Modern Propaganda

 
 

Owen Steinberger argues that the new 24: Legacy isn’t just bad, it’s actively dangerous.


ACCEPTABILITY. A pillar which holds upright our ideals of Western civilization, and an altar to kneel before in search of personal salvation. We often think of acceptability as an immutable code: the commandments of a good and moralistic Enlightenment society, hewn into stone tablets a thousand years ago that remain untarnished today.

Yet these ideas are necessarily new: traditional values are reshaped every day as entirely new topics and forms of expression are born. Ideological borders are redrawn daily, and radically overturned through generations. The premise that we stand on a solid and predictable moral foundation is full of holes.

Look at the recent Oscars: this paper has already addressed the gross reincarnation of Mel Gibson by the Academy, resurrected from whatever murky cavern he’d hidden himself within. Yet the judges also subverted expectations in awarding Moonlight the Best Picture award, a move against the contemporary reactionary current.

 “The conception that propaganda has gone away—or that we as a modern society are “too smart” or “too informed” to fall for such manipulation—is both naïve and dangerous.”

The Academy are hypocrites, surely, but this standard hardly seems to matter. Both moves have garnered support from arts culture at large. We live in constant proof of acceptability’s impermanence, its fragility, its mouldability. Contradictions are the fault-lines of ideological change.

Art plays a massive role in our definition of acceptability: how many of us have used Game of Thrones or Harry Potter as parallels for world politics? Trump in the White House = Voldemort in Hogwarts. What we choose to consume—and what that says about the world—is radically important in our own make-up as human beings in society.

We “vote with our wallets” as is often said: what we choose to purchase is encouraged in practice and repeated by other corporations. And our brains respond to new and unique experiences with energy, generating new neural links that allow for more nuanced thought. Expressive film technique, brilliant poetics, strong character performances all “train our brains” to think differently—the same is unilaterally true with the worst in our TV.

This is not to say that pop music, banal comedies, and other media so often deemed “un-intellectual” or “un-serious” are bad. Actually they’re great—repetitive experiences, like watching Simpsons reruns, strengthen their own neural pathways, boosting memory. No; it is the art that twists its creativity in malicious ways that we should avoid and condemn.

This is all to say that bad art, born from a desire to manipulate and mislead its audience, or from extreme cultural ignorance, is extremely bad in that its warped ideas and prejudices are naturally internalised in their subject. “Extremely bad art” shares all the properties of propaganda.

Propaganda, some assume, was a product of the Cold War era and was largely limited to the USSR and its controlled territories. The conception that propaganda has gone away—or that we as a modern society are “too smart” or “too informed” to fall for such manipulation—is both naïve and dangerous.

9/11 and the Iraq War has shown the world otherwise. The overwhelming negligence of the US administration’s ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a decision largely responsible for current tensions between the West and the Middle East, was perpetuated by a wilful media. Misinformation over weapons of mass destruction, never found, and specious links between terrorism and the Muslim faith, very much alive today, were spread through the news and also through popular TV.

Remember 24? The series’ core concept—that a season takes place in one day, an episode in an hour—stands as a direct reflection of America post-9/11: the perception that the world itself could radically change in the space of 24 hours. Federal Agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, remains an American folk hero today.

Fox’s 24 wrapped a pro-Iraq War message up in its captivating plot and action sequences, masking its effect; its flaws difficult to unpack without the aid of hindsight. Not only were the terrorist threats faceless baddies—a common trait in action films at the time, in complete, wilful ignorance of their humanity—but frequently they were to be found within the US government itself.

This year, 24: Legacy, a reboot or a sequel series—who can really tell anymore?—has taken up the same mantle during a similar time in world history. Donald Trump, recently elected on an Islamophobic platform, represents a resurgence of the fear directed at the Middle East that was so pervasive just over a dozen years ago.

Now seems a fitting time for the 24 intellectual property to make its return. The acceptability of blatant xenophobia in the mainstream has had a second wind. The series’ message of fear and hatred has only grown more transparent and more odious with age.

“The acceptability of blatant xenophobia in the mainstream has had a second wind.”

The first scene of the first episode begins in a middle-class American home, complete with a white picket fence, where brown-skinned terrorists have murdered the wife and children of an ex-troop, and then murder him, too, “for Sheik Bin-Khaled,” they spit with venom. Cliché aside, this opener sets the tone for the rest of the series: traditional family values are championed, and portrayed as “under attack” from the cloaked and hooded forces of some foreign agenda.

Portraying the forces of terror as “at our doorstep” is a common technique, and was popular during the Red Scare in the US, when Communists were the boogeyman. They could be your neighbour! posters exclaimed—Be careful who you’re inviting in! The American Muslim now has now been attached the same status.

A show like 24: Legacy could only have come about in today’s social climate, and as such we cannot blame it for Islamophobia in general. However, its shallow and hateful depiction of otherness will be instrumental in ensuring it sticks around.

Scene after scene, the show fails to redeem itself. In fact, 24: Legacy seems driven to endorse every vapid and despicable ideal of modern society. This is television for the chronically miserable and the perpetually hateful.

Eric Carter is our protagonist, an ex-troop whose old crew is being hunted down one-by-one by the terrorist threat, who is played by Corey Hawkins with the emotional dynamism of a rock. The very first time we meet him, he starts up an argument with his partner over her decision to use birth control. His conviction that “things are good now”—which an assassination attempt immediately proves wrong—is his only weak assertion for his insistence that she be ready to bear his children after, the plot implies, a traumatic event.

Women in 24: Legacy are treated with the spite of a scorned lover. Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto) returns from the original series and an old male colleague remarks, playfully, “Man, sometimes you were tough; I wanted to bitch-slap you!” The series treats remarks like this as par for the course: women, 24: Legacy suggests, are to be protected or abused or otherwise used for the benefit of its male characters.

It is no coincidence that this patriarchal view is endorsed in tandem with racism and xenophobia. All are wrapped up in each other, entangled in the Western ideology of hatred and superiority. The central fear in 24: Legacy is that this ideology will somehow be undermined from within.

Two plots run in parallel throughout the first episode: Carter and his ex-partner Ben Grimes (Charlie Hofheimer) must team up to stop the anonymous terrorist threat from retrieving a secret stash Grimes had stolen from the Sheik years ago; and an innocent-looking young girl in an American high school is planning to “prove herself,” implying a bomb threat, in the name of Islamic terrorism. Both, it turns out, involve this fear of the outsider infiltrating society and disrupting it from within.

The secret stash proves to hide the codes for dozens of terrorist sleeper agents. The young girl is vaguely referred to as a recent immigrant from Middle East, and she’s seduced her thirty-something year old teacher to aid her in a terrorist plot. The irrational fear encapsulated in Trump’s recent attempts at a Muslim Ban is the only mindset that would keep such an unrealistic, absurd plot point from breaking one’s suspension of disbelief. Be careful who you’re letting in! echoes.

With 24: Legacy, the original 24’s legacy, ironically, proves itself to be one of fear and violence. Quality scriptwriting, acting, and critical acclaim set aside, the sequel’s weaknesses allow the series’ core flaws to rise to the surface. Propaganda is insidious, however: that such extremely bad art is still widely viewed and enjoyed speaks to a larger problem.

 “Propaganda at its most insipid, the series holds hands with the prophets and profiteers of the political right in its depiction of an America under siege.”

Acceptability is the true concern with a work like 24: Legacy. That work so ignorant and harmful can be produced, with a $35 million dollar budget no less, and distributed to a mainstream audience is symptomatic of today’s skewed social norms. It is okay, it seems, to widely slander Arabic culture and to imply that Muslim worshippers living in the West are, more likely than not, enemies of traditional family values, hidden in plain sight.

What’s acceptable is quickly changing before our eyes. Great art almost always breaks with social norms, urges us towards a better future; 24: Legacy is the opposite. It is dangerous to condemn art as bad when it is the concerted effort of an individual or a group’s vision. However, this series is typical of mass media, a focus-grouped drama without any care taken in its design, no heartfelt effort put into any of its many characters or plots.

24: Legacy makes this lack of heart apparent in the hate it practices. Propaganda at its most insipid, the series holds hands with the prophets and profiteers of the political right in its depiction of an America under siege. Moreover, it speaks to a larger flaw in society: the shifting of acceptability backwards and the shambling resurrection of fascism in the West.

None of us are immune to the effects of propaganda; see its ghost peeking out from behind advertisements all around us, a la John Carpenter’s They Live! Luckily, the natural question to ask—what can be done against this malevolence?—has a simple answer: create great art and speak out, louder than the din of fear and hate that surrounds us.

Advertisements