Not Single Spies

I’ve been meaning to get back to the notion of military / spy / political thrillers that feature the Islamic State as the enemy.* But now I do so at the risk of sounding like a one-trick pony.

It’s a good trick though, and I’m a very pretty pony (if I do say so myself).

I keep coming back to Chimamanda Adichie’s approach to avoiding stereotypes and prejudice by depicting multiple examples that vary from each other, especially, but not exclusively, regarding the stereotypes one wants to avoid (e.g. When the only woman in your story is a is a walking hysteria machine, the implications are very different than when there are plenty of other women in your story that are not, and even one or two with the resolve of Half-Dome.) I’ve mentioned this approach before, how it applies to sex in games, or games that are based on current events. Even yesterday, I applied the same notion to law enforcement in mystery / horror stories, even though I didn’t specifically mention Adichie, rather a parallel notion. It’s possible for an institution to be corrupt and professional and abusive and well-meaning at the same time on account that an agency is composed of many officers each of whom are differently motivated.**

And previously I observed the descent of the James Bond franchise into its own mythology which is a safe (risk-averse) way to avoid discussing real-world issues at all. Chris Franklin’s reaction to Far Cry 2 expresses both a disdain for how games don’t do real world settings and situations justice, and yet also observes (laments?) that there’s a conspicuous shortage of games that try. The same thing is happening in the spy thriller genre as well, where media descends into comic-book style fantasy or focuses on rogue agents and the creepy agencies that make them. More earnest efforts in recent cinema have resorted to period films in the cold war, when the US and its agencies were the good guys. (Because we’re totally not, anymore.)

And that brings me to where I left off, noting that Hollywood has already created plenty of old shame in which Arab, terrorist and Muslim were each qualities that implied the others. So instead of avoiding talking about terrorism and the very real threat of the Islamic State, how do we tell a story about fighting the Islamic State without it turning into True Lies? I have three suggestions I seem eager to apply to everything. Here they are (again):

~ Focus on individual people, not groups. Institutions, organizations and even armies are comprised of different people with different ideas and opinions and feelings and motivations. We already like to imagine Islamic State terrorists as crazed fanatics eager to sacrifice themselves for the promise of Heaven, and some may be that way if others are not. (On the flip side, CIA agents from here tend to look like Semper Fi fanatical patriots who are eager to torture suspects or blast civilians with drone-launched bombs or spy on allied prime ministers and US senators with complete disregard for human rights because America. Again, some of the Langley employees may feel exactly this way, but many don’t, and all of them should get some visibility)

~ Show that acts of terror, Muslim identity and Arabic genes and culture are distinct. Plenty of Arabs are not Muslim (or even not very Muslim), who are more defined by their interests, or academic achievements or national loyalties. When Middle-East descendants and Muslims are speckled throughout team-good-guys, as researchers, as translators, as field agent specialists, as gunship pilots, it shows that the enemy is not defined by race or religion or culture. It demonstrates that acts of terror are propelled by other factors. (It also wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge terrorism caused by other people for other reasons, such as the Oaklahoma City bombing or abortion clinic attacks)

~ Do your homework. Research, research, research. (And yes. It’s hard work.) Those who fight for the creation of an Islamic State may have some specific ideas as to why that would be a good thing. Others probably fight out of desperation, because the Islamic State is the closest ally they have that might be able to implement change from their own miserable situation. It would be good to know what that misery is, and how they got there. It would be good to know what kind of person The IS is trying to reach with Dabiq, on what hopes and fears they play on. Are CIA officials who manage the drone campaigns distressed about the crazy numbers of civilian deaths? Is it really a program targeting persons of interest or is there method behind the massacre? Are there clear victory goals in the Afghanistan theater? Is the Taliban really putting up such a defense that we make only crawling progress towards those goals? This is the fabric from which the story is sewn.

Our fiction is written by human beings, and as such it can’t help but be seeded with the perspective and attitude of the author, so it becomes very easy to tell a story that is skewed or even bigoted, which then turns into propaganda (inadvertent or otherwise). And yet to avoid telling stories about The Islamic State and the War on Terror is to imply that such stories are not worth telling. We should talk about ISIL. It’s as viable an adversary to James Bond (or Ronald Malcolm or whoever) as the USSR was. These methods will allow for stories to be told while avoiding some of the afflictions that have so often blighted past efforts.

* According to the Wikipedia page on ISIL they’re pretty terrible people who are not only bent on world conquest and a willingness to be terrible dastards to get there, but their idea of a perfect world is going to be no fun for anyone not male, not Muslim and not rich. Granted, en.wikipedia.org has a rather western perspective so I may not be comprehending some nuances, but applying a line of logic that I recently used, I am rather invested in a future with a high degree of gender egalitarianism, which is in direct conflict with how Islam is practiced throughout much of the middle east, and the tentaments expressed by ISIL. That may be Islamophobic. But I’m willing to accept that I am Islamophobic if Islamophobia is wanting women to have the same rights and privileges as men to a degree that conflicts with Islam or Sharia. And that is likely not the only issue in Islam and Sharia to which I would object.

** Though to be fair, it’s possible for a single officer to be corrupt and professional and abusive and well-meaning all at the same time. Because people can get pretty complicated, and are typically infested with internal conflicts. We actually like our storybook characters less nuanced than real people so that we can easily identify with them or love them or hate them and expect to consistently feel a specific set of emotions about them (except in special villain-perspective episodes where we find out that Number Six really just wanted to be a speculative fiction writer and get published in enthusiast magazines).

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