During Netanyahu’s fear mongering speeches given to AIPAC and Congress on the “Iranian threat,” he used the phrase “tentacles of terror” to describe Terhan’s regional politics. This phrase stood out to me for more reasons than its alliterative content as it jogged my memory on a whole slew of science fictional metaphors used to mobilize aggression and oppression in recent history.
Ruling classes and their media are generally opposed to complex analyses of events. Reducing situations like the Syrian Civil War or the recent war on Gaza to a single cause is the norm in politics, and has been for some time. That events might be overdetermined—that is, subject to multiple causal webs layering over a structural framework which permits and excludes possibilities—is a dangerous concept for those who want to foment aggression and oppression. The primary way to carry out these reductive acts is through the use of some metaphor or simile that calls to mind a simplistic narrative of cause and effect.
In ancient history, 2002 in fact (and what is more ancient than yesterday in our current political calculus?), former President George W. Bush gave a speech about an “axis of evil” including Iraq, Iran, and—unlikely enough—North Korea. This called to mind World War II and gave a powerful mobilizing metaphor for justifying the goals of the War on Terror, which was couched in language to make it seem part of an epic conflict rather than a justification for a series of neo-colonial interventions and the construction of a more Orwellian (see? More science fictional imagery) security state apparatus.
This was grounded in Bush’s use of the language of “evil” and “evil doers,” which called Biblical language to the minds of some, but more importantly utilized a narrative not uncommon in superhero stories. Who has not heard the phrase “evil doers” in the context of some one-dimensional good guy—and it’s usually a guy—fighting “crime” or some fantasy thereof?
Ordinary people in the United States know worse than nothing about the complexities of global politics or the politics of the Middle East. Even those on the tiny “left” favor reductive analyses which paint a struggle between “camps” or reduce all actions in the region to the agency of the US and its “client” regimes (or to the perverse imagery of Israel calling all the shots—even in Washington). The efficacy of people on the ground, the divergence of views between and within organizations, all of this is messy and frankly quite frightening as it invites us to think about thinkg and make judgments on a case by case basis rather than rely on some rule of thumb. And so what better way to mobilize the unthinking than by recalling some narrative they are already primed to understand?
There is always “a new Hitler” around every corner. Stalin was the first one, but this has continued all the way up to this moment, particularly in the mainstream media’s presentation of the politics of Vladimir Putin. Fantasies of WWII—themselves far from the truth of the matter—are often employed because “we just know” what happened during that era (most people have no idea). But there is another narrative type that is even more commonly employed: that of the science fictional spy thriller.
We usually think of things like James Bond in the context of its own sub-genre of “spy thriller” within the rubric of “action/adventure.” But as Samuel Delany says, such genre labels serve the function of segregating readers and consumers of media but do little to illuminate reality. What is more science fictional than Moon bases, jet packs, underwater cities, and laser guns?
In the moments after 9/11 when the media and the Bush Administration attempted to mobilize public opinion in favor of a state of permanent warfare, their chief tool was the appropriation of a major metaphor from science fictional narratives: that of the evil underground organization of evil doers bent on unleashing evil everywhere for evil purposes.
Never mind that even the concept of a coherent organization known as “Al-Qaeda” was in invention of the US government itself. It began as an attempt to employ a shorthand in internal discussions of the threat represented by fusion of the networks headed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and quickly morphed into a tool for portraying the ultimate band of super villains. The imagery employed included fantasies of a coherent structure—in Political Science classes at the time I remember being shown how “Al-Qaeda” was outlined according to the structure of a Corporation’s leadership body, merely to help Cabinet members of President Bush understand things, but ultimately having nothing to do with the truth—complete with sophisticated secret underground bases, meetings, conference calls, training camps, and so on.
This is not to say that there were no bases or camps or meetings. Certainly there were and are. But these are a far cry from the sophistication and coherence presented. “Al-Qaeda” was supposed to call up images of Cobra Command, the Council of Doom, SPECTRE, or for the more contemporary audience, Hydra. We were told to fear “sleeper cells” of the kind popularized by the contemporary show The Americans comprised of militants bent on “destroying our freedoms” and “our way of life” which they hated simply because they were evil and we were good.
The period of popular mobilization constructed today’s imagery of “terrorism,” elevated beyond a tactic in political struggle to become something of an end in itself. In this parlance, the purpose of a terrorist was merely to perform spectacular acts of terror for the ultimate goal of bringing more terror into the world. Anomalies, such as the targeting of the Spanish government for its involvement in the decision to invade Iraq were papered over—surely the terrorists had no real goals other than destruction for its own sake. At the base of these discourses was imagery lifted straight out of comic books, television shows, and popular cinema which utilized science fictional tropes.
The tradition is carried on today with the Lovecraftian “tentacles of terror” cited by Netanyahu in his recent talks in Washington. Tentacles have long been a symbol of the Other, of the alien on Earth, of the uneasy tension between bilateral and radial symmetry, undermining the cause of the former with tentacular spectacle. Iran’s power politics and the broiling regional war are thereby reduced to the old story of a dictatorship on the march, a super secretive organization of evil doers now at the helm of an evil state, sleeper cells everywhere, terrorist tentacles with global reach, and so on.
The point of all of this is that it is important that we become more alert when reductive metaphors are presented to us. As ordinary people, we are the most important force that stands in the way of war and oppression. In 2013 (eons ago) the Obama Administration sought to launch a war on the Assad regime in Syria over its alleged crossing of the “red line” in the Ghouta gas attacks. Ordinary people in Britain made it clear to their parliamentarians that they would oppose joining this neo-colonial war with every fiber of their being, and they voted down joining the effort. In France, President Hollande refused to even bring it up to a vote knowing that he would likely lose or at least lose momentum. All of this had a major effect on President Obama, who was quickly losing friends and hearing doubts from military commanders who also feared the backlash from the bottom ranks. Ultimately Obama took all of this into consideration while viewing the overwhelming public opposition to any intervention, and decided that yet another Middle East intervention was not the way to go. Hilariously enough (in the sense of gallows humor), a year later the US is bombing sites in Iraq and Syria…though it is targeting one of the Assad regime’s enemies.
People saw through that charade, having learned the lessons of ancient histories like 2001, 2003, and 2011. The balance of forces among ordinary people is currently unfavorable to more war—not always for the “right reasons,” as some of that sentiment is grounded in a kind of racist ressentiment but that is a story for another day. People are beginning to see that SPECTRE and Hydra are, in fact, fictional constructs. Let us hope that the public becomes even more discerning of the boundaries between fantasy and reality as we are drawn closer to massive wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.