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    Greater China
     Jan 8, 2010
US paranoia seen in new Red Dawn
By Benjamin A Shobert

The Chinese propaganda posters, carefully set inside the windows of the Chinese/American Friendship Center in Detroit, say it all: the first, a picture of the Capitol in Washington DC having its rotunda blown off, with the words "Defeating Your Enemy" running along the top. The second, a Chinese hand reaching down to help up an American, with the phrase "Helping You Back On Your Feet", and the last, a burly laborer hammering away at an anvil, a figure of the US dollar beneath his descending hammer, with the slogan "Repairing Your Economy" in large white letters on the poster.

Another poster makes its point even more directly: beneath a picture of the chastened US dollar, "Deceitful Leaders. Greedy


Corporations. This is Not a Democracy. We Are Here to Help."

Thankfully, this is not the Detroit of today, rather the Detroit of tomorrow, at least as envisioned by director Dan Bradley, who is in the midst of remaking the 1984 cult hit Red Dawn, but this time with the Soviets taking the back seat and the Chinese standing in as the aggressor.

It can be easy to trivialize the narrative liberties taken by Hollywood directors and writers, to see this movie remake as simply one more retreading of a proven formula with updated cinematography and characters. But even formulaic refreshers, as Red Dawn appears to be, draw on the current day for both content and temperament. At an estimated budget of US$75 million starring a range of young talent, including Tom Cruise's son, Connor, the movie is slated for a traditionally big Thanksgiving weekend release in 2010. But more importantly, the movie and its villains say much about America's current insecurities.

The original Red Dawn worked in no small part because it preyed on American insecurities about the outcome of an actual military confrontation with the Soviet Union. During the early 1980s, when the first movie was conceived, written and produced, the US was still recovering from a recession, feeling both economically and militarily vulnerable.

In hindsight, both fears would prove somewhat overstated, as the US economy fought off the aftermath of high inflation, unemployment and the savings and loan crisis, and as the ideological strength of the Soviet Union crumpled. This implosion was in no small part because of the growing disparity between the Soviet Union's military capabilities and those being created in the US as a consequence of the Ronald Reagan administrations aggressive funding of new military capabilities.

But the original Red Dawn is best seen and understood from the perspective of an American worker in the early 1980s: insecure in his job and facing fewer job opportunities; afraid of a future with high inflation; and seeing a rising economic threat in Japan on one hand, and an increasing military threat from Russia on the other.

As outlandish as we may find these ideas now, when the original movie opened with scenes of Soviet Spetsnaz paratroopers parachuting into America's heartland and gunning down a teacher who dares challenge them, this scene worked because these same Spetsnaz had landed in Kabul several years earlier, and because the hype surrounding the US's own military build-up drew much of its force from a belief that we did not possess the necessary hardware or strategy to defend ourselves from the growing Soviet communist menace.

As rewrites go, the new Red Dawn movie did not have far to go for inspiration. Fast forward to the modern-day worker and his own insecurities: a job market so bad that it requires generational markers, uncomfortable parallels to the Great Depression, to measure and understand; fears over inflation caused by run-away government spending; and those expenditures made necessary because the whole of our system appeared ready to topple.

And, unlike the 1980s when our economic and military threats were distinctly different, Americans have now begun to fear that China may be their true peer, able to match them both economically and militarily. Perhaps most problematic is that China and the Soviet Union have both been, and in some measure still are, communist. Even though this label fits the China of today poorly (if at all), the descriptor sticks in the minds of many. It can be easy to pass such fears off as uneducated or irrational if it were not for how frequently these same ideas can be heard from those holding Congressional seats, key government appointments, and responsible journalists.

The movie's setting in Detroit is potentially priceless, and it will be interesting to see what the remake does with this location. As an American city currently with an official unemployment rate just south of 30%, and an unofficial rate of closer to 50%, Detroit makes for an interesting locale on which to drop the Chinese invaders.

The movie's marketing poster shows a simple solitary star with a Chinese character nested within it, and the by-line: "They are here to help." The Soviet threat could never have been couched so innocently in the original movie; the subtext of our disagreement with the Soviet Union was ideological, matters related not only to differing views on economic theory, but more fundamental questions regarding personal liberty and matters of our essential humanity. Consequently, the Red Dawn remake will have to walk a finer line, showing how a once symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship turns sour, to such an extent that one country chooses to invade the other.

The original movie paid only scant attention to American collaborators, preferring to focus on the valor of those who resisted; but amidst the city of Detroit so beset by economic calamities, scriptwriters could be easily forgiven were they to suggest that more citizens of Detroit might be tempted to join the ranks of the "liberators". The propaganda posters likely envision this, in particular one which shows the infamous Wall Street bull with a "Chimerica" flag driven through its heaving chest, the words "Fighting Corporate Corruption" boldly written across the poster. The original Red Dawn made no attempt to cast the invading Soviets as good guys; they were invaders bent on conquest. The new movie appears to go to some lengths to represent the Chinese as solutions to the most acute of American problems in the most severely hit of American cities.

The past several years have seen the Chinese become convenient stand-ins for a variety of TV and movie plot lines; shows as wide ranging as Monk to Law and Order have made use of the Chinese villain, typically as either a shady government operative or the greedy Chinese businessman whose defective products put Americans at risk.

At some level, this can be blamed on the culture of the day, and the ability of writers to interject the most recent fear into a boiler-plot drama. But to label all such endeavors as innocent would be a mistake: as much as we might be entertained by a two-hour movie transporting us to a version of the future that is highly improbable, the idea of an ascendant China threatening America's sovereignty is a potent one, and has the potential to easily enter our stream of consciousness in ways that are damaging and unproductive. The Soviet threat was always somewhat esoteric, whereas the perceived Chinese threat of today is more practical, and can be understood by anyone negatively impacted in today's recession in purely economic terms.

What the writers and director of the original Red Dawn may have seen most accurately was that some sort of confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union was inevitable; what they saw less clearly was that the confrontation would stay non-conventional, but that the Soviet Union would collapse from within as a result of its own ineptness and its inability to keep up with the US's military build-up.

Similarly, what the writers and directors of today's Red Dawn may see most accurately is that some sort of conflict between the US and China is equally inevitable. Their version of the future - one which undoubtedly owes its particular vision to that which will yield the best movie - is that this inevitable conflict is going to involve guns, tanks and lots of explosions. We might gladly provide them with this latitude if it provokes us to ask in what ways the current relationship between the US and China is equally fragile.

The storytellers of our various cultural traditions are best understood not in a literal sense, but in a more contextual one. Consequently, the insight from the 2010 version of Red Dawn may not be its ability to forecast a literal clash of conventional militaries, but rather the untenable nature of the relationship between our two countries, that when something has to give, it always does.

On its own, the remade Red Dawn is interesting, but not compelling. The movie's backdrop of America's current economic problems, the profound insecurities we feel about our future, frustration with what we see as the downside of globalization, an increasing number of loud voices in government, and media speaking out against China together make the new Red Dawn movie not only fascinating but potentially may push frustration with China into the forefront of a zeitgeist that could define the coming years. Most troubling is not necessarily the role of Chinese aggressors for the movie, but the fact that America's cultural center of gravity as reflected in our politics, business, and now entertainment, seems focused on China as the cause of most of our ills.

Could the newly remade Red Dawn actually be a good thing? The hidden beauty of the original Red Dawn was how wrong it was, and it became a campy cult classic largely because of how myopic its view of American vulnerabilities proved to be. Having rounded out a decade many are eager to forget, American aspirations are certainly muted.

Questions over how we will compete globally, where we fit into the world's economy as more than consumers, what industries and markets we can distinguish ourselves in, all remain unanswered and are deeply troubling. But Americans have always believed that what separates us is how we respond to these problems, in our inherent optimism, and the conviction that we can make for ourselves a future worth aspiring towards.

As unhelpful as the Red Dawn movie may be for US-China relations, it may also serve as a small part of what provokes Americans to push forward and find answers to these same questions, to find comfort where now insecurity holds sway. And as with many cultural markers, we may only appreciate when looking backwards how this version of Red Dawn marked a low point, after which America rallied and found a vision for the future that was both compelling and secure.

Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc (www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses bring innovative technologies into the North American market.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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