Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Torture Fantasies: Left and Right on “24”

In Media and Politics on March 27, 2010 at 10:38 am

Well that exciting Fox show “24” is finally winding down. Am I right that we have had nine seasons of the show? This will be even worse than my Trekkie admission, but I have never seen a single episode. I have seen it advertised dozens of times, but it just never appealed to me. I suppose this draws on the same motivational sources that placed me in a Conflict Resolution program, even though I am not really averse to the action adventure genre. It can’t be the violence that turns me off. I suppose I always felt that the show was a kind of subtle ideological force that glamorized tough tactics. That is a bit of an understatement from what I now know of the show. The felicitous timing of the opening in late 2001 just fits the gestalt.

I have read a bit about fan reactions to the cancelation and what stood out to me came from the NY Times article. The shows lead actor Kiefer Sutherland gives an interview on the show and its lack of slant that should be really shocking. He says:

One of the things that I was always so unbelievably proud of our show is that you could have it being discussed by former President Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh at the same time, both using it and citing it to justify their points of view…That, to me, was incredibly balanced.

So, why is this shocking? It shocks on a number of levels. It levels a former two term president and a political entertainer. That could be alright if we are in a deeply populist and egalitarian spirit, but it does not seem to apply here. It would be sort of like saying that the show appealed as well to George Bush and Jon Stewart. Wouldn’t that seem rather odd? It seems completely reasonable here because the locus of politics has somehow shifted on the right from government to the public sphere.

There is also the irony that Clinton has directly commented on the implications of the show. Clinton appeared on Meet the Press and made some explicit comments on Jack Bauer as the orienting image.  He speaks of the “Jack Bauer moment.” This is rather ironic and speaks to our post-modern time that we live in. Life imitates art as much as the reverse. Even a two term president can make sense of his own hypothetical actions by reference to a fantasy show. It also appears that many others have had this reaction  in the field as well. From reports I, like you, have read, Jack Bauer gives people ideas when they are “out there” doing their work.

The most shocking thing to me about this is another matter. Remember that Bill Clinton was a centrist president who was the head of the Democratic Leadership Council. His pro-business views and moderate style of leadership was legendary when he was in office and one can only explain the Nader phenomenon by reference to this perceived, and quite real, centrism. One could cite dozens of examples of how Clinton triangulated right and left to come up with an American third way. The main point is that he was and is left of center, not far left.

I think most people would grant that Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, is far right. He has taken stands on race, the economy, social issues, the environment and national defense that push the boundaries of what is acceptable in both style and substance for the whole of his career. You may agree with him, but he represents a strong conservative view any way you cut it.

So what is so shocking about the Sutherland quotation is that he nails our political spectrum. Most of us could read his line and say, well yeah, if you can bring in both Clinton and Rush, then you are pretty balanced. The only problem is that this conception of balance falls somewhere to the right of Lindsey Graham. We should think about this as the Kiefer Sutherland moment–that in which we assay the range of political alternatives out there and make imbalanced judgments about balance. In survey research this is a well known way to introduce bias (well really to limit it) in the survey instrument. We call this the range principle and the idea is to balance the range of choices with the range of options in the respondents lifeworld. Endpoints should be chosen not from center-left to right, but from left to right. With the balance argued for here, we will have an imaginary politics that may be balanced, but is far from fair.


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