The Egyptian uprising was noteworthy for, among other things, the ways in which Barack Obama had to tiptoe around the question of the fate of Hosni Mubarak. Obama called the uprising a legitimate expression of popular opinion and urged the Mubarak government to acknowledge their grievances. This is not quite what the protesters in Tahrir Square wanted. They denied the very legitimacy of the government. Obama eventually came to call for a “lawful” transition, although it was never clear under which legal framework a transition could take place. The Egyptian constitution was designed to ensure Mubarak continued his Pharaohic rule indefinitely.
Of course, Obama’s ambivalent position was hardly new. Every American president since the beginning of the Cold War has had to hold his nose while voicing support for some venal tyrant under siege from his own people. Yet many people on both sides of the political divide were furious at what they regarded as Obama’s morally compromised position on the Egyptian uprising.
It’s been the job of spy novelists to educate us on the nasty subtleties of superpower geopolitics. Everything you need to know about Cold War (and post-Cold War) ethics can be found in John le Carré’s novels. His heroes struggle to maintain personal and professional integrity while facing conflicting personal, institutional, and ideological loyalties.
Unfortunately, the spy genre has been taken over by television. PopMatters’ Kit MacFarlane shows how much American TV has ruined the genre. Instead of exploring the gray zones of geopolitics, American TV is
skirting around the US’ (and its allies’) willingness to outsource moral and democratic transgressions to those off-shore ethical dead-zones and rely on the benefits of morally bankrupt rules, although rarely to the point that it truly compromises or muddies the foundations of a show or its lead characters. Reactionary drivel like Law & Order replicates the arguments, but always from a safe and sensationalised distance, while shows like 24 and The Unit still propagandise about tough, steely, always-right American men being all that hold the world together, in spite of a general array of evil-doers and idiots (i.e., anyone who disagrees with them about absolutely anything).
MacFarlane claims you have to go back to the late 1990s to find a television drama that captures the ethical complexity of the literary genre. He argues that the 1990s Canadian series La Femme Nikita was uneven but, “at its best, Nikita created a dour and miserable world of moral compromise and moral stasis that works as a strong antidote for the trivial nonsense that most spy shows present.”
MacFarlane has a detailed analysis of the series’ most representative ethical dilemma, and it’s worth reading. I would only add that I think violence is as important a factor in the spy genre as loyalty. What the spy genre allows readers and viewers to experience is the disavowal of the results of violence. In geopolitics violence is used for us, but we can assume an ethical position as if it’s being used against us. Meanwhile, it can’t be traced back to us.
To put it in the terms of the uprisings in the Middle East, we can cheer on the protesters in their struggle against tyranny, knowing there’s always a George Smiley to plunge into the murky aftermath, and he will suffer for us.