On September 9, 1993, The X-Files television series premiered. It followed two employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, as they investigated the paranormal, the occult, and the extraterrestrial. They even hunted the occasional serial killer. The show, which became a hit and then a cultural phenomenon, functioned as highly effective FBI and federal government propaganda.
Almost seven months earlier, on Sunday, February 28, employees of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) descended on a small parcel of land north-east of Waco, Texas. They intended to search the Mount Carmel religious center for alleged illegal firearms. Being savvy about the power of public relations, they invited media outlets to cover “Operation Showtime.”
The operation went sideways, culminating in a shootout between the ATF and the Branch Davidians who lived at the center. Four ATF employees and six Davidians were killed. The ATF retreated and set a perimeter. Then employees of the FBI were called in.
The ATF’s operation received immediate backlash. Questions were raised, from the legitimacy of the warrant to the decision to execute it in a paramilitary fashion, complete with attack helicopters. The FBI employees intended to resolve the situation and restore faith in the nation’s federal policing community.
Unfortunately, after a few weeks of negotiations in which several Davidians voluntarily left Mount Carmel, the FBI created an even bigger PR disaster. On April 19, 1993, the FBI attempted a second “dynamic entry” of the center, this time using tanks, combat engineering vehicles, and CS powder dissolved in methylene chloride. They even called in employees of the Army’s Delta Force and the Army Chemical and Biological Defense Center to advise and assist. This raid ended with the center engulfed in flames and 79 Davidians dead, including women and dozens of children.
It might be the most catastrophic incident in FBI history. Overnight, America’s political right went from respecting, and even lionizing, the federal policing community to suspecting the FBI was a significant threat to liberty. The far right was further radicalized and a majority of the U.S. population believed the FBI started the fire that killed most of the Davidians. To be charitable to the federal government, it refrained from sending in employees of the CIA to torture anyone who had ever interacted with the Davidians.
Blessedly, some unwitting and serendipitous PR help was a few months away, courtesy of Hollywood.
To be sure, The X-Files had many subversive elements and critics have viewed it this way. In an Entertainment Weekly review Ken Tucker said, “The X-Files is the most paranoid, subversive show on TV right now.”
In her book, The X-Files, Theresa Geller wrote;
For The X-Files, the “truth is out there” because it is not in the institutions that are said to protect us. All too frequently, the cases Scully and Mulder pursue implicate the U.S. government in deceiving the people it is said to serve.
The X-Files centered its evil within the federal government, not within a corporation. The first and last episodes of season one end with the show’s apex villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM), shelving evidence of extraterrestrial life in a massive room at the Pentagon (as opposed to Coca Cola headquarters). That was refreshing.
Hollywood films and tv shows often deploy narrative “civilianizing” in which evil or untoward behavior is shifted from a government agency or institution to a private company or actors. The X-Files didn’t civilianize. It’s uber villains worked for the government and the show constantly represented corruption and malfeasance within America’s national security bureaucracies.
The show wasn’t particularly anti-capitalist either. It featured government contractors, but its primary villains were obsessed with power and survival, not turning a profit. The show even depicts CSM as a failed novelist, unable to succeed in a market economy.
The X-Files referenced the government’s involvement with eugenics, raised the issue of Gulf War Syndrome, and predicted Iraq War II. It isn’t the brutal and conscious propaganda that Zero Dark Thirty is.
But The X-Files is still propaganda. Mulder and Scully work for the secret police. They are employees of the FBI.
Now, they didn’t drop the ball and fail to stop the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They didn’t assist bombing Philadelphia in 1985. They didn’t help James “Whitey” Bulger terrorize Boston for decades. They never waged psychological and political warfare on American citizens. They most certainly never told Martin Luther King to kill himself. And they didn’t unleash the tanks at Waco. But their badges, their jackets, and their paychecks still say FBI.
Mulder and Scully are cool. They’re the good guys. They’re trying to save humanity. But what you are watching is also a subtle Oedipal narrative that implicitly reinforces the idea of the federal government as society’s parents.
The Democrats (and the welfare state) are the mommy. The Republicans (and the warfare state) are the daddy. In The X-Files, Scully represents the mother and CSM represents the father (CSM is even revealed to be Mulder’s biological father).
Mulder represents the child. He constantly breaks the rules but has Scully and CSM to bail him out. He breaks into military facilities, releases classified information and interferes with intergalactic politics. Yet he is never crushed. The implication is that the government might dole out some tough love, but it does love you.
Skeptical about a vaccine? Grow up. Upset about the genocide in Yemen? Grow up. Concerned that more twenty-first century U.S. soldiers have committed suicide than have been killed by foreign enemies? Stop being so naïve, show some gratitude and grow up. In the meantime, trust the parents.
The truth is out there. The government approved algorithms will inform you what it is.