Social historian Richard Waterhouse defines popular culture as “widely practiced, watched, heard and read, and generally accepted by the majority.” As such, historians can use popular culture to learn about the society in which it originated. In the 1960s, Star Trek showed us the Cold War, presented through the framework of the Starship Enterprise’s adventures. In the 1970s, Taxi Driver showed the fracturing American society through the story of scarred Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle. In the 1980’s, the emergence of rappers such as Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five articulated the harsh realities of life in America’s African-American neighbourhoods, when contrasted to the economic boom of the period. By examining all aspects of a text, from a script to the advertising used, historians can learn about the context in which it was created, and thus create a means of understanding the past.
My research has been into the changes in American television after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and how it reflected changes in American culture. I chose television for this research because of a key aspect of its nature; while individual songs, films and programmes may be kept from broadcast, the television station itself cannot stop working. If a show is pulled for having inappropriate content, another more appropriate one must take its place, lest the broadcaster lose viewers and thus advertising revenue. The show must always go on.
Following the events of 9/11, the American culture changed to a definitive war footing. 9/11 was historically linked to Pearl Harbour by President George W Bush and speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Nine days later, the President declared that one was either with the US, or with the terrorists. Seven weeks later, the USA PATRIOT act was passed; allowing the government massively expanded domestic powers in order to deal with terrorism. Within eighteen months, the armed forces were deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq with massive popular support. As these wars became bogged down over the ensuring years, their support began to dwindle and the populace became divided over the purpose, conduct and future of the War on Terror. These changes are all reflected within the popular culture of the period.
The most striking single example of these changes is the fourth season of the now infamous television show 24. This season was filmed and aired during the first half of 2005. In this period, attention had turned to the domestic front of the War on Terror, and how to prevent further attacks on American soil. Debate raged over every aspect of domestic counterterrorism, from whom to arrest and how to determine guilt. The most controversial of these issues was that of how to interrogate suspects. Vice President Dick Cheney publically defended the practice of waterboarding, stating that it was an essential tool for fighting terrorism.
The fourth season of 24, which premiered in January of 2005, depicts the actions of Counter Terrorist Unit super-agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The opening episode season features the capture of a high profile terrorism suspect. Jack believes that he is too high profile a figure to be in the US at the time without a suitably nefarious plot. When interrogation by other CTU agents fails to yield results, Jack bursts into the room, overturns a table, shoots the suspect in the leg and then proceeds to hold his smoking pistol in the open wound. Thirty seconds later, the terrorists’ plan is divulged and Jack is off to save the America. Over the course of the day, methods similar to this are used repeatedly by Jack against other suspects. A pattern begins to emerge; no matter Jack’s actions, the story always proves him right. Torturing of suspects is proven to be the correct course of action in the face of the “ticking clock” scenario, where legal means of interrogation are unable to meet the challenge of counterterrorism. This is further emphasised through the real time aspect of the show and the omnipresent ticking clock. Every second wasted is a second closer to defeat, and the viewer is never allowed to forget this.
This question of dealing with domestic terrorist suspects was also reflected in other popular programs such as Battlestar Galactica, Law and Order and The West Wing. While each show brought its own viewpoints, agendas and answers to the questions posed, it nonetheless reflected the prominence of this theme within common discourse. The issue was on people’s minds.
Overall, this last decade in American television has been defined by the events of 9/11. Whether the fight against the Taliban was reflected in Star Trek: Enterprise, or the invasion and occupation of Iraq reflected in Battlestar Galactica, television has remained a useful tool for helping historians understand this period in history.