Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is Jack Bauer a Right-Wing Superhero?

Dear George,

The Fox Network’s smash hit, “24”, is winding up its eighth and final season this month, with just a couple of hours left for counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer to single-handedly save America from nuclear destruction.  Jack (played by Kiefer Sutherland) has not only the Russian and Arab terrorists to worry about, but he is being pursued by the FBI and the NYPD, with their orders being to shoot on sight.  Probably because of the intense anxiety the program generates, we’ve been hooked on “24” from its very beginning.  In addition to worshipping Jack, we despise the vicious evil-doers who are trying to murder him.  It’s a shock every Monday night when a sixty-minute episode comes to an end, and we can hardly bear to wait an entire week to find out what’s going to happen next.  Only now and then do we remind ourselves that all this is a Fox Network production, the home of Fox News and their right-wing mogul Rupert Murdoch.  When this fact does pop into mind, we’re forced to reconsider whether “24” is designed to propagate right-wing ideology.


There’s a long history of research in social psychology on political conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism.  The initial work began shortly after World War II in psychoanalytic studies of the social and personality origins of fascism by Adorno and colleagues, and it’s represented more recently in studies of the psychological bases of right-wing political ideology by social psychologist Robert Altemeyer.  Right-wing authoritarians, according to this work, tend to rigidly dichotomize the social world into in-groups (i.e., those groups with which they personally identify) and out-groups (who they regard as antagonistic enemies).  They adopt excessively submissive stances toward in-group authorities and hold hostile attitudes toward members of outgroups.  In the international sphere, this takes the form of blind attachment to America as the morally perfect human society and a view of foreign nations as morally inferior and antagonistic to America’s interests.  Other features of authoritarianism include tendencies to think in stereotypic all-or-none terms; projection of one’s own hostility externally to outgroup members; prejudice and punitive behavior toward a wide range of minorities; and a preoccupation with excessive masculinity, power, and toughness.


The entire “24” series, of course, is based on the premise that America’s survival is under threat from foreign parties and that mass destruction of our urban centers is imminent via nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. In these “we-they” conflicts, the “Other” almost always consists of foreign nationals -- either officials of foreign governments or members of rogue terrorist groups operating under the aegis of foreign countries (e.g., Russian, Chinese, African, Middle Eastern, or Eastern European nations).  The villains are mostly male, frequently persons of color, speak with foreign accents, and are in control of weapons which can annililate American society (e.g., dirty nuclear bombs).  They are sometimes assisted by traitors or incompetents in the U.S. government, which puts Jack Bauer at direct odds with bureaucratic officials.  Because the various U.S. presidents over the eight seasons are either corrupt or well-meaning but ineffectual, our survival depends upon Jack Bauer’s ability to defeat an overwhelming enemy.  Jack relies exclusively on violence to destroy those opposed to the American way of life, often acting outside the boundaries of the law and justifying physical torture as an essential and effective means of accomplishing national ends.


Reportedly Bush administration officials and members of the CIA have been ardent fans of 24, and it’s not too big a stretch to speculate that Jack Bauer is generally a superhero to the radical right.  If we take consider the various ingredients which make up right-wing authoritarianism (hostile inter-group attitudes, super-nationalism, paranoia, punitive and aggressive behavior toward outsiders, distrust of government, salvation from powerful individual leaders), this gives us a pretty complete list of the plot ingredients which have made “24” a popular mass success.  I guess we should give Rupert Murdoch’s writers credit for creating an enthralling rightwing soap opera.  With only two episodes left, we’re not going to worry about the political implications though.  We’re just sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if Jack will save America. 



G-Mail Comments:

 -Linda C (5-18): i wish i had gotten hooked, i know j*** and friends are very involved and watch it every monday night, love the description , ben and theo intend to save the nation with legos, me, i just pray the politicians i hate will die. see you hopefully in ca


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