Sunday, October 28, 2012

U.S. Campaign in the "Perfect Storm" : What About Climate Change?

As hurricane 'Sandy' is headed towards the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast the United States, it is supposed to be a 'historic killer storm,' a hybrid system - a super storm even - hence the nickname 'Frenkenstorm' (an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements.). A perfect name for the Halloween season!In case major weather phenomenon might not be dramatic enough, the U.S. media love to hype it up by giving it a scarier-than-though name to get people's attention,. In the end, this could really be counterproductive. Think of last year's Snowmaggedon (Snow+Armaggedon) or Snowpocalypse which turned out to fail catastrophic expectations.

Let's use this event as a good opportunity to pause and talk about one topic that has been completely left of the presidential campaign: climate change
Of course, not one single event can be directly linked to climate change but factual trends show higher water temperature in the Mid-Atlantic which can cause more intense storms. This should be a concern at least (here), and yet, the possible link is left silent in US politics and in the American press.Does this mean that Americans do not believe in climate change? Surprisingly, no. In fact, on this question, they don't seem so far apart from the French.According to this latest poll of worldwide opinion on climate change: 
  • Most French (82%) and Americans (72%) feel that climate has changed in the last 20 years.
  • Most French (69%) and Americans (65%) believe that climate change has been proven by science.
  • Most French (77%) and Americans (67%) are either very or somewhat worried of the possible consequences.
And even more interesting:
  • A majority of people in either country (58% in the U.S. and 81% in France) think climate change is mostly the result of human activity, and that their government/country is mostly responsible (78% and 82%).
Other polls have shown similar results (here, here, or here), including the support of clean energy policy (here).

So how come this issue is not even mentioned once in the presidential campaign? Worse - how come no policy, not even the cap-and-trade bill has been passed to cut CO2 emission in the U.S.? After all, this was one of President Obama's promises which is supported by a majority of Americans.
 A simple answer: the failure of the current American democratic system where lobbies and money trump over the will of the people.
This may sound harsh and rather extreme, but this is also the conclusion you will draw from watching PBS Frontline 'Climate of Doubt' last week.

Their  show was not actually on the topic of climate change but more interestingly on the the chilling power of climate change deniers through ideological pressure groups (The American Tradition Institute) funded by private interests such as oil companies (Exxon) and industrialists (The Koch Brothers).This may sound harsh and rather extreme, but this is also the conclusion you will draw from watching PBS Frontline 'Climate of Doubt' last week. Their  show was not actually on the topic of climate change but more interestingly on the the chilling power of climate change deniers through ideological pressure groups (The American Tradition Institute) funded by private interests such as oil companies (Exxon) and industrialists (The Koch Brothers).

The way these global warming deniers operate is simply  fascinating and uniquely American. It is very much like what religious groups have done with the theory of evolution or the tobacco industry with cigarettes:

1. First they attack the scientific community:

- Science become a matter of opinion, and as such they claim that the views of climate change skeptics should be taught in school (as it happened in Tennessee) as any other 'opinion'. When confronted to scientific data, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, who is also vice Chair. in the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, says "they are entitled to their opinion".
- They use the scandal of a few scientists' hacked emails taken out of contexts to undermine the entire field (forgetting to mention that 9 subsequent investigations showed no tempering with data). They use the "freedom of information act to pressure scientists in making their emails available.  
- They also say that scientists have a political agenda 'green is the new red' says one of them. 

2. Then, they create their own science:
- they make scientific data match their agenda, by using partial findings. They call it "the science that makes good sense" (i.e. that fits their political agenda)
- They come up with phony but authentic looking documents (such as the Oregon Petition), using anyone with a bachelors degree as a "scientist".
- They use organization that sounds serious )such as the Science and Public Policy Institute) which are in fact political pressure groups. 
At the same time, they reframe the issue: CO2 becomes a "gas used by beautiful trees" or "plant food". It is "what we breathe out and plants breathe in" (Exxon), thus using the same tactics as the tobacco industry. 

3. Finally, they pressure the legislative body. Ideological groups such as the Tea Party, use the tactics they have used on other issues by pressuring the more moderate Republicans who might be inclined to believe in climate change, thus instilling fear in the party. (Such as former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, who was defeated in a Republican primary in 2010.). 

Of course, this is not necessarily going to work with a majority of Americans, but it seems to work with the Republicans. The issue of climate change, which should be primarily a scientific issue has been successfully framed into a political issue of government expansion, the hot button issue for conservatives that blinds them from any reasonable discussion.: only 44% of Republicans believe the U.S. should work to combat global warming. 

There is hope - swing voters go green: 

The immediate consequence of this strategy of doubt was that even though the cap-and-trade bill passed in the House, it was blocked by the Senate, and there is nothing that the president can do about it. not sure there is much he will be able to do in the future, because as John Kerry says in the documentary, the impact of money is too strong. Unfortunately, once the will of people on this issue becomes stronger than money, it might be too late. Of course, the current economic context is also an opportunity to push back on climate change, instead of being an opportunity for transformation. 

NOTE: meanwhile, France, who signed the Kyoto Protocol, has reduced its CO2 emission by 11% in 20 years. (source here)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Walking Dead, a post-Modern Western Tale.

 Except for 28 Days which was a happy surprise, let's face it: most shows with zombies tend to be utterly ridiculous or gross. 
Why do people find zombies so scary anyway? 
Sure, they can bite you, but really, they can't run, they can hardly move (although Michael Jackson remarkably challenged them into dancing), they can't think, they give themselves away by growling, they're constantly spilling blood, and easily break into pieces and, finally, they are the butts of a number of parodies and comedies to the point that you almost feel sorry for them.
So it was no surprise that I missed the first season of The Walking Dead, despite hearing good things about it. After all, I also heard good things about shows like Buffy and never liked it either.
Finally, last summer, a French radio program on the comics Walking Dead turned my attention to the series once again, and I thought I'd give a chance to the TV show and so of course, what was bound to happen, happened: I was literally mesmerized, and ended up watching season 1 and 2 in a compulsive marathon over the end of the summer. Then I tried to make sense of this new craze.

But what makes The Walking Dead so interesting is precisely that it is not really about zombies (who are a mere excuse to get a bunch of people in a post-apocalyptic world). It is in fact more a post-modern Western than a horror show. 

It is not the basic story. The pitch is rather simple - a sheriff's deputy, Rick Grimes, who awakens from a coma to find the world dominated by flesh-eating zombies (just like in 28 Days), called "walkers", decides to try to find his family and meets other survivors along the way. So it is essentially about a small group of survivors living in the aftermath of a (zombie) apocalypse. Been done before. 

As Erin Obervey writes in The New Yorker, it has all the elements of the Western: the "reluctant sheriff, a wilderness to be explored, and “savages” to be fought". It does consciously play with the western motif: the hero is riding a horse, and his cowboy hat becomes the obvious symbol of manhood and authority for his son. There is even a shootout in a saloon and gun duel at dawn between tow major characters.

 The camp at the beginning of season one looks like a wagon train circling as a defensive maneuver against Indian/Zombie attacks, and the heroes out to the city arrive right on time to save the party, just like the cavalry did in westerns.  
In the second season, a farm becomes the last outpost of civilization and the group takes a heroic last stand in fighting off the attackers who are taking over thanks to their numerous superiority. (whose motif dates back to at least D. W. Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, 1913) Then, the wandering group, like the knights errant of old European medieval tales, becomes the pioneers looking for a promised land in a hostile wilderness invested with savages.
In season three, which just started, they find a prison where they hope to find peace and safety (the irony!). It has the shape and function of the defensive fort against the zombies/savages so common in the old western narrative.

If westerns find their roots in old European medieval tales and 17th century rescue narratives, they primarily offer the great advantage of taking the heroes back to a state of nature (the wilderness) before the dawn of civilization embodied by law. As such, it gives a chance for the audience to consider what makes us humans outside our modern world.

In The Walking Dead, not only are the characters confronted with the wilderness and the constant dangers of the zombies (or for that matter of other dangerous human beings), but they also have to deal with finding motivations for staying alive in the face of adversity ('suicide' is an option clearly laid out by a number of characters) and what it means to be and remain a human being. The good thing about this show is that, contrary to most American shows, it does not give you an easy answer and the characters are all struggling to find a reason to move forward.
As in classic mythical tales, The Walking Dead also relies on a series of simple opposites you can easily identify:  humans/non-humans, country (which may offer some peace) vs. cities (which are treacherous), civilization vs. savagery, living vs. dead. Because they have a common enemy (the Walkers), not only are humans forced to see what's essential about their human identity, they also have to put aside their old bias.

"There are no niggers, no inbred, dumb-as-shit-white trash fools, neither," Rick tells the others. "Just white meat and dark meat." 
Incidentally, it is quite fitting then that this story should take place in the south, and in Atlanta, which made some critiques see it as a fusion of Clint Eastwood and Gone With the Wind.

But the narrative of The Walking Dead goes beyond the classical morality tales of old Westerns or medieval tales because the threat comes essentially from within the community and the self. This is true at so many levels: members within the group, like trigger-happy Shane, can be a threat to the ethics of the community, but they are all potential threats because, as it turns out, everyone is infected by the virus and could turn into a zombie at some point. Death itself is a threat and only total annihilation of the enemy (the destruction of the body) can bring safety. But the most important and undermining threat is that of inner violence.
No one is immune to the consequence of their actions: at the end of season two, even Rick, our hero, turns into a small dictator by declaring to the group that there is no longer a "democracy" (within the community). It seems that in the process of becoming the unchallenged leader of the group, rick may have lost some of his soul.
The beginning of season three is in this way very meaningful: the first five minutes show the group seven months later killing walkers in a house to try to find shelter in total silence. No word is uttered as if they had become hunted animals themselves. The first episode is one of the most violent ones and some scenes are disturbing.

Violence is probably the most important theme in the story. Little by little, all the characters learn how to kill and they do it brutally as they ought to make sure of the total destruction of the walkers (I forgot to mention that if you bitten, they will turn into zombies themselves), which means destroying their brains by knife, sword, gun, arrow, metal rod or baseball bat. As the stories move forward, you see the characters' desensitizing to brutal killing.

But at the same time, no one is immune, and you also experience your own desensitization, and this may be more problematic. Of course, it is a bit like watching a Tarantino movie - the violence is so crude and the walkers are so monstrous that it may be hard to relate. In this respect, it is easier to see zombies killed than native Americans. However, there are scenes where the walkers are simply executed and even though you know they're not human beings, they do look human enough and their massacre is somewhat disturbing (and the characters themselves are disturbed).
This use of violence is also what makes The Walking Dead quintessentially American:
What is distinctly “American” is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent and the political use to which we put that symbolism. Gunfighter NationRichard Slotkin 
As much as I love The Walking Dead, I'd give it a word of caution before I'd let my teenage son or daughter watch it. When I asked my high school students (age 15 or so) the other day if they ever watched it, a majority of them had seen it online and were familiar with it. When I told them it was too violent to show in class, they laughed it off of course. 

If nothing else, it seems the violence in The Walking Dead (or in other shows for that matter) should be discussed with the family. I may be a bit too French about this, but I fear that exposition to violence is potentially worse than to frontal nudity, which so many Americans seem to fuss about. 

That being said, and this warning in mind, I would highly recommend  The Walking Dead for its cinematic quality, its character development and also for providing an opportunity to reflect on our notions of savagery, justice and civilization. 

Homeland's Ambiguities.

Here's how Brian Williams introduced the topic of the car bomb inn Beirut in the NBC Evening news, last night: 
"As recently as yesterday the head of tourism in Lebanon was angry at this past sundae night's episode of the popular TV show 'Homeland' on the showtime network for portraying Beirut as a violent place. Then today, an extraordinary explosion of violence after what was a long peaceful run there - a massive car bomb that some fear the war in Syria is now spreading beyond its borders" (MSNBC Evening News)
Introducing real news by mentioning a fiction proves once again how fiction has become part of our everyday life in our world and the complaining of a foreign ministry about the depiction of its country also shows the globalization of television (American) series in today's world. 

Now of course, the recent turn of events in Beirut may make it more difficult for the Lebanon's tourism minister to sue the makers of 'Homeland' over the way Beirut is portrayed.
Residents expressed bafflement at the episode's description of modern day "Hamra Street". What in the programme is a shoddy quarter where gunmen leap from cars and harass terrified women is actually a busy commercial centre of top-brand Western clothing chains and boutiques.In the show, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, continuously dons the hair-covering hijab, but women in the part of Beirut where the scene is reportedly set are more often seen patrolling the street in skin-tight jeans, bouffant hair and Jimmy Choos. "The Lebanese are intelligent enough to use such a thing to our advantage," said Mr Abboud. "I am calling on youths to splice images of the war-torn Hamra of Homelandwith the real street. To add insult to injury for the Lebanese tourism ministry, Beirut is back is filmed in neighbouring Israel, a country with which Lebanon technically is still at war. (Telegraph)
It is true that one of the scenes in particular will probably not help tourism:
Militants carrying assault weapons clear the area around a street, shouting in Arabic for people to get out of the way. A jeep pulls up: The world's No. 1 jihadi has arrived for a meeting with top Hezbollah commanders. On rooftops, U.S. snipers crouch unseen, the kingpin in their crosshairs at last.  (USA Today)
The fact that the scene was shot in Jaffa, Israel (a popular mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, 250 kilometers/150 miles south of Beirut - DallasNews) is likely to anger even more the Lebanese who have a list of contentions with neighboring Isreal. And it is not like the Isreali are any happier. 
"This sort of diminishes Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which are more modern than Beirut," said Rubinstein, speaking for a generation of Tel Aviv residents who are aggressively proud of their city — a densely populated urban area of some 2.5 million people with a standard of living that rivals most places in Europe, a world-class tech industry and a raucous nightlife. (DallasNews)

Can we suspect the show of being biased against Arabs? 'Homeland', is after all based on an Israeli series ('Prisoners Of War'). The foreign affairs editor of the Observer, Peter Beaumont, blames the show for its "its ridiculous view of Arabs and Islam is a distortion of Middle Eastern realities":

As someone who has spent much time in the Middle East, I find the depictions not only crude and childish but offensive. There is more to it than the portrayal of individuals. For Homeland presents an odd and unbelievable image of relationships between countries and identities in the region, where Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis all share an agenda regardless of background, culture and history.(The Guardian
But to be fair, most of us, who have not spent time in the Middle East cannot tell the difference. Only viewers who are familiar with the region may see some hints of Israel like "cars with blurred yellow Israeli license plates, red-and-white curbs that designate no-parking zones, an Israeli-style traffic circle, and a well-known minaret and clock tower in Jaffa. (USA Today)

Indeed, as you can see on this picture:  the supposedly Beirut open market shows a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: one red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of a Jerusalem soccer team with the name in Hebrew, Beitar Yerushalayim, and a menorah. 

Besides, American shows have always been known for using stereotypes but it's easier to accept those when they are rather positive and when they encourage tourism, as it is usually the case with the rosy romantic view usually given of France and Paris. 
So does this all thing really matter? Fiction is supposed to be a bout "suspension of disbelief" after all, and not a faithful reflection of reality. Well, the impact of fiction on reality should not be dismissed so easily. Beaumont makes fair point about the influence of television fiction in shaping stereotypes of foreign places and people that we have never been exposed to : 
....television drama such as Homeland not only reflects cultural and social anxieties at any given time, it reflects back those anxieties, reinforcing and shaping them. Crucially there is strong evidence that counter-stereotypical fictional depictions in popular culture may have a positive impact, with some arguing that it can help turn around prejudicial attitudes. (The Guardian
That being said, the show is not mostly about Arabs or Muslims. It is not even about a credible story line. It is rather about paranoia, politics, treason and the fears of homegrown terrorism. At the same time, it gives a surprisingly nuanced view of terrorists. Unlike 24 and the likes, the show tries to get into the motivations for terrorism and it is not just religious fanaticism or brainwashing but also the injustices and the consequences of foreign affairs. The subtext may be a criticism of American foreign politics, such as the use of drones that kill innocent victims. (A similar idea was put forward in Law and Order SVU 'Acceptable Loss' two weeks ago). The intended target of the terrorist attack (the Vice-President) does not seem to be a particularly good innocent victim either.

What was neat in the first season was to make the audience doubt everything, along with the main characters (It was great idea to make the main character a bipolar CIA agent). What starts well with season 2 is that the audience grows ambiguous feelings for someone ready to commit a terrible act. The two main characters are well developed and extremely well written. They reflect the ambiguities and paranoia of the audience and society at large. This is the secret of all good TV series: the excellent writing of the characters and of their response to what happens, however improbable the situations may be. 
Despite its well-deserved criticism, it is one of the best shows on American television these days. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

School Books and National Ideologies.

Anyone who has been exposed to another culture long enough will probably conclude that, to a certain extent, we are all the product of our environment, our culture, our language and our history. This is definitely something we have been trying to investigate on this blog. A good approach for this is to look at how countries see and interpret history in their schoolbooks.

This week's Economist argues that that along with religious texts, school books and material used in class are the most powerful instruments that shape national culture. As we have discussed before, schools can be a real battlefield of cultural and ideological warfare in any country, and France or the United States are no exception : think of the topic of creation vs. evolution in Texas (here) or colonialism in France (here).
Even though, this is not necessarily a hot topic in the media, much is at stake, and the Economist is right to remind us George Orwell's 1984 great saying that “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past”.
In the United States, Liberals worry that their children are being taught a nationalistic version of history that emphasises the wonders of industrialization and plays down slavery and the slaughter of Indian tribes. By contrast, conservatives complain about insufficient patriotism and too much secularism. (The Economist)
The two main topics of controversy are sex and evolution.

In France, it is the economy and businesses which tend to be portrayed in a biased manner (see here in French):
For years the French seemed quite blasé about economics textbooks that were filled with unreconstructed Marxism. Peter Gumbel, a British journalist and academic who has studied the French educational system, says such books sat happily with the idea that rampant economic liberalism was responsible for France’s weakness in the run-up to the second world war. French textbooks today are rather subtler, but still not much in favour of the capitalist way of doing things.
A new study of 400 pages of high-school economics textbooks, by the Institute of Economic and Fiscal Research, reveals that only a dozen are devoted to companies, and none to entrepreneurs. (albeit a French word) (The Economist)
Then if you add the prejudices of many French teachers of economics, and the current devastating crisis, it is no surprise that the French should be so negative about business and capitalism (even if they keep buying Iphones and eating at McDonald's) .

So I suppose, every people has its own cultural and ideological prejudices but it might be worth paying a bit more attention to the process through which the text books are chose for our children:

The United States is different than almost every country in that it has no identifiable national history standards. Almost every other country does. What ends up in the classroom often depends on where your classroom is located. The content of a history course in Tennessee might sound considerably different than a course in Massachusett.
But two states are most influential because of their population: Texas and California which are respectively the first and second largest textbook markets. The former tends to be very conservative when the second is more liberal. (read here for instance)

France has what's called a "programme national" which means that the Ministry of Education decides on what topics should be taught and then leaves it up to the independent textbook publishers to print the books, which must, of course, follow the programme. It doesn't tell them how to cover the events, only which events or issues to cover and during which years. While this is more centralized than the US, it is not the state-sponsored history (identity) indoctrination of non-democratic societies like Saudi Arabia, Syria and North Korea where the Ministry of Education decides on a curriculum, prints the textbooks themselves, and distributes them to the schools for use, an approach reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.
Besides, any attempt by politicians to meddle with the affairs of the National Education causes uproar and controversy: Sarkozy's attempt to impose a "positive view of colonialism" (here) was met with such opposition that it was actually never implemented.

In case you had any doubt about the differences in the storytelling of historical events in different countries, I would suggest this great book: History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, by Dana Lindaman & Kyle Ward. It presents excerpts about the same events from different textbooks around the world, and thus shows the contrasting perspectives on history and national identity, and should be a requirement in school.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

'The Rumble 2012': The Other Presidential Debate.

A good and fun way to learn about American politics and the ideological cleavage between Republicans and Democrats, but also between Europeans and Americans is to watch last week-end's debate between Bill O'Reilly, and Jon Stewart, two major influential figures of cable television.

"The Rumble in the Air-conditioned Auditorium" was not only a fun joust, éas the name suggests, it was also an exchange of substance. At the core of the political divide is the role of government, which happens to be a central difference between France and the United States, and also more generally between Europeans and Americans. 
 (A reminder to our European audience: 'government' in the United states is usually understood loosely and often includes local forms of government, and it is not just L'Etat). 

The right (O'Reilly) thinks for instance that government spending should go mostly to military and national defense, whereas the left (Stewart) thinks it should, for instance also go to health care and social programs. No wonder why Europeans tend to feel closer to the Democrats, especially if you consider the healthcare question which probably holds the greater consensus across the board in Western Europe. 

O'Reilly uses two main arguments traditionally held by American conservatives:

the first is the 'efficiency argument': that government is bad at running most things, (except for defense and the military) and the private sector (like private insurances) will do a better job at it, thanks to competition. 

The problem with this argument is that health is not a mere product you can do without. A system based on profit implies that only those who are profitable will be covered. If, as O'Reilly suggests, government should impose mandates on not being able to deny people coverage (which most conservatives do not agree to do), then premiums and cost will soar even more. 
 Despite O'Reilly's poor experience with the National Healthcare system in Britain, statistics show that  countries with socialized medicine in Europe do better than the United States, both in terms of cost and  life expectancy (see figures here). (It would be nice if O'Reilly confronted his own personal experience to larger numbers so he'd get a real picture of the whole situation). 
More importantly, even conservatives in Britain support socialized medicine which shows that the system must not be so bad after all. 

The mainstream of the British Conservative party supports a model in which health and other services are funded by taxation, even if they inveigh against “dependency culture” and bemoan inefficiences and unfairnesses.  (Time)
And in case, things might not be clear enough, here's what Conservative Prime Minister Cameron said:

This is the party of the NHS [Britain's free-at-the-point-of-delivery National Health Service] and that’s the way it’s going to stay,” (Time)

-the second argument is 'the moral argument': government spending creates an entitlement nation and encourages laziness.
This may ring true when you look at Western Europeans (and the French in particular have developed a great sense of being entitled to certain rights, as you can see in their many demonstrations). But, as Jon Stewart pointed out, the United States may very well be an entitlement nation in its own way:
"We are a people that went to another country, saw other people on it and said 'Yeah, we want that'". 
And of course, this even truer when you think of Social Security,  Medicare or the bailout of Wall Street during the recent financial crash.
(I would ad that the way U.S. foreign policy has been conducted in the Latin America or in the Middle East for instance furthers this impression outside the United States that Americans have a strong sense of entitlement.).
The best counter-argument came from Stewart when he said: 
Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not go hungry, you’re a moocher?
No wonder this got him the biggest applause of the evening. 

What is interesting is that while most Americans seem in agreement with the conservatives' rhetoric of "less government "and "less taxation" in principle, it becomes another story when it takes a concrete form. I have always been bewildered by people who are against government and yet want to benefit from Medicare, but the contradiction seems to escape them.
One person's right, is another person's entitlement, I suppose. 
It would be nice though if the Republicans remembered one of the great assets of the American character: pragmatism. Look at what works and do it. The Darwinian principle of 'survival of the fittest' on which competition is based is fine when it comes to your smart phone or cable TV but  not so much when it comes to life and death. We are not wild animals. 

And if you start opening up to what happens in the rest of the world, you'll see this is an area where the United States can learn from other countries. It takes a bit of humility and a slight bent to American Exceptionalism but it is worth it. 

Jon Stewart is right: not only is O'Reilly"completely full of shit", but that he is even "the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” an “alternate universe” in which history’s greatest villain is Bill Moyers and Big Bird the biggest moocher of all. 

That being said, I must say that, even though I disagree with just about anything Bill O'Reilly may say, I have a growing respect for him for at least debating with Jon Stewart and engaging him, which he has done repeatedly in the last few years. It is good to see that two people on two sides of the ideological spectrum can hold a (more or less) normal conversation. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On the Importance of American TV Series.

This week is the kickoff of the 2012 fall season for TV shows, and it is always an important event.
OK, "an important event" might be slightly overstating it but whether you like them or not - and of course I happen to love 'em - TV shows offer a great window onto today's American society.
If you think of it, beyond its entertainment value, American TV fiction is remarkable for its ability to address controversial issues.

Is there any other country that... in the midst of its war in Iraq, would broadcast a TV show (Battlestar Galactica) in which the occupation force is the bad guys and the insurgency the good guys? (see here)
Or where a Supreme Court Justice (Judge Scalia) would use a fictional hero (Jack Bauer) to make a legal point (that torture is OK)? (here)
Or where a TV fiction (the Newsroom) would use the name of real powerful industrialists (the Koch Brothers) and portray them in a negative light? (here)
Or, to take one last example,  where a personality as high as the Vice-president would credit a TV comedy (Will and Grace) for educating him on the question of gay marriage? (here)
And the list goes on...
Whether these examples are scary or hopeful, one thing is certain: U.S. TV series not only reflect the discussions in the nation, but they also influence the society as a whole... well actually even the entire world.
For example, in the last few years, some French high school students have organized 'proms': which they call "ball de promo"- a direct import from the U.S. after watching their American peers in TV series.
The good outcome is that it has become a great tool for teaching English since most of my students watch TV series either on French TV but more likely online through streaming.
The downside: they only see an America made mostly of lawyers, doctors, cops or occasionally idle housewives. No one ever seems to work hard or have regular problems. I suppose that comes with the territory.
Also, these shows are so prevailing outside north America that it gives foreign audiences a strange sense of familiarity, especially if you take into account the already dominant position of the United States in the news.
So TV shows also account for a great tool of American soft power by partaking in the propagation of American myths.
That being said, one can also recognize not only the entertaining value of those shows, which can only explain their success, but also, their esthetic dimension, visually and narratively. What makes shows like Game of Thrones, Homeland or The Wire so powerful is their excellent writing and the character development, over several weeks, which, because of its format, no movie can ever accomplish.
In this respect, I would dare compare some of today's TV shows to the writings of Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, or Henry James, Herman Melville, Conan Doyle, or Charles Dickens who, after all, ALL wrote serialized novels published in newspapers, which were social commentary on the issues of the time.

This is why I have decided to try to write more on this blog about my take on many of the TV shows I like watching. This will not be exclusive but hopefully, it will offer a new angle on Americana from a French perspective.

Or this may simply be a made-up pretext to justify writing more often about what I like when I have my night off.