“24” State Propaganda for Torture?
MARC OLMSTED: How all this got started:
November 3rd Club nonfiction co-editor Richard Modiano forwarding a New Yorker article to me voicing a lot of concerns about “24”, which Richard backed up with some comments from Matt Cornell (which I hope Matt reproduces in some way – they were quite good). Probably the biggest concern was how glibly torture reared its head, particularly at the hands of our hero Jack Bauer. I was never comfortable with this element, which in some ways spun out of a James Bond Cold War brutality but took on a disturbing new scent in our current political clime. The New Yorker article goes on to link its effect to fostering Gitmo mentalities in new soldiers.
But anyone who watches the show regularly is also aware of the critique of government that may be the most overtly popular metaphorical exposition of a pre-9/11 awareness within our so-called protective agencies, which is portrayed as allowed to happen for the furthering of their own agendas. Two black presidents. An evil white president involved in pre-9/11-style conspiracy. A white vice-president who is secretly conspiring to assassinate his own president (like rumors of LBJ and Kennedy).
So the biggest question becomes: is “24” is just some neo-con “Dragnet” in sheep's clothing of radical chic? In this same way, did Fox's fascist Rupert Murdoch also allow “X-Files” post-Watergate paranoia because it made a buck and was ultimately of no concern to the regime he championed? Like Bush's dismissal of anti-war demonstrations, thinking that we would never really rise up?
“24” has already swung completely to the Right during one season at the height of Iraq invasion fervor, where a sleeper cell family might as well have been vampires and the rhetoric of the televised Jihadists actually sounded sane (along the lines of “end the Palestinian bias” and “U.S. troops off sacred land”) but everyone in the show acted like they were the ravings of evil psychopaths. Where a “24” season stands politically seems to at least be somewhat linked with then-current polls of President Bush's popularity. This fact that “24” is a whore will come as no surprise to even its most ardent supporters.
Yes, I like the show, but it has disgusted me as well. It is certainly well-tooled, perfecting some of the multiple screen work of the original 60's “The Thomas Crown Affair.” There is clearly a schizoid mood to the program, which seems in some ways to reflect the bloody genesis of America itself (beautifully satirized in recent Showtime “Masters of Horror” episode, “The Washingtonians” – a series a good deal more honest in its regular straight-shooting political views than “24”). So what should we do? Not watch it? Probably we should write in about what we don't like – the show has already proven itself to be very malleable. The charges that it is just the fascist brain child of producer Joel Surnow don't seem to hold up when you bring in the seemingly Left elements, unless Joel really doesn't care if the show has LSD communes, Jewish death camps or public hangings if it's popular. That may be true.
AMÉLIE FRANK: I'm a lefty and I enjoy the show for many reasons. Producer Joel Surnow is a self-hating, misinformed idiot, but he's not the reason that I watch the show. I watch it because it is entertaining. The characters are fascinating, the casting is tops, the smartest character in the show is a woman, and this season, the ideologues who want to bring down the Constitution are the bad guys. The bad guys are often corporate or manipulated by corporate interests. In the government, the bad guys are the first ones to claim they are the genuine patriots. Black men get to be President. Keifer looks good without any clothes on. I still haven't gotten over Edgar's untimely death from last season. And you can see withering mental cruelty practiced on real people on “American Idol,” which is why I don't watch it.
It doesn't soften my view that Surnow's politics are repulsive. His friends and associates are repulsive. My enjoyment of “24” doesn't change my mind that torture is inexcusable. I don't think that kids should watch it, but I also don't think that “24” makes much of a difference in adding to the desensitization of soldiers in Iraq. The current generation of soldiers grew up on violent video games, so their desensitization came about long before “24” first aired (heck, the military uses video games in its recruitment strategy).
“24” is complete escapism to me. It's hard for me to take it too seriously when the show has had a succession of U.S. Presidents (I think we're up to five now in the last six years,) all of whom have shown appalling taste in the decoration of their underground bunkers. What was UP with that horrid '70s Tupperware autumn colors pastiche in President Logan's Western White House last season?
ERIC SEE: “24” has many elements that could be described as left wing, or at least left of center. There is a black president, a Democrat even, in many episodes. Most of the Arabic terrorists are secretly controlled by white defense contractors, or even members of the administration. Almost every episode involves a secret “9/11” style plot to deceive the American public into supporting war. All of this should be evidence that the show is written by left wing writers. But it’s simply not so.
The anti-government devises are just so much window dressing. Jack Bauer is written as an extension of an omnipotent state, a state that can catch his man in less than 24 hours with the help of almost unlimited surveillance technology. With all of the fear of terrorism that is foisted on us in this current climate, it is comforting to have a Counter Terrorism Unit that is able to stop any threat no matter how unbelievable. There’s one problem though. Omnipotent states that can catch anyone just don’t make for good drama.
That’s why we need to make the state part of the problem as well. The plot needs Jack Bauer as renegade cop, up against not only an extremely sophisticated ring of bad guys, but also the weight of the entire government. Jack Bauer becomes the personification of the state, meting out justice and fighting the bad guys single-handedly. All of the plot twists that involve secret cabals and conspiracy have been created to keep the tension at a fever pitch. The show’s writers admit to only writing a few episodes in advance. There is no master plot, just twists and turns to keep the viewer glued to the set.
Is the show left wing or right wing? One way of figuring out the political bent of the show is to look at what the larger cultural impact of the show is. A simple search will show that the overwhelming majority of what’s been written about the show has been a general critique of the torture and violence of the show. I haven’t seen much public praise from left critics and organizations. Where is the NAACP’s praise of having a black president? Why isn’t MoveOn.org lauding the show for its portrayal of the president orchestrating war to further oil interests? Are Democrats citing “24” as a reason to question our potential military involvement in Iran? No, what “24” is known for is simple … torture.
“24” gives us an almost sanitized version of torture as well. In the fantasy world of the show, torture works within 10 minutes of the deed. This is, of course, necessary to stop the ticking nuclear time bomb. But the anesthetized version of torture is not what happens in the real world. Torture is not used to extract important information. Instead it is used to traumatize individuals and stop resistance. I have acquaintances that have been tortured in federal prison, and I know individuals who have been trained in torture techniques at Fort Bragg. They all say the same thing. Torture has only one purpose, to destroy someone’s humanity.
I’ll stop for now with a few random thoughts. I recently watched season 5. I got it through my stepbrother who is currently stationed in Basra, Iraq. A soldier can purchase any season for about $10. Sure they’re all bootleg copies. What’s interesting is that the copies have Arabic sub-titles and are widely available throughout the Middle East. I wonder what a teenager in Syria thinks about Jack Bauer. Does he think that Jack is a hero taking on the evil president?
And just for the sake of full disclosure, I’ve watched seasons 1-5. I actually like the show, and I’ll probably watch all of season 6 as well. And Jack Bauer can be cute when he’s naked and trussed up, although Tony Almeda’s much sexier.
MATT CORNELL: Though I've been on record against the politics of “24” for awhile now, I have never been an avid viewer of the show. I believe it's possible to enjoy a work of art while detesting its politics, but “24” just never made my guilty pleasure hit parade. After a marathon viewing (half of season 4, all of season 5, most of the current season,) I can safely say that it is not likely to become a favorite of mine. Politics aside, I find the show claustrophobic, repetitive and utterly humorless. Once you get over the novelty of its real time gimmick, you're left with a rather monotonous soap opera, full of implausible reversals and pornographic orgies of gunplay and (yes) torture.
As a palate cleanser, I caught David Fincher's new film, “Zodiac,” a refreshingly retro police/journo procedural about the real-life hunt for a serial killer. It was a refreshing change of pace from “24's” idealized portrait of omnipotent, techno-enhanced, police power. What a relief to see detective work performed without benefit of the Internet, cell phones and ubiquitous security cams! Hampered by due process and a lack of physical evidence, multiple police departments spent decades pursuing the Zodiac (he's still at large.) “Zodiac’s” slow place and digressive plot, full of red herrings and dead ends, also rang true.
Contrast this with “24's” ornate conspiracies, where every player's motives can be uncovered and every code can be cracked. (And where, needless to say, any man can be broken, through torture.) “24” uses verite shaky-cam, real time pacing and a mountain of technobabble to craft a veneer of verisimilitude. But “Zodiac” exposes a more fundamental truth about the imperfect power of law enforcement. Sometimes it can't protect us from monsters. Sometimes they slip through our fingers. With more than five years on the job, the Jack Bauers of the real world still haven't found Osama bin Laden. On the show, he'd have been nabbed before sundown.
As for torture, I think it's important to put this discussion in context. Neither the creators of “24” nor the Bush Administration invented torture. Such tactics have a long history, extending at least as far back as the advent of the CIA (check out the KUBARK interrogation manual, used as a reference text by “24's” writers), the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, and the Army's own School of the Americas. What is new and different in our time is the Bush Administration's attempt to legitimize torture, to mainstream it – to make it law. Witness the recent passage of the Military Commissions Act, which abolished the right of habeas corpus, legalized coerced confessions and rubber-stamped a host of “enhanced interrogation methods.”
Despite the public outrage created by the photos of Abu Ghraib, there has been little political traction against the CIA's secret prisons, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” the abuse of “enemy combatant” (and US citizen) Jose Padilla or the Kafkaesque nightmare of Guantanamo. It's now clear that Abu Ghraib was little more than a PR snafu – an accidental peek into a much larger, and more permanent change in US policy, since the War on Terror. In short, the problem is not that America is using systematic torture on a regular basis. It's that we're now acknowledging this practice, and justifying it as a legitimate, practical, necessary, even moral response to terrorism.
Coincident with this change in America's image of itself, is a dramatic shift in the depictions of torture within our popular culture. Last month, the Parents Televisions Council reported that there were 110 scenes of torture in prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005,that number increased to 624. And as Human Rights First has noted, the new torturers are the heroes, not the villains. In their words, “this torture is depicted as necessary, effective and even patriotic.”
“24's” Jack Bauer is the apotheosis of the genre—a patriotic superhero who regularly tramples civil liberties, ignores due process and tortures friend and foe alike to save America from a seemingly endless parade of terrorist threats. The show does not have a nuanced or morally-complicated view of torture. On “24,” torture nearly always works, is nearly always justified, and rarely has long term consequences for its perpetrators or its victims. Given our current political reality, this makes “24” de facto propaganda for the Bush Administration.
Though head writer Howard Gordon calls himself a “moderate Democrat” and Kiefer Sutherland publicly opposes torture, the show reflects the ideology of its primary creators Joel Surnow and Manny Coto. According to Jane Mayer's recent profile of him in the New Yorker, Surnow is a self-professed “right wing nut job,” who idolizes Joe McCarthy, pals around with Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, and has a decidedly chummy relationship with the Bush White House, where he enjoyed a closed-door luncheon with Karl Rove, Tony Snow and Mary Cheney. Then there's that bizarre Heritage Foundation gathering, which brought the creators of “24” together for a discussion on the show's relationship to America's “image” in the War on Terror, keynoted by Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff.
Meanwhile the right wing has certainly missed no opportunity to use “24” as a blunt instrument in the national debate around anti-terror tactics. White House lawyer John Yoo has invoked the show's “ticking bomb” scenario, while right wing pundits Cal Thomas, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and Limbaugh have all blurred the lines between the show and real life. Ingraham goes so far as to claim that “24's” popularity is “as close to a national referendum that it's OK to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we're going to get.”
There's a grain of truth there. Public opinion polls show that America's opposition to torture is steadily eroding. Is “24” helping to manufacture consent? Maybe. What we do know from Mayer's piece is that new recruits to the military are paying more attention to Bauer than to their instructors at West Point. And if we are to believe the chilling allegations of former interrogator Tony Lagouranis, some soldiers in Iraq are copying TV torture scenarios in the field.
SUZI KAPLAN-OLMSTED: The discussion here begins with a faulty premise. The New Yorker article has inflated “24’s” importance, forgotten that it’s a work of fiction, in some ways not even a particularly good one, barely art, really more a cheap, low-brow entertainment. Perhaps for our purposes it must be treated as art with a commercial intent. However, it is not, by any means, a referendum on national policy.
I enjoy that bit of entertainment; I look forward to its display as the escapist cotton candy that Surnow and the others on his team have achieved quite skillfully. I do fall prey to the folly that I and my fellow lefties have the critical intellect necessary to be “immune to its rightist agenda.” Someone suggested that the reason it is dangerous is that the poor, mentally handicapped people who do not agree with us need to be given the opportunity to divide fact from fiction to watch this silly action show. Personally, I am not immune to a number of rightist agendas, particularly the appalling display of excess known as the Nordstrom’s shoe department. But come on, it is not rocket science. Clearly, there are many news vehicles, such as the “fair and balanced channel” which is neither, that intentionally mislead those with and without mild head trauma, not to mention the unmistakable right leaning television and print news sources that make no such claim. They do, however, claim to be news, purveyors of fact. “24” makes no such claim, even when it is showing things that we know our own government actually does.
The army general and FBI agent referred to in the New Yorker piece who worry that the show is sending the wrong message to the troops are the same men who have not yet located a guy who is 6’4” and on dialysis and ordered the murders of a couple of thousand Americans. Instead they started a war in an entirely unrelated country. They are not the people I want deciding anything important.
It is bad enough that America is now so mired in debt that her collapse is a forgone conclusion - I really thought we might still have decent television to go with the $900,000,000,000,000 national debt. Especially while we all die from global warming and the lack of nationalized health care. While that army general is still stuck in that completely unrelated country, for some purpose that eludes me, perhaps he could do something like expand the green zone enough so the Americans can safely leave. Since the safe area is only around three blocks, it seems like an awfully small area for those troops, those guys who love Jack Bauer, to go out and risk life and limb to travel the same distance I do to go to the supermarket.
You bet those troops like “24” and Jack Bauer. There are no “sort of” bad guys in his world. The bad guy might be a woman, but then she’s the type of woman whose reflection looks different in the mirror than in real life. She really has a forked tongue, snakes for hair, evil cat eyes. (In truth, all she actually has is an extremely impressive rack. Obviously the gift of her nefarious deeds.) Plus we see her kill a whole bunch of people. Or plan to do so. The bad guys can be from anywhere – even America. In fact, this has been popular through more than one “day” of “24,” self-proclaimed American patriots explaining their evil acts as saving America, by destroying both its citizenry and a variety of freedoms we hold dear. They make it cleverly appear that outsiders want to destroy us (and perhaps they do), but no, we ourselves have given birth to our own white, blue and red-blooded terror cell. The very right-wing anti-civil rights gun toting nut jobs we as lefties worry are polluting the minds of those eager young soldiers are, well, shown to be the bad guys we always said they were.
The “24” bad guys are always really, really bad. You never have to fear for your life when you see a 10-year-old in the world of Jack Bauer. That’s part of what is fun for me, too. I’m only mildly frightened of children, and not because I think they’re going to kill me, because they are sticky and loud - especially sticky. In the real world, (and this is how I know “24” is fiction, and I imagine it’s a pretty good measuring stick for most people) the person who cuts me off in traffic, or the auditor from the IRS, or that meter maid writing a ticket when I’m two seconds late getting back to my car - they’re not bad guys, and I’m not Jack Bauer, suffering their torture because the fate of the nation rests in my hands. My house has been burglarized more than once. But I know they are drug addicts, not evil terrorists.
The premise here, that this is more than a TV show, assumes that someone, or I suppose many people (otherwise, it’s just one crazy guy who thinks he’s really a CTU agent on deep cover assignment) are going to be convinced to change their behavior by watching “24.” It also requires a willingness to suggest that in a world in which torture clearly already exists, and was not invented by the writing staff of 24, and was absolutely used by our government, yet it remains nonetheless too dangerous to be seen and thus must be excised or otherwise censored from someone else’s artistic work that is without question just a reflection of our current government’s stance on the subject. 24 is not a referendum on national policy. It is a current and exciting hour-long action drama that accurately reflects a portion of the zeitgeist in the country (wherever our countrymen and women may be). The parts that are disturbing should be disturbing. What horrible place might we have come to if scenes of torture of any kind are not disturbing, and even more-so when it is inaccurately displayed as successful.
I completely agree that the many thousands of years of torture, by this government and many others, are abhorrent. It is also, oddly, something at which mankind excels with a kind of focused enthusiasm and imaginative fervor that would very likely end world hunger and provide free power the world over if those problems received the same energy that has been given to the study and development of torture. Frankly, our government, and the training at the School of the Americas, however horrible, are really just latecomers offering a survey of current torture techniques. Historically, it has known a much more horrific menu of gruesome innovations. The Spanish Inquisition and Imperial China put our measly efforts to shame. However, and here’s the thing, torture is not surprising when one is throwing a war. War is the problem, torture just a symptom. Both the “War on Terror” and the “War in Iraq,” put torture on the menu for some people. If you don’t want torture on the menu, don’t throw a war. I would much rather throw a nice Sunday brunch, an event that rarely includes torture. Bagels, fruit, possibly badminton – but no torture.
All the left-minded people I have ever known bemoan the state of media and art when even the mildest whiff of censorship starts to stink up the air. We are the first to cry foul, to demand our freedoms. Those are, I believe, the difference between writing as a true leftist, and writing as a stringer for Pravda 50 years ago. No matter how I feel about torture, no matter how it offends me to see Jack get an answer in five minutes from a suspect in custody by resorting to physical violence (while he himself withstands years of torture - to the point of death and resurrection in at least one of the show’s “days”). I believe there is a greater danger to the young soldiers watching this than just the possibility of the “wrong idea about torture”, and that is the danger of minds unable to form a coherent opinion without someone wheeling them over to it and pointing it out. They don’t need us to tell them how to think.
Admittedly, some people are, inevitably, going to be influenced in ways you and I don’t like. However, I am not at all convinced that those are not exactly the same people who were going there anyway. The guys who, (Surnow et. al.?) are the paying customers of those penis enlargement spam ads that flood my e-mail in-box . Of course women will go there too, the ones who believe there is a cream you can rub on and get bigger breasts but thinner thighs. Those are the folks who will be swayed by a fictional character in a make-believe world as obviously imaginary as the world of “24.”
The guys in Iraq aren’t stupid, or delusional (except insofar as it takes to wind up serving in the military during wartime – which seems a little of each, but is not the issue here), and neither are us “24”-loving lefties. However all of us would rather sit back somewhere comfortable and watch Jack Bauer do the difficult and dangerous stuff, with the much beloved snarky genius Chloe avoiding any torture at all, doing all the intellectual heavy lifting. Personally, my favorite moment in every episode is the one where Jack says on the phone, “Chloe, I need you to trust me, and do this, but don’t tell anyone.” As much as I am certain that Jack Bauer does not exist outside the world of the television show, I know without a doubt that there are tons of Chloe’s out there (though the real ones bite their tongues when Chloe says what they wish they could.) Chloe really saves the day, no torture necessary.
MARC OLMSTED: There are so many areas where popular media is a bad influence, it becomes a matter of caging rather than killing the beast – because killing the beast is censorship. I think it is acceptable to flood Joel Surnow with letters of objection about the effects of torture – but ultimately I think what we’ll see is a liberal swing away from torture in the media, and then it will start to surface again as in James Ellroy’s writing or “The Shield,” the behavior of the bad cop, or the gray cop which is what gave permission for a character like Bauer to arise. Because whatever they are saying about the efficacy of torture in the Gitmo situation, as long as they can do something to me that makes me say “Do it to Julia,” like in Orwell’s “1984,” or Lenny Bruce’s “hot lead enema” that evens the playing field no matter who you are, then there’s going to be torture, and it will likely return to being covert. It always surprises me when there’s such outrage that “our soldiers” raped this woman or shot that civilian as if “they” are just discovering that war makes you into a monster. If there has to be war, then there has to be a cage for the soldiers, because war will make them beasts. A certain percentage will become absolute animals, or like Ed Bunker added to Kurosawa’s “Runaway Train” script, “worse than animals, human.” But the real nasty point here is when Bauer starts to look sensible or sane or cool. And of course, also that it really is far afield in terms of what we understand to be the truth in the battlefield, that the intel will often be made up under torture. It’s one thing if they want me to give up where the safe is hidden, it’s another thing if they want me to give up something they can’t confirm immediately, or that I don’t know at all.
Matt’s and Eric’s points make sense. In a better world, Bauer would be more like Tony Soprano, “The Shield’s” Vic Mackey, or at least Daniel Craig’s James Bond, clearly ruthless and not altogether sane. Unfortunately, he is more like neo-con Jack Webb/Sgt. Joe Friday of “Dragnet” than I'd like to admit. Still, there are other writers involved in the show, and it does seem to me that they are all not completely on board with Surnow’s agenda, perhaps even subversively so – which is what seems to interest at least some of the Lefties among us who enjoy 24. This would also account for the schizoid nature of the show.
Popular media will mirror the culture – which is why we’re having this dialog. It’s important somebody read between the lines, or check out the Emperor’s new clothes. Film critic Robin Wood decided I had nothing to say worth listening to when I expressed interest in Charles Bronson shooting someone though a ghetto blaster in “Death Wish II.” But it showed me where the culture was at, warts and all, because it WASN’T politically correct, and that seemed worth commenting on – like hearing white men talk when they think they’re unobserved. Capitalism will sell infatuation as love, squealing on your neighbor as honorable, and any form of racism that a paying majority approves of. “24” is probably more of this demon’s spawn than I first saw, but a bigger hypnotic damage of pop media seems to involve becoming anorexic to look beautiful, smoking yourself to death to look cool, and divorcing three times before you get it’s not like in the movies.
MATT CORNELL: Suzi and Marc have both invoked the bogeyman of “censorship,” but the reality is that no one in this debate has advocated any infringement on free speech. Criticism- even harsh criticism-- is not the same thing as censorship. No one here is suggesting that “24” be taken off of the air, or that it be forced to alter its content. Cries of “PC” censorship in this case act as a smokescreen against serious discussion and analysis.
But just as a hypothetical, I wonder how tolerant Surnow (a conservative Catholic) and his defenders would be of a television show which was as explicit in its sex as “24” is in its violence. For all of the camera's dotage on intimate acts of sadism and carnage, “24” is a remarkably sexless affair. Would this country really tolerate a primetime show depicting explicit sexual behavior?
And what about the actual, newsworthy images of torture to emerge from Abu Ghraib? Far from crying “censorship,” the right wing has fought any attempt to make these images available. While Fox viewers can tune in weekly to see Jack Bauer break fingers, shoot kneecaps, and apply live wires to human flesh, they'll have to change the channel (or go online) to find authentic images of human pyramids, hooded men smeared in feces, and MPs posing next to a corpse.
If anything, the real censorship in the news media is self-censorship which shields Americans from any honest discussion of issues like torture, the Iraq War and the unlimited surveillance power of the federal government. And if you happen to be one of those Americans who gets his news from the Fox News Channel, you may not be exposed to any information on torture which differs from the Bush Administration party line. There is a symbiosis between the ideology of Fox News and that of “24.” (Let's not forget which channel CTU's flat screen TVs are routinely tuned to.)
Suzi has also suggested that we should ignore the protests of Tony Lagouranis and General Patrick Finnegan, because they're somehow to blame for our failure to capture bin Laden and our failed policy in Iraq. That's a rather facile dismissal of both men. In fact, Lagouranis is not an FBI agent, but a former Army interrogator turned whistleblower. Lagouranis isn't arguing that the show should be censored, nor that it's solely to blame for the behavior of soldiers in Iraq. He's simply pointing out that the show contributes to misinformation about the efficacy of torture, and that it has resulted in copycat behavior in the field. General Finnegan also has little to do with the US' failed hunt to capture bin Laden. He's the dean of West Point and his beef with “24” is that it is affecting the perceptions of new recruits. As the New Yorker relates, both men's concerns were deemed legitimate enough to result in a meeting with 24's writers. A couple weeks ago, Howard Gordon announced that the show would be reducing its depictions of torture. Shortly thereafter, Sutherland announced he'd be willing to speak to West Point students and disabuse them (yuk yuk) about the efficacy of torture. Finnegan and Lagouranis were not given credit for these modest concessions, but I think it's obvious that their criticisms have had an impact.
I'm aware too that torture has been a byproduct of warfare throughout humankind. But Suzi's observation that torture is only a “symptom” of war obscures an important distinction. There are international and domestic laws which govern war. Torture violates international and (until recently) domestic laws. While leftists may have a long-term goal of dismantling the military industrial complex, we should not ignore these important checks and balances on military power.
Underlying Suzi's remarks, and to a lesser degree Amelie's, is the suggestion that “24's” critics are inflating the importance and impact of the show. Actually, it's the right wing which has already done this, as the New Yorker article illustrates. It was the Heritage Foundation, not the ACLU, which held a symposium with Michael Chertoff on “24's” relationship to the real War on Terror. It was Karl Rove who invited Surnow and his co-creators to lunch at the White House. It's Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the legions of right wing pundits who have used the show to move the consensus in America toward accepting torture.
And it was Surnow and Gordon themselves who wrote a plot line in the latter half of Season 4 which depicts a civil liberties lawyer (from “Amnesty Global”) as a reckless, obstructionist hotshot with direct ties to a Muslim terrorist. Needless to say, his client is guilty and only too willing to give up vital information when tortured by Bauer. If we aren't meant to take the show too seriously, or to connect its fictional world with our real world, what are we to make of this obnoxious, explicit swipe against Amnesty International? Why would Surnow and Gordon go out of their way to slander the leading human rights organization in the world? Of course, in the real world, Amnesty and the ACLU are not staffed by amoral hotshots who drive convertible sports cars. And they rarely have the power to stop the CIA, the DOD, the FBI, or anyone else from torturing or killing a detainee. In the world of “24,” the patriots are forever hamstrung or hobbled by leftie do-gooders. In the real world, there's almost no debate or political opposition to the increasing power of the federal government and its spooks.
Despite the show's right wing slant, I am aware that it has its left wing fans, as this forum illustrates. Much has been made of the fact that the conspirators in some seasons have been extremist right wing men (including the President in Season 5.) Far from indicating a significant leftist viewpoint on the show, I think this kind of pandering suggests a basic economic reality. In an effort to appeal to the widest audience (including all of you “24”-loving lefties) the show must appear to embrace a number of potential political viewpoints. This suggests that whatever “liberal” ideas worm their way into the right wing world of “24,” they're of a piece with Fox News' “fair and balanced” coverage of the ideological spectrum.
I also think Eric's observation about dramatic convention is fairly accurate. The show would simply be boring without its complex conspiracies. If Bauer and CTU were always working in harmony against Russian and Middle Eastern terror cells, there would never be a conspiracy to uncover or a mole to torture. In the end, conspiracy narratives of the right wing and the left wing are fairly similar. (Quick: which species is “The Manchurian Candidate”?) Neither side of the political spectrum has cornered the market on paranoia, as the unholy alliance in the current 9/11 conspiracy movement shows us.
I do think that “24” presents a rather diverse cast of characters, with the occasional strong female leader. In this regard, the show it most recalls for me “Star Trek,” with CTU as an update on the Starship Enterprise. Like that show, “24” presents us with a democratic vision of people working as a team in a technologically-advanced workplace. Chloe and Edgar are the equivalents of Uhura and Scotty. They keep the ship afloat, while the holding bays and medical cells are reserved for more violent intrigues. Perhaps, as with “Star Trek,” this vision of a diverse and relatively democratic workplace is key to the show's cult status. But I think it's clear, that this idealistic vision of teamwork and equality is belied by the anti-democratic methods employed by CTU against its enemies.
I am curious about the show's following among leftists. Do you all enjoy “24” in spite of its politics? Or do you dispute that the show is right wing? Do you enjoy “24” despite its advocacy of torture? Or do you deny that the show endorses the practice?
And what do you mean when you call it “escapism?” Wouldn't true escapism remove its viewer from such
politically-loaded narratives? Wouldn't escapism avoid wallowing in torture?
Or do you mean that the show affords the liberal viewer a kind of wish fulfillment, along the lines of the “Death Wish” movies Marc mentioned?
SUZI KAPLAN-OLMSTED: The danger in examining this issue is in mistakenly drawing a line between cause and effect just because one thing happens early in our tale and another later. That answers the chicken and the egg question with an omelet. Surnow (who has become my group name in this discussion for writers of fictional televised entertainment) is the product of economic forces and all the television shows that have made money (first and foremost), and garnered acclaim (second, but also desirable, especially in that it increases the possibility of future economic gain.)
Censorship occurs in more than one form. The current MPAA system in film, the former iron fist of the Hayes Code, the steely eye and economic chokehold of monopolistic vertically integrated companies owning almost all of the media outlets (including what's called “indie film), while also owning interests in businesses that depend on the much hallowed but legitimate bogeyman of the military-industrial complex, the taste of the Neilson families: all of these act as censors, without necessarily sitting in the editing room with a pair of scissors. Their influence is so pervasive that it is internalized, unnoticed, often unspoken, unnamed and unseen. A non-event that tears through everything we see on film and television. For better or for worse, many of these forces are unlikely to change in our lifetimes. We, however, must guard ourselves against the tyranny of our own self-righteousness, which only promises that liberals will spend so much time squabbling over rhetoric and governing each other’s behavior and thoughts, rather than keeping “our eyes on the prize”. We really want to bring about an America where the gap between education, health, and other socioeconomic measures of well being are better balanced among the populace, while civil liberties and the right of due process continue unabated., and where distinctions such as race, gender, sexual preference, appearance and religion are not reasons to deny whole groups equal protections, opportunities and benefits. Or is that just me?
It is absolutely true that we are presented with seemingly uncensored pornographic displays of blood, which seem to answer somebody’s mad enduring appetite for gore. The news delights in a prurient and frightening interest in crimes such as serial child rape-murders, as do cop and lawyer shows, until it appears that these are more common than heart attacks, when in fact they are extremely rare, far more unusual than these shows would make it seem. Meanwhile, views of healthy consensual sex are covered in shrink wrap and brown paper, hidden with a v-chip, or not present at all. It is also true that while the mainstream news delights in 24 hour visions of celebrities in high speed chases, little beauty queens found brutally murdered and mad men making false claims about that horrific crime (while visions of a bizarre hyper-sexualized little girl in full makeup dances on our TVs), The nightly news most people in this country watch provide very little legitimate news. What is really happening here and around the world are subjects which are typically ignored or minimized in the name of ratings. In fact, on March 5th it was announced that Alexandra Wallace will be replacing John Reiss as executive producer of Nightly News on NBC, after ABC’s “World News” overtook “Nightly” for the top spot during February sweeps. The news used to be a sacrosanct bastion of stability and trust, not something in a ratings war alongside “Dancing with the Stars.” Rolling Stone magazine recently reported that, fact for fact, story for story, any of the three-and-a-half (I can’t, in good conscience, give Fox full weight) major evening news programs provide exactly the same amount of information as an episode of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Since “The Daily Show” calls itself “fake news,” I believe we are all preaching to the choir about our concern for the viewer who looks to network television for real information. The coverage of the most recent Appellate Court ruling striking down gun legislation still fails to contain even the most rudimentary accurate statistics about the consequences of gun ownership by the general population, not just on nearby criminals, but also on the gun owners themselves (who are between 2 and 8 times more likely to die by their own gun, depending on to whom you speak, while gun related deaths are extremely rare in populations who do not own guns over the age of 25, distantly below heart disease, stroke, a collection of cancers, a couple of infectious diseases, automobile accidents, and all other types of accidents, not necessarily in that order). Not to mention, the gun deaths that do occur are often suicides. It is a very handy way to kill oneself. A number of other psychiatric illnesses that are often poorly treated (for a variety of reasons) with psychotherapy and medication end in suicide by gun. (I did see the Chuck Heston NRA newsbyte at least four times in the few days since the ruling, which very likely has something to do with the direction of the courts.) The “News” elects to share none of this information with the general public, finding the placement of Anna Nicole’s corpse or some other equally banal tidbit to be more important information. This barren state of mainstream news has been extant long enough that it is no surprise that the general populace has no patience or aptitude for real news.
This horse is dead and stinking up all of our conversations, this discussion of the short attention spans of the viewing public. Rather than citing their gnat-like attention spans, we need to look for a solution. I say “24,” and shows like it present an opportunity. I can watch it and have a smashing good time because I know it is fiction. Just as I can root for Tony Soprano without hoping the real mob engages in criminal activity, and especially without supporting their killing anyone, I can watch “24” without getting all worked up. There is no Darth Vader (Dick Cheney is close, but still not Master of the Dark Force, unless the dark force is oil.) In that case, The Lord of the Rings is Don King.
However, that brings me back to my point, I don’t think anyone should be looking to it for that purpose, and truly, I am not convinced that anyone is. Any good statistician will point out that correlation does not indicate causation. There are far too many other, highly suspicious, candidates available when looking for causal factors in the increase in acceptance and use of torture (or, for that matter, this whole supposed war on terror). No one is suggesting the statements of the military and other government agencies should be completely dismissed without examination. However, there are so many, countless examples of the acceptance and use of torture, here and abroad, in film and television, going back long before “24” entered the picture, that it is impossible to assign it the hurricane force influence afforded to it by Matt, Lagouranis and the others discussed thus far. (And Surnow and his people are more than happy to agree, even to the editing formerly known as censorship, in that it has gotten them so much press)*Granted, these young men and women are just that, young, but neither they nor the military structure around them arrived as tabuli rasa. These kids were not made new, beginning with “24’s” first season, born in military uniforms with a copy of the Geneva convention, faulty body armor and a humvee (like when I was a kid and Malibu Barbie came with a bathing suit, cover up, jeans and her own beach buggy). Yes, in the last 50 years we have made some very nice international and domestic laws governing humane behavior during war. I can’t recall, could one of these learned, well spoken folks remind me how that is working out? Everybody following it? Problems with adherence? By us! No, really, I’m quite shocked. Crimes against humanity how frequently? Still not able to try the perpetrators, why ever not?
The recent “discovery” of the violations of privacy under abuses of the USA PATRIOT Act, the previous revelations regarding the longstanding black ops CIA interrogation centers about which no one seemed to know anything. Our military and government personnel do not need the writers of a television show to train them. They might need a pop-culture scapegoat and a bit of slight of hand to draw attention away from their own illegal activities. I do not find it credible that these abuses occurred behind so many backs. Those very violations were the whole idea behind the PATRIOT Act, and they are now hoping that, by admitting these “errors”, we will not notice when they start doing it again, some time after the current congress stops gloating and starts campaigning (translation: begging for money) again.
Which brings me back to my original point. Lagouranis was a trained interrogator, who saw (participated in) the torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. He became a whistleblower because he was interrogating men who were obviously innocent, and he disagreed with keeping them in custody after this determination was made, not necessarily the interrogation itself in each instance. He clearly understood the difference between interrogation under Geneva Convention regulations, and anything beyond that. These men were creative. “24” uses technology and drugs that don’t exist to get successful, useful answers in five minutes. I’m not sure how many people one would have to humiliate and cause physical and psychological pain to before realizing that “24” was not a training film, but I’d bet even among the more intellectually challenged soldiers it would probably be very few.
The thing is, they weren’t using it as a training tool, more as life preserver. They were frightened children, all but alone in a strange land that was out to kill them. Why and how really didn’t matter, at least in the immediate situation. Their leadership both explicitly and implicitly told them both how to exceed the law, and how to get out their aggression and fear. The men and women with purview over Iraqi prisoners of war (if they are prisoners of war, which is a discussion for another time and place) were given only a couple of ways to deal with their anxiety. Do their job, by which I mean deal with the prisoners, or hang out and watch movies. They had a large library of both episodic television and films to enjoy. Most of the time, just outside, bombs were hitting the building, friends were dying, and they were taking care of guys who already associated the prison with decades of abuse (it was an even worse prison under Saddam). Boredom is not a friendly bedfellow for fear. In fact, it makes a pretty good passive torture technique.
When they got there, “24” was barely in the can, let alone available for them to see. There were, however, about 10,000 other films and television shows, many of which also contained plenty of torture instruction and schooling in the ways a soldier can be a scary, nasty hard-ass. Jack models being brave, under threat of death, for one’s country. Those young men and women are convinced that is why they are in Iraq, or at least they were convinced of that at some point. The more difficult it became to be certain of that, the more important Jack Bauer became. In that way, I am sure, “24 has” been unusually invaluable to the raw soldiers in Iraq. And, since brave is often synonymous with reckless, and bravado is sometimes substituted for bravery in the extremity of such situations, there is a very logical outcome. Reckless becomes careless and uncontrolled, and a frightened child full of bravado putting on a show sets off a bully into haphazard displays of terrorizing the prisoners. It is quite clear from the collected information about the goings on in Iraq that this was not torture to gather information, but rather a Lord of the Flies descent into chaos in the name of order.
Once again, I say this not because I think that television and movies should show torture willy-nilly for the enjoyment of, well, I suppose sadists, a group to which I emphatically state I do not belong. I don’t even kill ants. (Despite a distinct distaste for all six-legged creatures, not in general, just anywhere near me. I know they are essential to our ecosystem, I just don’t like them touching me. A little like Republicans, but with fewer limbs – Republicans have all those extra hands, I can never see what they‘re doing.) However, if our government is going to operate in a fashion that is not transparent, as ours is clearly doing, it is not really a democratic government. How then, are we to make an informed decision? If news sources do not reflect the actual activities of the government (even if it is because, as they claim, our enemies would then know our secrets), how then does a government of, by and for the people operate? Shows like “24” hold up a mirror, giving us a chance to, if we choose, contemplate the way our government conducts itself with regard to prisoners, and make ourselves and our beliefs with regard to torture and interrogation clearly known.
But really, in the end, “24” is just an entertaining snack. I would (and apparently will, since they are cutting out the most objectionable torture as a result of all this noise) prefer my snacks to be a lot smarter and less violent, particularly if that violence serves neither the plot nor the integrity of the story (by which I mean my ability to suspend disbelief and enter the world of the story). It is not as delicious as a Krispy Kreme donut, or as sophisticated as a crème brulee, good for me as fresh fruit with a little non-fat yogurt, or as restrained yet decadent as a bittersweet chocolate soufflé. It is, however, very much like apple pie. Not homemade, but a good one none the less. A little flabby and watery if you look too closely, but just right if you take it for what it is. Sweet and delicious if you can be present in the moments while you are eating it. Is it always necessary to contemplate the larger meaning of everything we do? Do I prefer a homemade pie with organic ingredients freshgrown locally free from corporate farming? Yes. Does that matter when the warm pie is entering its correct home (the space in my face fondly called a pie-hole)? I say no. It exhausts everyone around us, and it spoils the pie.
AMÉLIE FRANK: Given my tendency to lapse into humor, I'm feeling like a scrawny lightweight in this discussion, but, yes, headfirst I shall dive in.
In general, I reserve my outrage for the genuine goods, not for art (although I confess I was pleased to see “Mallard Fillmore” get its marching papers from the L. A. Times--that strip was frequently and pointlessly insulting). Of late, those genuine goods include: Halliburton's announced tax dodge to Dubai. The terrible revelation I received from my mother last week that, thanks to the Enron collapse, she and my father lost $27,000--pretty much everything they had invested--and they didn't even invest in Enron! The messy attempts by Alberto Gonzalez to purge the Justice Department of prosecutors who had a sense of shame and duty to the Constitution. Newt Gingrich's admission that he was having an affair while pursuing Clinton about Lewinsky, real Congressional business and $42,000,000 on the taxpayers' tab be damned. General Pace's comments on homosexuals. The scandal at Walter Reed. Ann Coulter's gruesome maw (itself an instrument of torture). My own recent tussles with both AT&T and Blue Shield and their unwillingness to provide a modicum of customer service because they have more legal rights than I do as a citizen. Those sorts of things. I wish the Guatemalans would come and smudge this country--it needs heavy-duty spiritual fumigation. And that national debt, well, we deserve it. We deserve all of it because, for the last 27 years, we have allowed the right in this country to bleed us dry of most everything useful and meaningful, from genuinely open airwaves to corporate accountability to the birthright of health, education, and community. We don't seem to mind because we are the most entertained people on the planet. The most entertained, and--increasingly--the dumbest. Does “24” outrage me? No. To me, it's what art always is: just a mirror. Do my countrymen outrage me? Oh, hell yes.
It is enlightening to read the postings by those who do not like the show, because I see great validity in their commentary on the show's politics. (I also agree with them that “24” isn't great television art--I reserve those pronouncements for “Twin Peaks” and “The Adventures of Jonny Quest.”) “24” doesn't engage them, much in the way that I wasn't engaged by “Seinfeld” or “Ally McBeal” in their heyday. But “24” does engage me.
Perhaps it is because I spent a few years working, Margaret Mead-style, amidst right wingers at Guns & Ammo magazine. There, I learned tolerance and, sometimes, admiration for people whose political worldviews annoy the hell out of me. I also fell madly in love with one of the staunchest Republicans (he used to come into my office and adjust his pistol scope on my picture of Geraldine Ferraro – and he thought I looked hot in that grass skirt), and we are still friends to this day (and, for the record, he recently surprised me by telling me he despises Bush and considers him a despicable war criminal.) I happen to like the actor/politician Fred Thompson a lot, even though I wouldn't vote for him even if you offered to pay my AT&T bill. I adore Alice Cooper's music, but I find his politics foolish. Charlton Heston has done some mighty dumb things as president of the NRA. But he also risked his career to march with Dr. King – something Republicans just didn't do back then. And he and his wife quietly hosted Planned Parenthood meetings in their home at a time when entertainers didn't dare associate themselves with the concept (no pun intended) of family planning. In any event, in love, in friendship and in art, I'm comfortable with living with differences.
Perhaps it is also that the three most evil people I have ever met in my life were all very much like me on the surface: liberal and female. If we had sat around a table and discussed politics, it would have been quite the sisterly lovefest. But they did positively awful things to people in private – to me and to others. Their politics did not translate to their personal conduct, and the moral disconnect was quite chilling to behold.
I want to add two more observations. The first is that I'm glad someone else liked Zodiac. I thought it was terrific, largely because it went for the realism and historical accuracy over style and suspenseful gimmickry. And (spoiler alert, although not really, when you consider that you know he's going to kill somebody, or he wouldn't be the Zodiac, right?) to me, the most remarkable scene in the film was the second attack, the one in which we actually see the Zodiac stab a woman to death. It was the most realistic stabbing I've ever seen in a film – very matter-of-fact, nothing gratuitous, no protracted reaction shots of sweaty torturers and victims a la “24,” no Hitchockian suggestions of knife penetration. Just a young woman in a typical late-'60s summer dress abruptly snuffed out with a series of quick knife blows that punch through the fabric of her dress without big gushes of blood. It was the complete antithesis of Eli Roth-style “torture porn.” And it was unerotic violence – unlike what we see done to women's bodies on TV today, as I complained earlier in this conversation. It was just what it should have been: appalling, awful, and terribly, terribly sad. It was also refreshing to hear the cop who would inspire Dirty Harry make an ironic comment at that film's premiere about the Eastwood picture's lack of due process.
Finally, I'd like to pass on that a big fan of “24” is none other than poet Chris Abani, who was imprisoned and tortured in his native Nigeria because of his writing. When asked by interviewer Richard Beben how he could possibly watch “24” after having survived the real thing, Abani told him (and I'm paraphrasing), “Because every time I enjoy anything, those men who tortured me lose.” 'Nuff said.
MATT CORNELL: I think that this discussion has become derailed by the assertion that Eric and I are somehow advocating censorship. This simply isn't the case. This discussion is not about whether “24” should be censored. The topic is whether “24” is right wing propaganda, and whether it reflects an ideology consistent with the aims of the Bush Administration. Or, to extend Suzi's metaphor, we're not here to discuss if one ought to eat pie or whether pie tastes good. Instead, we're here to discuss the ingredients of that pie. Who wrote the recipe? And what is the nutritional content?
Unfortunately, the defenders of the show have largely avoided these questions. Most of the remarks in favor of “24” are simple assertions of taste (I like pie); they do not try to answer the question posed in this debate (what's in the pie?) In fact, I closed the last round by asking if the “pro 24” folks here believe the show is right wing. I then asked if they liked the show in spite of its political leanings. Both questions have gone unanswered.
This is a missed opportunity, because I do think it's possible for people to separate aesthetics and ideology, when appreciating a work of art. I also think it's possible to engage with art we find ideologically offensive. Many critics have made such claims for the artistic merit of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films. How boring (and useless) would it be to have a discussion on whether Riefenstahl's oeuvre should be “censored.” That discussion is a non-starter. But what fascinates me is the possibility that committed leftists could enjoy “24,” in spite of its political toxicity. I note that some of you found the show “escapist” and I was sincere in my question (also unanswered) – what makes the show “escapist?” Anyway, if we can't even agree that the show is fundamentally right wing, we'll never get around to these complexities of response.
The other claim offered here is that “24” doesn't really have that much social impact or cultural significance. It's just a trashy TV show. Why worry about some silly TV show when there is actual torture, an actual war, and actual poverty to confront? These are excellent social concerns, but tangential to the discussion before us. This rhetoric also neatly obscures the fact that “24's” popularity coincides with an effort to mainstream torture, to foster its legitimacy and to craft a heroic image of the American torturer. Or, to quote the more tepid observations of former Fox executive David Nevins:
“There's definitely a political attitude of the show, which is that extreme measures are sometimes necessary for the greater good. The show doesn't have much patience for the niceties of civil liberties or due process. It's clearly coming from somewhere. Joel's politics suffuse the whole show.”
Suzi compares “24's” appeal to ‘The Sopranos.’ “Just as I can root for Tony Soprano without hoping the real mob engages in criminal activity, and especially without supporting their killing anyone, I can watch ‘24’ without getting all worked up.” But this is not a strong analogy, because “24” advances an ideological agenda about an issue which is at the center of political debate in this country. Unless Bush is going to pass laws legalizing the behavior of the mob, and the producers of ‘The Sopranos’ are revealed to be friends of the White House, also supporting such a policy shift, this is not a suitable analogy. “24” has an agenda. ‘The Sopranos’ does not.
The assertion of “24's” triviality also seems to contradict the parallel claim, made by Suzi and Amelie, that “24” “holds up a mirror” to America. How can it be both inconsequential and revealing? If the mirror analogy is true, the glass is warped and fogged over. As Eric pointed out, “24” lies about torture. On “24,” we are repeatedly told that Jack “had to” torture someone. It was “his job.” We inevitably hear such assertions from all of the characters, including President Palmer (an African-American character whose race has been offered as evidence of the show's “liberalism.”)
I should like to be as eloquent as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek who wrote a devastating essay called “The Depraved Heroes of ‘24’ are the Himmlers of Hollywood.” Zizek notes the similarities between “24's” attitude toward Jack Bauer and Himmler's attitude toward the SS. In short: “somebody has to do the dirty job.” The problem for Himmler, and for all despots is how to prevent the men who perform such atrocities from losing their humanity in the process. The solution, as on “24,” is to separate one's emotions from one's job. Zizek says that the lie of 24 is that it's “not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur.” Charles Graner, the ringleader of MPs at Abu Ghraib is a more accurate image of the torturer. Zizek's essay is here.
This “whatever it takes” ideology has been taken to ludicrous extremes – most notably when Jack tortures Paul Raines with an exposed lamp cord in Season 4. Raines is innocent, but still coughs up important information, at which point the torture stops, and they become instant allies. Raines is so forgiving of Jack's behavior that he later takes a bullet for the man. In the show's final act, Jack repays this kindness by forcing surgeons at gunpoint to let Paul die so that they can instead revive a key witness. All of this is momentarily repellent to Paul's wife, Audrey Raines. But even she learns to forgive Jack for torturing and killing her husband. (It was in the interest of national security.) When Jack re-emerges in Season 5, he and Audrey are an item. Richard Kim of The Nation noted that torture on “24” “plays itself out as a kind of surrogate love scene or family feud, taking place not just between agents and suspects but between family members, co-workers and rivals in a love triangle.” After describing the Paul/Audrey plotline, Kim observes that the show “construes torture as a humanizing social ritual enmeshed not in war and violence but in the drama of family and love life.” Kim's article is here.
It's true that most of the torture we're seeing now in US facilities is not the kind depicted on “24.” What's happening at Gitmo, and what's happened to Jose Padilla and to Maher Arar, is the slow, systematic destruction of human beings. Apart from the “medical interrogations” and sensory disorientation (used on Secretary Heller's son in Season 4), “24” shows us quick and dirty forms of torture, meeting the demands of the show's breakneck pace. The “ticking bomb” scenario seen on 24 has long been a wedge issue for legitimizing torture in democracies. After 9/11, Alan Dershowitz argued that America should legalize torture in such cases. In fact, Israel has used the “ticking bomb” argument as justification for torturing many of the detainees in its custody. (When suicide bombs can go off at any moment, isn't there always a potential ticking bomb somewhere?)
Anyway, if “24” were some kind of mirror, offering us an honest portrait of America in the War on Terror, wouldn't it reflect a greater diversity of views? I think it's telling that the Muslim terrorists in Season 4 kidnap the Secretary of Defense with the intent to try him for “crimes against humanity.” We never hear what these crimes might be. In the real world, Donald Rumsfeld has been charged with actual war crimes, in a German court. Wouldn't it be more compelling if “24” explored the terrorists' grievances? In Season 4 and in the current season, the Muslim terrorists make vague references to US “imperialism,” but this too is never explored.
Mark, Suzi and Amelie make the compelling observation that Season 5's ultimate villains were far right ideologues. So too, it appears, on the current season. This could be evidence of liberals in the show's writing pool. But it doesn't seem like any kind of master plan. (By all accounts, the writers are making things up as they go along. They simply don't know the end of the story when they start writing it.) In any case, no matter how absurd these conspiracies become, the deformed “patriots” behind them are always afforded some eloquent speech about how they are acting out of a deep love of their country. This view is often reflected by Bauer himself, as when we temporarily teams up with Peter Weller's rogue arms contractor in Season 5. So while the far right conspirators usually have some twisted, but comprehensible reason for their misguided behavior, the show's Muslims typically remain ciphers. “24” lacks curiosity about the actual triggers for animus against the US.
And if the show reflects a diversity of opinions, where are the liberal characters? In the three seasons I've watched, there's the immature, long-haired son of Defense Secretary Heller in Season 4. His peacenik attitudes are encoded as mere Oedipal rage. Let's not forget that his arrogance and closeted homosexuality almost brings about a nuclear holocaust. Then there's the long-haired white teen in the current season, whose liberal family leaps to protect persecuted Muslims from their xenophobic neighbors, only to be rewarded for their enlightened behavior, by being used as unwilling pawns in the terrorist plot! (That's what you get for trusting your Muslim neighbors!) And if the grotesque “Amnesty Global” lawyer in Season 4 wasn't silly enough, this season offers us Regina King as a busybody civil liberties lawyer who shamelessly exploits her family connection to the White House.
Unlike Suzi, I did not interpret the announcement that “24” would be reducing its use of torture as evidence of caving in to “censorship.” I think it's a rather small victory for the show's critics. I may have made a mistake by focusing so much on the military's criticism of “24.” Lagouranis and Finnegan are the exception to the rule. The show is actually quite popular with the military. I recently watched a portion of Season 4 where Jack Bauer and the military storm a bunker to save the Secretary of Defense from Muslim terrorists. On the commentary, I learned that the footage of troops and helicopters was real. The second unit photography for certain segments of the show is actually done with real military equipment and personnel. I do not mean to sound sinister when I note that the military considers its appearances on “24” “a training exercise.” The fact is that the Pentagon has long granted access to free resources for productions which depict the military in a positive light. With DOD script approval, you get free helicopters, troops and tanks. If you're making an anti-war picture, on the other hand, you're outta luck. This is a real de facto “censorship” which has the effect of watering-down Hollywood pictures about the military. There's a great interview with former Variety scribe David Robb about this very point.
I'm glad Amelie saw “Zodiac,” and she had some great things to say about its depictions of violence and of cops who are limited not just by due process, but by conventional moral restraint. After watching dozens of hours of “24,” I feel a bit battered by Jack Bauer's humorlessness, and the sincerity of his brutality. Bauer makes me think favorably of Ralph Meeker's portrayal of Mike Hammer in the Robert Aldrich film “Kiss Me Deadly.” Unlike the creators of “24,” Aldrich was a leftist, and he subverted the Spillane novel to comment on the thuggish, fascist tendencies of the hero. Aldrich's film is a good, subversive tonic after spending time with the unreflexive, violent heroics of Jack Bauer.
I also want to recommend another old movie I saw recently, Rolling Thunder. Released in 1977, and based on a script by Paul Schrader, it's a violent revenge film about a damaged vet, released after years of torture from a Vietnamese prison. William Devane (Secretary Heller himself) plays the man as a soulless killing machine, who feels “dead” inside. There's a moment in the film where he asks another character to tie him up with rope. The method is one of those stress positions that have been used in Guantanamo and recently legalized with the Military Commissions Act. As he re-creates this torture, Devane is asked how he survived his years in prison. He replies that he “learned to love the rope.” This is a great moment in the film, and it underscores my concern about shows like “24,” which seek to get us used to the idea of torture, to normalize it. I hope that we don't also learn to love the rope.
Thanks to everyone for this discussion.
MARC OLMSTED: As for answering the question as to whether “24” is fundamentally right wing, that would fall somewhere between “probably” and “yes and no.” As for the removal of torture from “24” being a victory of censorship, I don’t think anyone in this forum believes that. Nor do I believe that, unless I recognize the show as completely without merit (except as well done Nazi propaganda), I am a dupe and an idiot. Or that if I am allowed to enjoy it, only as a guilty pleasure.
I think the main issue here is “intoxication with aggression,” whether on screen (both in the protagonist and the TV armchair voyeur), on the battlefield, or in this forum. I think from the start, none of us would object to less of an emphasis on torture in “24,” at least by the good guys – or at least a more accurate portrait of its results.
There is a history in the Left of censorship that is as real as any Legion of Decency condemnation. I am not talking the obvious Stalinist and Maoist examples, though in some ways the unexamined authoritarian element of a good deal of the Left should be reviewed in the same context. However, it seems equally easy for some activists to razor up what they perceive as decadence with the same zeal as the Catholic Church of my youth, though hardly over the same subjects.
My mention of “Death Wish II” was to consider pop culture as virtually always lowbrow, and in some ways the most revealing mirror of that culture. Taxi Driver covered some of the same territory with a considerable more self-aware and artistic expression – but still apparently inspired John Hinkley to be an assassin. That disturbing outcome really spun Scorcese, and frankly I felt for him. Such matters are certainly far beyond my ability to judge. “Death Wish II” is a bad film. The first “Death Wish” is a worse film, and not really worth any attention other than a footnote. The later “Death Wish” movies I skipped. I can’t even remember how I happened to see “Death Wish II,” probably on a double-bill in the center of sleazy downtown San Francisco. But that element of someone getting shot in the face through his ghetto blaster struck me as worthy of a sociology paper. (The victim was white, by the way – probably for the same reason Scorcese chose his bordello “ushers” to be white, changing Paul Schrader’s script. It was TOO MUCH if they were black, too overt to register “without flames.” “Rolling Thunder” is Schrader's “first draft” “Taxi Driver,” by the way, though sold after the Scorcese film.) To put it simply, I am very interested in the politically incorrect, and I don’t think that interest is decadent or merely “liberal wish fulfillment.” I brought up Robin Wood’s dismissal for that very reason. Wood and I also talked about John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York,” which Wood said had really disappointed him after Carpenter’s promising start as a director. I said I thought it was very funny. Wood replied “I don’t go to the cinema to laugh.” That’s just a little too fucking serious, Robin.
I honestly believe that this forum will do some good, because people who enjoy the show will really consider some of these issues we’ve discussed. Personally, I still think the show itself may do as much good as bad – because it does educate on the level of suggesting the government might be willing to allow a 9/11 (or two or three) for its own purposes. That idea usually separates the liberal democrat from the real Leftist. “Alias” also had elements of this, with a co-emergent good and bad CIA. That can’t hurt as a pop culture riff, either.
Seduction works considerably better in communicating ideas that winning the debate cup. As for invoking the obvious about TV’s repressed sexuality and the Fox News channel - who ever disagreed with that, at least here? It’s pop culture, and that means it’s ugly and sick. I personally never liked “West Wing” because it seemed to offer a brief hit of hope that prolonged the rude awakening. But it was not my style to call my friends who liked it knuckle-dragging morons who delayed the revolution.
May we all work together for the liberation of all suffering beings, human and otherwise, and beyond that, have compassion for those who suffer, both perpetrator and victim. As Allen Ginsberg said in 1961 in his “Prose Contribution to the Cuban Revolution” (after he was kicked out): “WIDEN THE AREA OF CONSCIOUSNESS.”
SUZI KAPLAN-OLMSTED: You know what tastes great with pie? Coffee! I say coffee, all the way around. Apparently, I have written at least one sentence out of each paragraph in some kind of deluded stupor. I was so certain that the heart of my argument has been that NO, “24” IS NOT RIGHT WING PROPAGANDA, and therefore does not reflect an ideology consistent with the Bush administration. Since Matt had not actually seen more than a few episodes of “24” before this discussion began, and even now barely saw more than two seasons, it is very understandable that he has some ideas about the show lacking depth and nuance. On viewing the series in its entirety, it is much more obvious that the alleged “right wing agenda” is not present, or, since we all agree that Surnow is proud to be a right wing guy, which spices the show with some obvious bits of offensively right wing points of view (at least for this leftist viewer). However, a television show is a group production, not the creation of a single man. This is significantly more true in TV than in film, as making 168 hours of movie simply cannot be an auteur endeavor. Surnow is specifically credited with teleplay writing of less than half of those episodes, and that does not indicate the influence of the directors, actors, cinematographers and other personnel.
That said, it is very true that torture and other acts which might be approved in a right wing agenda are clearly shown with a neutral or positive presentation, which could be interpreted as the conspiratorial agenda of some evil cabal. I just honestly don’t think it is. I do believe it is akin to “The Sopranos,” a story with a protagonist who is not completely a hero, who makes choices that I find disturbing, who follows a credo with which I do not agree, yet find compelling. He is so very different from me. I get to be a fly on the wall of his life, his compromises, moments of bravery, degradation, kindness, self-pity. It allows me to find compassion for people unlike me in other ways, and ultimately, for myself as well. As a Buddhist developing compassion for sentient beings is one of the things I am supposed to be doing as much a possible, but often find to be something of a challenge. Protagonists with whom I don’t agree are far more useful that those with whom I do.
As to the charge that Bush is not on the verge of legalizing the activities of the mob, thus rendering my metaphor inadequate, I say, isn’t he? His every appointee has be placed in government without regard to conflict of interest, until the boards of major corporations are the people making the laws and pursuing the law-breakers, he has done the Cosa Nostra one better. His legalization of corporate crime (with the exception of a couple of high visibility fall guys) is dazzling, and absolutely the same as legalizing mob activity. Politicians used to have to hide this type of behavior. He has made it a sign of good judgment and superior breeding. It is creating a permanent disenfranchised underclass separated by a huge gap (and a huge debt which comes out of any aid they might have gotten) from the tiny lucky few who have benefited from Bush’s Cosa Nostra generosities. (No new income taxes! No “death” tax! No capital gains tax! Tax break for Hummer purchase!).
It is not just possible for “24” to be both inconsequential and revealing, it is often the case in American pop culture that this occurs. We invented the concept of “disposable”. Our mirrors come as the toy inside a Cracker Jack box. Sadly though, there is nothing wrong with the image reflected. Just because we don’t like what we see doesn’t mean the image is inaccurate. That is why we invented Photoshop, as long as one is okay with a lie. No one is as young, thin and perfect as they look in magazines. In “24,” Jack tortures people. We have all agreed that we disapprove of this practice under any circumstances in real life.
I am not convinced that “24” is Nazi propaganda. As a small Jewish child reading “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” I have been waiting for the Nazis to come for the last 37 years. I do not believe that Zizek’s analysis is accurate at all. A thorough viewing makes it quite clear that Jack does not compartmentalize his emotions, but instead is tormented but what he perceives as necessary. This torment is a tool he seems to use to keep from becoming a monster who tortures for the sake of torture alone.
Also, Jack is very much a victim of torture, even more than he is a perpetrator. There is the element of a morality play in his extended time as a prisoner, tortured horribly for years. In the current season we see ropes of scarring sneaking out of his clothing at various points, hinting at the misery he underwent at the hands of the Chinese. He was held by them as the result of choices he made while saving the world another “day”. These sorts of consequences for the supposedly righteous acts of our hero would certainly not occur if there was an approving spirit and acceptance of torture as a necessity over the show as a whole. Instead, the torturer must pay, horribly, even if the torture seems mandatory and fruitful, saving thousands or millions of lives. Truthfully, we know that in real life, torturers do retain human dignity while performing their atrocities, great and small. It does not require disassociation from what they are doing or from their feelings in order to do it, either. They are just like us. There are (at least) two very interesting books on the subject, “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People” by John Conroy, and “Violence Workers: Police Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities” by Martha Knisely Huggins , Mika Haritos-Fatouros , Philip G. Zimbardo . Zimbardo is on the Faculty of the Psychology Department up here (the Bay Area) at Stanford, or at least he was when I read the book. He has also authored a number of scholarly papers on the topic. Both of these works of non-fiction are mostly remarkable in that they make it clear that everyone is a torturer, it just takes the right set of causes and conditions to bring those qualities out. People have been torturing each other for millennia. We have delighted in finding new and ever more gruesome ways to do it. It is the real oldest profession. Forcing someone into prostitution is just another form of torture. It is the activity for which our ancestors used the first tools. Until we acknowledge that there is a little torturer in all of us, it is completely impossible for the shift away from that, toward a world of peace and consensus, to occur.
“24” is not real life, however, as I have said an uncounted number of times that has exhausted me at this point. In fiction, such things are often not what they appear. Torture is not always torture. Jack is not necessarily a government agent. The bad guys not bad guys. They can all be metaphors for other things. I don’t know that I should have to state that explicitly, but it has seemed to be a sticking point. Just in cast, Jack is an actor named Kiefer Sutherland. He’s played a vampire too. He was not advocating the rights of vampires. The show can act as a metaphor for a variety of things, not the least of which is our own interior psychological structure, and/or the Bush Administration. Jack might be the part of me that is cruel, even to myself. Or, he might be the Devil’s servant, or both, or neither. President Palmer, dream president from Season 1, may actually be my id. Or Nina is my lover, as well as killer of that which matters to me – probably my libido.
Matt takes issue with the “ticking bomb” nature of the show, believing that it is a set-up for justification of torture. However, the torture warrants that Alan Dershowitz was advocating shortly after 9/11 have long been defeated. The other elements of the PATRIOT Act are admittedly extremely disturbing, even if recently the Justice Department has “suddenly” discovered that the scope of the law has been illegally breached. It still seems to be confusing that 24 is set to be only one day each season. Twenty-four hours. Starts in the morning, runs through the one day, ends that same day.
I am bereft of additional ways to describe it. This gimmick is really important to remember when analyzing the show. I can barely get the things on my to-do list done in a whole week, let alone in 24 hours. Even with the help of the military and the full staff of CTU, it is still pretty amazing how fast they get around and how much they get done in the fictional world of 24. When there is no traffic, I can travel by car from San Francisco to my home just over the Bay Bridge in Emeryville in about 10 minutes. In the real world however, it is not unusual for this trip to take an hour. “24” is set in Los Angeles (home of my childhood), a city even more congested than the Bay Area. Last time I got near the 405 freeway it seemed that a number of people had gotten stuck there for so long that they had just gone ahead and built homes. Since “24” follows the events by watching characters other than Jack as well as Jack, each episode has a lot to do in its scant minutes to advance the plot. It would be lovely to explore a variety of other subjects, such as the back-story for the characters or the points of view of everyone involved in satisfyingly thorough depth, but each episode, though called sixty minutes, is really sixty minutes minus commercial breaks. I’m sure that after the revolution, film and television will become the sodden, plodding productions they are accustomed to in the formerly soviet republics, twelve hours of making soft boiled eggs and toast while being very, very sad, explaining in great detail the consistency of the most recent bowel movements of the chickens and how that effects the taste of the eggs. As I have said, generally speaking, I choose my escapist entertainment for its amusement and effectiveness as a diversion, not as a perfect representation of reality as it exists at the time the show is being made.
I also happen to think that what a culture chooses as entertainment is indicative of a variety of things about that culture, even when the entertainment is not high art (or perhaps especially when it is not). Shakespeare, in his time, wrote for the low-born. His work was the “Baywatch” of the time. It was sometimes ribald, common, gore-filled, bloody and violent, an understated comment using metaphor and satire about the nobles and government of England at the time. It was cheap and offensive and those that partook of it were maligned for their poor taste and inferior intellects. Yet those plays contained commentary about the entire human condition.
I do not believe that “24” is modern Shakespeare, waiting for time and reflection to receive its due. There are many other shows on television lately that come far closer to that possibility. We have entered a golden age for television. The productions, the scripts, the direction, the actors, have all become so stellar that it is breathtaking to involve oneself in the life of some shows. The aforementioned “The Sopranos,” “Oz,” “The Shield,” and “Rome” among others (not to become a shill for HBO, but they have a remarkable knack for fostering excellence) have made the model of the morally challenged protagonist engaging in activities that horrify, a clarion call for the development of compassion for people we might not understand. If I can root for the serial-killer rapist on “Oz,” despite my horror at his crimes, there is a good chance humans might not fight until every one of us is dead. I sure hope so.
My thanks to everyone in this discussion. It has been really fun, in the way that I imagine a game of Paintball would be, if I had ever played Paintball.
AMÉLIE FRANK: First, I will respond to Matt's question. Is “24” right wing? Answer, no, not really. It's corporate, just like our news media and broadcast networks. It bends like a reed to the prevailing wind. It espouses whatever will get it ratings and advertising dollars. Having worked a decade apiece for both Disney (owners of ABC and all sorts of cable channels) and Universal (now owned by NBC), I've seen how these companies love to have it both ways – whatever it takes to fatten the bottom line. During the “The Last Temptation of Christ” fracas in 1988, Universal Studios stood up to the blathering fundamentalists for weeks, going so far as to stoically watch as some 30,000+ fundamentalist protesters marched on our corporate offices – locking us into our building for the full day. Universal also quietly made some $300,000 in parking fees off of those fools who marched on us. They are much like the pragmatists on the right – privately for civil liberties (especially that pesky right to abortion, if the rumors I've heard about Bob Dole are true – and which President opened the door for gays to work in the highest echelons of the federal government? Ronnie Reagan!), but continually paying lip service to where their fundamentalist bread is buttered. “24” caters to everyone's political tastes. If it didn't, there wouldn't be so many fans across the political spectrum.
So, I like the show despite the fact that it's pretty much a whore of prevailing sentiment. There's something in it for everybody. Gun nuts get to see lots of artillery in the hands of the people they'd likely root for (remember Chloe with her assault rifle two seasons ago?). Women get to see women in positions of power, strength and wisdom (none of which, alas, are embodied in Jack's daughter, Kim.) Blacks get to see not one, but two Black Presidents, the noble (and now dead) Curtis. Patriots get to see Jack. Middle Easterners see terrorists with a change of heart and noble Arab Americans willing to take a bullet for Jack in their gun shop. Yuppies and corporate drones get dapper Bill Buchanan and his wonk bride Karen. Tender, gentle men's men of action get Aaron, the Secret Service boyfriend of First Lady Martha Logan. Reiko Aylesworth, the actress who played the much-missed Michelle Dessler, is half Black and half Japanese – satisfying three demographic groups at once. Hispanic viewers got to see poor Gael take the biohazard bullet in the name of freedom. Tony Almeida took up the slack for “Starsky and Hutch” fans everywhere (it's genetic, you know). And while most brunettes on the show aren't to be trusted (Fox, as a network, likes its heroines blonde), so far, Jack's sister-in-law embodies the brunette maternal types who can be trusted (including Jack's dead wife, Jack's girlfriend with the teenaged boy from last season, and arguably Dina Araz, who betrayed her terrorist network in order to save her son, the still-unexplained-disappeared-teen Beroozh). America wept for whiny New Yorkers everywhere when Edgar Stiles inhaled that deadly gas. Finally, to leave no demographic group untouched, Hobbits had Sean Astin as Lynn McGill. Secretary Heller's gay son is treated as if his orientation is some sort of unfortunate weakness; as for other gay characters, Stephen Spinella played a nasty piece of work last season, and Peter MacNichol as Tom Lennix has possibilities. Still, the show is good to go for another 3 seasons, so Harvey Fierstein's big chance to play a blowsy First Lady still stands.
If “24” is pie, it's decidedly the kind of pie you get at budget-priced restaurant chains. Not handmade with a whole lot of love, not filled with fresh, healthy ingredients, but tasty nonetheless. (What I wouldn't give for Marie Calendar to bring back its peanut butter meringue pie!) It's certainly escapist, as Jack is little more than a comic book superhero, able to withstand great physical advertsity, dodge bullets, survive all sorts of lethal situations. He's James Bond in Gap attire. I mean, up until the era of Timothy Dalton, James Bond movies were about as sexist an institution as one could imagine, but I love them for their entertainment value (cool music! killer stunts! kickass villains! OK, not Louis Jordan or Walken.) Fleming's novels, which I adore to this day, are even more sexist than the movie series – I just don't take them personally or seriously. It's their endearing shortcomings that make the Austin Powers films so damned funny. When I watch “24” with my mother, I talk back to the screen – a lot. I don't take it seriously, so it is hard for me to be offended by its flimsy politics. How can I get in a froth over the sincerity of Joel Surnow's politics when William Devane is busy on screen deliberately driving his car into Pyramid Lake and surviving? Stephen King, who is a huge fan of the show, has commented that it's hard to get all worked up about the show's seriousness when the CTU staff (two seasons ago) were saving the world on PCs too clunky to be found on a shelf at Radio Shack. I can't take Joel Surnow's agenda very seriously when he isn't careful enough with the plot to leave CTU's offices continually open to subversion and attack. They'd be more secure wiring up the place with one of those Darryl Issa-manufactured car alarms with the annoying sequence of bells, trills, and whoops that we all know so well.
Matt asks why the show can be both inconsequential and revealing? The answer is that American culture itself has become inconsequential. Corporatization of every aspect of our culture, from what gets played or discussed on the radio to what is covered on the news (back to Anna Nicole, anyone?), has ruined much of what was wonderful about American culture. I mean, thanks to the American Idol phenomenon, we have R&B music with absolutely no soul these days. That's a sign right there that the Four Horsemen are just two offramps away from where we are these days. What will these wayward horsemen reveal? That there is no there there when they look behind the curtain.
It's interesting that Senator Olmsted (Marc for the uninitiated) points out how “24” could lead viewers to entertain (a la “Alias”) the idea of a U.S. government so hungry for power that it would create several 9/11s to sustain its hold on the country. Of course, Fox's own “The X-Files” succeeded in making this idea its tagline: “The truth is out there.” Even the FBI agents can't trust our government.
Suzi's spiritual position surprises me in its proximity to my own. I am a Christian –a very relaxed, here have some cookies kind of Christian. She looks upon the difficult characters in “24” in the way she does Tony Soprano. She finds them fascinating. I fall squarely in place behind her – I am fascinated by people who do not see things the way I do--even if what they see and make manifest is pretty damned ugly. Observing evil behavior (especially the banality of it – evil people going about their day, eating breakfast, picking up the kids from school, etc.) is a fascinating science, but it is also a very new one. There is no psychology of Evil (although M. Scott Peck sketched a useful pathway for us to follow in his book “People of the Lie”), but criminal profiling has certainly given us more information about how psychopaths and sociopaths think and behave. But what if there exist in positions of power such psychopaths and sociopaths who wear the mask of mainstream decency so well that no one expects them to turn violent? Or what if the evil is like the strain we observe in Karl Rove and Dick Cheny – something we see too well (especially if we are artists or members of the intelligentsia), but none other will see it with us and therefore will assume that we are mad.
Good people can descend into evil. Good people can make shitty decisions in their personal lives (ruining matters for the immediate family and/or circle of friends in the process). Good people can be too preoccupied with their own work or business or their own self-interest and not hear the cultural cries of alarm. Or good people can sleepwalk, putting their moral outrage on snooze alarm in order to get through the next round of “to dos” – and that is when tyrants wind up in power and evil can cross the border and snatch away your child, your job, your livelihood, your healthy, your life.
Resuming the mirror analogy, I look at Jack and I see us – well-meaning people who are willing to tolerate just a little more moral ambiguity, a little less accountability from the powers that be, and less personal accountability from their children, less loyalty to their own healthy conscience. When we lost who we are and what we believe in, we lose everything--not just the country that falls. As Jack goes about his day, violating every commandment and most important tenets of the culture that created him, he loses more of himself. He has found love in Audrey, but he was also willing to torture Audrey (Season 5). Who next? Daughter Kim? Don't put it past Jack. What crumbles in Jack's humanity is likely irreparable. One can easily say the same for our culture and the things we used to stand up for. Jack is distracted by the crisis of the day. We are distracted by numerous crises throughout a single say--the gridlock commutes to work, Imagine doing all that hard work for reduced employee benefits; the loss of privacy; increased responsibility for the tax burden (while Halliburton hoofs it to Dubai). If we see distraction, disorder, and despair in Jack Bauer, I think we can find the same in ourselves in relation to the prevailing culture.
A genuine pleasure reading all of your brilliant contributions.
ERIC SEE: I wanted to answer Matt’s question about leftists enjoying the show despite its politics. As a leftist, I do enjoy “24.” I’ve watched seasons 1-5 already and a bit of season 6. No, like Marc, I’m not a dupe or an idiot either. But it is a bit of guilty passion on my part. Many of my friends don’t watch the show and consider it the most right wing show on television. I also have other leftist friends who have confided in me a love of the show as well.
I think that the phenomenon of leftists consuming and enjoying right wing culture is pretty common. I think of acquaintances that read white supremacist books and websites. There’s a certain “love your enemy” fascination that happens. I don’t mean turn the other cheek, rather that you want to better understand that which you oppose.
I agree with Matt that this debate seems to have shifted towards the ideas of censorship, and not at the issue of whether “24” is right-wing propaganda.
I think that the answer to that question is yes. Or it is very close to propaganda. The show does not just espouse right wing values, which many shows do, it takes strong positions on a policy that the Bush administration has been working very hard to push-the use of torture as an acceptable tactic in military/security affairs.
If Surnow had created a TV show in 2002-2003 that made the case repeatedly that Sadddam Hussein had WMDs and was giving aid and comfort to terrorists, I would think that most progressive minded people would see the show as propaganda (and I’d probably watch it as well). I see “24” as similar to that. The Bush administration is systematically pushing the limits of acceptability of torture as a tactic. That policy has many critics (although not nearly enough) and it’s a tough sell. And along comes “24” to help inoculate the public into viewing torture as a necessary evil.
Just because “24” is propaganda does not mean that all Americans follow it’s arguments blindly, or that people are “knuckle-dragging idiots,” propaganda doesn’t have to be effective in order to qualify as propaganda. In looking up the definition I found this helpful-propaganda is “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”
I’d also like to comment the “leftist censorship” ideas that have surfaced. While not actually relevant to the discussion, I feel compelled to comment on them. Personally I just haven’t seen any real evidence of left censorship in this country. And I just don’t buy it. The left doesn’t have any real power in this country, in fact the US left is one of the weakest internationally. This country has a very powerful right leaning culture, what with us being, as the saying goes, “inside the belly of the beast”. Unless you are referring to extreme backward viewpoints, the left has never been able to censor pro-capitalist views in any medium. Quite to the contrary the capitalist ethos is pretty much all pervasive in our culture. And unfortunately that ethos is starting to also include acceptance of torture as something that an enlightened civilization must tolerate and use.
(The conversation doesn't have to end here, feel free to continue the discussion in The November 3rd Club Forum !)