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Imperialism and revolutionaries

New TV show encapsulates the dissonance between US nostalgia for revolution and its current counter-revolutionary stance

Last updated: 08 May 2014 05:33
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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US political culture fetishises revolutionary ideals instead of putting them into practice, writes Dabashi [AP]

Do people still watch TV? I have serious doubts. Nielsen, the TV ratings firm, has found that viewership among 18-to-24-year-old Americans has now dropped for at least eight consecutive quarters. Technology seems to have overtaken television, and the younger generation in particular tends to be more occupied with their laptops and the Internet than with TV.

But precisely for that reason, TV shows now have reasons to navigate new themes and explore more daring territory. The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, 24, The West Wing, Six Feet Under and Big Love are all examples of dramas that have redefined TV in North America.

These shows have tried to attract precisely the demographic that is losing interest in TV by exploring themes that had previously been untenable. Sex and the City flaunted female sexuality, Big Love explored polygamy, The Sopranos wanted to up the ante on Godfather crime families, and The West Wing brought high-voltage politics to American living rooms. Finally, fully cognisant of people's changing viewing habits, The House of Cards experimented with a new way of watching TV: The entire first season premiered in February 2013 on the streaming service Netflix.

It is in this context that we may look at a new series that just started in the US. Based in part on Alexander Rose's best-seller Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, AMC's new period drama ""Turn"" tells the story of a Long Island farmer caught between his father's loyalty to the British crown and his childhood friends, who are Continental Army regulars trying to recruit him as a spy. The series begins at a point when the British have captured significant territory and put General George Washington's army in peril.

The reviews have not exactly been enthusiastic. "A bland show with a terse title" that "trap[s] good actors", is how one reviewer dismissed the show, claiming it failed "to capitalise on the useful parts of their premises". How long the show will last is uncertain when the executives read such reviews as this: "'"Turn"' is plodding, predictable and a bit confusing, though I might have tried harder to follow the plot had any of the characters made it worth my while." Or: "Ultimately, '"Turn"' is limited, pallid and derivative." Yet another reviewer wrote: "Despite this highly dramatic premise, '"Turn"' feels small and dull."

US political culture - and the entertainment industry that caters to it - subscribes to a palpable paradox, banking on the country's revolutionary heritage while militantly working against any and every revolutionary movement that challenges its imperial domination around the globe.

Given the cutthroat market for such dramas, this tone of voice is not entirely surprising. But precisely because of the brutish disposition of the commercial market in which such shows appear and disappear, we might also detect in them a hidden vista.

Revolutionary past

In dramas such as "Turn" there seems to be a not-so-hidden desire to remember the revolutionary past of the United States and reconnect it with the current revolutionary spirit throughout the world. The drama's sympathies are clearly with the American revolutionaries, not the powerful British Empire. The British are imperial, arrogant, domineering, conniving - the proverbial "bad guys". Americans are revolutionary, defiant, courageous, imaginative, moral - and, of course, "the good guys".

US political culture - and the entertainment industry that caters to it - subscribes to a palpable paradox, banking on the country's revolutionary heritage while militantly working against any and every revolutionary movement that challenges its imperial domination around the globe.

That paradox gives the US the moral presumption of saving the world - while trying to shape it in a manner that best serves its own interests. Those interests are no longer formed, framed, or even informed by those bygone revolutionary ideals, which are more often fetishised than put into practise. To the contrary: These ideals are vitiated by a crass, cruel opportunism aiming to control the world and make it dance to its haphazard, aimless, wayward, soulless and surreal tune.

What is the point of celebrating your revolutionary past when you are busy crushing the revolutionary presence of every nation around the globe that dares to imagine their freedom in terms alien to your dead certainties? 

Using the space of TV dramas at a time of uncertain viewership, shows like "Turn" expose feeble attempts to revive a revolutionary past that has now degenerated into a charade - actors dressing in fake uniforms sporting make-believe antique weapons, fighting fictitious battles against an empire that is no more - as their own postmodern empire uses the latest technology to spy on peoples and governments, prepares "kill lists" for extrajudicial assassinations and sends state-of-the-art drones to maim and murder people at will.

There is thus a disconnect, an emotive dissonance, in a political culture that remembers its own revolutionary heritage at the same time that it is armed to teeth as one of the world's biggest counter-revolutionary forces.

That dissonance spells out the terms of the blase vacuity with which revolutionary dramas like "Turn" are imagined and performed at the heart of this empire.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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