First, Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show later this year. Shortly after, his friend Brian Williams of NBC was caught fabricating elements of his news stories from Iraq. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was climbing to #1 one as the top-grossing “war movie” of all time--just as the trial of Chris Kyle’s alleged killer approached its conclusion (the guilty verdict arrived as February ended).
When Williams’ deceptions surfaced, the commentary on The Daily Show was vintage Jon Stewart. First, because Stewart had long proven that he would not spare his friends. Second, because he once again found a way to wring insight out of humor--with a stinger of truth:
“Finally!” Stewart said. “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War!”
This was no cheap laugh, since Stewart had been among our chief skeptics challenging public officials about Iraq since 2003. His viewers are well aware that he believed the war was mounted on a vast fabric of lies for which no one has ever been held to account. Thus his joke about Williams’ echoed 12 years of commentary on the failure of U.S. media to hold our leaders in check. (You can see Stewart’s scathing commentary here: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/j3ware/guardians-of-the-veracity )
This also implied that Williams’ fabrications were part of a larger failure by the U.S. news media. In retrospect, the image of Williams’ many appearances on Stewart’s “fake news” show now acquire a bitter, even tragic cultural irony: we now know that, as the comedian interviewed the newsman, it was the comedian who provided the honest truth and the news man who invented stories. And Stewart’s popularity stems largely from his viewers belief that he is generally a more reliable source on public affairs than the so-called “news professionals.”
Certainly, the mainstream media (like NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN) in recent years have tended to fake objectivity by employing a strategy of “one side says this, the other side says that” to cover major controversies over public policy, while the partisan media (MSNBC, Fox News, talk radio) have tended to preach consistently and predictably to their respective choirs.
The result is that we no longer develop a public consensus about controverted issues, because no one offers a critical judgment on them. So camp followers stay in their camps, and the mainstream news treats every question as a 50-50 proposition. Thus, 12 years later--after the U.S. invaded a sovereign nation based on lies, paid for it on credit that exploded our national debt, killed 150,000 people, and triggered a hellish upheaval in Iraq that now includes ISIS--there is still no official public acknowledgment of guilt, shame, or remorse.
And Jon Stewart’s joke summarized this entire sorry truth like a prism showing us the true colors in our light.
This media failure enables bad public policy that costs lives, damages human rights, and promotes injustice and terror. It also conditions the American public to take bad policy for granted and even accept rationalizations that label our policy mistakes “heroic” and label those who carry out that policy “heroes.” (No doubt such distortions are aided by residual guilt over the mistreatment of veterans returning from Vietnam 40 years ago.)
Thus the public is encouraged to confuse our veterans’ service with their accomplishments. This masks the uncomfortable truth: yes, of course, our veterans have, by definition, served their country. But that service has not accomplished what is generally claimed. Has it protected us? Not in Iraq, because there was no threat in the first place. Has it preserved our freedom? No again--and who thinks Americans are as free now as we were before 9/11?
Amid all this, American Sniper became a box office smash. Based on social media reactions and media commentary, it appears most of the ticket sales are to viewers who see Chris Kyle as an American hero. This has provoked liberal and left-wing rejection of the movie as “pro-war propaganda,” led Michael Moore (whose uncle was killed by a sniper in WWII) to remark “I was always told snipers were cowards,” and probably cost American Sniper many Oscar votes among the liberal Hollywood establishment.
CrossCurrents readers know my opinion that viewers often missed the real movie on the screen, instead projecting their own meaning onto the images they see (see CrossCurrents #418 on the film “Gravity”). This has clearly happened to millions of viewers of American Sniper.
Conservatives on the right see a story of bravery and dedication under fire to protect America from its dangerous enemies. Liberals on the left see a glorification of war that fails to expose the lies about Iraq and promotes the fiction that our invasion protected us.
Both sides are blind to the movie itself. Granted, some actions in it required bravery and dedication. Granted, the movie totally ignores the historical and political context of the Iraq invasion. But the truth is that for 2-plus hours American Sniper tells another story.
It shows us Kyle’s father praising his son for showing that he possesses “the gift of aggression,” and we sense the “kill or be killed” values in his upbringing. It shows Kyle’s consistent denial of the inner struggle he suffers doing his job. It shows his wife pleading with him to stay home, clearly conscious of the toll combat is taking on him. Her one desire is for him to “be human again.”
What American Sniper reveals is the bleak reality of the damage war was does to the warriors. As Boston Globe critic Ty Burr observed, “‘American Sniper’ may be the hardest, truest movie ever made about the experience of men in war. Why? Because there’s no glory in it.”
Burr is right. The film may be SET in Iraq, but is not really ABOUT the Iraq war. It is about the experience of war itself. By ignoring the history, the politics, the arguments--even by ignoring the lies--Eastwood presents, not one particular war, but “WAR” as a generic reality in excruciatingly concrete detail. It echoes, with no little irony, the old 1960s slogan “The Real Enemy is War.” My wife and I left the theater a bit traumatized and not a little relieved to get out. Personally I would count it among the great antiwar imagery in movie history, along with “All Quiet On The Western Front,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and even “M.A.S.H.”
But that does not explain the ticket sales, for we also worried that others would see a patriotic tale on the screen, rather than a cautionary tale. Indeed, American Sniper’s success owes less to the reality Eastwood presents and more to the skewed expectations of his viewers.
Given our media failure, many people come to American Sniper assuming that the Iraq invasion was national self defense. They admire Kyle’s technical skills and nerveless focus, and they accept his claim that he was merely killing to protect his buddies. Such viewers forget that no sniper would be needed to protect our troops if our troops had not invaded in the first place. They ignore Kyle’s own failure to reflect on his place in a fraudulent mission, content to function mechanically as a cog in the war machine. And they miss Kyle’s denial of the toll his experience of war has taken on him. When his wife shows alarm at her husband’s dehumanized state, her words and worry go unnoticed by such viewers.
Thus both liberals and conservatives miss the mark on American Sniper. Liberals miss its dissection of the horror in all war because they’re too busy looking for a critique of the policies behind one war. Conservatives miss the same horror because they project their acceptance of the fraudulent Iraq policy on the screen they are watching. Thus liberals consciously lament something that is not there, and conservatives unconsciously add something that is not there--and they both miss what is there.
All this reflects our cultural malaise today. We begin with bad policy from misguided leaders; this gets 50–50 treatment from an uncritical and unreliable media; this in turn conditions the public to accept distortions, deceptions, and outright lies. So bad policy persists, heroes are praised, and God Blesses America at all our public events.
Amid such confusion, who will speak truth to power? Who will call bad policy “bad policy”? Who will say we disserve those who serve our country by sending them on bad missions? Who will remind us that the real enemy is war? Who will be our conscience?
The Hebrew prophets were once the conscience for their people. Many Christian saints (like Francis of Assisi) likewise spoke truth to the powers of their day. Our Church attempts to offer wisdom to power in our day (two popes and Catholic bishops worldwide warned in 2003 that invading Iraq would “destabilize” the entire region), but our Church is too often ignored.
Perhaps the job has fallen to our comics. Like the court jesters who once exposed kingly follies with humorous ridicule, satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert puncture the pretensions of the powerful and debunk our day’s conventional wisdom. As Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan observed in his famous book Insight--A Study of Human Understanding:
Satire breaks in upon the busy day...It enters not by argument but by laughter. For argument would presuppose premises, and premises that would be accepted easily also would be mistaken. But laughter supposes only human nature…Moreover, as it is without logical presuppositions so it occurs with apparent purposelessness; and that too is highly important for, if men are afraid to think, they may not be afraid to laugh. Yet proofless, purposeless laughter can dissolve honoured pretense; it can disrupt conventional humbug….Satire can help man swing out of the self-centeredness of an animal in a habitat to the universal viewpoint of an intelligent and reasonable being.
In doing this, our satirists make room for a reasonable critique that unmasks the lies America is living by.
Those lies will not set us free. Nor will media that have abandoned their prophetic role because they themselves are now part of the corporate power structure. Nor will an American public prone to patriotic platitudes. So maybe for now we must rely on jokes to set us free, for those jokes can speak the truth no one else will.
All of which makes people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert national resources with whom God has blessed us. And it makes their departure unsettling. It leaves us wondering: when the emperor’s next new wardrobe arrives, who will joke about its fake fabric?© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015