As I promised a few weeks back, it finally might be a good point to talk about some of my recent research in more detail today; especially since I’ve been “forced” by no one else than Mr. Gil Rodman himself to present at this Wednesday’s WNR, so in a way I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone here. And you may consider yourself lucky to get an exclusive preview (but be warned: it’s a rather lengthy entry).
September 11, 2011 marked the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It was a “day that has been documented, dissected and debated unlike any other in human history” (Farhi, 2011). Brian Williams expressed the looming gloom that evening on NBC’s Nightly News: “as hell rained down on earth from the sky and changed all our lives forever … tens of thousands of people gathered to mark this darkest day in modern American history” (NBC Nightly News, 2011). Through various mass media outlets, the tributes, reflections and searches for a deeper meaning “poured forth in a kind of collective media-fed group therapy” (Farhi, 2011).
In an article for Harper Magazine, David Rieff (2011) concludes that this creation of “large scale solidarity” reaffirmed group loyalty rather than the establishment of historical accuracy with consideration for this event in all its moral and political complexity. Where were you that day and what do you remember?
And while I purposely shunned the media for most of the day to escape American television networks’ presentation of more than 75 hours of news programming (Hale, 2011) in the form of live broadcasting, documentaries, memorials, and dramas, all connected to the event; in the end, I could not escape it at all. While watching NBC’s Sunday Night Football, I was exposed to a carefully crafted pregame commemoration ceremony representing a unique instance of sport rhetoric functioning as an extremely persuasive vehicle for sustaining and extending a culture of militarism in U.S. society.
Butterworth and Moskal (2009) argue that American identity is constituted in and by a culture of militarism, “wherein Americans are implicated in a structural relationship between government, the military, and entertainment industries to the extent that it has become functionally impossible to live outside the rhetorical production of war” (p. 413).
As I watched roaring images of the Sunday broadcast of the National Football League, with the unrolling of an American flag the size of the entire field, NYFD fire fighters, NYPD police, and members of the armed forces lined up between football players, Robert DeNiro eulogizing civilian victims, a member of the Army Band performing Taps, hyped up crowds chanting “USA, USA!,” George W. Bush walking out on the field to flip the inaugural coin, and a highly emotional performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” – I was wondering what all this could possibly mean, ten years after September 11, 2001.
So I started doing some research on the development of what late General Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961 termed the development of a military-industrial complex.
With broad technological, societal, and geo-political changes that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, mass media have been increasingly drawn into an alliance with military interests, which has since been described by varying terms, such as “the military entertainment complex,” “militainment,” “the military-industrial-media-entertainment network,” or the “military-information-entertainment complex” to name a few.
For Nick Turse (2008) in The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives, today’s excessive high-tech military complex reaches deeper into American lives and the American psyche than Eisenhower could have ever imagined. The by-products of the corporate-military-entertainment merger, intended to project a hip image, are startling: from NASCAR and rodeo events which widely portray sponsorship by branches of the armed forces; recruiting campaigns that use the latest social networking technology (GoArmy.com, Facebook and Twitter pages) to capture the attention of teens; to the involvement with popular (civilian) brands, such as Disney, Starbucks, Oakley, or Coca-Cola; “Just like the fictional Matrix, the Complex is nearly everywhere and involved in almost everything, and very few people aren’t plugged into it in some way, shape, or form” (Turse, 2008, p. 17).
September 11, 2011: A Game Day Like Any Other?
So how do the NFL’s commemoration ceremonies fit into this? An official press release by the NFL (2011) announcing the commemoration ceremonies for September 11, 2011 affirmatively read:
The games and broadcasts on that opening Sunday will unite fans to recognize those who lost their lives, honor the families who lost loved ones, and salute the American spirit, the early responders on 9/11, and other heroes that contributed to the nation’s recovery. The schedule of games for that day was designed to appropriately commemorate 9/11 on a national level and what it represents to Americans. (para. 1-2)
In my paper, I’m specifically looking at pre-game broadcasting as well as the pregame ceremonies and halftime shows held during those shows. Here, I briefly want to look at NBC’s Sunday Night Football to show how these crafted pregame commemoration ceremonies created an extremely persuasive vehicle for sustaining and extending a culture of militarism to desperately garner support for two largely failed wars, and to reassert national identity through excessive displays of patriotism and hegemonic masculinity.
I’s strongly encourage you to look at two clips here (one from the gre-game ceremony, the other from the half-time show) as they are pretty indicative of what was going on during the NFL’s commemoration ceremonies on September 11, 2011.
It is troubling to realize how citizen identity is re-constituted by the military-entertainment matrix of NBC’s Sunday Night Football – where an assimilation of the citizen by the military apparatus takes place and citizens are seduced by an entertaining war spectacle: “Citizen identity becomes a battle space to be micro-managed” (Stahl, 2010, p. 38). The MIME-NET attempts to absorb citizen identity into passive, assimilated consumers of war by expanding a culture of militarism via vehicles such as the NFL’s 9/11 commemorations by providing a “distraction from the real thing” as sports writer William C. Rhoden (2003) emphasizes.
It further plays a central ideological role for mobilizing and reasserting patriarchal values that construct, mediate, and maintain hegemonic forms of masculinity and femininity. Boggs and Pollard (2007) argue that “With few exceptions the military has been a domain of patriarchal, masculinist traditions—social hierarchy, violence, conquest, sexism, homophobia, gun worship—and the United States has never been one of the exceptions” (p. 37).
By conducting a critical discourse analysis it becomes clear that the commemorations held by the NFL to honor the victims of 9/11 are one of many components that feed into the expansion of the MIME-NET. The NFL’s commemoration ceremonies are largely a spectacle of the culture of militarism, produced in part by militaristic messages from sponsors, advertisers, and broadcasters functioning to instill one-dimensional “support the troops” rhetoric to reassert national identity and support for the war, while also relying on hegemonic masculinity portrayals.
I argue that by seizing the NFL, as can be seen especially with these commemoration ceremonies, the military expands the already familiar conflation of sport and war, and simultaneously trivializes the seriousness of war as it emphasizes the seriousness of supporting the American military: “This rhetorical division offers a delimited conception of appropriate American identity, thereby normalizing war in general and endorsing the ‘war on terror’ specifically” (Butterworth & Moskal, 2009, p. 411).
We should ask ourselves what the balance is likely to be between the costs of remembrance and its benefits. I would argue that these ceremonies nourish flawed illusions about our ability to accurately remember with severe socio-political consequences: “After all, to remember may not just mean to grieve; it may also mean to harbor a vision of securing justice or vengeance long after it is time to put the guns away” (Rieff, 2011, p. 48). The process of an encroaching militarization of public space and our everyday culture has clearly been in the making for over a decade now, if not since Operation Desert Storm. Instead of seeing increasingly critical stances and voices raising concern about this, it seems as if the majority of the American public silently watches and consumes militainment without much hesitation.
While I regard Giroux’s (2010) claim that “The glorification of military values is quickly approaching the level of fascist idealization” (p. 195) as slightly exaggerated, I do agree that “Militarism in this scenario diminishes both the legitimate reasons for a military presence in society and the necessary struggle for the promise of democracy itself” (Giroux, 2010, p. 195). Critically examining these one-dimensional sport/war tropes in the NFL’s 9/11 commemoration ceremonies demonstrates that engaged citizenship in a functioning democracy needs to be aware and demand a critique of a militarization that threatens and works to eliminate those public spaces necessary for democratic debate and discourse. By exposing hegemonic portrayals of masculinity that are patriarchal at root and by disclosing the empty, jingoistic patriotism that is so pervasive in these broadcasts, we can attempt to lay bare and resist a culture of militarism.
If this has caught your interest, than you may want to consider swinging by the Department of Communication’s WNR (Ford Hall 225, B 10) tomorrow at 12.15pm – hope to see you there!