Fueling a crisis of faith in U.S. democracy, an election official in Florida checks a ballot to interpret…
… the ambiguous hanging chad of a voter’s decision for the 2000 Presidential election.
As the next major crisis facing the United States, the attack on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001…
…destroyed the myth of security within U.S. domestic borders.
In response to the attack on the World Trade Center and to misinformation about sequestered weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the Bush-Cheney Administration initiated Operation Freedom in Iraq, a thinly veiled invasion of that country’s sovereign territory.
In a choreographed photo opportunity aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush announces the end of combat operations in Iraq. As it turns out, his pronouncement was premature. In conjunction with this photo opportunity, weapons of mass destruction had not been found in during the invasion. Both events contributed to a crisis in faith and integrity of the U.S. public for both the administration and the invasion.
Providing yet another blow to the U.S. public’s morale, photographs surfaced in early 2004 of ill-trained U.S. Military Police torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib Prison. The physical and psychological abuse of prisoners, running counter to idealism of bringing democracy to Iraq, raised questions as to what effect the militarism of the Bush-Cheney Administration was having on the American psyche, as well as the image of the United States on the global political stage.
Threats to ideological stability lurk below the surface in even the seemingly most stable social periods. The new millennium’s first decade was particularly tumultuous, particularly within the U.S. social context. For example, anxiety about our reliance on computer technology to organize economic processes underlay the Y2K crisis on the eve of the new millennium, setting the tone for the social paranoia that was to follow throughout the decade. At the end of the 1990s, many computer data systems had been programmed to abbreviate a four-year digit to just the last two digits of the year. Presumably, the databases could not distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900. Fueled by a news barrage, predictions of global banking failure, and the failure of energy utility services, many individuals adopted a survivalist response, hoarding food and water.
A similar crisis of faith in the U.S. political system erupted the following November. In the highly contested 2000 Presidential election, charges and counter-charges of mismanagement, manipulation and outright corruption in the election process undermined democracy’s ideals as George W. Bush, former Governor of Texas, became U.S. President because of a very close, contested vote count in Florida. Problematic punch ballots, the questionable deletion of 50,000 voters as felons, mostly African-Americans and registered Democrats, and a contested intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted the ballot recount, finally contributed to Florida’s Electoral College votes being cast for George W. Bush. In the month before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its controversial decision, Republicans and Democrats accused each other of ballot manipulation and corrupt practices. Aftershocks of distrust about the election process’s validity continued in the wake of that ideological controversy.
With President Bush only nine months into office, enacting his administration’s economic deregulatory policies and personifying born-again religious social fervor, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. shook the nation’s ideological confidence in U.S. political and military prowess. The shattered myth that the U.S. was impervious to domestic attacks from outside forces fueled more collective social paranoia. On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attack, the Bush-Cheney Administration, along with the United Kingdom and the United Nations, launched forces into Afghanistan to hunt Osama bin Laden as a show of military might against Al Qaeda forces.
In addition, different Federal policing organizations, especially the CIA and the FBI, chastised each other over bureaucratic ineptitude, inefficiency and territory because they had lost the opportunity to share information that might have prevented the terrorist attack. To counter this bickering over federal police authority, the Bush-Cheney Administration created the Office of Homeland Security in 2002. Given wide latitude of authority, this organization wielded power that could disregard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thus initiating more social paranoia, particularly in matters of domestic surveillance.
The Bush-Cheney Administration exploited the myth of surveillance’s usefulness, using misinformation about various types of weapons of mass destruction to support the invasion of Iraq. While the invasion eventually toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops found no weapons of mass destruction and left the social fabric of Iraq in tatters. This fiasco further undermined the trust that many U.S. citizens had in their leaders and Federal Government. Ironically, to bolster public support both for the invasion of Iraq and President Bush’s credibility as a leader, his advisors created a public relations photo opportunity on May 1, 2003 where he could indicate that the Iraq invasion was a “Mission Accomplished.” In a grandiose display of military might and wasted taxpayers’ dollars, the President, dressed in full military flight apparel, arrived by S-3 Viking fixed-wing aircraft to parade on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a ship returning to California port after deployment in the Persian Gulf. The photo op implied that the U.S. military operations had been a success a mere month and a half after the initial invasion of Iraq. However, guerilla warfare had already increased the violence in Iraq. Furthermore, the appearance of the President in full military flight apparel again raised questions about his truthfulness about his own military service, an issue that had surfaced during the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, sadistic U.S. troop and governmental behavior came under scrutiny in late April 2004, when the world discovered the degree to which the Bush-Cheney Administration sanctioned torture. In early spring 2002, several of President Bush’s top cabinet members, including Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft, began evaluating the Central Intelligence Agency’s plan to set up an interrogation unit first for Al Qaeda prisoners of war and then for those from Iraq. In conjunction, the Justice Department narrowed the definition of unacceptable torture techniques as outlined in Geneva Convention, essentially disregarding that document to sanction interrogation practices previously considered illegal. Newly acceptable interrogation practices included, but were not limited to the use of stress positions, sleep and sensory deprivation, stripping prisoners naked for purposes of humiliation, the use of sexual harassment and abuse, and the threat of dog attacks. Members of the Bush-Cheney Administration drew up an official authorization for the use of these interrogation techniques in a document signed by Donald Rumsfeld in December 2002.[open endnotes in new window]
Visually, dramatically exposed to the whole world through photographs taken by members of the Military Police Brigade at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the environment for monstrous behavior, in fact, had already been set up by U.S. official authorization and acceptance of various forms of torture. While the young MPs at Abu Ghraib certainly victimized those prisoners in their charge, they themselves were victims of an ideological system that not only sanctioned their behavior, but ultimately prompted them to engage in it. When in 2004, emerging news stories and disturbing explicit pictures of the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison rippled throughout U.S. culture, spilling across different cultures via the Internet, the dissonance exploded — between the ideals behind the invasion, to eliminate the dictatorship of Sadaam Hussein and foster democracy in Iraq, and the visible behavior of U.S. military personnel who clearly ignored professed American values of humaneness, fairness and tolerance.
In addition to these highly disruptive events, other ongoing phenomena contributed to the growing U.S. social anxiety in the new millennium. The Religious Right, or evangelical Christian social conservatives, exerted much power in the Republican political party, and in turn, in overall U.S. politics. They helped to elect George W. Bush to two terms as President. As well, the Religious Right challenged the maintenance or expansion of Constitutional rights, specifically with respect to the issues of gay marriage, abortion and even economic regulation. These challenges helped to polarize the U.S. population into the factious social groups of Red States (primarily social conservatives) and Blue States (more socially moderate or progressive). With continued economic deregulation, overseas outsourcing of commodity production undermined the prospect of achieving the economic American Dream for many workers. During the early part of the new millennium, the economic disparity between the very wealthy top five percent of the U.S. population and everyone else continued to grow at an alarming rate.
Also, a renegade corporate mentality, one that manipulated markets and abused accounting practices, blossomed within the U.S. economic environment and was first signaled by the 2001 Enron scandal in which Enron corporate executives unethically controlled the energy market, raided worker pension plans, and fraudulently manipulated the corporation’s accounting reports. Enron was the millennium’s first financial scandal, but it certainly was not the last. The lack of arrests and light punishment for those at the top levels of society who abuse and manipulate U.S. economic and political systems has perpetuated a cynicism about civic life in the United States.
While these events do not exhaust the potential sites of ideological contradiction fostering social anxiety in U.S. society in the 21st Century, they certainly provide a strong basis to begin discussing the cultural resonances TCM: the Beginning has for its audience. Many negative consequences of the Bush-Cheney Administration policies — outsourced manufacturing, deregulated capitalism, political manipulation, military aggression, and religious fanaticism — have had an impact on young adults. As they move into the workforce, young people face more competition for fewer job positions, often with lower pay and longer working hours. Before either the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many young adults at the lower end of the economic spectrum joined the National Guard for extra income or college tuition. While the possibility of wartime deployment to foreign soil has been an option for those who have joined the National Guard, this alternative had seldom been used as a way of building the main U.S. fighting force before the 9/11 attacks. Instead the National Guard has been used in the U.S. domestic environment, either as a response to natural disasters or to domestic civil unrest. Rather than reactivate the conventional draft for its new military offensives, which could very well have undermined support for these actions, the Bush-Cheney Administration activated the National Guard and military Reserve Units to flesh out and relieve traditional enlisted troops. Once the Invasion of Iraq was under way, those young adults who had enlisted in the National Guard to better their economic social status found themselves on the way to the Middle East, not to college. Not unlike in the Vietnam War, young adults, many from the poorer sectors of society, end up serving in the military actions instigated by politicians, with older (mostly male) adults controlling the U.S. political system. As reported by the Associated Press on October 8, 2004, 160,000 individuals on active duty in the Middle East out of 660,000 came from the National Guard and military Reserves. Once the federal government instituted the 24-month rotation for active duty in the Middle East for those in the National Guard and Reserves, both organizations began to see a decline in successful recruitment and retainment of soldiers. The national government’s plan to avoid activating the draft by forcing those enlisted in the National Guard and the Reserves into longer tours of duty in the Middle East began to boomerang. The benefits of college tuition or extra income no longer outweighed the potential dangers of extended active duty in a dangerous hostile environment such as Iraq. While contemporary young adults did not burn draft cards as did young men in response to the Vietnam War, the 2004 decline in recruitment and retainment of soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves suggests youth’s similar disdain for the military invasion of Iraq.
With all of these actual social anxieties from which to draw its dark dystopian view of U.S. society, TCM: the Beginning offers a perfect example of what Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard define as the “postmodern cinema of mayhem.” For Boggs and Pollard, the cinema of mayhem has surfaced in periods of great social unrest. For the family and the individual, this everyday social unrest and chaos provokes a condition “defined by a reign of extreme individualism freed of constricting rules, norms, and traditions,” prompted by an underlying “brutal struggle for survival.” Beyond the potential threats from external forces in 2006, chaos underscored many, if not most domestic social, economic and political arenas, as partisan groups within a fragmented U.S. society openly fought with each other. Thematically, this postmodern cinema of mayhem examines the social institution of the family — disrupted by chaotic changes in the workforce, suburbanization, social unpredictability and disorder — through a filter of relentlessly harsh cynicism and criticism. Within TCM: the Beginning, “individualism freed of constricting rules, norms and traditions” describes the actions and values that underlie the cannibal Hewitt family, in general, and Sheriff Hoyt, in particular.
Formally, TCM: the Beginning incorporates a characteristically postmodern style of bricolage. The film appropriates ideas and images from a wide variety of preceding sources and cultural formats. Obviously, the “prequel” draws part, though not all, of its narrative from the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which itself had borrowed from the initial 1974 film. Beyond that, the filmmakers of TCM: the Beginning incorporate references such to such imagery as derives from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, news coverage of the military invasions in the Middle East, images and stories from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, as well as war films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket — to name the most explicit cultural references used in the film. At this point, I would like to examine the cinematic setting, characters, props and narrative events and trace their symbolic connections to both preceding cultural texts and contemporary events in order to see how a popular culture text might enact social anxieties from the first decade of the 21st century, many the direct result of policies enacted by the Bush-Cheney Administration. Ultimately, the film implies, through the metaphoric blow of a sledge hammer and the poetic churn of a chainsaw, that the Bush-Cheney Administration’s actions are monstrous.