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Do Romney and Obama live in “Homeland”?

While the candidates talk tough on al-Qaida and Iran's imaginary bomb, the real threats facing us go ignored

There can be no question about the general consensus that President Obama won last Monday’s foreign-policy debate on style points – and as we discussed last week, style always trumps substance in a presidential campaign.

But the two candidates’ Alphonse-and-Gaston routine, where they focused on minor points of disagreement in minor areas of policy and steered away from the biggest problems facing our country in the world, raised some disturbing questions. Here’s one that occurred to me: Are Romney and Obama proposing foreign policy based on what’s happening in the real world, or are they just reacting to events in the current season of “Homeland”?

As viewers of that highly addictive, Emmy-winning Showtime melodrama know, “Homeland” paints a distorted, funhouse-mirror portrait of current events, infused not just with a hysterical level of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab paranoia but also with a current of bodice-ripping eroticism. We have a hunky, brooding United States congressman who is both a closeted Muslim and an agent of al-Qaida – or rather of the seamless web of Islamic terror that, in this entirely fictional universe, unites the disparate forces of al-Qaida, Palestinian militia groups and the Iranian regime – and who is entangled, in star-crossed-lovers fashion, with a blonde, skinny, startled-looking CIA agent battling bipolar disorder. If the series is vastly more sophisticated and less jingoistic than Fox’s Bush-era “24,” its relationship to realism is about the same. Both shows depict something accurately, but it isn’t the real or plausible world. Instead, it’s the disordered collective psychology of America, with its combination of superiority complex, persecution mania and paranoid delusion.

I think “Homeland” is a terrifically crafted TV drama, but much of its appeal stems from its air of moral exhaustion, and even a certain decadence — all the shenanigans of spycraft and complicated plots against America are the armature for a “doomed love affair,” as one of the show’s creators recently told Salon’s Willa Paskin. In that light, I can’t help thinking about the eminent historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun, who died this week at the impressive age of 104. Barzun got a reputation as a right-winger in the ’60s, but his positions were always more analytical than polemical, such as when he contended that the strengths of Western civilization — internal dissent and self-doubt, increasing personal freedom, a tendency to embrace and romanticize rebellion — were also the things that would destroy it in the end. You might say that the success of “Homeland” is perhaps a symptom of the decline Barzun diagnosed and also that the West’s internal crisis is the show’s true subject.

To get back to the presidential candidates, I’m not implying that either Obama or Romney is a nutjob who thinks that the Arab and Muslim peoples of the world are all scheming, 24/7, to blow us up. Both are too calculating for that, in different ways. Admittedly the former Massachusetts governor faked some angry xenophobia earlier in the campaign season to placate the troglodytes on the Republican right. I suspect even they understood that his heart wasn’t in it, and Romney has since abandoned that mask in his fourth or fifth attempt to reinvent himself, this time as a Nixonian world statesman. (If anybody’s been “shucking and jiving” in this campaign, it isn’t the president.)

Obama’s position is perhaps even stranger. He gets depicted as an African socialist revolutionary and treasonous crypto-Muslim by the right, largely because he received a high-end education and can pronounce difficult foreign proper nouns like “Pakistan” correctly. Yet he has also conducted a super-secret war of drone attacks and assassination far beyond anything the Bush administration imagined, arguably crippling al-Qaida and certainly hardening anti-American opinion in many Arab and Muslim countries. As several other commentators have noted, those issues went unmentioned in last Monday’s debate, presumably because the two candidates are in total agreement. What was Romney going to say? “I’ll rain just as much secret death from the sky — while also being white!”