Posted by Brad @ 10:49 pm on February 21st 2007

The Politics of 24, and the Warrior Hero Republicans.

I wanted to revisit this post a little bit.

Now, the politics of 24 is itself not a terribly substantive topic perhaps, but, it seems to me, there is an obvious cultural meme that the show is exploiting, banking on, and more to the point, perpetuating that is a bit disturbing. That’s not what I want to talk about though, I’m just throwing that out as a given.

What is, or might be, more disturbing is the ideological stream behind it (if you can call it that)–in many ways an ideological stream behind the Iraq War as well and much of what we might call the Bush Republicanism philosophy of national security. I don’t think 24 is the center of it, in a causal sense, but at the very least we can say it’s begun to function as something of a divining rod. 24 is instructive not in that it detects the presence of a certain mentality, but that it reveals the startling breadth and scope of that mentality, and most importantly, it’s vehemence.

There is a great article in the most recent New Yorker by Jane Mayer which gives a very good accounting of the politics behind 24, and its creator. The title of the article is “Whatever it Takes”, the expressed motto of both Jack Bauer and the guys behind him.

One bit caught my eye:

This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind “24.” Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. […]

Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”

The article goes on from there to describe, in detail, the harm that those men are seeing as a result of, if not 24, than the mentality behind and perpetuated by it. The whole article is worth reading.

Compare that to the following, also worth-reading article from the Washington Post.

[Homeland Security Chief Michael] Chertoff was the featured speaker at a morning forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that normally sticks to real, if less sexy, topics such as tax policy and entitlement programs. Heritage’s Phillip Truluck conceded in introductory remarks that the event at the Ronald Reagan Building was “very unusual” for the conservative organization.

He was probably right, considering that the panel discussion after Chertoff’s remarks included two national security scholars, “24″ co-creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, and the actors who play the show’s Nixonish president (Gregory Itzin) and CTU agents Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub).

The discussion was hosted by Rush Limbaugh, who breached the art-vs.-life divide early by planting a big kiss on the woman he introduced to a knowing audience simply as “Chloe.”

All this, plus special guest Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who sat in the front row of the packed amphitheater.

Among other things, Limbaugh asked the show’s creators and stars whether they’re snubbed by “Hollywood liberals” for making a “pro-America show.”

That contrast tells you almost all you need to know about the politics of torture in America right now.

Of course, what’s disquieting about this is that the contrast seems to be focused on a TV show, a machismo whiz-bang formula action thriller at that. You literally have the current Director of Homeland Security, America’s most influential conservative mouthpiece of the last 50 years, and a sitting Supreme Court justice, attending what amounts to a fan-con for the show, rah-rahing all the way, while America’s leading active US military interrogators and the Dean of West Point go out of their way to try to talk down the 24 crew from ruining America.

This is, mind you, all centered around a TV show! What the hell is going on?

My thoughts in trying to answer that are somewhat convoluted still, but part of what has always struck me about the torture issue is that it has never seemed all that substantive, coming from the pro-torture folks. Facts, principles, laws, consequences, or even EFFECTIVENESS IN COMBATING TERRORISM don’t matter one whit. Either the pro-torture folks flat our refuse to address these issues, or they concoct some kind of weird conspiratorial whoo-rah reality that they can’t even support anecdotally, never mind with any kind of solidity (“Oh sure, the military brass, experts, and primary interrogators all say it doesn’t work and is horribly corrosive to both US interests AND intelligence, but really, they’re just saying that. Behind the scenes, everybody loves torture. The CIA’s been doing it for years. Why would the CIA be doing it if it weren’t effective? Torture has always been practically US policy, and it works. I can prove this because what about the ticking time bomb scenario and come on you’re just clueless to what’s really going on.”)

It has almost never been a real debate about policy and morality (with some exceptions), certainly not legality, but rather seems to be driven mostly by a weird emotional/character current, something akin to “America: Fuck Yeah!”.

Well, perhaps the connection with 24 is closer than we might think. It is, after all, a fictionalized representation of how the world works. Almost a desperate/vigorous fictionalization. It is also a show that prides itself on mood, grit, and warped character above any kind of intellectual framework (You could never imagine Jack Bauer in an episode of The West Wing, for instance). 24 doesn’t care one whit about morals (even the moral code they might be attributed as having (an “America, Fuck Yeah!” sort) is hopelessly convoluted), practicality (indeed, it almost prides itself on getting further and further away from reality and reaching closer and closer to the plain ridiculous), or even, well, thought. It is a catharsis of emotion over fear.

Which is fine.

For a bad TV show.

Digby had a very intriguing article up the other day (I can never link to his stuff right, but it’s called “No, we’re the Greatest Generation!” and was posted on Feb 18th) that strikes me as not just related, but maybe central. And though I’m very close to sliding into painting people with a very condescending brush (if I’m not there already), it’s a sense of a certain kind of pro-war Republican that I’ve had since 2001, and haven’t been able to shake.

I want to quote some chunks of the article.

One of the things thats driven me nuts over the past few years is this reflexive portrayal of the GWOT as the most dangerous and challenging in world history. They have from the beginning behaved in a way that I think history will see as panicked and overwrought. As a nation we behaved with much more calm and deliberation when we were much more seriously threatened in the past. These last few years were not our finest.

The doughy pantload generation of wingnuts, on the other hand [as opposed to the Cold Warrior neocons], thinks it’s some sort of game and they are the star players. They yearned to be “part” of something momentous — but from a distance, like you are when you are watching movies about war and heroism and identify with the main characters. No need to give up your Milk Duds just to enjoy a good bloodbath. They are writing an exciting plotline that has Islamic terrorism somehow so uniquely dangerous that it has surpassed WWII and the cold war and is more like something out of science fiction: “Star Wars” or “War of the Worlds.” To these people, naitonal security is cheap pulp fiction.

No thanks to the rabid right which has been lobbying for a nuclear meltdown (and global domination, let’s face it) since the end of WWII. It is a worldview that has almost nothing to do with actual events or facts on the ground. It reached its zenith with Bush, but they will never go away. They are fearful, insecure people whose temperament and ideology create a need for them to believe that they are warrior heroes in spite of all evidence to the contrary. They are the last people on earth who should be leading a powerful nation in a time of great challenge. Talk about putting the inmates in charge of the asylum.

There is some context to those bits that bears reading, but you get the idea.

It’s easy to dismiss that, I think, because it’s invective and itself dismissive and it ignores a lot of other pro-war (even pro-torture) Republicans whose views are genuine (not that the 24 crowd’s aren’t, per se), and based on some kind of intellectual framework slash competing worldview. Absolutely admittedly, Digby there is painting with a very wide, stereotyping, condescending brush.

I don’t say this casually or flippantly, or just eager to tar some people I disagree with:

But doesn’t he have a point?

Don’t you (and I) know a helluva lot of the 28% Bushites that kinda fit that bill…more than casually?

Is that, perhaps, what 24 gets at?

When a huge swath of not just shit-kicking red state voters, but conservative talk show hosts, cabinet secretaries, supreme court justices, vice presidents, start pointing to 24 as an excitingly pro-American show, isn’t there something going on there that is perhaps even MORE worrying than a legal brief of national security necessity and a constitutional interpretation of the law and morality?

Because, really…how can you argue with that?


  1. Point taken. And well made, I think.

    I CAN see Jack Bauer on West Wing, though. In fact, I think we did see him.

    Josiah Bartlett was the same kind of cardboard-thin, ideologically-based, masturbatory fantasy figure that Bauer is; he just appealed to the opposite side of the political spectrum. There wasn’t any meaningful degree of nuance or subtlety in either of the characters, but they weren’t intended to be nuanced or subtle.

    And I’d argue that both shows represent what one would have to call “good TV.” By which I mean they both constitute art which is successful in creating an emotional catharsis in quite a significant swath of the public.

    Of course, “Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will” were also successful by that metric, which is why it’s important to assess the question: to what end?

    Comment by Rojas — 2/22/2007 @ 12:18 am

  2. I don’t want to get into a West Wing vs 24 discussion, perhaps mostly because I’ve never been a fan of either, but I think even a casual comparison between the two gives a picture of a pretty big gulf between the worldviews. If the liberal masturbatory fantasy is Josiah Bartlett, I’ll take that over Jack Bauer any day. It’s not even close. West Wing is annoying because it’s preachy, condescending, and tends towards shallow stereotypes of anybody that doesn’t share a certain worldview. 24 is also annoying in exactly those ways, it’s also annoying–and much more disquieting–because it’s an active kind of masturbation fantasy in addition. It breeds, it seems to me, not a blaise kind of liberal arrogance and condescension, but flat-out contempt, anger, paranoia, fear, and, frankly, violence–literally, and in a more ideological sense. Even the mechanisms are different. West Wing is about nothing if not the proper channels of government. 24 doesn’t just eschew that, but is actively and aggressively opposed to it (you don’t hear much about the “rule of law” these days from Republicans, unless they’re talking about brown people).

    To put it another way, it’s not the degree of shallowness I’m objecting to per se (and if I was, I’d be writing a lot of posts about TV shows), it’s the fantasies that underly those shallownesses that I’m mulling on. The fantasies engendered by West Wing are one thing–annoying, but pretty boilerplate and, if generalized, get us basically to where we are already. The worldview is one where the system can be worked by principled people to achieve common and decent aims (that’s just an offhand casting of it, mind, but you get me). The worldview, and fantasies engendered by the 24 perspective, is one in which discourse and democracy are, at best, peripheral and, at worst, annoyances and roadblocks. Where we are in a perpetual state of a desperate and visceral war for survival, where danger lurks around every corner, where freedom is not even something to pay lip service to (much less fight for) but is an active contrary force, an annoyance at best (a crippling handicap to be cast off, at worst), and principally, where we must, at all times, be prepared to do “whatever it takes”.

    Say what you will about West Wing–and don’t get me wrong there is plenty to critique and parse there from a libertarian cultural studies point of view–but at the very least, it has a base level of respect for the rule of law and the foundational principles of democracy. When a paper shredder gets put into the story as a foreboding prop, it is probably just going to be shredding paper–and the guy doing the shredding is probably going to end up punished and castigated and cast in a negative light, to boot.

    As for catharsis, I think 24 actually fuels its opposite, which is maybe the core of my problem with it. Aristotle defined catharsis as leading to “the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.” That’s its whole point, he would argue–to ultimately balance back out emotions that are initially out of whack (specifically fear, paranoia, anger). Read the New Yorker article I linked, particularly around the bits I quoted wherein the Dean of West Point and guys that have literally done tends of thousands of interrogations, and what they say this kind of thirst for recasting things in a 24 light has been leading to. They even take it farther than I would (I’m not one to blame much directly on a TV program, but rather (if at all) on the underlying memes and currents that are behind it, and that it exacerbates (or challenges)). The point is that 24 is not acting as a purge, in the Aristotelean sense. Quite the opposite.

    But, I don’t want to sound like Tipper Gore. What interests me about 24 is less the show itself, and more the kind of mindsets we’re seeing that it appears to sit in the center of. Not just cathartic “ah wouldn’t that be nice” red state fans, but “we argue this as a model for the way things ought to be and the way we want to make them” officials at the highest level of government. There are significant numbers of people for whom the conceptual model contained in and expressed by 24 is not fantasy or drama, but a new vision of reality, one that plays into and encapsulates the vision of reality that had already been coalescing around certain segments of the Republican party, the ones that desperately want to cast not a TV show, but the foreign and domestic policy of the world’s most powerful nation, in the light of what is essentially a frighteningly violent, aggressive, paranoid, angry, security-porn-laden fantasy.

    It’s scary not that this mindset/worldview exists on a TV show, but that it exists as the organizing principle of our current government and many of her most vehement supporters, who are bleeding it through to American legislative, constitutional, and judicial philosophy.

    I’m probably taking it too far though–it’s late. Still, something that’s been bubbling in my head for the last couple of days, based on those readings.

    Comment by Paint CHiPs — 2/22/2007 @ 1:23 am

  3. If you want it even starker, here is a quote in that New Yorker article from Cyrus Nowrasteh, the guy who wrote and produced “The Path to 9/11”, one of the executive producer of 24’s best friends (they run a conservative film festival together, among other things). I think the quote is as indicative of the 24 War Hero Republican point of view as anything:

    “Every American wishes we had someone out there quietly taking care of business. It’s a deep, dark, ugly world out there. Maybe this is what Ollie North was trying to do. It would be nice to have a secret government that can get the answers and take care of business–even kill people. Jack Bauer fulfills that fantasy.”

    The only problem is, Jack Bauer does NOT fulfill that fantasy. A large chunk (and the currently dominant chunk) of the ruling party of the United States of America is keying into that fantasy, defining themselves by it, and THEY are offering to fulfill it. Even worse, perhaps, is that a significant chunk of Republican voters (and a handful of others) are DEMANDING that it be fulfilled.

    If you want it even starker still, that Heritage Panel symposium that Chertoff spoke at was titled:

    24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?”

    Comment by Paint CHiPs — 2/22/2007 @ 1:37 am

  4. Do not think for a minute that you are painting (no pun intended) with a “condescending brush”. You come across as the most, “ah shucks” non-vitriolic politico I could imagine – yet you still somehow temper it with this principled libertarianness-peeking-out-just-a-bit horse sense. I started reading one of the comments thinking, “Oh..this guy is as good as paint.” It was your comment.

    You keep writing like this, and sooner or later Sullivan or somebody is going to pull you aside and get you some kind of serious gig. I wish you would run your own concurrent blog to duplicate your posts here. I’m serious man. I hope you do that, so I can subscribe to that feed, instead of checking this site periodically for posts by you. I don’t even care whether you chose ugly colors – this is top notch writing, arguably better than Taibbi’s material (less of that potty mouth schtick).

    Whatever…keep on truckin’.

    Oh…and I got a chance to talk voting methods with Krist Novoselic tonight, but I was way over his head and it was frustrating.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/22/2007 @ 3:43 am

  5. Paint, lemme help you out with linking. You don’t have to include a #, or anything after it – that just link to a particular anchor in the page.

    Thatk works.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/22/2007 @ 3:47 am

  6. I agree with Paint on The West Wing. The worst that happens with the West Wing is that people get the idea that the office of the President is conducted in the sort of way that that candidates spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars convincing people that they will execute the office of President. On the subject of 24, however, Paint’s post points to substantive changes in how people view what many would say is a very serious matter, torture.

    So, we shouldn’t have either (although I enjoyed the West Wing occasionally when it was technical), but one is worse than the other. I don’t think that Surnow and the rest were trying to create some sneaky Republican propaganda (which sort of claim, but of sneaky Democrat propaganda, could be better levelled against Sorkin and the West Wing bunch) but rather celebrating a particular worldview; that it doesn’t align with factual reality to any great extent is not the problem, the problem is the current context in and on which it is acting. Inevitably, the seriousness of that depends on how much of an issue you thinkk the use of torture is, and where on that issue you stand (some would clearly claim that the propogation of the 24/torture worldview is a good thing, showing the American people that forceful direction action brings results, etc).

    Comment by Adam — 2/22/2007 @ 7:42 am

  7. Wanted to add one more thing from the New Yorker article before I let this go.

    Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who participated in the discussion, praised the show’s depiction of the war on terrorism as “trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options.” He went on, “Frankly, it reflects real life.”

    The same day as the Heritage Foundation event, a private luncheon was held in the Wardrobe Room of the White House for Surnow and several others from the show. (The event was not publicized.) Among the attendees were Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff; Tony Snow, the White House spokesman; Mary Cheney, the Vice-President’s daughter; and Lynn Cheney, the Vice-President’s wife, who, Surnow said, is “an extreme ‘24’ fan.”

    In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of “24” as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s “torture memo”—which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees—invokes the show in his book “War by Other Means.” He asks, “What if, as the popular Fox television program ‘24’ recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?”

    Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.” Surnow once appeared as a guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists—it’s good for you!”

    Comment by Paint CHiPs — 2/24/2007 @ 12:39 am

  8. ‘Americans love Jack Bauer’ eh? How many people watch it?

    Comment by Adam — 2/24/2007 @ 10:53 am

  9. About 15 million. Probably much much more when you add in DVD sales (24 is probably the top or at least in the top 3 of TV show DVD sellers).

    We need that “recent comments” plugin code. I missed your question. :(

    Comment by Paint CHiPs — 2/26/2007 @ 2:08 am

  10. So from 24 million we go to ‘Americans love Jack Bauer’?

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 9:59 am

  11. […] them describe torture as a necessary evil, or something that “happens”, or worse, as a cathartic release, almost something to be celebrated or proud of, the more I just have to stand there listening, […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Corrosive — 3/2/2007 @ 6:06 pm

  12. […] course, in the age of war hero Republicans, the belief that the best government is the one that goes off and does “what needs to be […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Are We Safer in the Dark? — 3/13/2007 @ 2:00 pm

  13. […] I’ve already put down my thoughts on this whole issue here, but I wanted to add AmCon’s new voice to the choir, and append Dreher’s point. […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » More on War Hero Republicans — 3/17/2007 @ 5:34 pm

  14. […] unpacked a lot of the Jack Bauer, Sept 12th, War Hero mindset. Here, Andrew Sullivan himself briefly deconstructs a recent presidential nominee speech, […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » The Jack Bauer Candidate — 4/26/2007 @ 4:18 pm

  15. […] point in my last paragraph, in part, but is really part of a larger issue (that my discussions of “war hero Republicanism” also gets at). Namely, there is much talk on the right of “letting the soldiers/brass do what […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Troops and Torture — 5/5/2007 @ 3:30 pm

  16. […] else you may think of him (we think pretty highly of him). As far as this blog goes, consider us part of the choir. posted in: […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Acthung America! — 6/2/2007 @ 2:40 am

  17. […] written in the past about “War Hero” Republicans; partisan, pro-war conservatives who spend their time fantasizing about the War on […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Justice Scalia; Champion of Fictional Torture Rights — 6/19/2007 @ 2:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.