True confessions. I enjoy “Homeland.” Like six million other weekly TV viewers, including President Obama, I tune in every week to Showtime’s wildly successful Emmy Award winning spy show, conceived by “24” creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, and based on Israeli writer Gideon Raff’s series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners Of War”). Where else on TV will you find a fictionalized dive into (in no particular order) C.I.A. intrigue, PTSD’s impact on war veterans, sexting and teenage angst, drone warfare, Beltway family jockeying, Middle Eastern money laundering, and the spinning of super-secret spy and counter spy scenarios? Not to mention great sex, and the chance, in this new third season, to vicariously voyage to Venezuela.
Let’s also acknowledge that “Homeland” serves up some of the most insidious propaganda on American television. Hear me out. We probably can all agree that few viewers ever expect TV shows to tell them the truth. Most of watch to be entertained and amused, rather than enlightened (and when we are laughing, by the way, we are not thinking). Let’s also acknowledge that the Beltway crowd has a long history of using mass media to massage American hearts and minds, winning over popular support for controversial U.S. policies where we might least expect: at our movie theaters, in our living rooms, and (now) on our iPads. In perhaps the baldest statement ever made by a spook, C.I.A. director William Colby once observed that his agency “played the media like a mighty Wurlitzer.” Indeed, “PsyOps” – psychological operations – have been a CI.A. strategic staple for decades. If in doubt, just read Tricia Jenkins’ excellent new book The C.I.A. In Hollywood: How The Agency Shapes Film And Television. With such a rich legacy, the C.I.A. is now using “Homeland” as a weekly pop culture-as-propaganda syringe, injecting powerful pro-U.S. ideas into the body politic.
What makes “Homeland” so insidious? Four answers. First, the show’s writers have imagined a narrative that fuses almost seamlessly with what’s called “real life” – on any given week, watching “Homeland” and reading, say, the New York Times or your Twitter feed takes on a strange surreal quality, like “Wag The Dog” on steroids. Second, “Homeland” is hugely popular with the D.C. crowd, including Mr. Obama himself, who swears he never misses an episode. (Remember, these are the people some of us have elected to drop drones, deploy massive satellite surveillance, and assassinate alleged enemies without Constitutional due process - see any episode of “Homeland.”) Third, “Homeland” actors and writers boast of regularly dropping in on Langley to troll for “creative” – story ideas and themes. Finally, while “Homeland” critics have taken the show to the woodshed for what is often called “a lack of verisimilitude” (a polite way of saying “this show makes no fuckin’ sense”), they tend to ignore the fact that, lost in the disorienting blur of weekly “plot and character” mayhem, “Homeland” also sends clear and consistent messages, propaganda designed to disappear in the mix. And of course, this is how really good “psy-ops” works.
Here are three clear messages “Homeland” sends to audiences every week:
Message #1 - Remember 9/11’s Official Story:
The events of September 11, 2001 proved the new millennium’s single most defining moment for both the United States and the world, ushering in the GWOT (Global War On Terror) against “evil doers,” the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act’s passage, and the most fundamental restructuring of the federal bureaucracy since FDR’s New Deal: a military/industrial/terror complex. Thanks to the Internet, 9/11 has also spawned a robust global network of “Truth’ers” convinced that the official story – nineteen boxcutter-wielding Muslim fanatics acting alone hijacked 4 airliners and committed the single worst act of terrorism ever perpetrated on U.S. soil – is flawed, at best. In the face of ongoing questions, annual 9/11 commemorations have grown more muted every year. Enter “Homeland.” Every week, the show reminds American audiences of the official government narrative (see above) surrounding that fateful day. The show's brilliantly disorienting jazz-inflected opening montage, composed by the talented Sean Callery, draws from real-life historical moments - look for the USS Cole bombing through 9/11 – that anchor “Homeland” viewer in a dualistic worldview that imagines Islamofascist terrorist attacks around every corner, and squarely situates “Homeland’s” three main fictional characters – Carrie, Brody, and Saul – in the turbulence of “the war on terror.” The opening montage has drawn its share of critics – read Nestor Watach at “The Warm Glow” for a hilariously detailed hatchet job – but Watach misses the point. When seen as GWOT propaganda, “Homeland’s” weekly opening montage works quite effectively.
Message #2: Middle East Myopia: Ignore Israel’s Influence, Hate Iran’s Intransigence
The creators of “Homeland” serve up a supremely selective portrayal of the Middle East for American TV audiences, completely ignoring real-life Pentagon-dictated U.S. Middle Eastern policy goals: unequivocal support for Israel, for example, and the militarization of Arab countries via kleptocratic despots like the House of Saud who keep their countries “stable” at the expense of ordinary Arabs while stiff-arming the Russians and Chinese to ensure that Middle Eastern oil flows freely to the West. Instead, “Homeland” focuses almost exclusively on Iran – the biggest REAL threat to U.S. Middle East policy goals - weekly promoting what Reel Bad Arabs author Jack Shaheen calls “Islamophobia” - the demonization of all things Muslim. (N.B.: Iran, which traces its origins to the Persian Empire, is not an “Arab” country, though now it plays one on T.V.) While “Homeland” completely ignores Israel, the U.S. biggest ally (and recipient of annual military aid), it is interesting that when C.I.A. headquarters is completely destroyed by an Iranian car bomb attack at season 2’s end, the “last man left standing” is Jewish-American C.I.A. agent Saul Berenson, whose somber Yiddish incantations over the bodies of the American dead bring down the curtain. As many critics have noted, Saul’s character serves as the show’s moral center, always going above and beyond for the Agency despite great personal sacrifice, and almost always managing to keep his compassion and cool (notable exception – breaking the nose of the evil Iranian dude in season #3).
Message #3 - C.I.A. Spies As Good Guys:
“Homeland” also makes for great propaganda by constructing a Central Intelligence Agency always on the defensive in the Age of Terror, populated by persons of good intent who focus on counter-terrorism operations at great personal cost – witness Carrie’s bipolar disorder or Saul’s complicated personal life with his partner Mira. The real C.I.A., of course, has a long and distinguished history of off-the-books black opps (a minor subplot of “Homeland” thus far), illegal weapons sales, global narcotics operations, targeted assassinations, extraordinary rendition of alleged terror suspects, drone warfare, and other controversial actions deemed necessary by U.S. powers-that-be but kept largely hidden from public view until these projects are well underway. Drone warfare is a good example. With absolutely no public debate, little national news coverage, and barely any oversight from Congress or the President, U.S. intelligence agencies began Middle Eastern drone strikes during the early 1990s (Yemen and beyond). Only in the past year have drones entered public consciousness and popular debate, and “Homeland” is the first American television show to build an entire season around a drone strike. And yet. While the drone attack factors heavily into “Homeland” in the first season, the story comes off as an isolated incident with dramatic “blowback” consequences – an Iranian cleric is radicalized and a Marine POW is “turned” and unleashed on an unsuspecting America – rather than considered in the context of a decade-long largely secret U.S. war that has killed thousands of innocents in the greater Middle East.
But dude, “Homeland” is just a TV show. Relax already. Right? Wrong. With real lives, our tax dollars, and the collective future at stake, it behooves us to remember that “Homeland,” like all good propaganda, is an act of creative imagination with a specific purpose and message. As viewers “pledge allegiance” to “Homeland” every week, then, let’s at least watch critically. If nothing else, Monday morning’s water cooler conversation in the U.S. of Empire would be much more interesting, and we could all anticipate how “Homeland” is helping to set up (wink, nudge – Northern Africa) where the real-life spooks might be trying to take us next.