Carrie Mathison – Homeland

Today is International Woman’s Day, so it’s a fitting time to talk about an actress, a performance and a character that is truly emblematic of our times; Clare Danes’ portrayal of CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Showtime’s Homeland.

Homeland is being recognized as the first post post-9/11 drama (in actual fact, that badge belongs to HBO’s Generation Kill).

It’s about Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American Marine who is struggling to adapt to American family life after eight years as a prisoner of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Carrie Mathison (Danes), an obsessive CIA agent who is virtually alone in suspecting Brody is a sleeper agent “turned” by the terrorists that held him captive.

Most of the media attention on Homeland has focused on the way the show acts as a partial apology for the gung-ho ideology of Bush-era shows like 24 (on which writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were centrally involved) to reflect a more self-conscious, Obama-stimulated period of concern for the reckless and excessive War on Terror. It’s a story of a rebuked America scrambling to avert a crisis of its own making.

In terms of such a political reading, I can only pay tribute to the redoubtable Peter Bradshaw, who writes today in his Guardian column:

“It is a fascinating idea: that America is coming to terms with the waning of a great – or at any rate greatly dramatic – era: the 9/11 era…Sgt Brody symbolises the spores of scepticism and discontent, the mixed and complicated freight of doubt and disillusion, being carried back to the US en masse by the returning troops…They may well have been “turned” in some indistinct way.”

But while Brody may represent all these things, it would be a grave mistake to think Homeland is about him or the dark motivations he may or may not harbor.

The show belongs to Carrie – the fragile, erratic, unstoppably vivacious and beautifully feminine protector of the American people against the bottomless hatred of radical fundamentalism.

Like all good drama, the stark mass of contradictions that is Carrie Mathison are fleetingly evident the very first time we meet her.

Bursting into her sparse flat, we see her wipe herself down – we suspect after some flippant sexual encounter – before pulling some clothes on and swallowing down a hefty looking pill which, we soon learn, is an antipsychotic drug before rushing to Langley.

So, right from the off, we learn Carrie has an almost purely functional relationship to sex and is medicated against bipolar disorder. Even in 2012 in the Land of Hope and Freedom, that’s a pretty out there way to introduce a female character (lest we forget, a female law student arguing for state-funded contraception was this week accused by a very influential radio show host of being a “slut” and a “prostitute.”)

Her boss and mentor, the gentle CIA veteran Saul (Mandy Pantankin) tries to channel Carrie’s talent for intelligence-gathering by constantly extolling the virtues of patience and discipline but, as he is told in the first episode, he has a blind-spot for her obsessional excesses.

Carrie has had to bear some superficial comparisons to 24‘s Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). In fact she’s much more similar to The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). She’s high-functioning but fatally flawed, uniquely sensitive and attuned to her environment but prone to blow out errors of judgment. Without a moments regard for chain of command or due process, there’s no earth she won’t scorch, no bridge she won’t burn, nothing she wouldn’t do if she felt something stood between her and the restless demands of her job.

But that isn’t to say Carrie is remote. If anything, her emotions are too close to the surface: she’s an entangled mesh of livewires, her fiercely independent and professional mask pockmarked with self-doubt, anxiety, regret and longing.

In one early scene, Carrie turns her head from the screen on which she is monitoring Brody – still traumatized by his exile – as he tries, and fails, to make love to his wife. But Carrie can’t help but look again, and the honesty of her eyes is heartbreaking.

In that sense, Homeland isn’t about how the CIA – or Carrie Mathison – attempt to keep us safe and secure. It’s about how the high-stakes world of the CIA is the perfect incubator for Carrie Mathison; her paranoia – and her compassion – exploited in a game of mutual dependency that has no end.

Tragic though it may be, it’s a portrayal of femininity at its most raw. I doubt Carrie has an equal in modern day drama.

Hacking

“Hacking isn’t about breaking and entering,” Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has said. “It’s about being unafraid to break things in order to make them better.”

A computer, like capitalism, is based on the premise of systems, ownership and security. But security can be impinged, property trespassed, systems destroyed or reordered. Hacking may conjure an image of a geek in a basement. In reality, it is much more than that.

The hacker has become an emblem; a lone freedom fighter bathed in the grey-glow of a computer screen, fingers whizzing across a keyboard, determined to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed. Hackers are analysts, rebels, questioners and rejectionists, drawing back the iron curtain of authority, using their relationship with technology to beckon a better world. As journalist David Leigh says, hacking is “a distinct psychological genre.”

Think of the traditional and enduring images of the hacker in cinema: Keanu Reeve’s Neo bursting awake in his grimy bachelor pad and receiving a minidisc from the White Rabbit. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt high-wiring into the world’s most secure office to nab the NOC list. Wayne Knight’s Dennis taking down the mainframe and letting out the raptors in //Jurassic Park//. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith rewiring the alien craft to celebrate //Independence Day//. Hugh Jackman, Vinnie Jones on one side and a hospitable blonde on the other, given 60 seconds to break into “The Department of Defense” in //Swordfish//. Cinema has done a remarkably good job of depicting hacking in all its guises and quandaries, from the virtuous, to the ethically dubious, to the plain naughty, to the egocentric and deranged.

Yet many of these films exhibit a Cold War perspective of a world defined by the existence of a wall. Today the defining symbol of our interactions is not a wall, but a net.

The internet has filtered into every aspect of our society. As hackers like Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and Pirate Bay’s Gottfrid Svartholm and Fredrik Neij have become global icons, the significance of the hacker has changed, their identity corroded, their existence maybe even endangered.

It is now easier to find a sense of community online than at your doorstep. We share the minutia of our lives, we share art and culture, we comment on events as they unfold, we treat what used to be secrets with the same familiarity as our online status. Politicians, celebrities, generals and spies are discovering to their peril that privacy isn’t easily kept these days, and revenge is a dish best served cold. When friction creates a spark, it spreads like wild-fire.

Zuckerberg, 25, whose work on Facebook has provided a 24 billion dollar kitty, is a self-confessed hacker. Facebook started life as a drunken hack-job prank in the halls of Harvard. When he was still at school, Zuckerberg invented artificial intelligence software that predicted a user’s music tastes. Microsoft and AOL wanted to buy it for millions, but he uploaded it to the net for free and joined the Ivy League. Today, with over 500 million active users, he lives in a rented flat with his Chinese girlfriend (and learns Mandarin for a couple of hours before heading to work at 6am). Refusing to watch the biopic courtesy of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, Zuckerberg works like any other programmer at the Facebook offices and seems to have no real relationship with the fortune he has earned.

Zuckerberg’s creation has been the source of concern for a lot of existing hacking communities who accuse it of muddying the sacred waters of interaction. As possibly the most successful produce of a traditional hack, the social network is not welcomed with particular warmth.  McKensie Wark, the author of //The Hacker’s Manifesto//, is part of this chorus. His polemical book seems to view hacking as part of a re-tuning of Marxist social theory for the modern age. Wark defines hacking as:

“The gift of time and attention to a project that can be shared with and by others. That is, and perhaps always was, the vast, invisible part of how social formations get by.”

He talked to Little White Lies about Facebook, saying:

“For those of us in the overdeveloped world, the main game is the subtle overlap of hacking, working, playing and hustling. It is now not clear which is which. Is my Facebook time labour or play, or hustling? Am I working for Zuckerberg, am I playing with my friends, am I trying to build an audience to sell my next book? Or am I spending all my time there on Farmville? This ambiguity about social communication time is I think the big question our culture will face.”

Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Gates’ Microsoft, Jobs and Wozniak’s Apple and Richard Stallman’s GNU project are all products, and statements, born from the culture of hacking. Indeed, so is the world wide web itself. Tim Berners Lee, who made his first computer with a soldering iron, an M8600 processor and an old television and is now accredited with fathering the net, did so by hacking existing software and welding it together, discovering a way to communicate that is wholly unconcerned with time and space.

But these visionaries of information technology are just the tip of the iceberg. These are the hackers known in the game as White Hats; entrepreneurs concerned with conventional ethics who hack company software with the implicit desire to improve security through exposure, and to create rather than deconstruct. Most good hackers were tapped up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) or IBM as soon as their capabilities became clear – Agent Smiths looking to turn Neo into Mr Anderson.

Before Silicon Valley existed, the cutting edge of technological America was the railroad. The Tech Model Railway Club, a legendary club at M.I.T, built sophisticated train models and complex circuits that allowed the trains to pioneer further into America. Its members were amongst the first hackers because they insistently pushed the programs beyond what they were originally designed to do. So emerged the hacking ethic – a silent doctrine based in the premise of transparency and knowledge, in which a man’s relationship to his machine could lead to a better world.

Finding the “perfect hack” is the pinnacle at M.I.T, and the stories predate the computers. Back in the 50s, on a balmy summer’s night, a bunch of students left their halls and broke into Cambridge’s Kendall Square subway station where they set about greasing down the lines. The first train to enter the station the next morning hit the grease and slid through to the other side, before eventually coming to a stop in a darkened tunnel way down the other end. When the driver backed up, the train slid through in the opposite direction. Not many people using Kendall Square got to work on time that morning. For several generations of M.I.T. engineers, it went down as the ultimate hack. A simple practical joke, but executed with such finesse that it obtained a certain beauty.

It’s a competitive environment. Stories abounded at M.I.T of some of America’s brightest and most ambitious students going into ‘wrap-around;’ foregoing meals, sleep and any social activity as they buried deeper and deeper into their computerized worlds, purely for the challenge to find the holes in the system.

M.I.T housed ethical hackers not unlike Zuckerberg. But the loose network of hackers is as nuanced, and their motivations as varied, as any community. Not every hacker hacks for capital gain or the sake of mankind. Infact, most don’t. For every straight-laced White Hat, there is a Puck-like Grey Hat or an Iago-like Black Hat.

Grey Hats are hackers unconcerned by rule of law if it stands in the way of their discoveries. Perhaps the most iconic hacker currently working is Julian Assange, the controversial face of Wikileaks. Assange, who rarely sleeps in the same bed twice, lives nocturnally, carries a desktop computer in a pack on his back and started his hacking career by heading up a group called ‘International Subversives,’ is a nailed-on Grey Hat.

By exposing in no uncertain terms the true cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, his work as a hacker is clearly servicing a thirst for a fact-based, transparent democracy and he has been applauded as a Robin Hood of the information age. But to achieve his ideals, Assange has broken every secrecy law ever passed, and has been accused of failing his sources. Bradley Manning, the US private charged with passing top secret Government files to Wikileaks under the online pseudonym Bradass87, is facing a life in jail for the theft of Government property, property that Assange eagerly published before joining the global lecture circuit. In an open letter to Assange, press freedom campaign group Reporters Without Borders accused Assange of “incredible irresponsibility” for publishing the Afghan war logs “indiscriminately.” Assange’s methods, they said, “reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility.” Spokesperson for The White House Robert Gates said Assange “had blood on his hands.”

Grey Hats are hackers whose intentions are shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Assange’s objectives are clearly rooted in a uncompromisingly moral world-view. Morals that, justifiably or not, allow him to break international law without recourse to any process of accountability. He said recently:

“There’s a question as to what sort of information is important in the world, what sort of information can achieve reform. And there’s a lot of information.“Information that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing, that’s a really good signal that when the information gets out, there’s a hope of it doing some good.”

Assange’s assertion that the presence of money compromises the pursuit of information is deeply embedded in the culture of hacking. Many hackers seem to regard themselves and their work as standing outside of, and rejecting, the worst excesses of capital democracy, with its accompanying trade-offs and equivocations. This is an age-old thing, as prevalent in the first stories of hacking as in the latest.

This may have been true throughout the baby-boomer generation. Their world was smaller, but most of it was still closed from view. Journalism investigated, but governmental departments and big business remained enshrined in their towers. Their economies were exploding, but they dealt in material worth.

But Generation Y live in a tertiary marketplace powered by creativity and freedom of information. We were given the internet and we showed them how to make it work. What does this mean for the hacking community? What role does it now have in this brave new world of venture capitalism?

“On the one hand, hacking has become a more widespread and self-aware cultural practice, and not just in computer related fields,” Wark says.  “Lots of people now think about themselves as members of communities that share information, make a gift of their labor, and achieve recognition from others for this. On the other hand, general social production has been more seamlessly integrated into internet-based media, from search engines to games and social networking. All of these portals extract a rent from ‘hosting’ such activity. I say ‘hosting’ because, in reality, they are the parasite – that which syphons off the surplus from its host, the host being social labor and creativity or, in other words, hacking.”

Hacking, in Wark’s world, is an extension to what the guys at the bottom of the pile have always done; adapt to survive. His manifesto places hacking as the only credible and justifiable response to pernicious authority and parasitical enterprise. He views the attempts to police it, or indeed choke it at source, as a classic exercise in wagon-circling self-preservation:

“Hacking is something that certain vested interests want to criminalize. It is exactly like the criminalizing of the pre-modern forms of economy that went with the rise of capitalism. For example, weavers used to always take some of the cloth in exchange for their work. The capitalist putting-out system criminalized this as ‘theft’. Likewise, culture has always worked by borrowing and adapting. Now the theft is of so-called intellectual property.”

Back in the day, Black Hat hackers (or self-termed “social engineers”) like Kevin Mitnick could manipulate the script and jump down the rabbit-hole. Gary McKinnon, a Glasgow-born systems administrator and Aspergers sufferer, is currently awaiting extradition to the US for what one prosecutor termed “the biggest hack of all time,” after he broke into 97 different US military and NASA computers. His online pseudonym, SOLO, reflects his working habits.

McKinnon’s motivations, and indeed his grasp of reality, remain unclear. He insists to this day he uncovered on those machines evidence of alien-life cover-ups, antigravity technology and the suppression of free-energy fuels. The American government have never commented on the veracity of these claims, but successive administrations continue to seek his extradition.

Throughout his tour of America’s most secure information, McKinnon would leave his detractors the occasional goading message:

“US foreign policy is akin to Government-sponsored terrorism these days … It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand down on September 11 last year … I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”

One thing is clear. However much we attempt to categorise hackers, however much we attempt to understand their motivations or their relationship to the state, however much we try and justify or condemn their actions or morality, one consistent thread remains. Hackers, despite their means, are looking for the one known as Morpheus – that most alluring and elusive of ideals, the thing they call truth. The road may be changing, but the pursuit stays the same.

Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country

The Saffron Stand

A Burmese man, stood in front of a government building in the capital Rangoon, unfolds and holds a white sheet of paper above his head. The paper is scrawled with writing.

As the protestor stands defiantly, we are given a point of view shot from a car across the street. A man unzips a small, basic handycam and begins to film the solitary protestor. The image shifts and shakes as the cameraman’s hands tremble.

“When I first start filming,” the narrator says, “I cannot help but be scared, but soon I begin to feel calm, and then it is only the subject.”

Barely a minute passes before two plain clothed men descend on the protestor. They take the paper from his hands, grab him at the elbows and roughly bundle him into a waiting car, where he is driven away to God knows where. If the cameraman was spotted, he would also have been escorted away.

So is the state of Burmese democracy, revealed by the acclaimed documentary Burma VJ which premiered in Britain last night. The premiere was sponsored by the Co-Operative, who deserve credit for their involvement in such a project.

The scene left a bittersweet taste for me personally. I own the same camera as that of the video journalist, and in comparison I hardly use it. The scene, and the camera itself, seemed to embody the difference between an aspiring journalist and film-maker in the liberated West and his equivalent in the oppressed East, that of someone willing to risk prison and torture in order to express reality, and someone who regards the right to expression as such an absolute given it almost serves as a discourager.


Burma VJ is an exemplary piece of documentary film-making, collating hours of footage from the 30 or so video journalists who operate illegally for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exiled media organisation based in Norway and Thailand. The footage the VJs manage to secretly shoot is smuggled out of the country, digitalised in Thailand, sent to Norway and beamed by satellite back into Burma.

Burma VJ focuses on the extraordinary six week period in August/September 2007 when the Burmese people, supported by the country’s 400,000 monks, stood in peaceful protest against the military junta, only to be met with an iron fist of violence. The sight of Saffron monks being shot at by the country’s military must surely be one of the most iconic images of modern times. You can’t get a lot more fascist than that.

The film aligns itself with the perspective of ‘Joshua,’ a 27 year-old member of the DVB who is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of the group of reporters. From his position in Thailand, he and we vicariously experience the footage sent to him from those operating in the field. The sense of occasion is palpable as he recieves increasingly revelatory pictures expressing the strength of the Burmese people and the brutality of the regime they oppose.

The images captured by the VJs, and first viewed by Joshua, were picked up by virtually every major news network in the world, and were viewed by millions upon millions of people. For a brief period of time there existed a profound sense of hope that the rusted manacles of the junta could and would be broken, allied with the pernicious fear of how it would respond to such an overt challenge to the status quo.

What director Anders Østergaard has done so well here is to collate and express the footage in a single, coherent form. Six weeks of disparate developments in an ongoing news cycle is captured in a two-hour cinematic experience which is, at times, breathtaking in its authenticity and intimacy.

From the first, solitary protests, to talk of politics and revolution on the streets of Rangoon, to small groups of demonstrators unifying and clapping each others presence. The moment when the Saffron monks emerged from their temples to take to the streets in support of the people, the first time they had done so for over a millenia, moving gracefully past the road blocks and towards Aung San Suu Kyi’s fortified house. The ever-presence of a nervous military as they await orders on how, or when, to retaliate.

“Let us pray, to reduce our fear of death,” cries one protestor as the Junta begin to advance.

This mosaic of images became a tangible and immediate reality to anyone with access to a television, and is now chrysalised in filmic form.


The thing that most upsets regimes like that of Burma, or for that matter autocracies, intolerant theocracies and organised terrorists all over the world, is the acceptance of more than one idea and the expression of autonomous right. For this to happen, as they are very much aware, an ongoing exchange of information is a categorical imperative.

What digitalisation has provided is a cheap, accessible and universal ability to engage in this ongoing dialectic and communicate to a potentially mass audience, as the Burma VJs so dramatically and courageously articulated.

We are seeing it on a more and more regular basis; the elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya, Georgia, India, the Gaza crisis, the recent sham elections in Iran (the modernism of which is characterised by Martin Amis). We are experiencing what David Miliband terms the “civilian surge,” and it shows little sign of abating.

Yet it is true that a third of the world’s population live under oppressive regimes, it is true that Aung San Suu Kyi is still under perpetual house arrest, and that almost every architect of Burma VJ is incarcerated somewhere in Burma without hope of trial.

But it is imperative to retain the hope that the pen (or maybe the camera) is mightier than the sword, and to do that films like Burma VJ must be seen, acknowledged, and acted upon.

Burma VJ goes on general release on July 14th. To sign the petition to free the VJs,  visit http://burmavjmovie.com.

Israeli War Crimes in Gaza

I can’t post them directly to my wall, but I implore you to watch these videos. The Guardian have revealed that Israel was guilty of war crimes in the so-called conflict in the Gaza strip at the start of this year.

The report says:

“The drones are operated from a remote position, usually outside the combat zone. They use optics that are able to see the details of a man’s clothing and are fitted with pinpoint accurate missiles. With a weapons system that is so accurate, and with such good optics, why are we experiencing so many civilians being killed?

As we all know thanks to figures published by the World Health Organisation, 1,380 Palestinians perished, 431 of them children, during Israel’s  23-day offensive. 48 civilians were killed by the drones.

Sitting here watching the Guardian’s videos earlier, the only conclusion I could come to was; if my family was smeared around my garden when we were sat out eating tea one evening because an unpeopled drone five miles high dropped a bomb in my back garden, I would have little reason to continue living and would never be able to come to terms with the arbitrary randomness which allowed me to survive and them to die.

If I chose to kill myself, would I do it peacefully and quietly in some room somewhere, or would I be so consumed with vitriol that I felt I deserved a small bit of justice or, if that word ceased to have any meaning or relevance, plain old revenge?

I think these feelings would be sharpened if this act of gratuitous and extreme violence of towards those I love was acted out and then attempted to be justified by people willing to attribute it to an act in the ongoing war against terrorism.

The Guardian videos reminded of this scene in Munich, Steven Speilberg’s best film. It expresses in dramatic form the phrase “violence begets violence,” arguing that, as soon as one is proactively uses aggression in order to achieve an objective, it becomes almost impossible to return to co-operation and diplomacy, and the primary objective is eventually forgotten. It’s worth watching the full ten minutes, but if you don’t have time watch between just before the third minute to about the middle of the fifth.

The War on Terror was an idiotic sham, perpetrated by the arrogance and near-sightedness of democratically elected individuals obsessed with their own moral conviction.

We have watched half a million people die in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the continued appeasement of corrupt dictators in Pakistan and Afghanistan, our Government grant itself the ability to lock people up without trial or question for six weeks, home grown Britian’s blowing themselves and 52 others up on the London Underground, extraordinary rendition, and the continued arming of Israel who now possess one of the most advanced and bloated weapons arsenal in the world.

The over-arching justification for this? WMDs that didn’t exist and the belief in human rights and civil liberites.

Gaza was the epilogue to the war on terror, not another chapter in it.

The Guardian’s video illustrates why we need to cease using terrorism as an excuse or a justification. It is a redundant term. Terrorism is the latest in a long line of terms that succeeded in dehumanising somebody else- Communism, Fascism, Anarchism, Atheism, zionism. All these terms, these -isms, paradoxically invite people to ignore the question of motive while simultaneously intellectualising it, safe in the knowledge that they possess the moral high-ground, that they are in the right.

For almost ten years we had two leaders whose administrations were propelled by religious conviction. How many times did we hear Bush and Blair talk about right and wrong and good and evil?

Marx wrote:

“Hegel’s philosophy of right doesn’t assign a moral category to wrong.”

I’m not going to pretend I’ve read Hegel or Marx or really understand this sentence, but it still makes sense I think. Right and wrong are a semantic exercise in dividing and then understanding the world in its most simplistic and cursory forms. They express part of an equation within a continuous struggle.

People are people. People have causes. People can be misled. We differ enormously but essentially we are all the same, with the same motivations and impulses, and the same occasional belief in violence.

Violence begets violence. It makes no difference who the victims or the perpetrators are.

I have asked a lot of questions here, and I do not possess the intellect to provide answers, if such things exist. All I can hope is that things will progress. All I know is that, despite the fact that my life has no direct connection to the people of Gaza captured so dispassionately by the Guardian’s cameras, watching these videos inspires anger and frustration in me, and leads me to thrash around trying to make sense of something which is at heart completely illogical and beyond understanding.

My conclusion? if anyone ever doubts the importance of investigative journalism, direct them towards these videos. I would rather have the Guardian telling me what the truth is than accept the official explanation from the Israeli Defence Force or the Home Office. At least it gives us the chance to try and work stuff out.

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