Politics and War As Entertainment

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If I were to offer a seminar on the nature of war, I believe that the first class session would include a showing of the film Wag the Dog. Those who wish to justify the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of total strangers in the name of "good" versus "evil," or "national honor," will likely find the movie discomforting. As the governments of India and Pakistan self-righteously, and in the name of "God," threaten one another with a nuclear war that could instantly kill anywhere from ten to twenty million people, it is time for decent, intelligent people to put down their flags and begin to see war for what the late General Smedley Butler rightly termed it: "a racket." This film offers a quick reality fix.

Randolph Bourne’s observation "war is the health of the state" is familiar to most critics of militarism, but few have delved into why this is so. Statism is dependent upon mass thinking which, in turn, is essential to the creation of a collective, herd-oriented society. Such pack-like behavior is reflected in the intellectual and spiritual passivity of people whose mindsets are wrapped up more in images and appearances than in concrete reality.

Such a collapse of the mind produces a society dominated by entertainment — which places little burden on thinking — rather than critical inquiry, which helps to explain why there has long been a symbiotic relationship between the entertainment industry and political systems. Entertainment fosters a passive consciousness, a willingness to "suspend our disbelief." Its purpose is to generate amusement, a word that is synonymous with "diversion," meaning "to distract the attention of." The common reference to movies as a form of "escape" from reality, reflects this function. Government officials know what every magician knows, namely, that to carry out their illusions, they must divert the audience’s attention from their hidden purposes.

Michel Foucault has shown how the state’s efforts to regulate sexual behavior — whether through repressive or "liberating" legislation — serves as such a distraction, making it easier for the state to extend its control over our lives. It is instructive that, in the months preceding the World Trade Center attacks which, in turn, ushered in the greatest expansion of police powers in America since the Civil War, the news stories that dominated the media had to do with allegations of adulterous affairs by a sitting president and a congressman. It is not coincidence that both the entertainment industry and the government school systems have helped to foster preoccupations with sex.

The authority of the state is grounded in consensus-based definitions of reality, whose content the state insists on controlling. This is why so-called "public opinion polls," rather than factual analysis and reason, have become the modern epistemological standard, and why imagery — which the entertainment industry helps to foster — now takes priority over the substance of things.

Politics and entertainment each feed upon — and help to foster — public appetites for illusions and fantastic thinking. The success of such undertakings, in turn, depends upon unfocused and enervated minds, which helps to explain why motion picture and television performers, popular musicians, and athletes — whose efforts require little participation on the part of the viewer — have become the dominant voices in our politicized culture. It also helps to account for the attraction of so many entertainers throughout the world to visionary schemes such as state socialism, as well as the increasing significance of entertainment industry gossip and box-office revenues as major news stories.

The entertainment industry helps shape the content of our consciousness by generating institutionally desired moods, fears, and reactions, a role played throughout human history. Ancient Greek history is tied up in myths, fables, and other fictions, passed on by the entertainers of their day, the minstrels. We need to ask ourselves about the extent to which our understanding of American history and other human behavior has been fashioned by motion pictures, novels, and television drama. Through carefully scripted fictions and fantasies, others direct our experiences, channel our emotions, and shape our views of reality. The fantasies depicted are more often of conflict, not cooperation; of violence, not peace; of death, not the importance of life.

Nowhere is the interdependency of the political and entertainment worlds better demonstrated than in the war system, which speaks of "theaters" of operation, "acts" of war with battle "scenes," "staging" areas, and "dress rehearsals" for invasions. The pomp and circumstance of war is reflected in military uniforms that mimic stage costumes, all to the accompaniment of martial music that rivals grand opera. A Broadway play can become either a "bomb" or a "hit;" troops are "billeted" (a word derived from the French meaning of a "ticket"); while the premier of a movie is often accompanied, like a World War II bombing raid, by searchlights that scan the skies. Even the Cold War was framed by an "iron curtain." Is it only coincidence, devoid of any symbolic meaning, that at the end of the American Civil War – one of the bloodiest wars in human history – its chief protagonist was shot while attending the theater, and that his killer was an actor who, upon completing his deed, descended to the stage and exited?

Adolf Hitler understood, quite well, the interplay between political power and theater, a truth that continues to reveal itself in entertainers involving themselves so heavily in political campaigns, some even managing to get themselves elected to Congress or the presidency! Nor was it surprising that one of the first acts of the Bush Administration, following the announced "War on Terrorism," was to send a group of presidential advisers to Hollywood to enlist the entertainment industry’s efforts to portray the war as desired by Washington! As with earlier wars, the "military/entertainment complex" will continue to write the scripts and define the characters that are required to assure the support of passive minds in the conduct of war.

Furthermore, because entertainment is often conducted in crowded settings (e.g., theaters, stadiums, auditoriums) there is a dynamic conducive to the generation of mass-mindedness. One need only recall the powerful harangues of Adolf Hitler that coalesced tens of thousands of individuals into a controllable mob, to understand the symbiotic relationship between entertainment and politics.

Entertainment is a part of what we call "recreation," which means to "re-create," in this case to give interpretations to events that are most favorable to one’s national identity and critical of an opponent. In this connection, entertainers help to manipulate the "dark side" of our being which, once mobilized, can help to generate the most destructive and inhumane consequences. World War II movies portrayed Japanese kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into Navy ships as "crazed zealots," while American pilots who did the same thing to Japanese ships or trains were represented as "heroes" willing to die to save their comrades. German and Japanese soldiers were presented as sneering sadists who delighted in the torture of the innocents, while the American soldiers only wanted to get the war over with so they could get back home to mom and her apple pie! How many of us, today, think of 19th century U.S. cavalrymen — as portrayed by the likes of John Wayne and Randolph Scott — as brave soldiers, while Indian warriors were "savages" for having forcibly resisted their own annihilation?

All of this leads me to ask whether the entertainment industry is an extension of the war system, or whether war is simply an extension of our need for entertainment? What should be clear to us is that entertainment is one of the principal means by which our thinking can be taken over and directed by others once we have chosen to make our minds passive, which we do when we are asked — whether by actors or politicians — to suspend our judgment about the reality of events we are witnessing. When we are content to be amused (i.e., to have our attention diverted from reality to fantasy), and to have our emotions exploited by those skilled in triggering unconscious forces, we set ourselves up to be manipulated by those producing the show.

Politics differs from traditional theater in one important respect, however: in the political arena, we do not call for the "author" at the end of a war! Most of us prefer not to know, for to discover the identities of those who have scripted such events might call into question our own gullibility!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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