When news broke that an extramarital affair had ended General David Petraeus’s brief tenure at the Central Intelligence Agency, more questions surfaced than answers. Speaking to the political roundtable on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan suggested that the resignation sounded “mysterious” and “strange.”
She added: “This feels a little ‘Homeland,’ almost,” referring to the Showtime series about international terror and the dark-ops of domestic intelligence.
It was an off-hand reference, but she neatly captured America’s strange relationship to “homeland.” Noonan plugged the Emmy-winning hit (and our president’s favorite show) to conjure the black magic behind national security.
Showtime’s “Homeland” is uniquely removed from our cultural geography, but it seems to satisfy America’s paranoia fetish. Long-suffering spooks wage covert war against Muslim terrorists. Double-agents betray both sides. Characters that exist outside this cutout (assorted family, friends, and neighbors) are deprived of agency. They must wait for the next explosion—that spasm of violence that keeps their audience riveted. Such is our shared “Homeland.”
By invoking this problematic term, Noonan revived an important question. In the aftermath the tragedy of September 11, before the formal debut of a “Department of Homeland Security,” she noted this:
“Homeland” isn’t really an American sort of word but a European, or rather Teutonic sort of word.
At the time, her statement touched a nerve. Knee-jerk patriotism and political boilerplate defined the moment. There wasn’t time to stop and think—only time to act. But Noonan held the line, responding that “if we wait for a perfect time to stop ‘Homeland’ we’ll never do it. And it must be done, because words matter.”
She was prescient. “Homeland” isn’t an American concept. The word doesn’t fit the American context. Writing in Noonan’s defense at Slate, Mickey Kaus traced homeland’s Germanic roots:
“Heimat,” a common German word, means home—and not as in “home and hearth” either (that’s “heim”). “Heimat” means “home” as in a place or nation that’s home. “Heimatland” is the literal analog of “homeland” as I understand it.
To borrow from Horace Kallen, it’s other “nations” that get their names from the people who inhabit them: “The United States, on the other hand, has a peculiar anonymity.” Michael Walzer expanded on this notion in his essay “What it Means to Be American.” On patriotism and pluralism, he suggested that we never discard with “the old places,” despite growing deep roots in the American soil: “the United States isn’t a ‘homeland’ (where a national family might dwell), not, at least, as other countries are, in casual conversation and unreflective feeling.”
Walzer was on to something. It’s impossible to imagine an “American People” in the same vein as the Kurds, or the First Nations of Canada, or a chorus of Burgenlanders belting the refrain to “Mein Heimatland.”
States around the world understand their homeland differently, but most yield to ethnic nationalism. Russians refer to Mother Russia—the personification of their nation and its “spirit of collectivity.” The French honor “la mère Patrie” while Germans hail the “vaterland” in their national anthem Das Lied der Deutschen. Theodore Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people summoned Eratz Israel from antiquity.
While we are aware of an abstract consciousness, Americans simply aren’t a nation in the same way. But our understanding of homeland—since its reification post-9/11—has a state-oriented inflection. It’s clearly political, but lacks the ethnic-nationalism that prevails abroad.
Writing in support of Noonan back in 2002, Kaus attempted to identify his underlying problem with the word. He suggested that a federal agency tagged “homeland” would “explicitly [tie] our sentiments to the land, not to our ideas” despite the fact that “we’re sentimentally attached to something less geographic: i.e., freedom.”
Kaus’s gut told him that the word “homeland” was discursively un-American: “in a linguistically honest government, what’s now the Department of Defense would become the Department of War,” and the “projected ‘Department of Homeland Security [could be] called the Department of Defense.” What might have been.
What’s more, we wouldn’t find our “homeland” in our home-soil because it was never there to begin with. It has evolved into a sacred myth which pits our safekeeping against sentimental attachments to our freedom. “Homeland” has become indivisible from “security.”
In the decade since Public Law 107-296 formally established a “Department of Homeland Security” on January 24, 2003, our “homeland” has been defined by the threats we face—and the threats we’re told we face. Showtime’s flagship title hints at the security motif. Motive is masked by double-identity. Decorated war vets sympathize with al Qaeda. Moles scurry about CIA headquarters. Michele Bachmann couldn’t invent such sinister threats to our lives and liberty.
Meanwhile, our national security apparatus grows to meet threats, real and inflated. The agency branded “homeland” is encountered on land and at sea—it manages our borders, checks us at customs, inspects plants and animals, and responds to terrorists and tornadoes.
This perception of “homeland” surpasses its federal presence, and the department’s extension and recombination of responsibilities once tasked to other agencies. When we turn on the television, our notion of “homeland” is reflected on the screen, still intricately tied to our security. It’s embedded in both the architecture of state and our popular culture through ritual, procedure, routine, and narrative. As Noonan said, way back in 2002, “…words matter.”
This explains the “homeland” depiction in our security genre—whether on television or within the president’s cabinet—that stresses the significance of state, and our enduring vulnerability.
Sadly, Noonan was right. The “perfect time to stop homeland” is past, and it’s far too late to change the channel.
Reid Smith is FreedomWorks’s staff writer and editor.