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Schwarzenegger's Californian election confirms America's retreat into fiction

By Scott Stephens - posted Thursday, 23 October 2003

Who among us hasn't watched the recent elections in California with a kind of perverse interest? Everything about the proceedings has been excessive, bordering on the ridiculous: California's crippling deficit and unsustainable taxation system, the recalling of Governor Gray Davis, the bizarre menagerie of gubernatorial candidates, Arnold Schwarzenegger's instant prominence over the other candidates, the eleventh-hour admissions of indecent sexual conduct, a landslide victory, and of course the endless stream of hackneyed Arnie "one-liners".

For most of us, the first reaction is to view this election as a typical case of Californian culture extending into its politics; to dismiss it as just another example of an American star turning politician (like Clint Eastwood, Jesse Ventura, Ronald Reagan, etc.). But these judgments are far too simplistic, and conceal a much more interesting association: namely that, especially in the wake of September 11, America is increasingly dependent on Hollywood to sustain its own sense of domestic stability.

Hollywood's response to September 11 was immediately to postpone a number of films to be released later in 2001 - including Schwarzenegger's own Collateral Damage - due to their uncomfortable proximity to that fateful event and its aftermath. The official line, of course, was that the violence of the films would offend the now fragile sensibilities of the American public.


But there is another, more plausible explanation: what terrified the Hollywood studios was that the very images that had long been projected onto the big screen were happening in reality. In other words, far from September 11 being "unimaginable", producers had been imagining war on American soil for a very long time. Just think of films like Red Dawn and The Siege, or the more sci-fi Independence Day and Mars Attacks! Doesn't the real trauma of September 11 lie in the uncanny sense of déjà-vu?

It is important, however, to notice the specific difference between Red Dawn and The Siege. The first is a typical product of anxieties of the Cold War: Russians invade the rural American North-West, but are valiantly battled by a motley pack of youngsters (including Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen) who use unconventional guerrilla warfare. The Siege, on the other hand, depicts an enemy that "lives among us" and engages in urban terrorism. The point not to be missed is that films like The Siege (which seemed almost to predict September 11) provided the answer to the question posed by the end of the Cold War: who or what will constitute America's new arch-enemy?

Remember the comments of such prominent New Yorkers as Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Bon Jovi after September 11: New York once was divided by racial tensions but was now united in its hate for a common enemy. Implicit in this perspective is a suggestion that America can prevent complete domestic disintegration only by being at war, whether real or fictional. This of course was the genius of the Cold War: the very idea of a "Cold War" was the war itself (a war that was sustained in no small measure by the endless supply of conspiracy films like Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men, Enigma and No Way Out). Isn't this also the precise rationale for America's war against terror? The threat of war is war itself. This is why the non-existence of Iraq's elusive "weapons of mass destruction" is not a problem for heirs of the Cold War legacy: the mere possibility of their existence was enough to justify the invasion.

What does all this have to do with Schwarzenegger's election? To put it simply: the belief in a war - whether real or fictional - has enabled America to avoid the serious task of confronting its own internal decay by identifying the "real problem" with some enemy. Wasn't the very purpose of the military rhetoric of the later stages of Schwarzenegger's campaign - "this is hand-to-hand combat" for the future of California - to allow Californians to fictionalise the reality of their social dilemma, which had become painfully associated with Governor Davis?

There are those who said September 11 was America's "wake-up call". But after September 11, hasn't America simply retreated to the security of its old fictions and dreams of war? Perhaps if there ever was a period when America was truly "awake", it was during the Clinton administration. This hiatus in the 20-year Reagan-Bush dynasty marked a unique time when Americans were deprived of the comfort of war and had to admit to themselves: "we have met the enemy, and it is us".

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About the Author

Scott Stephens is an author, theologian and minister with the Uniting Church of Australia. He has been a researcher with the Centre for Theology and Politics, Brisbane, Queensland.

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