Hypodermic Needles

Government in bed with military
Government in bed with military

I have a number of posts on the go right now that I haven’t got around to editing properly, but I wanted to write this down before I forget. I’d like to do an analysis of popular culture’s use as a hypodermic needle to innoculate society against negative impressions of government. Using Barthes’ essay ‘Operation Margarine’ in Mythologies, I want to talk about how an admission of some minor faults excuses all kinds of greater issues, in the name of the greater good.

The examples I want to look at are firstly, the power structure in Battlestar Galactica, in which government is quite literally in bed with the military. Despite all of Adama’s fuckups, he is portrayed paternalistically (the other characters refer to him as the ‘old man’, and disloyalty, if it ever occurs, is seen as a painful and unwelcome process of betrayal) and as having the crew and indeed humanity’s best interests at heart. Often his plans fail because of an inability for the uneducated masses to just have faith in him. Even when the faults are due to his own misunderstandings or delusions, his intentions are always good, and the repremands he directs against himself in the face of any screw-up are always worse than any judgement that could be brought against him.

This is interesting to me because Adama’s leadership coincided with that of George W. Bush in real life, a president in which the world had an increasingly failing confidence, and who screwed up in multiple ways. The Iraq war and the insurgency occured on his watch, while in Battlestar at the same time, the human population were living on New Caprica under the brutal rule of the colonising cylons. The critique invited by this parallel was aimed squarely at the Americans, and it was surprising and unusual to see in popular culture. However, this was tempered by the continuing positive image conveyed of the military and of Adama’s leadership. The real world president was doing badly, but it wasn’t the system itself that was broken. There was no way to rescue public opinion of the Iraq War, and to admit to this giant mistake and to criticise it gave Battlestar independant legitimacy. However the sytem itself was supported and perpetuated through the character of Adama. A little admission of guilt excuses the mistakes of a man who had the good of the people as his true objective. Perhaps in the real world, the same could be said of George Bush?

The paternalistic portrayal of leaders, especially presidents, is common in popular media, especially in times of real-world doubt as to the capability of certain leaders. But sometimes the analogy works in the opposite direction to propogate the same myth. For example, one of the most popular and socially forward-thinking, not to mention longest-serving US presidents was FDR. This in spite of the fact he was physically disabled, and felt the need to hide this from the public, lest they perceive him as weak when he was supposed to occupy a position of strength in leadership. Despite having actively deceived the citizenry, he is still seen as one of the greatest presidents of America. The West Wing emulated this idea through president Bartlett. The character was suffering from MS, a degenerative disease, and hiding it from the public. However, just as with FDR, this did not make him a bad president; he was progressive, usually successful, and very paternalistic, agonizing over decisions with a father’s concern, and being treated by his staff with the same love and respect as the ‘old man’ in Battlestar.

This portrayal again came during George Bush’s presidency. It is interesting that, during a time when confidence in presidential leadership was at an all-time low, these evocations of father-like, strong, brave, progressive, adored presidents were present in popular media to reassure the public of the legitimacy of the govermental system. However these were not sugar-coated portrayals; the alternative idolised leaders lied, they screwed up, they made bad decisions. Public opinion during the Bush era was at such a low that overwhelming positivity towards the office of the president in alternate realities wasn’t going to smooth things over. But with the admission of a few faults, compared with a comparision to the overall good of the charcters, the unstinting loyalty of their subjects, and their eventual redemption and return to good-leadership, what does it matter after all if the president screws up a little? When he has done so much good?