(Originally published 16/12/2013)
Yesterday, in what I’d like to think was a rare lapse of judgement, I sat down to watch two whole hours of American television; an experience I am not keen to repeat, yet I feel merits further consideration. The two programs in question, a CBS 60 Minutes special report on the NSA, and A&E’s bizarrely sensational Southern ‘reality’ show Duck Dynasty, are both terrifying, in their own special ways, yet they when seen together, they can be useful in revealing some of the currents that underlie American popular discourse–specifically, the location of ‘American authenticity’ in the ‘other’ working man.
Coming from the perspective of someone used to the British left-wing media’s coverage of the scandal following Edward Snowden’s leaking of compromising documents revealing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programmes, the CBS 60 Minutes special seems almost as self-parody. As discussed in this article on The Verge (which also contains an embedded video of some of the report), the special is entirely uncritical of the NSA’s actions: the only mention of the extent of the surveillance activities comes from the NSA director, who denies ‘listening to people’s phone things’, a denial that is true (the documents never accuse them of this), but entirely unrelated to the charges actually presented by the leaked documents.
The report, hosted by CBS’s ‘security expert’ John Miller (who opened the show by highlighting his credentials as an ‘insider’, having once worked for the Director of National Intelligence), serves to effectively rehash the same arguments used to on the one hand deny the significance of Snowden’s leaks, and on the other, point to the ‘damage’ he has done, and how this information is dangerous, and an aide to foreign powers (two arguments that are largely contradictory). Their main weapon in this attempt to discredit Snowden, though, is not statistics that point to the lives put at risk by his leaks, nor diplomatic transcripts showing declining trust in the US by its former allies, but, in true American fashion, the sort of personal insults that seem more appropriate to a school kid. He is nothing but a ‘twenty-something high school drop out’, who has personal habits that, in insightful analysis by expert Miller, are ‘pretty strange’. Evidence, it seems, is not required by CBS, or indeed the NSA; all they need to smear Snowden is to suggest that he might be a little bit weird.
By way of contrast, the rest of the report has a tone that flits uneasily between IT Crowd-style ‘geek sitcom’ and a military recruitment video. Endless shots of (almost entirely meaningless) computer code flashing up in white-on-black text; shots of uniformed soldiers sitting at their many-monitored desks in a futuristic control centre; and conspicuous references to ‘hostile foreign powers’ contribute to a sense of Cold-War paranoia. That discussion of Snowden’s leaks is intercut with an interview regarding the NSA’s role in countering ‘cyber attacks’ from these rogue states (shown here by The Verge, again, to be a total fabrication) also contributes to this invocation of the American military/nationalist ‘topic’, a set of associations that has pervaded national discourse since before the Civil War.
The strategy of associating the NSA with American national identity, though, is not just limited to this overt military symbolism. It is very much part of the national mythos that the ‘everyday working man’ is the locus of all that is authentically American. This ideology developed over the nineteenth century, and was solidified in the early twentieth (especially with the rise of authors such as Steinbeck writing tales of ‘working folk’ in the Depression). Key to this ideology, though, is that the working people are both ‘other’ and ‘the people’; an almost contradictory assertion, yet one that allows a mainstream bourgeois ideology of nationalism to be maintained through the perpetuation of America’s peculiar class system (tied as much to geography and race as to economic status). This ideology accounts for the success of Duck Dynasty (those crazy rednecks are as ‘other’ as they come, but boy are they good honest folk etc.); and it also accounts for the presentation of the ‘ordinary workers’ at the NSA headquarters.
While it might seem a stretch to present high-tech, PhD-educated security analysts as honest, salt-of-the-earth workers, the idea that authenticity lies in the ‘other’ enables CBS to link those working for a living the NSA with that same genuineness of spirit. With a few simple twists, such as presenting one of the analysts, who looks like exactly the same sort of dorky kid that they previously accused Snowden of being, with a Rubik’s Cube, they humanise the NSA: it is no longer a faceless government organ, but a gang of slightly geeky college kids who spend their days solving codes and playing with number puzzles. At this point, reference is made to the NSA’s origins as a code-breaking organisation in WWII (the same way a British broadcast might reference Bletchley Park)–by associating these 21st-century ‘boffins’ with their patriotic, heroic predecessors, the nationalistic re-imagining is complete. Here are a bunch of friendly kids making an honest living. If you are against that, you are against America.
American ideology, then, has managed to pull a fairly neat trick. In associating everything seen as ‘human’ (natural/friendly, etc.) with being ‘American’, the narrative of ‘us and them’, so central to American belief from the nation’s very founding as a rebel state, and developed through the isolationist period, and the Cold War, can be invoked in almost any situation. The discourse of American Authenticity is a fickle one, to be sure. It has, in its past iterations, been used to deny rights to African Americans, and to elevate them as folk heroes; to heap praise on some European immigrant groups, and to justify the erection of a wall on the Mexican border; or to simply mean that one kid gets bullied in High School while another one thrives. What is certain, though, is that it is pervasive, and moreover, that it is perhaps the most powerful tool available to those who would seek to manipulate and mould the views of the American people.