Responding to Joseph Massad on Homeland

There is little that Joseph Massad got right in his scathing attack on the Showtime TV series Homeland. In a lengthy screed for Al Jazeera, the Columbia University associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history left no stone unturned in a scorched-earth assault that ultimately revealed more about him than it did Homeland.

We’ll leave aside, for the moment, sentences like these: “This also applies to the more virulent Israeli Jewish racist representations of Arabs and Muslims, not only in the Israeli media, school curricula, and all cultural artifacts that Israeli Jewish society produces, but also by actual and ongoing Israeli Jewish policies towards Arabs inside and outside Israel.” If the man is being paid by the conjunction, all hail the world champion.

I will also disclaim right from the start that I am a devoted fan of Homeland. But this neither precludes me from accepting others’ critiques of the show nor prevents me from making my own (and it has its weaknesses, from melodramatic dialogue to improbable plots and more). But the tenor and, more importantly, substance of Massad’s critique is just wrong — and I mean that in the objective, fact-based way that Mitt Romney is wrong about Barack Obama’s apology tour. As in, what he’s saying is simply not true.

Where to begin? First, there is this discomfiting description of the main characters:

The CIA team monitoring Al-Qaida from Langley, Virginia, is represented by three top figures: the African-American David Estes, the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the American Jew Saul Berenson who is unsurprisingly the CIA’s Middle-East Division Chief, and the white Christian American Carrie Mathison, the female star of the show, who is a CIA intelligence officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center.

The racialist structure of the show is reflective of American and Israeli fantasies of anti-Muslim American multiculturalism. The African American Estes is divorced and his former wife married an American Jew. She and their children converted to Judaism. He has also had a dalliance with his colleague Carrie that went awry. The Jewish Berenson is married to an Indian Hindu “brown” woman (perhaps cementing the Indian Hindu-Israeli Jewish rightwing alliance against Arabs and Muslims in the minds of the scriptwriters). On the first season of the show, cross racial romance seems to have also infected the character of a white rich American woman who fell in love with a “brown” mild-mannered Saudi professor at a US university and conscripted him in the service of Al-Qaida, which leads to his ultimate death and her imprisonment, though not before the Jewish Berenson tells her how much he identifies with her as two white people who fell in love with brown people.

The bizarre characterization of these three by their race/ethnicity and religion, followed by the off-tangent diatribe on miscegenation, is strange enough on its own. But Massad makes racial difference into something of a leitmotif by the end of his essay. In various passages, he writes of the Ashkenazi-inflected Arabic spoken by Nick Brody, his “suspiciously brown” Caucasian wife Jess, and even the metaphorical symbolism of the CIA director David Estes “[standing in] for Obama, at least as far as racial semiotics are concerned.” He distinguishes between “the Jewish [Saul] Berenson” and his “white colleague,” as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. And in remarking on the death of an African-American character, Tom Walker, Massad declares it a manifestation of “the racist fantasy that a white American man gets to kill the same black man, not once but twice!”

Forgive me for being unaware of that particular fantasy. But Massad’s unnerving racial obsession is just the beginning, because he misunderstands most of Homeland‘s storyline as well. Here are, in order, some of his dullest moments:

1) Massad writes:

The gender representation is also remarkable for its commitment to 1970s white American feminism by featuring a leading strong white female character as the star of the show (which Hollywood began to champion since the film Alien in the late 1970s) and its equal commitment to sexist representations of white women as hysterics, or at least in Carrie’s case, for suffering from America’s most fashionable commercialised psychiatric ailment of the decade: bipolar disorder (an “ailment” that succeeded clinical depression as the most fashionable American psychiatric disorder in the preceding decade).

Here he misunderstands the show entirely. Carrie’s bipolar disorder is not a convenient demonstration of a “commitment to sexist representations of white women as hysterics.” It is, rather, intended (and sometimes succeeds) as a microcosm of the collective moral ambivalence of post-9/11 America. If the iconic series 24 — which Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa worked on as well — represented the full-blown glory and power of the American id in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks, then Homeland is its natural sequel: an angst-ridden reaction to all that we’ve done in the name of counterterrorism over the past decade to the noisy pulse of a ticking digital clock.

The frantic real-time pace of 24 has been replaced by the more measured, and conventional, storytelling style of Homeland, and in this, too, one can make out the contours of our (achingly slow) evolution of the national conversation on security as well. We are moving from a worldview in which the next threat lurks perpetually just around the corner to one in which the magnitude of the unseen menace itself is an increasingly debatable question. (A piece last week in the New York Times, for example, signaled a growing exhaustion with the endless budget for security measures. The implications of this American tiredness have yet to be realized in actual major policy shifts, however.)

2) Massad refers to an emotional moment between Brody and Jess:

Concern about what Arab and Muslim men do to “their” women is paramount on the show’s scriptwriters’ minds. When Brody’s wife finds out he had converted to Islam, she throws the English translation of the Quran on the floor (very astutely done by the show’s producers who seem to think that only the Arabic Qur’an should not be desecrated) and asks in horror how he could have converted to a religion whose adherents would “stone” his daughter “to death in a soccer stadium” if they found out she was having sex with her boyfriend.

It’s incredible to me that Massad simply assumes Jess’ worldview is the one preferred by the creators of Homeland — or even the one perpetrated by the show itself. To anyone with even a passing affection for the show, it is quite obvious that Jess sees herself as a victim of Brody’s increasingly erratic behavior, but in no way does the show imply that this indignation is justifiably extended to include her concurrent Islamophobia as well. By contrast, Homeland goes out of its way to portray her as a woman with many faults: in fact, part of what attracts Brody to Carrie in the first place is his inability to reveal his thoughts to a wife who is simply unwilling and unable to understand him. Jess similarly repels her teenaged daughter, Dana, and is portrayed as a mostly ineffective mother to Chris as well. The totality of Jess’ persona is one of increasing isolation and incomprehension at a world she doesn’t understand. How Joseph Massad manages to miss all of this and yet stubbornly insist that her primitive characterization of Muslims as bloodthirsty prudes is representative of the show’s own perspective is truly a mystery.

3) Massad again:

On the most recent episode of season two, the Jewish Berenson declares in the context of searching for Brody’s Al-Qaida contact among hundreds of people that: “We prioritize. First the dark skinned ones” should be watched. When a white colleague objects that this is “straight up racial profiling,” Berenson responds that it is “actual profiling. Most Al-Qaida operatives are going to be Middle Eastern or African.” This is being said while the main Al-Qaida CIA target on the show is a white marine. The African-American Estes and Obama stand-in expectedly offers no protests to the Jewish Berenson. He just says “OK!”

Again, it’s hard to believe Massad and I are watching the same series. What he fails to mention is that, following this exchange, Berenson proceeds to identify his top three (Middle Eastern) suspects: a car wash manager, a cabdriver, and a grad student — all three of whom are (at least so far) completely unconnected to the actual plot Brody has been assisting. In fact, Berenson even fails to identify Roya Hammad as suspicious, despite 1) her very real role as an intermediary between the terrorist Abu Nazir and Nick Brody and 2) her private conversation with Brody while Berenson and Co. looked on via surveillance camera. There is a not-so-subtle irony here: in the very same moment that Berenson advocates racial profiling as the most efficient approach, Homeland demonstrates just how completely inaccurate and ineffective the practice actually is. (A similar inversion of conventional wisdom took place in Season 1, when the suburban Caucasian wife was an actual villain while her Arab husband turned out to be a red herring.) Massad, of course, missed all of this entirely.

4) Massad objects to Homeland‘s characterization of Beirut:

Beirut’s nouveaux-riches who spent billions of dollars (of the Lebanese people’s money) making the city look like a fun and modern western city are surely outraged that their city is depicted like some poor remote Afghani village. Indeed the multi-billion dollar Rafiq Hariri Airport looks more like a bus stop in war-ravaged rural Iraq than a modern airport. More recently, Lebanese tourism minister Fadi Abboud told the Associated Press that he is so upset about the portrayal of Beirut on the show that he is considering a lawsuit.

I nearly laughed out loud when I read the part about “the multi-billion dollar Rafiq Hariri Airport.” I spent this past summer in Beirut, and I’ve flown into and out of the airport there four times: if the Rafiq Hariri Airport is truly the final product of a multi-billion dollar investment, I’d be curious to discover just where all that money went. There is absolutely nothing spectacular or even remotely luxurious about the place, and I could probably name over a dozen other airports off the top of my head (including, for example, Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport) that match or exceed Beirut’s in style, comfort, and luxury. And even if this were not the case, Homeland‘s depiction of the airport was hardly prejudicial: nothing about the portrayal did a disservice to the real-life version. If anything, it may have actually improved upon reality.

Secondly, while the show’s depiction of Hamra Street was indeed quite unrealistic — it is, in fact, a bustling and trendy part of Beirut, littered with bars and coffee shops where the urban restless come to work and play — there is again a bit of tragic irony in the fact that, mere days after Fadi Abboud’s defensive comments (including his preposterous declaration that Beirut was more secure than New York and London), a car bomb exploded in one of Beirut’s wealthier districts, Achrafieh, killing a high-ranking Lebanese intelligence official and seven others.

All of this is not to say that Massad is entirely delusional. For example, he is at his strongest in the section titled “American Fantasies of Race and Sex,” in which he ably compares racist paradigms against African-Americans in a bygone era with the contemporary treatment of homosexuality (and especially Arab homosexuality). He also rightly takes issue with Homeland‘s all-too-easy bursts of self-righteous Western superiority, as when Carrie threatens a Saudi diplomat by implying she’ll send his daughter, a Yale student, “back to Saudi Arabia [where she’ll] get fat and wear a burqa for the rest of her miserable life.”

This latter example is one I find especially disturbing. It is so obviously racist that it seems impossible the show intended for it to be digested uncritically. And yet it seems to serve no greater purpose than to reignite the flames of that old American vengeance so purposefully exploited for years via the revenge porn of shows like 24. Sometimes it seems as if Homeland tries too deftly to counterbalance its (very slightly) liberal reading of the so-called “War on Terror” by interspersing its open self-doubt with some occasional triumphal and vitriolic Muslim-hatred. This not only undermines its message — to the extent that Homeland has an ideology — but is frustratingly typical for modern American liberalism: forever timid of its own beliefs, it tempers its principles with a frequent nod to baser instincts.

Throughout Season 1 and the first five episodes of Season 2 that have aired so far, Homeland‘s greatest weakness is that it falls prey to these crude racial and religious stereotypes that Massad appropriately decries. But he weakens his own critique by mischaracterizing Homeland‘s more defensible aspects in order to fit into his broader narrative of racial hatred. It’s a simplistic and inaccurate reading of an otherwise stellar show, even one whose ideology remains uncomfortably attached to a more Manichean era in American politics.

May the Force be with Disney

Yesterday brought some surprising news for the Star Wars franchise:

The Walt Disney Company, in a move that gives it a commanding position in the world of fantasy movies, said Tuesday it had agreed to acquire Lucasfilm from its founder, George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in stock and cash.

The sale provides a corporate home for a private company that grew from Mr. Lucas’s hugely successful “Star Wars” movie series, and became an enduring force in the creation of effects-driven science fiction entertainment for large and small screens. Mr. Lucas, who is 68 years old, had already announced he would step down from day-to-day operation of the company.

Combined with the purchase of Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009 and of Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion in 2006, the acquisition solidifies Disney’s status as a leader in animation and superhero films. And it strengthens the legacy of Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, who has become known for his aggressive expansion of the company since taking charge in 2005.

But the strange timing of the announcement got the wheels spinning at New York Magazine:

Disney called Star Wars an “evergreen” media property today. But the prospect of keeping the Star Wars series going ad infinitum, and expanding it to regions and age groups in which it isn’t already well known or loved, is far from a sure bet with consumers. It essentially amounts to wagering that die-hards will continue to flock to anything with the Star Wars name on it, while also betting that new movies will draw a younger generation that didn’t grow up on Millenium Falcon references.

Disney can’t rely on old intellectual property — it needs Lucasfilm to keep throwing off cash to justify its $4 billion price tag. But with aging cultural cachet (the first Star Wars came out 35 years ago) and a consumer base that has lots of other popular franchises clamoring for its attention, it’s hard to think that the marketing machine of a decade ago can keep chugging along at pace. As this chart from Box Office Mojo points out, recent Star Wars movies (adjusted for ticket price inflation) have generally underperformed older ones. Why would newer versions, released by Disney, fare any better?

George Lucas, who has seen the Star Wars franchise go from revered cultural touchstone to virtual punchline, may have accepted a lowball bid in an effort to wash his hands of the series altogether. But I doubt it. We won’t know for sure until Disney reports LucasFilm’s financials, but it seems to me that Lucas may have gotten the better deal here.

If Disney can’t keep a parade of Star Wars sequels from suffering diminishing returns, its “evergreen” acquisition may be more like a wilting flower. And if Disney knows it overpaid, or even senses it might have, then burying the news makes all the sense in the world.

Chris Christie veers off-message

Could be just Chris Christie continuing his role as the GOP’s Bill Clinton: the hell-raisin’, charismatic star that articulates his candidate’s vision more clearly and convincingly than the guy himself can. Or maybe it’s a sign of some as-yet-unknown rift between Mitt Romney and the New Jersey governor. Either way, Christie’s effusive praise of Barack Obama for his role in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts has raised some eyebrows:

Chris Christie was supposed to be one of Mitt Romney‘s most aggressive surrogates, constantly attacking President Obama in the waning days of the presidential campaign.

Instead, Mr. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has spent the last several hours repeatedly heaping praise on Mr. Obama as effectively leading the federal government’s response to the huge storm that slammed into his state on Monday.

Eight days ago, Mr. Christie described Mr. Obama as “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.” On Tuesday morning, he was effusive about Mr. Obama’s administration, calling the storm response “wonderful,” “excellent” and “outstanding.”

The overnight transformation of Mr. Christie from political slasher to disaster governor is a reflection of the magnitude of the devastation in New Jersey. Asked on Fox News whether Mr. Romney might tour damage of the state, Mr. Christie was dismissive.

“I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I have a job to do in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics,” Mr. Christie said. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”

Meanwhile, in the too-good-to-resist department, WorldNetDaily‘s Drew Zahn went there:

Journalist and White House correspondent William Koenig explained to WND that some of the United States’ most catastrophic storms and events have correlated closely with the nation’s God-defying attempts to divide the land of Israel.

“When we put pressure on Israel to divide their land, we have enormous, record-setting events, often within 24 hours,” Koenig told WND. “Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 – we have experienced over 90 record-setting, all-time events as we have acted against Israel. And the greater the pressure on Israel to ‘cooperate,’ the greater the catastrophe.”

Some of Koenig’s examples are startling.

“Hurricane Sandy is expected to come ashore in the Northeast on the 21st anniversary of the ‘Perfect Storm,’” Koenig related. “That record-setting storm devastated the New England coast as President George H.W. Bush co-sponsored the Madrid Conference from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 1991.”

At the Conference, Bush broke from President Reagan’s more pro-Israel policies in the attempt to forge an Arab-Israeli “peace” plan that included recognizing a Palestinian “right” to biblically Jewish lands. But while Bush was in Spain advocating a division of Israel, the “Perfect Storm” – so named for the ferociously destructive way in which a cold nor’easter combined with Hurricane Grace – was lashing the U.S. seaboard at home.

“The Perfect Storm sent 30-foot ocean waves into Bush’s Kennebunkport home as he was calling on Israel to give up the West Bank (Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem),” Koenig told WND. “The Madrid ‘land for peace’ Conference began the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that Mitt Romney advocated in the debates, even as yet another ‘perfect storm’ is brewing offshore.”

The original Perfect Storm formed on Oct. 28, 1991, and dissipated on Nov. 4 – correlating almost perfectly with dates of the Madrid Conference. The storm was blamed for 13 deaths and over $200 million in damages, including those to Bush’s vacation home.

Similarly, Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest and costliest hurricane in U.S. history, hit Aug. 29, 2005; the storm began the day President George W. Bush congratulated Israel for evacuating Gaza and called on the Israelis and Palestinians to move onto his two-state plan.

So what national iniquity specifically caused Hurricane Sandy, then?

“Both political parties have now accepted, specifically, a two-state solution to peace in the Mideast, dividing Israel’s land between Israel and a Palestinian state,” Koenig told WND. “And now this hurricane story is going to disrupt political campaigning and possibly affect voter turnout for both parties.

“There has been a lot of behind-the-scenes pressure on Israel by the Obama administration, to not act on Iran prior to the election,” Koenig continued, “but the most succinct correlation is that both parties have officially endorsed the two-state solution.”

Koenig also pointed to Romney’s statements at the last presidential debate, when the Republican declared, “Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have.”

Koenig, however, warned that making “progress” on the land-for-peace talks, which would see Israel surrender land to a Palestinian state, is exactly what could be prompting these catastrophic weather “acts of God.”

Nice to see Hurricane Sandy spared the nut jobs. Carry on as usual, gentlemen.

It needed to be said

The New York Times went there last night:

Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.

Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.

It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning. FEMA, created by President Jimmy Carter, was elevated to cabinet rank in the Bill Clinton administration, but was then demoted by President George W. Bush, who neglected it, subsumed it into the Department of Homeland Security, and placed it in the control of political hacks. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was just waiting to happen.

The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value. Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.

The Washington Post went more in-depth to compare the two presidential candidates’ differing views on FEMA:

“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

But this is exactly how the system currently works: Local and state officials respond to disasters and make requests of the federal government for additional supplies or money only when needed. Reforms enacted since Hurricane Katrina permit governors to make requests in advance to ensure that federal officials are on the ground to assist with initial damage assessments and more quickly report back to Washington for help.

For example, Obama has signed at least nine federal emergency disaster declarations in the past 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response…

Jim Mullen, director of the Washington State Emergency Management Division and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said Obama’s legacy at FEMA has been restoring “strong professional emergency managers who can attract other emergency management professionals and support the ones already there and make certain that on this, at least, we should all be willing to put everything else aside and do what’s necessary for our country.”

Mitt Romney’s FEMA moment

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqXk5XxHKx8]

Mitt Romney’s comments in a June 2011 primary debate are gaining increasing traction as Hurricane Sandy (whipping in a frenzy right now just 15 feet away outside my window) approaches landfall in southern New Jersey. What he said:

JON KING: “FEMA’s about to run out of money, and there’s some people who say, ‘Do it on a case-by-case basis,’ and some people who say, ‘You know, maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role.’ How do you deal with something like that?”

MITT ROMNEY: “Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask ourselves the opposite question, what should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, ‘What are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do?’ And those things we’ve got to stop doing.”

Over at the New Republic, Alec MacGillis parses the implications:

But I would wager that there was something else behind Romney’s answer: his embrace of glib federalism, specifically as a solution to his great Obamacare conundrum. Remember, just a few weeks prior to that debate, Romney had given a big speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was intended to resolve what at the time seemed like his greatest obstacle to the Republican nomination, his having signed the Massachusetts universal health care law that was the model for the Affordable Care Act. In that speech, Romney made clear that he would wrangle his way around this not by disowning the Massachusetts law, but by simply declaring that it should be up to states, not the federal government, to decide how to cover their uninsured: “Our plan was a state solution to a state problem. And [President Obama’s] is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one size fits all plan across the nation.”

As my colleague Jonathan Cohn and others noted at the time, there were all sorts of problems with this distinction, including the fact that Massachusetts would not have been able to carry out its universal program without considerable help from the federal government. But the biggest flaw with the “let the states address the problem” approach is, quite simply, that many states don’t really see their uninsured as a problem. The political leadership in much of the country, especially but not only in the South, has again and again opted against expanding health coverage, notably by refusing to raise income eligibility thresholds for Medicaid coverage (in Texas, Virginia and many other states, an adult earning as little as $10,000 per year is considered too well-off to qualify.) This, as Jonathan wrote in a major piece last month, is a big reason why we do social legislation such as Medicare and Social Security and the Affordable Care Act on a nationwide basis: to assure a basic level of security even for people in states where there would otherwise be very little effort made to fill the gap.

Romney of course knows this—it’s why he was, at various points before health care became a toxic issue, suggesting the law he signed as a model for a nationwide solution. And he surely knows why we have a national FEMA, and why leaving disaster relief to the states would mean a patchwork quilt that might be fine for wealthy, well-governed states such as Massachusetts but deeply inadequate in poor, disaster-prone states such as Louisiana or Mississippi (not to mention that all states are fundamentally ill-suited for disaster relief because they, unlike the feds, must balance their budgets every year and so cannot borrow big-time to pay for a disastrous patch.) But to make himself fit for the Republican Party in 2012, Romney figured he’d cast his Massachusetts moderation in the guise of federalism. And, let’s face it, it’s brought him very far.

New York awaits Sandy

The Atlantic Wire is updating throughout the day with the latest images, tweets, and descriptions of the moving weapon of mass destruction that is Hurricane Sandy. Landfall just south of New York City is expected later tonight or just after midnight. If you’re living in New York and don’t know whether you’re in an evacuation zone or not, please check…now.

The New York Times is also live-updating. Hopefully the power and Internet stay on throughout the night tonight, but there are no guarantees. Stay tuned.

The Hurricane Sandy tweet-a-storm

Here are some personal favorites so far: