counsel and judges with the power to authorize torture practices, “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” shouldn’t be a serious question asked by a supreme court justice, should it? (Antonin Scalia did in fact raise the question.)
As CAPC’s mission asserts, pop culture is everywhere. The world is saturated with popular media and sensibilities—there’s no avoiding it. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so jarring to learn that pop culture bleeds into the realm of global politics in significant ways. This interplay doesn’t come out of nowhere. Propaganda and war have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, and surely spy thrillers have impacted perception of American intelligence agents the world over. Still, it’s alarming to learn that a screenwriter’s embellished, fictional version of reality could cause something as massively tragic as war.
On the other side of the propaganda coin, there will always be protest art formed to rebuke political critics. This has been in the foreground with the recent terrorist attack in France, as idealists wield cartoon Mohammeds for the cause of freedom of the press, facing retaliation from radicals fighting back with horrifying violence. One journalist even dropped an Eastwood-like “make my day” in response to the attacks.
When popular art itself is hoisted into the center of an ideological battleground on a geopolitical scale, the stakes are clear. A Mohammed cartoon attempts to declare the dominant values of secular society, a satirist challenges a one-sided paradigm, a documentary does or doesn’t lead to real-world changes. These creative acts have practical targets, and it’s not surprising when they spur a response, whether positive or negative. But what about the more ubiquitous presence of pop culture leaking into the hearts and minds of congressmen, operatives, and diplomats? Should we be worried that President Obama might make a rash decision under the influence of an exceptionally melodramatic episode of Homeland (he’s a fan)? Or should we hope that compromised legislators would regain some distaste for corruption by binge-watching the unforgivable evil coursing through House of Cards (another Obama favorite)?
Visions of Minority Report seeming like a cool idea to someone with the keys to the Department of Justice aside, pop culture consumption by those in power can be very good when inspired by their environment. It’s no more worrisome for them to take lessons from TV and film than it is for them to care about what a talking head screeches about the latest political horserace.
You can find what you want to find in the world, and that’s not limited to the movies. Plenty of people find ways to justify jihad from the Koran, or racism from the Bible, or eugenics from academia, or hysteria from cable news. Most of that is already pent up inside us. If Jack Bauer weren’t on TV, I don’t imagine the interrogation policies of the Bush administration would have been any more humane.
Sure, 24 may have stylized torture in the eyes of torturers, but what if a film like Zero Dark Thirty—much more nuanced, but an equally raw take on intelligence and terrorism—impresses a decision-maker? Just as pop culture has the capacity to be good for ordinary citizens, it can have a positive influence on geopolitics too. Great artists imitate the Creator in producing narratives that challenge us to see the flaws in ourselves, the humanity in our enemies, and surprising opportunities for love and grace. Leaders need those narratives just like the rest of us. Even if the hard information the public isn’t privy to will ultimately direct the decisions and actions of people in power, it can’t hurt for them to be reminded of things like the common humanity in the enemy, value of their subordinates, or their ability to be hypocritical or mistaken—all major points a political drama or war film are more than capable of delivering.
The way writers and directors respond to the gaze of an increasingly empowered political audience is paramount to that kind of experience being available for those governing the airwaves, of course. While the most popular forms of entertainment don’t breathe life and grace into our surroundings as much as they reinforce a status quo way of being, art is not a democracy. The power of a good story doesn’t reside only in its mass appeal, but in its effect on the audience it does have. Whether that’s a budding law student, an oppressed minority, or a head of state with access to a nuclear button, the effect could be downright world-changing. In a good way.
Photo by Pete Souza/White House