(Part II of a two-part series)
The two series, The Good Wife and The Good Fight try to bring some sanity to America’s debates around the trinity of Media, Law and Politics. Both are left-liberal in inclination, but they frequently step out of their comfort zones to ask questions on America’s equation with the trinity. Owing to the characters and the story line, Law entrenches itself firmly in the thick of it.
While the plots weave through drama and politics, the structure has generally been of a law procedural, bringing the lawyers’ personal lives into ongoing legal, social, and political debates in America.
Every episode speaks to the intersection and limits of social lives and personal freedom. The government keeps interfering, spying on characters from religious, ethnic minorities; NSA keeps tapping calls and creating parallel construction, which could be used by other agencies to jail activists and frame them as terrorists.
Again, tracking people for surveillance is nothing new. Yet, such parallel construction is also being done on our digital OTT platforms through cross-subsidization techniques, satiating our urges of ‘bingeing’ on content, ‘snacking’ on news, and ‘filtering’ one’s social media presence. These food metaphors describing audience behaviour are indicative of America’s endless consumption and abundance, and its corporate greed to encash on the wide-eyed consumer.
One of the finest episodes is regarding the Defence of Marriage Act, in the fourth season, in which the judge faces a crucial question of whether she should allow a wiretap. The problem is not simple: a spousal shield protects partners testifying against one another, but does it apply to a gay couple? Section 2 of the Defence of Marriage Act was since repealed, but it has been a long and arduous fight. A Good Fight, nonetheless!
In another case in season 6, the question before the court is- can a baker deny baking a cake for a same-sex couple? Or a wedding planner refuse to arrange their wedding? Diane is in fine form in this one. She argues that if the Bible is the basis for the discrimination, then how many times does the Bible condemn divorce? Do the baker or wedding planner not bake cakes or arrange marriages for divorced people? How many times does the religious book condemn gay marriage?
In season 5, a social media bot is generated to spread lies about a black Muslim professor who happened to be near the site of a bombing in Milwaukee. The bot generates and regenerates explosive, violent, bigoted content by itself for its owner, a Reddit-like company called Scabbit. The legal question is – how does one get an injunction on a bigoted, racist thread which accuses people of crime in the form of fake news?
While it ends up being proven that the bot belongs to the company, on one end is the right to express freely, and on the other is the threat to a minority life and potential prosecution.
In another website-related episode, a black woman’s face is shown in its animal’s section. Initially appalled, the lawyers later turn their heads to the workplace’s nature, full of white-frat boys who refuse to grow up.
Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s ice-cold eyes during his testimonies to Congress or the Senate, where the essential debate has been whether Facebook is a content publisher and responsible for the content posted, and we know that he will keep apologizing for Facebook’s mistakes but never really change anything about its addictive algorithmic behaviour. It is not just our data that’s unsafe with these head-honchos; even the companies that spy on us are not secure!
There’s another example of how both the series reflect erstwhile concerns and touch upon relationships between man and code, religion and law, privacy and citizenship, corporations, and civil liberty.
Just when JNU-activist Umar Khalid was arrested in India in 2016, TGW aired an episode a few days later, in which Alicia is called in for a panel-hearing on the case of Massoud Tahan, an alleged ISIS recruiter in Syria.
The legal question is – does the Department of Justice eliminate Tahan for the US government because he is a religious propagandist (although he may not have physically killed anyone)? They have 48 hours to make a decision. Owing to her legal expertise, Alicia claims that the material evidence for Tahan having ideologically plotted against the US comes from the fact that he supplied bodies for the acts of terror. He has conspired against the US and is going to take to violent recourse again. The question is settled.
Then, another file comes up: Lance Hopper, studying Comparative Religion Studies, went to Syria and joined ISIS and became Tahan. Now the question is – does the Department of Justice eliminate Tahan (nay Hopper, an American citizen) for the US government because he is a religious propagandist?
The panel head asks Alicia if she is leaking the information to the government’s various inter-departmental authorities. As it often happens in the series, NSA is listening to everyone three hops from Alicia, including her governor husband, her friends in law and politics, and a swarm of corporates.
This leak (of Masooh Tahan’s identity) sutures the whole narrative together. More importantly, it makes us audiences smell the coffee! It says that the apps are listening and so are the governments, and they are all keeping an eye on each other to commoditize the portfolios of our fears in media and risk in markets.
It is a Machiavellian world, but it is one which in Indian life is not very different. The episode on Masooh Tahan aired a few days after Umar’s, Anirban’s and Kanhaiya’s arrest in 2016. These worlds may have their textural differences, but they have their lived similarities as well. Think of how the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) can lead to anyone’s arrest in India without the application of a cognizable offense.
The recent passage of the Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 by the UP government, which can prosecute forcible conversion, is not some secular move by the ruling party as it could be very selectively applied. Higher courts in India get common pleas from different corridors of power and state, which keep insisting that a person may not necessarily have rights over their own body or data. Yet Ram Lalla, a juristic entity/person recognized by the court, moves into the alleged temple in 1949 without any forcible entry through human instruments.
The goddess of law has a sword in her hand, but what use is it if she turns a blind eye to people and collectively, communities, allowing mobs and crowds to rule? The biggest lesson to come out of The Good Wife and The Good Fight is that justice is an equation. Justice equals the law times the zeitgeist; on its own, the law doesn’t stand up.
(Read Part I of the two-part series here)
Hrishikesh Arvikar is a film researcher at The School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland. He is also a scenarist working on two screenplays, and a web series.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.