In the disintegrating days of any society, nationalism, political charade and vapid farce often become the dominant narrative of the elite. These serve as distractions from their malfeasance, and the malaise and dread that most people, whether conscious of it or not, are feeling at the deepest level of their psyche. They also reflect the mania that often grips the mind when disaster is looming. And unless we insulate ourselves within this rubric of duplicity, or are so busy with the tasks imposed on us by the act of living in a society with increasingly less agency, it is near impossible to ignore the ominous signs on the horizon. Reports about mass extinction, climate chaos and a rising militarized, totalitarian state are ubiquitous.
The other night I went out to the movies. This is not a big deal for many, but for me it is. I stopped going to see most Hollywood productions a while ago when I found myself increasingly alienated from the violent messages I saw being aggressively communicated. Much of it is nothing new.
Hollywood has always glamorized and championed patriarchy, gratuitous vulgarity, mindless consumerism and a detachment from the natural world. And it, ironically, has patted itself on the back for being at the forefront of social change, when historically it has dutifully supported and promoted the most entrenched, dehumanizing and churlish forms of racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, and antisemitism. In truth it is the best mouthpiece for the status quo power class and a bulwark for the reactionary establishment. While conveniently recasting itself as a civil rights pioneer when all the hard work has been done, Hollywood takes credit for something it had once vehemently opposed.
Sitting there in the darkened theater, waiting for the film I chose to begin, I was barraged by a cacophony of violent jingoism in each preview of movies to come. The military was cast as the savior of the world, women were objectified in persistent, degrading stereotypes, and the “other” of foreign nations were dehumanized and vilified. Of course one can trace much of this back to WWII when the Japanese were portrayed as bloodthirsty, dim witted beasts.
This insidious racism soothed the American psyche into justifying the nuclear decimation of tens of thousands of civilians and assisted the acceptance of the forced internment of Japanese Americans into concentration camps. One can go back even further to 1915 to the infamous film “Birth of a Nation” which depicted Black men as rapists and a danger to the entire republic. What better way to vindicate the horrors of Jim Crow and decades of state sanctioned terror via lynching parties? But over the last decade there has been a surge of hyper-masculine, chauvinistic nationalism depicted in film and media with technical flare.
Sadly, in the midst of all of this, many in America, and to a lesser extent other Western nations, appear to be retreating into a form of infantilism, clinging to religious mythologies about “end times” and supernatural tampering with humanity, or nefarious government conspiracies around every corner. This is a common response to a sense of powerlessness. Ironically, these fantasies coincide with the very real prospect of collapse and even near term human extinction. But those who are confounded by reason, overwhelmed by a merciless onslaught of disinformation, and battered by class oppression, will often attribute calamity to the divine’s wrath at innocuous human rights and social issues like marriage equality or women’s reproductive freedom.
Hollywood nourishes this confusion by inducing a national amnesia regarding what their country has done and what crimes it is capable of committing, both at home and abroad. It achieves this by producing a never ending stream of series or movies that retell and re-frame Biblical stories, or are about natural disasters (most of which are implausible), supernatural beings like zombies or vampires that compete for gloulish and macabre attention, or imagined threats from foreign “others” who represent everything we despise.
In truth, the wealthy power class has always thrived on violence and the incitement of division. It has been and remains the currency that they use to hold on to power and maintain the barrier that insulates them from its consequences. It is the drug of choice for brutes and psychopaths; and when it is unbridled it deftly manages to hollow out the very core of human dignity. How else could the US military, which has a long, documented history of heinous human rights violations, convince young, disaffected youth to join their ranks to fight people abroad far more impoverished than they are? How else can they cajole them to defend an empty concept of liberty that has been systematically hacked away from them at home?
Ultimately, violence masks the alienation from society and estrangement from the natural world that so many of them feel. It is the doom of virtue and the supreme manifestation of despair. The plutocracy has become unbeatable through its use of it abroad; and it has deftly worked at militarizing the police at home. They have become masters at harnessing its seductive lure; and there is no armed resistance that can counter their forces. They eagerly manufacture new, re-branded enemies to divide and conquer the beset masses; and distract them from their powerlessness. But now we are teetering on the edge of global collapse and the charades are becoming a nightmarish, technologically advanced, spectacle. From desensitizing video games to movies extolling the glory of war; the machine of propaganda is at fever pitch.
As the US empire continues to expand its reach through its spread of military bases, and its constant antagonism of other world powers, like China in the South China Sea or Russia in the Ukraine, we can expect reactionary nationalism at home to be stoked further. It has even expanded the war on nature, as the US Navy prepares to conduct military exercises, the largest of their kind in history, in the pristine waters off Alaska and in the Arctic. And with the curtain falling on Western civilization through its own hubris, Hollywood will become even more manic and detached from reality than it is today. It is, after all, the global voice of corporate capitalism and it faithfully follows the dictates of Wall Street and the Pentagon. Sadly, it cannot do anything but limn the lies of empire, even as ecosystems fall around them and war and totalitarianism become permanent features of the 21st century. How long it will be able to cast its shadows on the wall of this cave, before it all comes down around them, is unclear. But we do have a choice on whether to continue watching the spectacle, or turn away in time to salvage some of what is left of our humanity and this world.
Kenn Orphan 2015