Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Having watched the first five hours of the new season of "24" it becomes obvious how in many ways it is cultural/political pornography for the neo-cons, some hard line conservatives, military hawks and S&M aficionados.

I am a big fan of the show. I have watched it since episode one of season one. But there is no denying it is the official program for the post-9/11 war on terror age of authoritarian and "decider" based foreign policy.

I think I have discovered its fraternal twin.

A recent viewing brought to mind one of the very few other programs I have watched religiously in recent years. "The West Wing" "The West Wing" was cultural/political pornography for the left, progressives, "coastal elites" and for the Walter Mitty diplomat living in many of us.

The West Wing presented an ultra-cerebral world of policy wonks whose idealism was worn on their sleeves.

There was no domestic or foreign policy that could not be solved by talking, researching, learning and compromising with the other side.

The Bartlett White House was the wet dream of the progressive masses (myself included). Diplomacy, intellect and a reigning in of knee-jerk reactions always carried the day. Violence was always a last resort.

The two shows could not be more strikingly different in their plots, characters, style, content and cultural and political messaging. That being said they have much in common as well and they speak to centrist in all of us I think.

Neither show would have the high ratings numbers without a broad appeal to people of varied political, cultural, religious and geographic backgrounds.

On "24" the pathos are of course radically different from "The West Wing". Authority figures dominate with heavy hands, diplomacy from both the "good guys" and "bad guys" comes at end of a gun, or nuclear device or canister of poison gas. The idea that patriotism can only come in the form of subserviance and blind patriotism is on display, though often in a negative as well as a positive light,

Violence is not the last resort, it is the ever-present reality. It speaks to a nation, who despite its self-delusions, knows deep down that it has always conducted its business (for good and bad) at the end of a gun.

It feeds off of the paranoia, isolationism and fear of the post 9/11 world the way "The West Wing" fed of the peace, internationalism, belief in science (dotcom era anyone?) and prosperity of the Clinton years.

It differs from the West Wing in that it portrays the hero as a tough as nails everyman in Jack Bauer. Government and politicians are often seen as corrupt, dithering and lacking in backbone. The complete opposite of the pols in the West Wing.

The world of President Bartlett and company was one of 100 shades of gray. The world of CTU is very black and white.

Much in the way some "24" Americans think we should just bomb the A-rabs in Iraq into the stone age (forgetting we are their "liberators") some "West Wing" Americans think that military force is never needed (forgetting the lessons of WWII).

The shows both bled over into real-life politics. Martin Sheen used his revived career and visibility to good effect with his very vocal support of liberal causes and politics.

The conservative Heritage Foundation held a conference in June called --"24 and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?"-- Rush Limbaugh hosted (he lauded it for its pro America stance), members of the cast were in attendance and Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff was there as well.

The shows do have something in common. In their later years they quentioned the basic premises on which they were built. Toward the end of its run the "West Wing" gave more moderate, intelligent and nuanced voices to the opposition Republicans. Alan Alda's presidential contender character being the best example. The show also began to admit that the idealists were not immune to doing wrong, and that sometimes violence must be met with violence.

We are seeing a similar change in "24" this year. Concerns about civil liberties, the constitution, detention camps and Jack's questioning his ability to go on as a killing and torture machine. One can guess that the Heritage Foundation people hadn't seen previews of this season or they may not have held the conference

As a progressive I find myself as fascinated by Jack Bauer sticking screwdrivers in terrorists knees as I was by the diplomatic solutions that always saved the day on West Wing.

Both shows reflect their times, the two sides of the American brain and are stark reminders of the divide in the country. But both shows offer hope that divides can be bridged by questioning the basic assumptions, prejudices and beliefs that we all have in us that make us who we are as people and as a country.

Maybe in their later years each show became less porn for the elite and masses alike and more Freud for us all.