The American Empire in Televised Crisis
Issue #57, October 2001
America is at war and American television is at the front of the charge.
Television simultaneously conveys and betrays the language of jingoistic patriotism, a language that was raised together with flags after the New York and Washington attacks. In the midst of disaster, continuous-coverage television has become both the light of civilized discourse and a searchlight to illuminate an abstract foreign darkness. Through television, we know the identities of "civilized", "free" and "evil." Through television, the consciousness of American Empire speaks. Television is the engine of war, although that 'war' remains preliminary and amorphous. For nearly all the world, their television sets remain the center of this war.
Political leadership occupies televised center stage, since they represent the will to react if not the reality within which they act. On television there is a devastating hollowness to George W. Bush, a deeply inarticulate man who empties words of meaning by the act of speaking them. His ritual invocations of "freedom" and "democracy" emerge from a vocabulary uttered by ideological ghosts at his shoulder. Fine words hang empty in the air whenever Bush mouths them, refusing the gravity to which they are entitled. Even when Bill Clinton looked the world in the eye and lied, the charm of Clinton's words carried more truth than the earnest false truisms of George Bush.
The classic ideological forms of colonialism, imperialism and totalitarianism demand a typically propagandistic separation of words and meanings, leading to a logic of assertion and negation. Freedom may be declaimed as a consummate value and then denied by every act of practice. Democracy may be honored in endless oratory, and then vitiated by exclusion, abridgement, and simple denial. When Bush tells listeners that "[T]hese people can't stand freedom; they hate our values; they hate what Americans stand for," he posits nearly every term as self-evident truth above examination and discussion. Has the attack been against "the freedom of the United States," as the presidential proclamation of September 11 declares, or more accurately, against its national power? An ideological sleight-of-hand shifts the word "freedom" into whatever political demand is advanced.
We listen to the televised words and live the disconnected meanings. Bush tells a political story of this tragedy where the narrative, to borrow from Pierre Macherey, "has no interior, no exterior" and is one which "shows what it does not say by a sign which cannot be heard but must be seen." If the story remains hollow in its political ideology, the televised version is persuasive.
At the current moment, with the first serious post-Cold War challenge to American global hegemony, George W. Bush wants to speak the right words and have others live their debased meanings. A nobility of nationalism is available to his listeners if they choose to believe his assertions. Bush speaks to the camera with an awestruck sincerity that betrays a believer caught up in the experience of testifying to a transcendent belief he cannot intellectualize. His controlled face conveys the emotions of sympathy, condolences, and resolute determination. He tells the audience "I'm a nice guy, but ..." and we realize that reality lies in the dependant clause. It is those flag-raising words, though, the words of national faith, which lend his face fleeting seconds of passion.
Compare the immeasurable difference between Bush's fixed lip with that of a young husband, describing with uncontrollable tears his last conversation with his wife, stuck on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center after the first airplane hit. The husband, married only a year, remains determined that she is alive and gives out a website address for information on his wife. It is seventy-two hours after the attack, so one looks away in pain from the suffering and sobbing man on the screen, realizing the futility. A parade of faces joins the young husband, all holding up "Missing" posters to the camera. Another camera slowly pans over a Wall of Hope in Manhattan, with many more posters. The distance between the emotions of the families' ungovernable faces and Bush's hollow language describes the politicization of pain. The pain of individual faces becomes a motivation to strike back.
Television provides the bridging devices for such distances between images and language, deliveriing the words of impossible consolation and varieties of available redemption. Broadcasts of services at the National Cathedral work to buttress this official reconciliation of anguish and policy, with cabinet officers, past presidents, and military uniforms on ritual display. A national elite demonstrates the due mode of prayerful remembrance. The Reverend Franklin Graham appears on a cable news program, asserting that this disaster will return America to closeness with God that has been lost in pursuit of earthly goods.
If the presidential proclamation of a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance provides an official language, replete with biblical reference, the unofficial version arrives via broadcast of a conversation between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the 700 Club show. Their message is the guilt of secularism, Christ-haters, abortionists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, NOW and other agents of Satan in creating this disaster. "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," interprets Osama bin Falwell.
This is a war between the Sons of Television Light and the Sons of Dark Videos. As the war goals expand from a punitive hunt for mass murderers into a Grand Crusade against terror, Bush stands on the National Cathedral pulpit telling the cameras that America's responsibility to history is to "rid the world of evil." He solemnly returns again and again to prayer's function in the face of tragedy, explaining that "God's signs are not always the ones we look for." A millennial battle is announced on the television screen. We dedicate and bless ourselves before the Crusade begins. God comes close at these moments, Bush tells us. "Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come...can separate us from God's love." In this soaring neo-Gothic cathedral he is a knight readying himself and the sacred American host for their crusade in God's name.
The perverse nature of Bush's televised sermon lies in the theological complexity that it conceals. By explaining that sometimes God's signs are hard to identify, Bush is in essence arguing — like Falwell — that the mass killings in New York and Washington DC are God's punishment for America. Unlike Falwell, Bush refuses to hold domestic sin responsible and looks towards a foreign evil. With the intelligent exception of Daniel Shorr on National Public Radio, most media outlets have chosen to ignore how Bush has theologized these horrific events. But their propagandistic effect remains the same. In order to mobilize the American people to sacrifice themselves for a war against a religious enemy they barely comprehend, Bush resorts to a classically Protestant "everything has a purpose" ideology by explaining that this is all part of a divine plan which cannot be understood.
In 1947, in the wake of another global crusade, the Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz wrote a short poem, The Survivor. He refuses this false language of manichean division into light and dark, into the simplicities of civilization and anti-civilization. "These labels are empty and synonymous: / man and beast / love and hate / friend and foe / light and dark."
The present necessity emerging from American television, whatever the appropriate measure of military response, is to refuse credit to and spurn millennial worldviews that separate humanity into foreordained enemies.
That civilizational bifurcation is precisely the language of Osama bin Laden, with his rhetorical denunciations of a "Crusader-Zionist" attempt at world domination. The Bush administration is openly embracing a theological role pre-specified by adversaries with their own millennial plans. A presidency heavily inflected by Christian fundamentalism is preparing to attack and "root out" Islamic fundamentalist violence. With this religious rhetoric of cultural superiority, George Bush is preparing the contemporary equivalent of Kitchner's punitive expedition up the Nile.
No US administration can or should fail to take defensive action — including military strikes — against the perpetrators of these deeds. It is another matter entirely to be drawn into a global conflict based on a vision of antagonized civilizations or domains of light and dark. That is precisely the territory of Holy War that these attacks have attempted to establish. This is not an argument of limited authorization; it is an emphatic refusal to participate in a 'clash of worlds', in an agenda dedicated to re-establishing the damaged world image of the American Empire's power. It is a refusal to accept an inevitable alienation from the Islamic world and any paradigm of West versus Islam. It is a refusal to accept terms of global kulturkampf.
Still the cameras draw America forward, constituting television as the front line. Again standing before television cameras, Colin Powell tells the world "[T]errorism is a crime against all civilization...It knows no ethnic, religious or other national or geographic boundaries...[T]hat's why we are calling it a war." In the middle of the night, with no fresh news to broadcast, television stations reiterate the war message with continuously re-broadcast footage of the attack, twin towers burning, and the relived moments of horror. This is where civilization and anti-civilization meet and its images must be repeated for their lesson. But horror slowly transforms into banality through repetition.
Powell's words expand that attack into more than the crime itself; he globalizes the criminality without using Bush's millenarianism. Terrorism, he asserts, is "a horrible blight on the civilized world," rhetorically erasing histories of violence inherent in human civilizations. If civilization is to be defined by an absence of massive and illegitimate violence, then there is and has never been civilization on this planet. Powell moreover alleges an absence of boundaries to terrorism and civilization's response, although all know that terrorists in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and elsewhere are not the targets of this war. So the war does begin with initial boundaries of convenience, even though boundaries may be difficult to maintain. These histories and simplicities of thought disappear behind those television images of attack on the Empire, images that tell of a fatal penetration of the American Empire's borders.
One nineteenth-century anti-imperialist, Mark Twain, wrote famous concluding lines to Huckleberry Finn, where Huck promises to avoid being "sivilized" because "I can't stand it. I been there before." As war approaches, our televisions sivilize us. I resist that social propriety and conformity which is an anti-civilization. Like Huckleberry Finn, we shall need to "light out for the Territory" even if we do not know today where that dream of future common territory may lie. Wherever that territory is to be found, it does not lie in a clash of worlds and a futile exercise in neo-imperialism and repetition of British colonial expeditions. That territory of idealism lies in the reconciliation of worlds, not their separation.
Joe Lockard teaches English at University of California - Davis and is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. Thanks to Joel Schalit and Tess Caiter for comments and assistance.