Monday, February 12, 2007


Jane Mayer has an excellent in-depth piece on the mentality behind the TV show “24” and its creator and driving force, one Joel Surnow (“Whatever It Takes”, We are all in her debt. She has interviewed this fellow and drawn out the essentials of his ‘position’ and limned clearly his enterprise and what that enterprise sucks along in the vortex of its wake.

It becomes clear that he is presiding over a hugely profitable ‘show’. As with American corporations that found trade with Hitler’s Germany extremely profitable in the 1930s (with their engines, vehicles, communications, oil, raw materials, and production skills they provided him with the ‘blitz’ for his blitzkrieg), Surnow has a hard time conceiving of any serious downside to his enterprise.

Unlike those tough-minded, steel-souled moguls of America’s Industrial Age, however, Surnow needs to ‘feel good’ about what he does. And his efforts to justify himself and his program quickly reveal the level of his delusions and/or his duplicitousness.

It’s not enough that he’s happy that “the military loves our show” and that he’s “sold” the show to the Incumbency – “People in the Administration love the series too … It’s a patriotic show”. Not a whiff of concern as to what it means when you’ve been able to please a clientele the likes of the Incumbency. In today’s tenderly brutal America he has to feel ‘right’ – we might say, although not in the full Fundamentalist sense of ‘getting right with God’ … he’s still a denizen of Hollywood, after all.

How can he show the US government and its agents conducting extralegal and illegal torture week after week? “Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow, … that even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?” This is the key logical fallacy: that the present Moment is an extreme situation, and therefore extreme measures are called for. It is the ‘military’ approach: the objective is some sort of tangible Victory here and now – anything more ‘abstract’ can be finessed after you’ve won and you write the history.

Those ‘abstractions’ – as we are now seeing clearly – include Integrity, Truth, and Character and the ensuing challenge, the threat, is posed not only to individual military members and each of Us as Citizens, but also to our culture and to this Republic and all that it has come to represent to the hopes of humankind. Collateral losses, perhaps; acceptable. But the military point of view is short-sighted and operates in a selectively-envisioned, Flattened world, not the many-dimensioned vastnesses that are Life and History. The Neocons and the Fundies, like the Revolutionaries of the Identities who paved the way for them, have brought the proverbial knife to the existential gun-fight. And they have dragged the Republic along with them for the ride.

The worst-case scenario reminds us of the old legal dictum that hard cases make bad law. The rare hard case and such resolution as you may achieve in dealing with it … this is not a wise basis for making Law. But basing laws on ‘hard cases’ – which in our media age means vivid and gory cases – has been part of the gameplan of the several Revolutions of the Identities for decades, later to be co-opted by the National Crime State and most recently by the vision of the Neocon-Fundamentalist Imperial State. The turkey of the Left has come home to roost, now bulked-up and fortified by the Right and deployed in the service of “the dark side”, as the Great Vice aptly calls it.

And too, Surnow is sure, “torture works”. Certainly in his series it works just about every time it is deployed (except against our hero). And it is deployed just about every week, several times. He is certain about this, even when – amazingly – the Dean of West Point, a Brigadier General, comes out to LaLa-land with a cohort of experienced interrogation professionals to point out that torture most surely does not work out in the field, out in the real world, and to plead that Surnow stop giving folks such wrong ideas. Surnow is so “certain” about what he ‘knows’ that he cannot afford the time to meet with them, and deputes some underlings to listen politely and maybe scoop up some script points.

You’d think for a poor little Jewish kid whose father was a carpet salesman, and who considers himself a patriotic “conservative”, that an Army general coming all the way from West Point to visit him in his lavish Valley offices would be occasion to go into full red-carpet mode with plenty of photos and a couple of military knick-knacks for the mantel. But no. His hands go over his ears and he pulls the LaLa equivalent of loudly shouting nyah-nyah so he can’t hear what’s being said: he has a conference call with Roger Ailes of Fox News. Oooooh. Oy.

Those ‘hard cases’ however, are indeed justified – we are to understand. As one of Surnow’s staffers (who “has a law degree”) assures Mayer, the “Doctrine of Necessity” (whatever that may be) “says you can occasionally break the law to prevent greater harm”. But “24” breaks the law regularly and frequently, weekly, and makes it seem like a good idea – indeed, like the only good idea.

There is also the thorny fact that the U.N. Convention Against Torture – ratified by the Senate in 1994 and thus possessing the force of Federal law – clearly specifies that “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever … may be invoked as a justification of torture.” So 9-11 hasn’t “changed everything”? Sharply, that Convention accounts for all the excuses governments and tyrants have given for torture along the long bloody corridor of Time: war, the threat of war, impending political instability “or any other public emergency” … not much room left for justified torture in there; certainly the post-9-11 situation is covered. The ‘emergency’ of “exceptional circumstances” has undone Republics of far greater duration and experience than ours – Rome’s had been going on for a couple-three centuries, through all manner of profound military disasters, before Julius Caesar discovered an emergency that required his more efficient intervention and in effect invaded his own country, with doughty legions whose troops were loyal to him personally. And he – natch – was ‘doing it for Rome’.

But that type of talk is for a “law-school review article”, as one character puts down another who raises a moral and legal objection to some impending act of torture. It’s amazing how these law-and-order types are so quick to dispense with law: we recall Nixon and Agnew and Mitchell and a host of Reagan-era honchos. But of course, the neocons are not into law-and-order: they are making the case for dispensing with the law in the face of the “Emergency”, an emergency which bids fair to last for decades.

And curiously, we have to smile when we recall that many law-school review articles reflect a very cavalier approach to ‘law’ and have for decades: in the service of ‘sensitivity’ and one or another Revolution’s idea of ‘justice’, saws and axes have been taken to Law in order to “reform” it in the service of whatever the particular agenda desires.

Mayer gives us a fascinating bit of history about this ‘ticking time bomb’ justification of torture, the plot device that impels “24” along like an armored (if not actually ‘runaway’) freight train. This ‘ticking time bomb’ was developed to soothe the sensibilities of French Liberals who had to find some way to make their peace with the torture increasingly necessitated by the unsuccessful struggle against the Algerian Revolt. The French Right had no such problems: the Algerians were an inferior people and France could do what France had to do. But the Liberals’ conscience would need more substantive fodder to appease it: and thus the ‘emergency’ of the ‘ticking time bomb’. Ah well, then, the End does indeed justify the Means.

And the minute it’s over, whenever that eventually might be, why France and her troops will snap right back into being upright, virtuous, decent, and civilized. Yah. No chance that the sustained embrace of the Dark Side will do to a nation, a culture, a people and its troops what the sustained winds of the desert mountains do to bristlecone pine. Nah.

But then, weirdly, the show’s staff assures us that “it’s only TV”. “I think”, intones one LaLa honcho, “that people can differentiate between a television show and reality”. Stop it. Stop it right now. You mean the Incumbency only watches it for its “entertainment value”? You mean Bush doesn’t get up after watching an episode and feel good about what he’s been doing? Hell, even Nixon asked to see “Patton” screened before he invaded Cambodia (or did I dream it?)

Can these guys be honest and serious? Haven’t they seen “Oprah”? Reality TV? Local TV news? For decades Theory and its worshippers have insisted that there is no Truth (see, for example, “Libby No Baddy” on this site). All manner of dubious laws have been passed on that assumption. Generations of college students have been taught that – many of whom are now chronologically adults. And our present young – who by definition are not fully equipped to handle ‘reality’ – are also distracted by the omnipresent, insistent allure of games that are far more ‘interesting’ than actual daily life (and … self). And these LaLa’s think that it’s easy for folks nowadays to distinguish between Fantasy and Reality? Especially among that rich target demographic of 8-to-40?

And yet they try to defend their swag and their status by saying that the show is only “wish fulfillment” for “a fantasy of the American people”. Well, there isn’t as much maturity going around among said people, and most surely not in the cloud-cuckoo-land that is Washington City and the Federal Triangle. Even Rush Limbaugh, staring down his nose (or as many noses as he might see on a bad day) scoffs that “It’s just a television show. Get a grip.” So realistic, all of a sudden, these neocons and their chickenhawk, boffo pundits. Yet they once embraced the realism that they could cakewalk and slam-dunk and that they would be greeted as liberators. Such realism.

And this is after they admit that the show “plays off real anxieties of the American people”. Yes, it does. And very shrewdly. And it’s making a fortune … playing on those anxieties. Whether Americans need their anxieties played off of (sorry) or whether Americans need to face up to actuality (let’s put ‘reality’ up on blocks for a while) is a very good question. Our maturity’s skills – thus our Citizen skills and our People-ing skills – have been under sustained if masked assault by the National Security State, the consumerism amplified by corporate-level and electronic mass advertising, the Kennedy/Boomer infatuation with ‘youth’, the stampeding urgencies of the assorted Revolutions of the Identities, the National Crime State, Fundamentalist emotionalism, and Neocon Imperialistic adventure – for half a century. We need to get back into the maturity-zone, and quickly.

Jack Bauer is “a patriot”. And are we all then to prove our ‘patriotism’ by torturing? Or can we do it on the cheap, by proxy, by approving Jack’s lascivious torturing and the torturing carried on by all the other upstanding civil servants who follow the Unitary Leader-in-Chief? Achieving an identity on the cheap has been one of the awefull temptations to human beings, individually and collectively throughout History.

They insist that they are “conservatives”. Yet what sort of ‘conservative’? They have a disregard for Law; they consider the Constitutional ethos inefficient for the waging of semi-permanent war and they insist we must embark on a course of semi-permanent war; they have embraced the feminist and Fundamentalist rejection of Enlightenment reason and operate instead on the quick-burning fuel of passion; they seek to wield the hugely-swollen government authority as a weapon against the enemies of their choice, foreign and domestic; they have effected a pathetic withering of public Virtue and Character into the frenzied frothing over matters of sex; and in all things, a pervasive and sustained disregard for maturity and Truth. What sort of ‘conservative’ is this?

True ‘professionals’ (another candidate for being put up on blocks), the LaLa’s pooh-pooh the reasoned and urgently pressed remonstrances of the authentic military and interrogation professionals that their weekly offerings are conveying – with mind-paralyzing seductiveness – a hugely inaccurate impression of torture’s effectiveness in the acquisition of usable information. Similar to their ‘conservative’ compatriots in Executive service, the LaLa’s have no patience with any information that does not fit into their agenda (rather similar to certain types of mentally-challenged children).

And also similar to their Executive compatriots, they consider the information to be not- useful for their purposes. To the LaLa’s, careful and rational interrogation is as inconvenient as due process is to the Executive. It is not telegenic; it does not titillate as does the sight of (shrewdly unshown) torture and the visceral (vividly shown) physical consequences; rational interrogation is as quaint – we might say – as the Geneva Conventions and the clanky, inefficient, now unpatriotic insistence on Constitutional requirements.

Real men nowadays, perhaps capable of eating quiche, do not quibble over the “niceties” of due process when there’s manly work to be done. To an audience of boys looking to prove their manhood and fathers who have little enough opportunity to demonstrate virility in these softened times, to an audience of citizens who are becoming – it has to be said – increasingly jaded and ‘hooked on’ the quick-burning if ephemeral stimulation of vividly portrayed passion and violence … to such audience, the repeated and vivid presentation of torture as successful and as without lasting consequence to the torturer is hugely toxic.

Can it be any wonder that consequences did not enter into the minds of any of the Executive’s audiences when the assorted gambits that constitute the Iraq misadventure were announced? Surely it is no surprise that consequences did not enter into the minds of the Executive or of the Executive himself. For among certain circles with access to powers and power greater than the world has ever seen, the cocksureness that is indicative of a dangerous immaturity has been erected into a virtue and a badge of honor as unmistakable as the varsity letter on a football jacket. Or a cheerleader’s jacket . If they give letters for that.

That power and those powers are exercised on Our authority.

And we are indebted to Mayer for unearthing another morsel: Clarence Thomas and his wife dine with Surnow, Limbaugh is there. Sausages and the social calendars of Supreme Court Justices: perhaps it’s better not to see what they’re made of. In consequence, a talkshop is planned at which the boss of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff (he too is doing a heckuvva job) brays that “24” “reflects real life”. Does it really? If so, it reflects the hall-of-mirrors Misch between cause and effect, fiction and actuality, fantasy and … well, what is not fantastic in a world where ‘reality’ can be created by whomever has the best-deployed ‘spin’? Where there is no Truth, what phantasmagoria can not be put forward as reality? When there is no Reason or ability to reason what phantasmagoria cannot be mistaken for reality? For Truth?

Lastly, Surnow plays the disturbing gambit that “conservatives are the new oppressed class” nowadays. This queasy gambit would never have been possible if the assorted Revolutions, abetted by the well-rewarded self-interested media, had not spent decades stifling public discussion and – unintentionally or otherwise – corroding and corrupting the public ability to deliberate matters of the gravest and largest importance to all. Having raised up the ‘victim’ as the undoubtable demander of our attention and our indulgence, the Revolutions thus created a potent fiction that has become all too real. And now that mythic ‘Victim’ has been co-opted by the Right (which as it is presently constituted is no ‘conservatism’ but in a perverse mirror image of the Left is rather a revolution – or several flavors of revolution - itself). The ‘Victim’ is now the front for the National Crime State.

And the National Crime State is now fueling the National Imperial/Fundamentalist State. We have a synergy here, as they say in LaLa Land. We have several massive fires now burning toward each other, and they’re close enough to start the thermal currents that induce a firestorm. “24” is only television. This Republic has to be more to us than that. Or it will be history.

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