Rule #1: YOU MUST clip all extraneous text when replying to a message.
NY Times, April 30 2014
The Rise of the Drone Master: Pop Culture Recasts Obama
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON — In Marvel’s latest popcorn thriller, Captain America
battles Hydra, a malevolent organization that has infiltrated the
highest levels of the United States government. There are missile
attacks, screeching car chases, enormous explosions, evil assassins,
data-mining supercomputers and giant killer drones ready to obliterate
millions of people.
President Obama, the optimistic candidate of hope and change.
Five and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has had a powerful
impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters,
novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational
story of the first black president. Instead they have found more
compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Mr.
“We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that
Barack Obama has to address,” said Joe Russo, who with his brother,
Anthony, directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” “If you’re
saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what
if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we
can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?”
A scene from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a new movie with
topics like missile attacks, data-mining supercomputers and killer
drones. Credit Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures
Beyond “Captain America,” a virtual arts festival of films, books,
plays, comics, television shows and paintings have been using as their
underlying narratives the sometimes grim reality of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
The commando raid that Mr. Obama ordered to kill Osama bin Laden is the
basis for the actions of the fictional President Ogden in the Godzilla
comic books. Several episodes of CBS’s “The Good Wife” feature
mysterious wiretaps of the main characters by the National Security
Agency. Artists in California are protesting drones by sculpturing a
Predator out of mud. In New York, playwrights are exploring
disappointment in the pace of societal change in Mr. Obama’s America.
The public relations machinery of the White House assiduously tries to
control Mr. Obama’s image and legacy, but there is nothing it can do to
stop artistic interpretation of his policies. After inheriting a
post-Sept. 11 surveillance state and security apparatus from President
George W. Bush, Mr. Obama pulled back in some areas and expanded others.
Artists have focused particularly on the N.S.A. spying revelations
disclosed by Edward J. Snowden and the president’s “kill list” of
terrorists targeted by drones.
“The drone wars are really one of Obama’s signature foreign policies,”
said Trevor Paglen, a photographer whose fuzzy images of flying drones
are exhibited in galleries around the world. “We are living in a moment
that’s characterized by this mass surveillance. I think art can help us
call attention to certain things. It can help contribute to the cultural
vocabulary that we use.”
Past presidents have also seen their actions reflected in the culture of
the day. Ronald Reagan’s crusade against Communism in Central America
became fodder for 1980s movies such as “Red Dawn,” and Reaganomics
inspired Alex P. Keaton, the conservative teenager played by Michael J.
Fox on NBC’s popular sitcom “Family Ties.” Artists in the 1980s also
used their canvases to protest the conservative cultural movement that
Reagan embraced and nurtured.
Bill Clinton’s White House inspired the NBC series “West Wing,” and the
president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was an irresistible story line
for everything from cartoon strips to novels. When Mr. Clinton’s effort
to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu went bad, the disaster became
the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The difference for Mr. Obama may be the gap between what his supporters
expected and what they now see.
The artist Kara Walker set off a minor controversy in 2012 with a
black-and-white drawing displayed at the Newark Public Library in New
Jersey. The drawing included an image of Mr. Obama standing at a lectern
beneath a burning cross. It is titled “The moral arc of history ideally
bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward
barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos.”
In New York City, the playwright Richard Nelson’s series at the Public
Theater explored the lives of family members who, among other things,
become disillusioned with Mr. Obama and his promises of change.
“The arts are often a left or progressive community,” said Nato
Thompson, the chief curator at Creative Time, a public arts group in New
York City that sponsors and promotes art exhibitions around the country.
“There are a lot of people being let down by a president they were very
enthusiastic about. There’s a big sense of betrayal.”
An art installation, “We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust,” takes
on drones. Credit J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times
“It’s affected the tone” of the art being produced, he added.
He continued, “It’s getting more cynical and desperate.”
Issues like the racial disparities in the nation’s prisons often become
the raw material for paintings, poems, drawings and plays, Mr. Thompson
said. “Where you have a black president but deeply racist policies are
continuing like in the prison population, you have a lot of artists who
are deeply interested in these contradictions,” he said.
But the most common artistic themes revolve around the surveillance and
On the campus of Occidental College in Los Angeles, the artists Nadia
Afghani and Matt Fisher sculptured a full-size, 55-foot-wide MQ-1B
Predator drone out of mud. In an accompanying manifesto titled “We Will
Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust,” the artists say they are “proposing
and modeling a possible act of resistance to the authoritarian
machinery” of the drones.
In the Captain America movie, a politician played by Robert Redford
argues that using super-drones to pre-emptively kill 20 million people
to save the planet’s other seven billion is an acceptable trade-off.
Anthony Russo, one of the directors, said the plot served dual purposes:
creating an exciting narrative for a Hollywood action film while also
giving people something deeper and more personally relevant to think about.
“That was very much our thinking in terms of trying to turn these
helicarriers and Project Insight into the ultimate drone technology gone
bad,” Mr. Russo said, referring to the movie’s aircraft carrier-size
drones and a diabolical project to link the drones to a vast
surveillance network. “We tried to come up with a fantasy expression or
an allegorical expression of where those anxieties and problems can lead.”
Joe Russo said moviemakers and other artists had seized on the shadowy
themes of Mr. Obama’s presidency because more was known about what the
government was doing.
But Mr. Russo said that, in his view, Mr. Obama had been more
transparent about some parts of his national security agenda, including
drone strikes. In a speech last May, the president offered more detail
than he had previously about the drone program and pledged to curtail
it, with mixed results so far.
“Governments for thousands of years have enacted things that may not
necessarily be in the best interests of the general populace or is
offensive to the morality of the general populace,” Mr. Russo said.
“Those things are typically hidden. In his administration, they have not
Which, he said, is good for creative tension. “That’s created a debate,”
Send list submissions to: Marxism@greenhouse.economics.utah.edu
Set your options at: