The Fox hit drama 24, featuring the superhero terrorist-fighter, Jack Bauer, is not a consistently reliable champion of conservative policies, but it sure does provide Americans with some politically incorrect terrorist-thumping entertainment. In spite of a “war for oil” story line one season that almost drove me away from the show, and some similar occasional bows to the PC police, 24 remains one place conservatives can find scenarios no one else will depict.
Because there are not many other shows on network television brave enough to show terrorists as anything other than white supremacist types or to feature a hero who routinely inflicts torture on suspected terrorists when innocent lives are at risk, it remains very popular with many conservatives. Even the four hour season premiere of 24, which has been harshly criticized by some for being overly sympathetic to ACLU positions by depicting an administration violating the civil liberties of Americans, had plenty for most conservatives to love.
The first admission that 24 doesn’t really sit very well with Ms. Byrd’s understanding of conservatism comes from the very column that begins by claiming that 24 and American Idol are signs of consolation for the despairing conservative–behold, pop culture is headed our way! (More likely, both are signs of our impending self-destruction.) It is an odd way for her to persuade the skeptics of the plausibility of this claim when her very first argument allows as to how her entire thesis is basically wrong.
You can be confident that whenever someone writes one of these columns about pop culture to find the “conservative angle” on something, it is usually done by including as pro-conservative any element of the plot that might be considered reasonably decent. “The characters in this show demonstrate great dedication to their jobs…working for a behemoth federal bureaucracy…which proves that 24 embodies a conservative work ethic. And Chloe O’Brien is no feminazi!” Ms. Byrd did not write that, but she might as well have. That is roughly the level at which these sorts of columns operate.
You know the drill: find an attractive or admirable trait in some new movie or cultural phenomenon, label it as yours and then say, “Hey, this pop culture icon endorses my view of the world!” It’s amusing, and some columnists make half their year’s earnings writing stuff like this, but it is ultimately as pointless as trying to prove, inter alia, that the early episodes of season 3 in Galactica were a massive antiwar protest. It is a concession that the only cultural production that people consume on a large scale is not created by conservatives, which causes us, the conservatives, to scrounge, hyena-like, for what scraps of cultural meat we can get from the carcasses left to rot in the sun. I await with a certain dread the column that tries to prove Johnny Drama is a populist champion of Middle America, yet I know that it, or something very much like it, is coming.
[For those who haven’t watched seasons 1-5 of 24, multiple spoilers await below.]
Actually, if I were a hard-liner, hegemonist or a nationalist, I would have a lot of problems with 24‘s foreign policy implications. A “war for oil” storyline would be the least of my worries. That is almost secondary to what was really shockingly anti-interventionist about season 5. Seasons 3 and 4 all but explicitly point to interventionist foreign policy and the warfare state as the causes of anti-American terrorism. Jack Bauer never cares why the terrorists do what they do; he is simply interested in stopping them. But after a while the audience might begin to piece a few things together: maybe intervention does lead to terrorism….Even more offensive to contemporary “conservative” tastes in the Bush Era, season 5 shows the scenario by which the government–up to and including the President–can be corrupted from within by the influence of private interests and how the government might even conceivably cynically use terrorists and/or terrorist threats as tools to advance policies deemed to be in “the national interest” according to the standards of a very few people. Season 2’s fake terrorist connection to three Middle Eastern governments, pushed by the same hard-core faction that smuggled in the nuke, is surpassed in anti-Republican boldness by season 5’s concocted WMDs justification for intervention in…central Asia. The insane lengths to which the people backing these hard-line politics will go seem only too plausible to critics of the real-life equivalents of these policies. That is why it stuns me that 24 has become a popular conservative hit, when the show routinely shows the very sort of people and policies many conservatives tend to cheer on these days as variously traitors, collaborators with terrorists, mildly insane or the tools of larger conspiracies. However, because the show also has Jack blowing away Muslim and other terrorist henchmen and wielding his knife ever so precisely around Walt Cummings’ eye as a way to extract information, it is supposedly conservative because it is “politically incorrect” (how it is politically incorrect to effectively endorse the current practice of the government vis-a-vis detainees escapes me, but perhaps I have missed my latest reprogramming session).
If we fast-forward through the tiresome premises of season 1, when the great villains in the whole world of international terrorism were…Serbs, we see a pattern emerging in every other storyline. The goals of “Second Wave,” an Islamic fundamentalist group, in season 2 are vague, but their hostility to the United States presumably does not come from nowhere. Nonetheless, even though season 2 spends more time than any other 24 season focused on foreign policy and the retaliatory strike for the detonation of the nuke aimed at three nations supposedly backing Second Wave’s attack, actual policy debate takes a back seat. We are treated instead to the more visceral imagery of the head of the NSA explaining that he allowed the nuke to be smuggled into the country as a way to force the Palmer administration to take a harder line with foreign threats–in short, to give Palmer’s foreign policy “some balls.” Sadly, such is the state of modern conservatism that I suspect the NSA director’s character will appear to be a brave and patriotic idealist wrongfully persecuted by “realists” and, no doubt, anti-Semites.
Season 3 sees a very nasty terrorist mastermind (played brilliantly by Paul Blackthorne, who has to be cast as a Bond villain sooner or later) who intends to force the U.S. to “retreat within its borders” and is willing to use a heinous virus on the general population to compel government capitulation to his demands. However, 24 is short on exposition and very much focused on the action: each time a terrorist has the opportunity to justify what he is doing, he usually resorts to the refrain, “You wouldn’t understand.”
The most explicit anti-interventionist strain comes in season 4, when Marwan, the mastermind of a string of terrorist attacks, records a statement explaining, somewhat vaguely, that all of this has been in retaliation for interventionist policies. Perhaps because these statements are put in the mouths of terrorists, some might argue that this is an attempt to discredit anti-interventionist arguments in the West, but each time the show presents no rebuttal and no counter-argument. Because the show is focused on counter-terrorism at home, everything that happens takes on the appearance of self-defense, pure and simple, and the narrative and logic of the show repeatedly tell us that, regardless of motive or justification, the villains are out to kill innocent people whom Bauer is trying to protect. This has the virtue of being true, though it obscures some rather important details. Bauer represents a sort of last line of defense against the hornets official policy stirs up elsewhere in the world. As such, no one is going to find fault with Bauer or his efforts to protect Americans–since that is one of the basic functions of the government–but this kind of storytelling also insulates the audience from having to worry about why each season brings such insistent attempts to bring mass death to American cities. The audience doesn’t care and, what is equally likely, it wouldn’t understand. That, unfortunately, is what 24 conservatism seems to embody: belligerence without understanding.