Jack Bauer's No Right Winger

Conservatives have picked the wrong anti-hero.

By Shannon Rupp 12 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous columns here.

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Bauer: subverting authority

24 producers have a new award for their trophy cases. They can brag that not since Vice President Dan Quayle condemned Murphy Brown for becoming a single mother has any TV drama managed to hoodwink the powers-that-be into thinking it was a documentary.

Infotainment outlets have been reporting that manly-man heartthrob Jack Bauer has been booked for a speaking tour on the military circuit. Apparently, West Point recruits and enlisted grunts alike need the fictional Agent Bauer -- embodied by Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland -- to explain that, while torture is the ideal fix for most 24 script problems, it's useless for extracting accurate intel in the real world.

With all the earnest hand wringing over the 24's absurd torture scenes, military spin-doctors must have seen an opportunity to turn 24 into the scapegoat for Guantanomo Bay et al.

But did they really just admit that soldiers couldn't separate TV from reality? Do they want to be advertising this to the American public? After all, they are putting weapons in the hands of people who need TV dramas to carry the disclaimer, "Don't try this at home."

And am I the only one to wonder if the average American soldier's tenuous grasp on reality might explain those "friendly fire" incidents?

Screw off, sir!

But even if they think having a fictional character lecturing the troops is a good idea, why would they expose the rank and file to an actor who plays a soldier whose defining quality is his contempt for authority?

Calling authority "incompetent" when discussing 24 is redundant. From its inception, the show's underlying message has been deeply subversive: talented, moral individuals are always right and they shouldn't just question authority, but ignore, or even oppose it when they feel their own judgment is superior.

Initially, the show looked like a metaphor for office life as the brilliant-but-abrasive computer geek, Chloe -- Jack's sidekick, in superhero terms -- and the man himself were forever being frustrated by their idiot superiors.

The fact that viewers all over North America have embraced Mary Lynn Rajskub's Chloe as the poster child for pissed-off employees everywhere should be enough to tell anyone that 24 is the wrong show for any audience that is supposed to toe the line.

Satirizing Bush

But then 24 is a kind of Rorschach test -- how one sees TV's answer to inkblots reflects as much about the viewer as the show. And the brain trust that drafted Jack must have been looking at the wrong smear.

People like Rush Limbaugh celebrate the show as a vote for patriotism and all things authoritarian. Loony conspiracy theorists see the show as a part of a corrupt government's propaganda campaign to persuade its citizens to accept the use of torture.

But in spite of the political posturing, no one actually sees 24 as a kind of how-to manual. If the Bush administration did, they would have pulled it off the air when last season's Big Bad turned out to be the president.

President Logan pretended to be a doofus surrounded by nasty advisors, when in reality he was a ruthless, evil mastermind who conspired with terrorists and sent Americans to their death for his own personal gain.

Sound like anyone we know?

A pal claims actor Gregory Itzin was channelling Nixon when he created Logan, but either way, there was no doubt that the corrupt chief was a Republican.

Lone Ranger, updated

As for the purpose of 24's much maligned torture scenes, Robert Thompson, a media professor at Syracuse University, offers a more sophisticated view. He told Reuters that they provide a kind of wish fulfilment for Americans.

"If you can't be shown kicking the enemy's butt in real life, we then demand it in fiction. And that's what's so satisfying about 24. It's the Lone Ranger fantasy," he said.

So the American public embraces Jack because it believes its military is impotent? Is it in the military's best interests to encourage this view by showcasing Jack?

What Professor Thompson neglected to point out is that Jack is claimed by viewers of all political stripes because he's that American icon the literary crowd dubbed the "noble savage. He's Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon, Gary Cooper/John Wayne/Clint Eastwood in any number of westerns, or Wolverine in the X-Men.

Jack is one of those outsiders who are above society's rules because he has a superior moral compass and always does the right thing -- and every American likes to believe this is his own story. Of course, the great irony is that a culture that is so conformist in practice should idolize rebels.

Rehab for Jack?

Still, do you want to be giving a bunch of well-armed soldiers any ideas?

Anyone who follows the show can see that Jack's penchant for torture is actually just the writers' technique for jumpstarting a stalled plot. When Jack hits a dead end, they use a little of the old ultra-violence to introduce surprise information, a plot twist and a shot of adrenaline.

Ratings suggest it's a winning formula. Still, the reliance on torture endangers the viewers' ability to suspend disbelief. And for 24 to work, the audience has to believe that Jack is infallible, both morally and intellectually, which is hard to swallow when it's well known that torture elicits little but misinformation.

Given that torturers are sadists, Jack's enthusiasm for inflicting pain also implies that he's less Lone Ranger and more "dangerous loner" -- which is a whole different show.

All of which may explain 24's willingness to play along with the military's version of Wag the Dog. They're also putting poor Sutherland on the Jack Bauer Redemption Tour -- otherwise known as media interviews -- as a way of showing audiences that their hero isn't a psychopath. Really.

As for the military, how could they not know the Quayle trail was just the road to ridicule?

Haven't they been watching 24? No one outsmarts Jack Bauer.

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