We live in an era now commonly described as Late Stage Capitalism. One of the many features of this contemporaneous period is that individuals in Western Society typically view ourselves as consumers first and citizens second (if indeed at all).
We are a consumer culture. We know more about the workings of the contract negotiations between Disney and Sony than any sane society should. Not only do we know about them, we grab popcorn and pick sides.
We follow the “Streaming Wars” not purely because we want to find out where we can watch the latest, best content but also because we have an appreciation for the veritable blood sport that is media conglomerates going at each other in the public eye and at the negotiating table. That’s why Netflix losing the Office is breaking news, as is them seeming to rebound by picking up Seinfeld. It’s the equivalent of LeBron James bricking a game saving shot only to have the rebound flipped to Ray Allen who nails the corner 3 to turn the series (with apologies to the 2012-2013 San Antonio Spurs). The media context in which content is produced is itself entertainment.
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Much of streaming television is mindless, not just what is produced but also how we interact with it. “Netflix and Chill” is even born in part from this understanding, that the laptop is somewhere, over there in background, doing its thing while…you’re doing yours. People use it to fall asleep. People have it on as white noise as they go about their day. People do just about everything they can to not just simply watch it. I remember struggling to get through the highly rated Netflix series Narcos because half of the show was in Spanish which meant…I couldn’t be on my phone, or doing yoga or anything else other than sitting down and giving it all of my attention. A big ask these days for anything short of a masterpiece.
And so I think there is a often the temptation when consuming media on such a passive level to not critically interrogate what that media is saying and the impact its consumption has on the shaping of our thoughts, actions, and discourse.
The New York City based Hip Hop duo Dead Prez on the track Propaganda famously quipped “Tell me who’s got control of your mind/Your world view? Is it the news or the movie you’re taking your girl to?“
Even when we don’t give media our full attention, it has an impact on us. Perhaps even *more* so then, as we simply aren’t in a position to exercise our critical thinking skills and filter out ideas that might otherwise raise an eyebrow when we’re simultaneously keeping one eye on our second screen to see who is lurking our latest Instagram story.
Just one such eyebrow raising trailer dropped a couple of weeks ago. As Amazon begins their uphill push into the streaming sector, they have been big-game hunting. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon (and famous for not, today, ending world hunger) declared that he wanted Prime Video to find their own “Game of Thrones” and has been licensing various intellectual property accordingly. One such venture led to the creation of Jack Ryan, starring Jim Halpert – excuse me – John Krasinski as he attempts a pivot into the action hero genre.
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Jack Ryan is returning for its second season. The show is based on the long-running series of Tom Clancy novels that follow the titular Ryan, from lowly pencil pusher outside the halls of power to literally the president of the United States who then wages secret war against state actors that he views as enemies of America. Ryan has been portrayed umpteen times ranging from the very good including Harrison Fords turn in Patriot Games to…the not so good (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck).
This season of Jack Ryan centers the action in Latin America, a space that the series has visited umpteen times including most recently in the movie Clear and Present Danger, when Ryan played by Ford is in part of a CIA operation to disrupt a powerful cocaine cartel in Colombia, but ends up discovering American complicity in the drug trade.
Now, Tom Clancy’s works are all birds of feather. They are all a kind of wish-fulfillment intelligence literature for boomer-aged men of a certain (read, right wing) political leaning. Where an American man of strong will can impose their version of justice on the world.
It posits Venezuela not only as a country that is essentially a dictatorship but most distressingly as an imminent threat to the safety and security of the United States. The trailer itself is worth watching to demonstrate how over the top it is. Literally the line read is “A nuclear Venezuela… you will not hear about it on the news ’cause we’ll already be dead”.
Now, you might think that this kind of line can’t be mistaken for anything but fiction and therefore will have no influence on how an audience feels about Venezuela. But the United States and the CIA have been in a longstanding cold war with Venezuela, since Hugo Chavez was carried to power after a landslide election in 2007. Chavez died a few years ago and his successor Maduro does not have the personal charisma of Chavez, and has been under assault by the US ever since. If this all seems like pinko propaganda, one needs only to examine the list of countries in South and Central America that the United States *hasn’t* interfered with the explicit goal of regime change. It’s a very small group. It is meaningful that a popular tv show is positioning another democracy, even if a geopolitical rival, as a security threat to the United States.
The portrayal of Venezuela in Jack Ryan then reads then as reckless at best and disturbing at worst. Popular support for war is a chief factor in the ability of modern democracies to wage effective war, the drumming up for the misadventure in Iraq in 2003 is a prime example of this. This same kind of machine is rolling right now in an attempt to justify war in Iran and we should be suspicious of media, entertainment or otherwise, that tries to lead us to war yet again.
So perhaps when choosing your next streaming show to only half-watch, be a little more critical of the message the show is sending – even if it seems like “mindless entertainment”.