Looking at this, I am irresistibly reminded of this:
Not till the mountains were left behind and the American pioneers began to push across the trackless plains, did America cease to be English and become American. In the forests and on the trails of the Frontier, amid the savagery of conflict, the labor of reclamation, and the ardors of the chase, the American nation was born….
Now let us turn to the other side of the world, where…the British Empire may be seen shaping the British character, while the British character is still building the British Empire. There, too, on the manifold Frontiers of dominion, now amid the gaunt highlands of the Indian border, or the eternal snows of the Himalayas, now on the parched sands of Persia or Arabia, now in the equatorial swamps and forests of Africa, in an incessant struggle with nature and man…The Frontier officer takes his life in his hands; for there may await him either the knife of the Pathan fanatic, or the more deadly fevers of the African swamp. But the risk is the last thing of which he takes account…I am one of those who hold that in this larger atmosphere, on the outskirts of Empire, where the machine is relatively impotent and the individual is strong, is to be found an ennobling and invigorating stimulus for our youth, saving them alike from the corroding ease and the morbid excitements of Western civilization.
In this lecture delivered in 1907, George Nathaniel Curzon, the former British Viceroy of India (1898 – 1905) who would go on to become the future British Foreign Secretary (1919 – 1924), discussed frontiers as a critical geography for the development of imperial character. Note how closely the violence of empire is here, entwined with the development of character. That is, the overwhelming force meted out upon “darker” races, is indivisible from the development of the character of the “white” imperial. Going out there in the wilds of the “frontier” zone, whether it is Africa or Persia or wherever, is what ennobles, invigorates and saves them from the “corroding ease” of western civilization. Risk as experience is critical to this venture, for it is through the performance of exposing oneself to harm that the character develops. I say “performance” because of course when the colonialists go to Africa or Persia or wherever, they are backed by the force of empire. On mere suspicion of threat to the white man, entire villages are burned. Entire towns are bombed. Curzon knows this.
For the horrific deaths of 3,000 people on American soil by a murderous gang on 9.11, entire regions have been laid waste — again. It is on the tide of the latest empire that Bro TV’s rides (the link above). (I realize it’s a Kickstarter campaign, but the point of parsing through it is that it’s exactly in such semi-formal locations that the half-submerged racialized and imperial tics, attitudes and practices really flourish. I hope the actual show proves me wrong, but well, let’s see.)
The show’s host Adam Valen Levinson says, they are going to the “most forbidden and unfamiliar places on earth.” But, forbidden and unfamiliar exactly for whom? The staging of western subjectivity as the subjectivity goes uncommented. The co-creator, Marc Iserlis chimes in, “places with the worst reputations imaginable or without any at all.” That the reputation of the country which is in their first episode, Iraq, correlates to its position as a punching bag or (perceived) adversary for American empire also goes uncommented — even though it is that political relationship which delivers the sense of frisson, danger and risk that makes it desirable for a Bro TV episode. The twining of fear and desire circulates empire as entertainment:
When we thought of all the places we could possibly go to kick off the show, we couldn’t think of a better place (with a worse reputation) to have a great time in. While the name Iraq generally dictates images of fear and danger, we’d heard of Iraqi Kurdistan as an easily-accessible, warm-hearted autonomous region with gorgeous landscapes and awesome kebab.
In the months before we left, conflict erupted in Iraq. On the day our flight was scheduled out of New York, ISIS was reported 30 miles away from Erbil (the airport on our tickets). It was not at all what we had anticipated — all the dangers of “Iraq” seemed so much more real. Still, our goal didn’t change: to see what the place felt like at a time when its reputation was worse than ever, and to connect with people on the ground living their day to day lives. This was the only way we knew how to find out.
And what we found gave us so much hope amidst all the craziness.
ISIS is 30 miles from Erbil. The Taliban are 60 miles from Islamabad, a refrain oft-heard in 2009 and 2010 as the TTP took over Swat, a phrase often-uttered by two sets of people: 1) journalists eager to boost their own war-correspondent credentials and ‘devil-may-care’ bravado and 2) pro-war hawks to stage their own vulnerability, even if the political realities of those miles means that the TTP has little to no-chance of militarily taking over Islamabad. In other words, the instrumentalization of danger twined the journalist with the war-hawk, each using it for his own ends. It is a well-worn, tired, imperial tradition in which Bro TV now partakes. But, it has launched the career of many a western usually white, usually male journalist just as it also launched the careers of colonialists.
The twist is that unlike Curzon who saw “savages” on the frontier, these bros — and by that word, I now mean the rather irritating staging of pseudo-edgy white masculinity (see the smash shots set to pulsating music of jumping off cliffs, riding with soldiers, gun in hand in the Vimeo video) — want to find bros everywhere. (The sexism of this project would require a whole other post.) That is, they want to find people like them everywhere. But, there aren’t in fact people like them everywhere because the rest of us are positioned quite differently vis-a-vis the imperial project. Those living and surviving the violence in Iraq for instance, don’t necessarily have the option of choosing to perform their risk for money, fame, or television fame. Even living next door to ISIS won’t land them a television show, unless of course, it is mediated by a western, usually white subject — like the Bro TV team. In other words, these bros — the ones making the show — are intertwined with the imperial project, even, the privilege of the imperial project. So, they might find allies, even friends in Iraq or wherever they go — but bros? No. What Bro TV does then is to make imperial force, that is, the very condition for the Bro TV project, invisible. It operates by rendering the privilege and position of the Bro team invisible by presenting bro-dom as some kind of un-located, universal condition in which they are just some of many bros. This is, in fact, exactly how American empire operates.
Empire today is fundamentally liberal. The imperial project now rests rather heavily on the idea of a globalized single humanity — a globalized “bro” — which then deserves “democracy” and “freedom” or whatever — and hence American empire must enforce it. Levinson notes that in their search for bros, they are going to “all these places we’ve been marking off limits, to connect, to eat the food and find out what it really feels like to be there.” In their search for “bros,” COIN forces also sit around having food and tea with local community leaders in places marked as “off-limits.” What the Bro TV project and COIN share is an imaginary that assumes a global project, that wants to pretend all sides are equal, and expects others to accede to their bizarre delusion. Ignore those uniforms, the guns, the occupation. Ignore the camera. Let’s eat.
The point isn’t that one can’t “connect with people.” The point is, you can’t do it when you go looking a type — the bro — in order to make a terrible television show and cash in on your choice of taking a risk. Yes, sometimes, western journalists get killed, and it’s awful. I still haven’t been able to watch any of the circulating videos. But, the point is that while they are globally mourned, there’s no equivalent for the *many more* local journalists who are killed, and who do this work because they have no choice. The validation of western journalists for making the choice to take risks while locals who have no option to do otherwise rarely get the recognition they deserve, speaks to the utterly racist backdrop of global media circulation. This is what the Bro TV campaign capitalizes on.
This ain’t your grandfather’s racism. It’s hip, it’s cool, it elects Barack Obama and it’s calling you for dinner.