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  • Covert Spectacles and the Contradictions of the Democratic Security State
  • Timothy Melley (bio)

What exactly was revealed on February 24, 2013, when Michelle Obama opened the envelope announcing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of 2012? The First Lady stood in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, flanked by a dozen young servicemen and -women in full regalia (see fig. 1). They grinned uncharacteristically as Mrs. Obama described the year’s best films as a set of “lessons” that “took us all around the world” and “reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough” (Zakharin 2013).

Despite this clichéd celebration of individual agency, the more obvious lesson of this spectacle—as conservative pundits were swift to deride—was its open celebration of the entwinement of the state and the entertainment industry. This is hardly news, but it is significant—not, as conservatives suggested, because it reflects the political sympathy between Hollywood [End Page 61] and the Democratic Party, but because it openly proclaims the symbiosis of the National Security State and the purveyors of popular representations of US military and intelligence capacities.

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Fig. 1.

Michelle Obama opens the award for Best Motion Picture in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House during the 2013 Academy Awards. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

The idea to insert Mrs. Obama into the Oscars, reportedly the brainchild of producer Harvey Weinstein and his daughter, clearly reflects the trio of top contenders for Best Picture—Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo (Kilday 2013). Although the award went to Argo, the clear front-runner was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and the symbolism of Mrs. Obama announcing this award would have trumped anything Hollywood could fabricate. Not only is the Obamas’ occupation of the White House the symbolic apotheosis of Lincoln’s greatest achievement, but President Obama openly modeled his administration on Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” In fact, Team of Rivals—the 2005 Pulitzer Prize–winning book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which Senator Obama cited approvingly prior to his presidency—later became the basis for Spielberg’s film.1

Still, Lincoln was only a contender, and the calculus of both producers and the Obama administration undoubtedly took stock of the fact that the other films at the top of the 2012 Oscars list are cia dramas. Indeed, all three top contenders are narratives about “the state of exception,” the paradoxical suspension of democracy in order to save democracy [End Page 62] (Agamben 2005). All purport to tell “true stories” based on “real events” and “first-hand reports” (Coll 2013). The two intelligence dramas, moreover, received extraordinary administration support, including access to cia headquarters, intelligence and Department of Defense (dod) officials, and classified intelligence (Carroll 2012). The decision to announce the award from the White House only confirms more publicly the high political stakes of military entertainments.

There is much more to say about Mrs. Obama’s Oscar moment. I will return to it later to argue that it concisely registers the crucial role of narrative fiction in contemporary diplomacy and citizenship. First, however, I want to sketch the broader relation between the contemporary “democratic security state” and the cultural narratives through which citizens, state agents, and political leaders alike negotiate the contradictory ideals of security and democracy.

Over the past decade, the US National Security State has mushroomed beyond its already gargantuan Cold War proportions into a juggernaut that consumes 42 percent of world military spending and operates in a growing array of clandestine forms. Its 16 intelligence agencies have an annual budget of $80 billion, and top-secret work is also performed by 29 other federal agencies, 1,200 government bureaus, and 2,000 private companies, all operating in 10,000 locations within the United States and many more abroad (Priest and Arkin 2010). The US Security State generates 10 trillion pages of secret documents per year—roughly a thousand times more than it declassifies—a matter that the Public Interest Declassification Board (pidg) and many members of the intelligence community have repeatedly called dysfunctional and profoundly worrying (“Official...


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