Oh, to have been at John Kerry’s meeting Tuesday with a dozen Hollywood executives at Universal Studios. To have sat in one of the cushy leather chairs beneath a vintage poster for The Phantom of the Opera, sipping bottled water, relaxing in the Mediterranean climate of southern California, and been solicited by the U.S. secretary of State for advice on how to defeat radical Islam. What a confirmation of one’s status in the film industry, of one’s place in the global economy, of one’s importance to the Democratic Party. “Great convo w studio execs in LA,” Kerry tweeted after the discussion, “Good to hear their perspectives & ideas of how to counter #Daesh narrative.”
If there is one thing we know about Hollywood executives, it is that they are full of perspectives, have plenty of ideas. You need to tell our story, Mr. Secretary. Fix the plot point in Act Two. The tweets we are sending to convince young Muslim men not to join the Caliphate—do they have character arcs? Are they bankable? We can work with the Chinese on this; they keep telling Jeffrey about their problem with the Uighurs. Perhaps we could enlist actors to speak out against ISIS. A public service announcement, with Hillary Swank gazing sadly into the camera—that might make Ahad al Islam think twice about taking a Yazidi sex slave. Or have Steven Spielberg direct a short film on American efforts to combat Islamophabia. We can get Kushner to write it: "Allah in America"! It won’t be anything big, just 10 or 20 minutes long. A cost effective plan, if we can leverage viral propagation. I know George Clooney will be interested. When we stopped by the villa after Cannes last year Amal said something about how terrible it is, the killing. And it is terrible, awful. And the refugees: We can partner with Go Pro. Give them cameras to tell their stories. We’ll edit them here, in one of our studio bays, and release them via Youtube. They’ll become memes. And the memes can link back to the State Department homepage about all you and the president are doing to show that ISIS has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. No we missed Davos this year because we were getting ready for Sundance. But anyway we have to be sure not to offend anyone. That would be the worst. That would just play into ISIS’s hands. Can you believe what Donald Trump said? Terrible. Sets us back. By the way Mr. Secretary my nephew is a junior at Tufts and is just soooo interested in foreign policy. He wants to write his thesis on the Israel Lobby and would just die if he could intern in your office this summer. Yes, Sam, that is his name—you met him windsurfing in Nantucket last summer—you remember him! Well, he’s just so proud of you. We are all just so proud of you. Of course that’s a brilliant idea: a movie about a government official standing up for diplomacy in the face of bitter opposition from the warmongers at home and abroad. About a man who’s been trying to do the right thing ever since he went to war and saw America lose her sense of morality, and who’s been trying to get it back for her. That’s, well, that’s beautiful. We could get James Cromwell to star. Who wrote it? You? Sure, I’d love to take a look.
The State Department would have us believe that Kerry schlepped to Universal Studios in service of national security. “This is not just a military battle. It’s a battle of ideas between competing narratives,” Kerry’s aide Richard Stengel, a former parrot of the conventional wisdom at Time, told CBS. “Hollywood is one of the greatest competitive advantages we have as a country. It’s revered all around the planet. It’s our second largest export.” But let’s interrupt Stengel’s rationalizations with some real talk. This meeting wasn’t public diplomacy. It was donor service.
Together, eleven of the executives who furnished Kerry with perspectives and ideas have contributed more than $1.5 million to the Democratic Party. Throw in the $6.5 million that Jeffrey Katzenberg has given, and the total rises to more than $8 million. One of the executives present was Chris Dodd, the former Democratic senator, who is now Hollywood’s top lobbyist in Washington. The industry pays him several million dollars a year to preserve its tax breaks. Before he became secretary of state, John Kerry was the richest member of the U.S. Senate, with a fortune approaching $200 million.
So here we have a group of pale cisgenders, only two of which are womyn, whose collective net worth is more than a billion dollars, sitting in a circle in a Los Angeles conference room and rapping about how to connect with a poor teenage Cairene before he blows up or beheads someone. I rack my brain trying to come up with a more out-of-touch moment, an image that better symbolizes the aloof and clueless way John Kerry performs the duties of his office. I come up short.
Richard Stengel is right to say the American film industry is one of our largest exports. But it’s ridiculous that he does not admit, or perhaps does not understand, that one of the things Islamic holy warriors fight against is precisely the American film industry and the secular humanistic values it stands for. In “a battle of competing narratives” between the United States and ISIS, Hollywood is not an asset but a liability. It represents everything the jihadists despise.
And it’s lousy at propaganda. Has been since Top Gun (Fire Birds was okay when I was 9). The movies Hollywood has made that reference the war on terror have been exercises in ambiguity, nuance, and moral complexity, ballads to the fallen, meditations on our defeats. Some of those movies are quite good: Blackhawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, 13 Hours. But even the worthy titles fail as “counter narrative.” Successful propaganda is not elegiac. It is not apologetic. It is assertive. Triumphal.
Consider how ISIS does it. The terrorists have mastered a sort of pornography, the ideological snuff film that establishes the Caliphate as a sweeping and expanding army of believers. ISIS not only says it represents Islam. It says it represents the true and resurgent Islam that is following a master plan to conquer the world. Join the army now, the videos and magazines and tweets proclaim, to capture the élan of victory, to enjoy the spoils of war, the status of the elect.
What does the liberalism of John Kerry have to offer against this confident and coherent ideology—attractive not only to single young Arabs but also to detached and adrift Westerners—but hemming and hawing, bashful looks at one’s feet, excuses for misdeeds, and what must seem like condescending promises of tolerance and diversity and inclusion, of the chance to buy an encrypted iPhone, the opportunity to be cast as an extra in Modern Family?
The way to defeat the ISIS “narrative” is to defeat ISIS militarily. Only by killing a lot of terrorists, by lowering the black flag that flies over Raqaa, by arresting operatives, censoring domestic propaganda, and stopping the refugee flow can the United States subvert the notion in a young jihadist’s head that by joining ISIS he is joining the winning team. A successful U.S. “narrative” and “storytelling” campaign would highlight combat success at the platoon level, military valor, the economic and scientific and moral triumphs of our democratic society, would argue feistily and confidently that the American system is not only one system but the best system, for everyone, and that Western values of freedom and equality before the law are superior to all others.
In order for the Obama administration and Hollywood to launch such a campaign, of course, they would have to possess such things as moral certitude and an unapologetic firmness in the virtues of America, as it exists today. And if John Kerry and Hollywood do not have those things, perhaps someone will pay Chris Dodd at least $3 million a year to lobby for them?