How TV Series Can Help Us Understand Geopolitics

House of Cards' Russian President Petrov and U.S. President Underwood
House of Cards' Russian President Petrov and U.S. President Underwood
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — Some say that television shows are to our time what serials were to 19th century literature, an inexhaustible source of entertainment and conversations. During "urbane dinners," it has become obligatory to demonstrate knowledge of this new cultural front.

"Tell me which shows you watch and I'll tell you who you are." Besides the irony, if not snobbery, the genre has long achieved recognition of the highest level. We could venture as far as to say that TV shows have become indispensable keys to understanding the world we live in, from domestic politics to geopolitics.

For instance, to understand the policy differences between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear issue, referring to television dramas proves to be the most useful of shortcuts. Suffice to say that "Bibi" is still in the third season of Homeland while Obama has already moved on to the third season of House of Cards and has therefore integrated the Russian threat in his strategical schemes.

In reality, television shows are as much an indicator of the debates brewing in our societies as a mirror that reminds us of our fears and hopes. These shows can be a premonition of our future as much as an often idealized reconstruction of our past. Julian Fellowes, the writer of what is perhaps today's most popular series, Downton Abbey, was recently pondering the reasons behind his creation's success. Why are millions of viewers in Europe, the U.S. and even Asia so passionate about the adventures of the Crawley family and their servants? Is it the longing for a bygone past or just a fascination about the social relationships that could exist inside an English castle?

Fellowes believes there is a nostalgia for order in our chaotic world, and in particular an unconscious need for stricter rules. This is what Downton Abbey offers to a disoriented, if not distraught, public. The TV show serves as an exotic shelter, in space — an English castle — and time — from 1912 to the mid 1920s. Like its characters, we are also caught between two worlds, unaware of the profound changes that are about to take place and hungry for a shelter to protect us from the present, not to mention the future.

Good vs. evil

The contrast between The West Wing and House of Cards is probably the best possible introduction to the current dysfunction in American politics. The West Wing describes with nostalgia the presidency as it should be, under the leadership of a cultivated and humanist man. With House of Cards, we leave the world of ideals for one where the doom and gloom is barely exaggerated. We've left Pierre Corneille for Jean Racine.

Showtime's Homeland — Photo: Facebook page

In France, the investigation drama Engrenages (the English version is called Spiral) prepared its viewers for the terror attacks of January 2015. In its fifth season in particular, the show presented viewers with the growing unease inside French society, the clinical description of the drift in the suburbs. It portrayed the absolute cynicism and verbal violence between the judicial system and the police, and dialogues that could almost have come directly from the corridors of power in Paris.

In Denmark, meanwhile, it has become common to hear that the country's current prime minister is far from possessing the qualities of Birgitte Nyborg, the main character and idealized prime minister in the very popular series Borgen, featuring a woman in power.

But there's one TV show in particular that is the subject of very serious debates inside international relations departments within the entire English-speaking world, the medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones. Does it encourage us to adopt a more realistic view of the world by focusing on the role played by force in its most brutal manifestation?

Could it even have encouraged jihadists in their barbaric beheading methods? Or, on the contrary, does this show make us reflect on the limits of force? As a matter of fact, Game of Thrones manages to reflect rather faithfully a mixture of fascination and fear towards today's international landscape.

TV shows are not an American monopoly, and yet, isn't the mirror they present to the world distorted by the unquestionable Anglo-Saxon domination in that area?

I don't know whether Chinese or Russian leaders take the time to watch shows such as House of Cards or Game of Thrones to understand the evolution of their opponent's mind-sets. But I do know that their close advisers definitely do. Many of them are very much aware of the twists and turns in these series, and hide their quest for entertainment behind their "professional" interests (unless it's the other way around). But, TV series have become one of the ways to interpret and understand geopolitics in a globalized world.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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