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The Orwellian Ideology of 24

January 29, 2007

I am perennially embarrassed to admit that I enjoy watching Fox TV's 24. It unintentionally reveals both subtle and overt problems for lovers of liberty. Its major theme is an ongoing struggle between terrorists with evil machinations and federal agents (also, presumably, with evil machinations).

Now, terrorists are apparently difficult to catch and government has little or no recourse in accomplishing this goal except through violating personal freedoms.

One of the major problems experienced by the show's gaggle of bureaucrats is whether or not to ignore liberty in exchange for the capture of terrorists. "The common good" is a phrase constantly invoked (as it is in America today) by these characters, whose violations of personal liberty include, but are certainly not limited to, illegal searches, theft, kidnapping, destruction of property, and torture.

Naturally, these actions are deemed justified because they tend to lead to the capture of terrorists. However, even when the show makes it unambiguously clear that innocent people have been harassed and in some cases even tortured, due to the frenetic pace of the show, these atrocities are forgotten by both the characters and the viewing audience almost as soon as they are committed. This is reminiscent of the torture scandals in Guantanamo and other US-run prisons, which were a major focus of the media for at least two or three days before being largely forgotten. Indeed, it only drives home the prophetic nature of Orwell and his concept of the "memory hole" into which is thrown all information that contradicts the official line of the state.

24 also pushes the absurd dichotomy of "state vs. terrorist" — the "You are either with us or against us" mentality. No room is left for anyone who genuinely cares about the preservation of personal liberty. Indeed there is no room for "ordinary" people at all, only the superheroes of the state and their archrivals the terrorists. Even when civilians do appear on the show, their actions are perceived and understood by the audience only vis á vis the struggle against terrorism, and never in light of other concerns.

Civilians also tend to die off rather quickly, and some innocents are actually tortured, but, as mentioned above, these atrocities are instantaneously forgotten in the wake of what is "really important," i.e., what the state's agents are doing. This is a critical, if unintentional, commentary on the American public: the means used to combat terrorism are speedily forgotten in the wake of the realization of the ends, but, as in 24, the ends of the state are (at best) in constant flux between various vaguely defined objectives. Again, one recollects how in 1984 the war enemy of the state is changed in mid-speech, similar to 24, where friends become enemies and enemies become friends in the span of mere seconds.

Another principal problem of the program is that it of course glamorizes the illegal actions of the state and convinces the viewer first, that Americans are always at risk from all manner of terrorists, and second, that the only thing preventing these potential disasters are the adrenaline-fueled adventures of federal agents. Both of these claims are of course patently false, but they are useful to the state when it attempts to subvert or reinforce public opinion.

The show calls to mind the brilliant propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, who managed to sway the opinions of many Germans prior to World War II, convincing them of the righteousness and glory of the Nazi Party (although 24 does not even begin to approach the impact and genius of a film like The Triumph of the Will).

Another, more subtle (and therefore dangerous), aspect of the program is that it does actually discuss the issues of liberty and security. What makes this so potentially harmful is that the issues are presented in abstract or "macro" terms: there is talk of internment camps and conjecture on how great a price must be paid in order to ensure liberty, however the more "micro" aspects of the issue are ignored. What I mean is that violations of liberty are expressed in exaggerated terms, and only then as sort of abstract concepts regarding a future that will (implicitly) never really come into existence.

In one memorable scene, bureaucrats debate the security issue while at the same time federal agents prepare to search property illegally, and FBI agents make illegal arrests. So while lip service is paid to preserving liberty, "debate" is merely  one of the state's panoply of euphemisms that mean not "Should we eliminate personal liberties?" but rather "When will we eliminate those liberties?"

The show provides the veneer of discussion, while completely ignoring the fact that the argument is moot when the discussants themselves are already violating the rights in question. Discussion occurs, but only whiles the systematic violation of property rights continues apace.

The show is probably trying to be topical here but it reveals, perhaps unintentionally, a major tendency of the state. In short, the state publicly deplores extreme stages of totalitarianism, while quietly creeping towards those same stages, and at the same time redefining what those stages are, so that a policy that would have been deemed totalitarian only a decade or two ago is today almost demanded by an increasingly deluded (and self-deluded) public.

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A final observation has to be made regarding the intended impact of 24 on its audience. There is a new marketing tie-in for the current season: as the show cuts to commercial, a new cell phone (one used by the characters in the show) is displayed, and a rather cool and savvy voice asks, "Do you want to cruise the streets like a government agent?"

Just think, if only we could all be as hip as people employed by the government! This would be humorous if it weren't so pathetic, but there are surely those watching who are influenced by this nonsense.

As enjoyable as 24 is on the surface, a more than cursory glance makes it obvious that the show is attempting to justify and even celebrate an ever-expanding Orwellian state. It almost makes me want to root for the bad guys.


Matt McCaffrey is majoring in English literature at Colorado State University. He was a student at the 2006 Mises University. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.


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