Covering Homeland’s Scripted Unpleasant White Supremacy

Snapshot of American Culture (sic)

The series Homeland is now in its third season. Apparently the once flagship drama for Showtime, has hit the ratings skids this season, but not critically, and that remains troubling. This is an overtly, nakedly, proudly, racist bit of police state propaganda. That’s in no way hyperbole. The show never misses a chance to stigmatize the standard villains of the day (as if Dick Cheney, Bibi Netanyahu, and Eric Holder were script advisers), while valorizing and justifying torture, entrapment, illegal surveillance (I know, quaint idea), and racial profiling. Not to mention extra-legal murder.

That even leftist (sic) cyber publications such as Jacobin can write “thoughtful” commentary on this trash is astounding. In fact it is mind numbing. While ostensibly critical, the respect given this propaganda ends up feeling like an ad for the show. There is also the acceptance of government mythology about 9-11. In fact, one begins, seriously, to wonder who is on what CIA payroll. Let’s take a quick glance at Season Three, shall we?

The escaped “terrorist” Nicholas Brody is hiding where? Venezuela. Well, I mean, fuck, of course. What more terror-friendly country can you find, right? Isn’t that the place where Chavez once terrorized his own people with free education, free health care, and where he re-wrote the constitution to include and ensure women’s equality in all spheres of life? I think so. The place that graduates more doctors per capita that anywhere in the world this side of Cuba? Well, of course Brody hides there, among gun-toting psychopaths and sadists and drug addicts (one of whom is a homosexual with a penchant for, perhaps, under age boys).

The heroine of the show, Carrie Mathison, the bi-polar CIA agent (she’s a she, so she HAS to be bi-polar) is deep undercover, even being outed as insane during congressional hearings, with her boss Saul Berenson (the increasingly sentimental Mandy Patinkin, who clearly peaked artistically when he portrayed Inigo Montoya) testifying against her. Carrie is trying to lure an Iranian security chief, corrupt of course, who has been working with other corrupt banking officials in Venezuela. Of course. Dialogue circles around Iranian desire for nuclear bombs. Of course.

Over the course of three seasons this show has repeatedly resorted to racial stereotyping, and demonizing of various groups. Saul is set up to be seen as a man of integrity (which is echoed by Jacobin writers Deepa Kumar and Arun Kundnani, notwithstanding, his overt racism..in theory mediated by having an Indian girlfriend) and the fact he green lights the assassination of seven “terrorists”, and no, there was no trial, but he did furrow his brow when giving the order. But hey, the Mossad is another hero of this show. The mention of Israel is always followed by a heartbeat of hushed reverence. The sickeningly right wing sensibility of this program has not stopped liberal and leftist publications (Jacobin, In These Times) from writing favorable reviews. I mean, hell, Carrie is the star of the show, and so it must be feminist, correct?

The larger issue at work, is that the picture being painted by shows such as Homeland is one of a reasoned and highly moral security apparatus in the U.S. Oh, there are some stupid congressmen, those wishy-washy liberals who want to compromise National Security, but over all this CIA and NSA and Homeland Security landscape is one of highly intelligent men and women, imbued with a deep sense of patriotism and honor. You know, like Oliver North. It is as if wiki leaks never even entered the consciousness of these fan cum critics who valorize this propaganda. The piece, for example, pays lip service to the fact that the Pentagon vets these scripts, but in the end, they still write as if this were serious drama, and that, hey, Obama even likes it and thinks it’s realistic. Well, ITS NOT FUCKING REALISTIC, alright. Can we be as clear as possible about this.1

These are simply summaries of U.S. war crimes since the Second World War. And trust me, it’s actually a partial list. The problem is that when liberals, especially, but media critics in general, take this crap seriously, they betray an ignorance of both history and aesthetics. How many corporate T.V. shows have dramatized military suicide, or the overthrow of Mossedegh, or the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, or Falluja, or the School of the Americas? How many have portrayed Israel as an apartheid state of raving religious fanatics and blood drenched ghouls and racists? How many shows have portrayed the CIA as bumbling incompetent white male naifs, rabidly anti communist to the degree that all else paled before this overriding obsession and who failed to gather useful intelligence for three decades? How many shows depict US complicity in the murder of Lumumba and the support of dictators like Mobutu? How many shows depict Venezuela as the most democratic country on earth? How many shows depict the Cuban revolution as a majority response to the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista? How many shows have portrayed the U.S. military as an organ of Imperial conquest, whose soldiers are often  driven sadists using Arab civilians as target practice?

Here is the wiki thumbnail for one of co-creators of Homeland, Howard Gordon:

Gordon was born in Queens, New York City. After graduating from Princeton in 1984, Gordon came to Los Angeles with fellow filmmaker Alex Gansa to pursue a career in writing for television. Both broke into the industry with single episodes of ABC’s Spenser: For Hire. Their Spenser work turned industry heads, and the pair joined the Emmy-nominated series Beauty and the Beast as staff writers, and were later named producers.

In 1990, the Gansa-Gordon team was signed to a two-year deal with Witt-Thomas Productions, during which they produced several pilots. One was an ABC project called Country Estates, which caught the attention of famed producer Chris Carter.

Soon after, Carter invited Gordon and Gansa to join The X-Files as supervising producers; Gordon wrote or co-wrote several scripts each season, before departing from the series in 1997 to pursue other projects.

After co-writing one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gordon created his own show, the short-lived Strange World in 1999. Strange World went to seed 13 episodes in, but Gordon and Strange World writer Tim Minear’s services were quickly snapped up by Buffy creator Joss Whedon on another project: Angel. After two years with Angel, Gordon jumped ship in 2001 for FOX’s successful 24, where he would write several episodes in Seasons 1 & 2, then crafted the entire story arcs for Seasons 3 and 4. Gordon temporarily left 24 in the middle of the 2004 season to re-join Minear, this time as co-creator of another FOX series, The Inside. Despite The Inside ‘s cancellation and short run, talk circulated of including the two Minear-Gordon series, Strange World and The Inside, on a special DVD set sometime in 2006.

Beginning in 2006, Gordon became 24′s showrunner, a title he held through its final season.

Familiar names crop up, no? Joss Whedon in particular. For this is the corporate white male world of network and corporate cable culture product. Among the other co-producers are Israeli Gideon Raff, and Henry Brommel (recently deceased). Brommel’s dad worked for the CIA. Brommel’s career history included stints on Homicide, Life on the Street, and Brotherhood (a particularly odious bit of working class caricature). The point is, these are the reactionary white men that run the culture industry.

I know, I’ve worked in Hollywood, and white men (of various mafias, minds) dictate the terms and control the product. I am taking the time to examine Homeland and the creative (sic) team behind it because it continues to get a pass from the left. The other names on the production team, are either from Harvard or Princeton, and are all long time privileged WHITE MEN who run the business of entertainment. Are there any black producers on this list? Any Arab or Indian or Asian at all? No. None. Any women? No. None.

This is the world as shaped by a highly privileged white world, a male world. A world in which class is clear cut and distinct. Are there any writers from the underclass working on Homeland? Any from other countries? The point is again, that of course there are exceptions on TV — and most come from the U.K. actually. These days many from Scandinavia or France. But the world depicted on Homeland is one of almost Norman Rockwellian whiteness, of suburban streets, and serious moral gravitas in government. The illegality and cruelty and sadism of wholesale executions is just seen as “hard choices” and a bit of hang wringing takes place to demonstrate the conscience of those who really have none. Oh, there is a hijab-wearing analyst (Iranian) who starts work and is castigated for her religious attire. Its stunning, actually. This is an aesthetic at work here, and it is one in which militarized obedience is valorized, in which the clean cut boy scout square jawed male icon is being reintroduced for consumption in the 21st century. Foreigners are suspect, are killers and bombers and sadists. When the Iranian security chief stabs his former wife to death with a broken bottle, there is a collective gasp of horror. When CIA agents execute seven men at the same moment, there is applause. There is the question of the protagonist, too. Claire Danes (and there are simply no words to describe just how awful her performance is, Emmy clutched tightly in her hands) plays a heroic instinctive (well, insane) and fearless. She “needs” her male boss, Saul (Patinkin) to take care of her. How many times in three seasons has Saul held Carrie and stroked her poor little insane head? The answer is many.

My suspicion for the current drop off in ratings has to do with Claire Danes’ fatigue, and with the loss of Brody as a driving plot element. But it is also with, I think, the sense of national unrest in the U.S. The NSA revelations, the looming TPP nightmare, the loss of jobs, the further eradication of any safety net for the poor, has now made what passes for the middle class a bit more nervous. The neocon whiteness of Homeland is already feeling a tad outre, and the title sequence, with the voice of George Bush senior, only deepens the oddness quotient. But be that as it may, the fact that such regressive melodrama is treated seriously, albeit critically sometimes, is just incomprehensible. This is the infantile kitsch sentimentalized world of white men, affluent, rich, cut off from the world. Harvard and Princeton and Israel, and Hollywood.

That’s the background, those repositories of white supremacist arrogance. It is the world in which whiteness is a given, that is the baseline for all that is normal. White is normal. Black characters can appear, and like David Harewood in Homeland, perform their best impression of a white man. But the issue is also one of aesthetic sophistication. This is junk. It is melodramatic, sentimentalized junk. It is shallow and sensationalized and childish. Junk.

The culture, like the society itself, in the U.S. is broken. Three generations, now, have been numbed by the constant unrelenting marketing pitches of corporations that own monopoly shares of a highly consolidated media, by the erosion of public education, the erasure of history, as well as the toxins of in poisoned food, air, and water. It is a culture of meanness, one of an absent empathetic capacity, where masculinity is equated with power, with violence, with rape and murder. When black teenagers commit crimes, or even when they don’t, they are shot. Or thrown into a medieval prison system of stunning brutality. When white teenagers commit crimes, Hollywood scripts stories to explain what happened. How did something so odd occur?

Shows like Homeland are how people learn about history, about geography, and government. Clearly a pretty high percentage of people will associate Venezuela with insane drug crazed killers on the filthy streets of a nation of savages. They will learn that the CIA is made up of the best and brightest. That serious men of conscience are those who send out assassination orders. They will learn that Obama said this shit was realistic. They will believe this. They will think Israel an outpost of civilization amid a sea of backwardness and terror, of failed states and they will learn Islam is synonymous with terrorism.

When reviewers (like Jacobin) suggest the show normalizes a security state, they do so while at the same time mediating the sheer fascism and jingoism of this stuff by suggesting “Carrie and Brody are complex characters”. No, no they aren’t. They are cartoons. They are sub-cartoons. Dick and Jane in first grade readers evince more complexity. The normalizing of security is actually what Jacobin does with their review of Homeland. Suggesting this lachrymose vapid kitsch corporate created racism, and misogyny somehow even rises to the level of “drama” is a means of normalization.

But clearly, there is a wider problem with aesthetics. I was privy to an online debate about Marina Abramovic and her, whatever it was, performance (sic) with Jay Z. What was interesting, and revealing, in the adoration of this fake opportunistic non-event, was that a good many people in this debate kept repeating words like “joy” and “humanness” and “interaction”. When someone criticized Jay Z they were told they had “a chip on their shoulder” or they were an ‘art snob’. What lurks just beneath the surface of celebrity adoration is anger. What lies just beneath the bathetic Hallmark greeting card expressions about “joy” and “humanness” is just the opposite. It is despair and hopelessness. It is anger. People are angry their lives are increasingly alienated and that work is longer, and pay is less. They are angry they don’t themselves resemble the photo-shopped and airbrushed images they see in Conde Nast magazines or on fashion shoots, or in action films. Opportunistic self promoters like Jay Z and Abramovic are actually harmful, they are exploitative and manipulative and they further enshrine the kitsch aesthetics of the culture industry.

There is no very great gap between Buffy the Vampire SlayerMan of Steel, and Homeland, nor from the racisms of Lone Ranger and Captain Phillips, or Jay Z. and Abramovic. The recent bullying story in the NFL, only reinforced what was already rather obvious. A desensitized and morally short circuited society finds short term psychic refuge in a sport that valorizes violence, teaches manhood is power, and by extension (and through constant league associations) the military. It watches “drama” like Homeland, or Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, or it watches any of countless other jingoistic paeans to police authority. There is little real difference between any of them. The message is always the same totalitarian and authoritarian propaganda.

The fact of the matter is, the U.S. has a populace increasingly disconnected from each other, and from community. The government is a secretive sadistic and imperialistic network in the service of a very rich elite, of banks, defense contractors, and with a military ten times larger than the next national military at their service. It has a prison system larger by far, in real terms and per capita than any other on the planet, and where one in five children is food insecure, and where homelessness is growing exponentially. It has been reduced culturally to the level of Tiger Beat reader.

Carrie Mathison, bi-polar, unstable, irrational, often delusional, is actually rather the perfect embodiment of a government of insane people. The white privileged reactionaries who made this crap are treated as if they are working on the Sistine Chapel. The ascension of irony as almost the sole critical tool of evaluation, has left the culture without a genuine vocabulary or historical perspective from which to discriminate aesthetically. And from that failure comes The Walking Dead, and not Pasolini.  Homeland and not Brecht or Pinter. The real CIA is run by John Brennen, a longtime CIA insider late of Fordham, who went on to work for various defense contractors between gigs for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the man responsible for inventing the Osama Bin Ladin fairy tale, as well as scripting the moral justifications for drone assassinations and kill lists. He is an unpleasant and florid bellicose man of middling intelligence who has boot licked his way up the intelligence ladder at Langley. Not exactly the stuff of heroism.

He wouldn’t make good TV, would he? Or would he?

  1. Read — War Criminals — Theirs and Ours  and Blum’s US Interventions. []

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.