Cole on “Heroes” and the Culture Wars
My column at Salon.com this week is on the television phenomenon “Heroes”. [Spoiler alert: for anyone who hasn't seen the season finale, its details are discussed.] Excerpts:
Dick Cheney’s least favorite TV show?
Why the worldview of “Heroes” clashes with the vice president’s “1 percent doctrine” on terrorism.
May 30, 2007 | NBC’s hit series “Heroes” was the most-watched new show on network television this year despite its demanding plot lines and stretches of subtitled Japanese. Its season finale, which aired May 21, dominated the 9 p.m. time slot. What explains the show’s popularity, especially with younger viewers? I think it is that, like the Fox thriller “24,” “Heroes” is a response to Sept. 11 and the rise of international terrorism. But while “24″ skews to the right politically, “Heroes” seems like a left-wing response to those events. In fact, it functions as a thoughtful critique of Vice President Dick Cheney’s doctrine on counterterrorism.
In Bush and Cheney’s “war on terror,” the evildoers are external and are clearly discernible. In “Heroes,” each person agonizes over the evil within, a point of view more common on the political left than on the right. Each of the flawed characters is capable of both nobility and iniquity. In Bush’s vision, the main threat remains rival states (Saddam’s Iraq, Ahmadinejad’s Iran). States are absent from “Heroes,” as though irrelevant. “Heroes” makes terrorism a universal and psychological issue rather than one attached to a clash of civilizations or to a particular race.
In its commentary on terror, “Heroes” thus avoids the caffeinated Islamophobia of “24.” And at a time when “24,” a favorite of older Republicans, is fading in the ratings, “Heroes” may also be a better guide to where the thinking of the young, post-Bush generation is heading when it comes to terror. It’s certainly where their eyes are going. NBC’s “Heroes” runs opposite Fox’s “24″ on Monday nights and snags a higher total of younger viewers, while the median age of “24″ viewers keeps rising. . .
The plot that drives the first season has to do with a prophetic painting . . . that shows New York City being blown up. The bomb is not mechanical but is a human being, a mutant, who cannot control his powers and will ultimately explode in the midst of the city if not stopped. . .
a . . . camp of wealthy and powerful figures, clearly on the political right, decide that the explosion cannot be avoided and must therefore be exploited to instill new spine and discipline into the soft American public. This clique, led by a Las Vegas mobster named Linderman (Malcolm McDowell), includes Angela Petrelli, the mother of Nathan and Peter Petrelli, both mutants. The Linderman faction strives to put Nathan Petrelli into office as a New York congressman by rigging the election, convinced that he will be in a position to lead America as a strong man after Gotham’s immolation.
Some bloggers have detected overtones of Sept. 11 conspiracy theorizing in this plot element. . .
Part of my argument is that the Cheney Right (or what Anatol Lieven has called the “American nationalists”) sees the war on terror as ‘white hats vs. black turbans,’ as a heroic, free, unblemished America facing off against Islamic fanatics and fascists. I argue that by making the “Heroes” morally ambiguous (Ali Larter’s character Niki, when taken over by “Jessica,” is a mass murderer), the vision of “Heroes” implies that terror derives from Self as well as from Other, that each human and each culture is capable of it.
I think this dispute, over a black-and-white American nationalism of the Cheney sort and a more nuanced recognition of our own flaws along with those of our enemies, underlies the culture wars now being fought in the US. The latter is exemplified by Mahmoud Mamdani’s thesis about Washington’s strategic use of ‘good Muslims, bad Muslims’.
That continental rift is the reason for the great interest in Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul’s argument with his rival Rudi Guiliani. Paul said in the recent debate that the US was attacked on 9/11 in part because of its prior involvement in Iraq.
Rudi Guiliani interrupted him, claimed he had never heard of that, and misrepresented Paul as justifying the attack.
But Paul was factually correct. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the United States, Bin Laden had said ” . . .the civil and the military infrastructures of Iraq were savagely destroyed showing the depth of the Zionist-Crusaders’ hatred to the Muslims and their children . . .”
Paul was saying that terror has a context, that the post-Gulf War US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s that allegedly caused the deaths of 500,000 children helped produce hatred for this country in the Middle East.
In his reply to Guiliani’s demand for a retraction, Paul said,
‘ “I believe the CIA is correct when it warns us about blowback. We overthrew the Iranian government in 1953 and their taking the hostages was the reaction. This dynamic persists and we ignore it at our risk. They’re not attacking us because we’re rich and free, they’re attacking us because we’re over there.” ‘
Likewise, comedian Rosie O’Donnell engaged in a shouting match with conservative View co-host Elizabeth Hasselback when the latter declined to defend O’Donnell from rightwing charges of treason. The previous week the two had discussed the meaning of terrorism and O’Donnell observed, “655,000 Iraqi civilians are dead. Who are the terrorists?” (O’Donnell was accused by the Right of calling US troops ‘terrorists’, which is not what she said, and she was upset with co-host Elizabeth Hasselback for not being willing to admit that the charge was propagandistic).
Both Paul and O’Donnell (a Libertarian and a liberal, respectively) were pushing back against the uncomplicated nationalism of the militaristic right in the US, maintaining that the menace of terrorism comes both from self and from other, both from small groups and from large states.
It seems to me that this is the continental rift in the contemporary culture wars, between those with a nationalist, black and white view of geopolitics, and those who can see past US actions as sometimes unfortunate (backing Islamic fanatics against the Soviets in Afghanistan) and as producing “blowback” [in Ron Paul's term] or boomeranging on us.
I am not saying that “Heroes” takes sides on such political issues, but I am saying that its moral vision would give little aid and comfort to the American nationalists. In “Heroes,” a lot of characters are driven to do things they regret and to harm the people around them without fully intending to. Terror is not something produced by other people, with brown skins and different rituals, but is a danger within each human being, even within WASPs.