Even Paranoid Stylists Have Enemies

So I’m finally getting around to commenting on Ross Douthat’s piece in the Atlantic about the Iraq-war-related rejuvenation of the paranoid style in American cinema. Towards the end of the piece Douthat makes the following comment:

Consider, as a telling example, Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). The brilliance of John Frankenheimer’s original lay in its willingness to conflate threats domestic and foreign, by featuring a buffoonish, demagogic Joe McCarthy figure who himself turned out to be a pawn of Communist agents (his wife chief among them). The obvious way to update the story would have been to portray a Cheney-like politician being manipulated by an al-Qaeda sleeper cell. Instead, Demme replaces the Red Menace with an evil corporation, in the process transforming a brilliantly murky story in which even paranoiacs turn out to have enemies (a fairly accurate take on the McCarthy era, as it happens) into a predictable rant against corporate power, in which the only thing America has to fear is Halliburton itself.

Well, that would have been an obvious way to update it . . . except that if there were (or are) al-Qaeda sleeper cells, nobody would believe that they were capable of manipulating the Vice President. I mean, try to spin the scenario.

But of course, there are other obvious candidates (apart from oil service companies) that are more inherently plausible as behind-the-scenes manipulators of the American government.

Iran. Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress provided much of the (wrong) intelligence on which the case for war against Iraq was based. Chalabi basically said after the war that it didn’t matter if he got his facts wrong; what mattered was that Iraq was liberated. A couple of years after the invasion, he was accused by some members of the American foreign policy apparatus of passing information on the Iranians. Moreover, there’s a perfect counterpart to the Angela Lansbury part in TMC: Paul Wolfowitz has an Iraqi Shiite girlfriend! Meanwhile, the Iranians have, objectively, been the big regional beneficiaries of America’s war in Iraq, as that war has eliminated one of their key enemies, given them much more influence in the country, and undermined our ability to act against Iran directly because of the vulnerability of our forces in Iraq to Iranian reprisals and the lack of credibility we now have with the larger community of nations.

I don’t happen to believe Chalabi was an Iranian agent, nor is there any evidence that he was; Chalabi was working for Chalabi, and working for Chalabi meant working with Americans, Iranians, whoever you need to work with. But we’re talking about the paranoid style. You would think a movie portraying the Iraq war as the result of an Iranian operation to manipulate the American government would do well, no?

Israel. The primary conduit for Chalabi to reach to highest levels in Washington was the neoconservative foreign policy network. This network is, for understandable reasons, closely identified with the so-called “Israel Lobby” (although if the latter has any clear meaning then the two groups cannot be considered identical). Perhaps Israel was manipulating the government behind the scenes, using Chalabi rather than being used by him?

Now, as with the Iranian story, I don’t believe the paranoid story about Israel either. There is abundant evidence that the Israeli government did not place a high priority on the Iraqi threat, and that during the Clinton Administration key American neoconservatives (e.g., Richard Perle) were in fact lobbying the Israelis to make more of a big deal about Iraq so as to advance the prospects of their agenda for Iraqi regime change in Washington.

But we’re talking about a paranoid cinema. Doug Feith was Undersecretary of State for Policy. His law partner keeps a home on the West Bank. Bernard Lewis wrote op eds calling for the reinstallation of the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq; others spoke openly of a Hashemite restoration as the solution to the Palestinian “problem.” Richard Perle sponsored a lecture promoting an invasion of Iraq that concluded with “Iraq is the tactical pivot. Saudi Arabia is the strategic pivot. Egypt is the prize.” There is plenty to hang a paranoid narrative about Israeli agents in the Pentagon fomenting war with Iraq.

Saudi Arabia. Isn’t it striking how, even though the overwhelming majority of the 9-11 attackers were Saudis, al-Qaeda was founded by a Saudi millionaire heir, and the Saudis are the primary funders of Sunni extremist religious groups that are the “sea” in which groups like al-Qaeda swim, the United States has done nothing to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for the events of 9-11? It’s almost like the Saudis had an inside track into this Administration that deflected attention away from them and onto targets more palatable to the Saudi regime.

Indeed, while the Saudis voiced their opposition to the Iraq war in public, that war has been mighty convenient from the perspective of Saudi foreign policy objectives. The biggest threat to Saudi Arabia has historically been internal, not external, and the biggest internal threats stemmed from poor economic performance on the one hand and anger at the close connection with America on the other. Well, the Iraq War drove up oil prices dramatically, which has filled Saudi coffers and enabled the regime to do more to buy off internal opposition. The Iraq War has also facilitated the wind-down of the American presence in Saudi Arabia, a key al-Qaeda grievance. And the Iraq War has given Sunni extremist groups something much more pressing to focus on besides Saudi friendship with America.

Again, I don’t believe the Saudis are secretly behind the Iraq War. But again, we’re talking about paranoid cinema. And there is ample basis for a paranoid movie about Saudi royals (with incriminating information on President’s family?) manipulating the Administration into war.

Why haven’t these sorts of movies been made? Why, indeed, does Hollywood keep coming back to the same, tired enemies? Why keep fingering the CIA, when the biggest advocates for war were critics of the overly-cautious CIA? Why keep fingering corporations, when there were so many cheaper and more lucrative ways for corporations to manipulate the American government (all of which have been tried, successfully, in this Administration) than to start a war?

I think there are several reasons.

First, and most obviously, Hollywood prefers bad guys that nobody will object to, because they market movies globally. Probably the only one of the paranoid stories above that would play well abroad is the one about Israel. I think you can guess as well as I can why that movie isn’t going to be made in Hollywood.

Second, the stories are too complicated. You actually have to have some idea of the complexity of the region for the plot to make any sense. The original Manchurian Candidate was so powerful in part because its premise, while novel, was simple. The world was still black and white. It just turns out that the white queen is actually playing for black. (I know, it was the queen of diamonds, cards not chess; you get the idea.)

Third, the stories are not paranoid enough. This is, I think, the most important point. Take the Iran example. Nobody thinks Iran secretly controls the world. If they managed to manipulate us into war, that doesn’t prove there’s a vast, world-spanning conspiracy out to undermine America. It proves we’re chumps who got manipulated into war by a third-rate power that hasn’t won a war centuries! A paranoid needs big enemies. Even Israel and Saudi Arabia, who probably present more plausible “secret manipulator” candidates to many filmgoers, need to be pretty dramatically inflated to be sufficiently “big” to fit the narrative requirements of a truly paranoid piece of cinema. Nowadays, the only guys “big” enough to be our enemies is . . . us.

(This, by the way, is why the corporate enemies fail to persuade as well: they aren’t big enough either. In general, only the “system” itself is big enough to truly fulfill the requirements of paranoia. And, as we learned from The Crying of Lot 49, a conspiracy sufficiently vast to really do the job in a paranoid narrative disqualifies itself precisely by presenting so much evidence that its reality becomes too obvious!)

Fourth, and relatedly, whatever the plot was, on some level it didn’t work. After all, every one of these paranoid narratives involves a massive bank-shot: Iran tricks us into wiping out its main regional enemy, but leaves us with a huge number of troops on its doorstep (might not work out so good for them); Israel tricks us into wiping out one of its old enemies, but lo and behold ; Saudi Arabia starts a massive war on their doorstep that inflames their citizens into volunteering for suicide missions against Americans in Iraq, all to deflect them from . . . volunteering for for suicide missions against Americans in Saudi Arabia. Not obvious. The paranoid style requires the conspirators to be brilliant at executing their plans. “Brilliant Execution” and “Iraq War” sit poorly together in a single narrative.

So, I think there are good reasons why more plausible conspiratorial narratives about the Iraq War aren’t being made into successful Hollywood movies. It’s even more obvious why gung-ho movies like the World War II films aren’t being made. It’s disappointing that Hollywood is making these dull paranoid throwbacks, but there’s an economic logic. But given what Iraq is, what one could rationally hope for is movies like Paths of Glory or M*A*S*H* rather than movies like The Fighting Seabees or, for that matter, Mister Roberts.

Meanwhile, this shows great promise. Which, if I can say something serious about H&KEFGB without cracking up, brings up an important closing point about paranoia.

Whether or not you feel that some degree of paranoia was rational after 9-11, what’s striking about the right-wing narrative of the post-9-11 landscape is the degree to which it partakes of a paranoid style – and the degree to which it has relied increasingly on paranoia as reality has diverged from the original premises behind our response to those attacks. “Axis of Evil,” “World War IV,” “Central Front in the War on Terror” – these are tropes designed to impose a coherence on the world, fit it into a narrative that is much simpler than reality. And, precisely because, unlike in World War II or even the Cold War, reality isn’t that neat, what results is something like a paranoid worldview. The fact that Ross thinks it would be “obvious” to update The Manchurian Candidate by making Cheney a dupe of al-Qaeda mind control is interesting, because that reflects a paranoid – and not a rationally paranoid – concept of what al-Qaeda is and how it operates. The “paranoid style” movies he’s criticizing reflect a worldview that is off-the-shelf paranoid, and that is indeed a real weakness. But a movie about an al-Qaeda sleeper agent controlling the government would only be persuasive to an audience that actually held paranoid beliefs about the world, because it is so completely detached from the actual nature of the enemy we face.