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.