Mainstream media outlets have long compared activist demonstrations
to street theater, both as a way of emphasizing the decentralized,
grass-roots, and live nature of activists' tactics and as a way
of ridiculing activism as outdated, obnoxiously "in-your-face,"
and melodramatic. This portrayal was certainly clear in The
San Diego Union-Tribune coverage of those San Diegans protesting
Bush's January 20, 2005, presidential inauguration. The article
began by stressing the rudimentary nature of the protesters' rally:
"People banged pots and pans and waved banners and chanted
and cheered, but none of that was in celebration," staff
writer Michael Stetz wrote. Stetz went on to repeatedly stress
the predictably "unhappy" attitude of the protesters
and closed his piece with the reactions of passive bystanders
to the protest: "One man was heard to say: 'Anybody tell
them the '70s were, like, 30 years ago?'" and two tourists
from Phoenix who "didn't mind the commotion" as they
dined on sushi in the Gaslamp Quarter remarked, "It's like
dinner theater." Likewise, a San Francisco Chronicle
article, headlined "Whether Bush's fife and drums or San
Francisco's howls, pageantry ruled on Inauguration Day,"
shuttled between the theatrical elements of inauguration spectacles
in Washington and anti-inauguration rallies in San Francisco,
suggesting that both sides are complicit in a cycle of representations
and counter-representations that are "the way we conduct
politics more and more in this country, a showdown of appearances
and photo opportunities, planned spontaneity and 'authorized protests.'"
In actuality, as of late the Bush administration and its grass-roots
opponents have by no means shared equal footing in such a harmless
exchange of "appearances and photo opportunities," in
large part because of the unprecedented choreography and production
budget the president puts into his carefully orchestrated spectacles.
The most obvious instance might be Bush's now-infamous, nationally
televised spectacle aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May
2, 2003, in which he became the first sitting president to co-pilot
a plane landing on an aircraft carrier. Costumed in a green flight
suit and helmet, Bush went on to announce the "end to major
combat operations in Iraq" and to disingenuously draw parallels
between the war in Iraq and the "war on terrorism."
While the USS Lincoln spectacle allowed Bush to portray
himself as a rugged battle hero in order to upstage the realities
of the invasion of Iraq, the notoriously expensive pageantry of
Bush's second inauguration served to cover the contradictions
of extreme U.S. military losses in Iraq (18 months after major
combat supposedly ended) with celebrations of the power of those
out of harm's way.
The Bush administration's publicity stunts not only resemble
the theater: they employ theater professionals in an unabashed
attempt to glamorize its agenda. For instance, according to
The Washington Post, both the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations
employed stagehands from the International Alliance of Theatrical
Stage Employees (IATSE) in order to run the inaugural festivities.
The 2001 inauguration used 400 union stagehands, whereas the 2005
inauguration which had more time to plan lavish ceremonies
without the bother of court proceedings over election results
spent about $1 million on 600 IATSE workers. Even though
Republicans are known for their anti-labor stance, their desire
for polished stagings often overrides political ideology.
Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that the Bush administration's
desire for polished stagings have become their political
ideology. The latest and most insidious instance of Bush political
theater came in "the hug" seen around the world during
the President's February 2, 2005, State of the Union address in
the House chamber. Near the end of his 53-minute speech, Bush
introduced two of the many guests planted in the audience near
his wife, Laura. He introduced Janet and William Norwood of Pflugerville,
Texas, whose Marine sergeant son, Byron, had been killed in the
2004 siege of Fallujah. Bush turned these audience members into
supporting actors by rationalizing their grief as a noble sacrifice
for the protection of American freedoms, and he made sure to select
a fallen soldier who believed in the mission (as proven by a letter
Bush read aloud) and parents who seemed to harbor no resentment
toward the military that took their 25-year-old son. But then
the supporting actors in the audience decided to improvise their
roles, creating a moment that almost every newspaper in America
(and, amazingly, many abroad) uncritically portrayed as "magic."
Iraqi activist Safia Taleb al-Suhail, also seated near Laura Bush,
bearing a purple-ink-stained finger to mark her voter status in
the recent election, and present to silently testify to the atrocities
of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein (whose agents killed her
father in 1994), suddenly reached out and hugged Janet Norwood.
The longest standing ovation of the evening, and one of the longest
in State of the Union address history, followed this highly emotional
display, continuing even through the long awkward moment in which
Byron Norwood's dog tags became entangled with al-Suhail's clothing
and jewelry. Almost no one in the media noted the irony of this
awkward entanglement, which sardonically symbolized the trap in
which U.S. militarism had caught Iraqi civilians and the coerced
nature of the embrace. Instead, reporters gushed over this "most
dramatic moment" that stood as "the emotional high point
of President Bush's speech."
Tim Reid of The Times (London) made a comment that epitomized
the dangerous leap from theatricality or recognizing the
artifice of the spectacle to uncritical emotionalism. "Although
it was well scripted and choreographed," Reid wrote, "what
followed caught the chamber in a collective burst of raw emotion.
Mr Bush himself looked genuinely tearful." Theater scholars
note the difference between political theater, which largely follows
the philosophy of German theater director Bertolt Brecht and encourages
critical detachment from the spectacle at hand, and realist theater,
which abides by Aristotle's philosophy that drama produce an emotional
catharsis that uncritically engages audience members and purges
their anti-social tendencies before they leave the theater. Moments
like "the hug" make it clear that the Bush administration's
aspirations are not to political theater that might make its constituents
think critically about U.S. militarism, but to Aristotelian catharsis
that clouds constituents' vision with satisfying tears.
Perhaps the saddest casualty of Bush's "stage-struck"
policies (to borrow theater scholar Shadi Bartsch's description
of ancient Roman emperor Nero) may be the young men and women
who are made to believe that war and military service are as glamorous
and theatrical as Hollywood depicts it. The Bush administration
generally and the military in particular encourage recruitment
by blurring the line between the reality of military service and
such slick representations. The recent documentary film Gunner
Palace captures the resultant surrealism of military service
in Iraq. Filmmaker Michael Tucker spent time with the U.S. soldiers
stationed at Gunner Palace and said of his experience, "At
times, it didn't feel like I was shooting a documentary, rather
a war movie that we have all seen a dozen times. For the older
officers and NCOs it was M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts
for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon and Full
Metal Jacket you could see it in the way they rode
in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door helicopters
with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War.
. . . The reality for these soldiers was stranger than any fiction,
and they knew it. The trouble was, this war any war
isn't like the movies."
Tragically, the disjunction between movies and reality has cost
many soldiers their lives, as they are woefully ill-equipped for
the realities of combat because their leaders back home would
rather spend millions of dollars on big-budget spectacles than
on needed body armor and munitions. As a theater person, I encourage
government funding of the arts, but not this way.
Emily Roxworthy is a professor of theater history and dramatic
literature at UC San Diego.
Sources: The San Diego Union-Tribune, January 21, 2005;
San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2005; CNN,
May 2, 2003; The Washington Post, January 10, 2005;
New York Daily News, February 3, 2005; The Times (London),
February 4, 2005; http://www.movienet.com/gunnerpalace.html,
accessed March 4, 2005.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org)