The foreign policy of victimhood

Humiliation before the eyes of the 'son' is also at issue in the scene where the Libyan terrorists gun down Doc Brown, while Marty helplessly looks on - in fact, as we saw, while two Martys helplessly look on. Given the nationality of the assailants, it is not difficult to think of the scene as a metaphor for any number of the then still recent political humiliations of the US: Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam, Richard Nixon's impeachment, Jimmy Carter's Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful showdown with Colonel Qaddafi - all, in a sense, presidents appearing as impaired or humiliated fathers. Critics such as Pfeil speaking of the film's sympathy with 'Reaganite revisionism' might consider what Back to the Future's rewriting of America's postwar/Cold War history thinks it ought to accomplish: to mitigate the memory of national disgrace several times over. Doc Brown double-crossing the Libyans who stole the plutonium (here an energy source used as 'car fuel') can even be read as a symbolic revenge for the oil crisis, instigated by the Arab countries after their own perceived humiliation by Israel and its Western supporters. When Doc reappears at the end, the DeLorean not only takes off like a jet fighter-plane. It is powered by banana skins and recycled beer-bottles, indicating the sci-fi wish that America might become energy self-sufficient.

The apparently irrelevant and defamatory introduction of Libyans into the plot thus signals a chain of associations that do in fact have a bearing on the political and ethical dimension of the narrative. They stand for what ┬┐izek would call 'the big Other', the instance (here, America's always threatening enemies, the forces of Reagan's 'evil empire') in whose inscrutable and omnipresent gaze the subject constitutes his desire (here, the national pride of self-evident supremacy and superpower status). The Libyans, with their makeshift rocket-launcher VW camper, symbolize the derisory but dangerous enemies that stand in the way of America's perfect self-image, whose 'foreign policy' combats terrorism and supports freedom fighters. The logic follows what Zizek has called 'the dialectic of the victim' in America's international interventions: the ethnic or national 'other' is tolerated as long as he behaves like a victim, i.e. is too poor, suffering, or incapacitated to manifest an agenda of his own. Once the other does manifest aspirations, he ceases to enjoy victim status and is declared a terrorist, since to the racial supremacist, Zizek argues, 'the desire of the other is intolerable': yesterday's victim is today's terrorist. Yet once the desire of the other can be manipulated to coincide with that of the United States, the relation changes once more, and today's terrorists may become tomorrow's freedom fighters, as in Reagan's adoption of the Nicaraguan 'Contras' as freedom-fighters even to the point of making secret deals with a 'terrorist' state (Iran), in order to support them illicitly with arms (the 'Iran-Contra' affair).

There are several points one might wish to make about this reading of Back to the Future. First, it is fairly unusual, at least until the late 1980s, for a mainstream Hollywood film, with a perfectly traditional agenda - to chart the rites of passage to adulthood for a young white male along the Oedipal path of incest and parricide - to resort so explicitly to race as the field of symbolizations, from which the moves intended to stabilize subjectivity and secure identity it then draws. To believe the film, this recourse to race has to do with the disturbances and confusions surrounding the figure of the father, since the weak, absent, or inadequate father becomes by the 1980s - the decade that saw the 'revival' of Hollywood - almost the founding condition of contemporary American action and adventure films (from Spielberg's ET to The Last Action Hero). In Back to the Future (as in many other films of the 1990s, notably Pulp Fiction) the signifiers of black culture function as fetishes, as libidinally invested invocations of otherness. It might be useful to examine whether such films therapeutically 'work through' this trauma or, by contrast, are - deconstructively and thus deliberately - 'putting on' the mask of race in order to support a masculinity no longer secured by the white Oedipal father. In other films, the play with race is doubled by a political discourse worrying about America's status as a superpower at the end of the bipolar world order of the Cold War (Independence Day, Mars Attacks!), but only Back to the Future probes a trauma.

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