Saturday, March 01, 2008
I decided to rent and watch the sixth season of the extremely popular TV show starring Kiefer Sutherland, which had aired in 2007.
24 became really popular when, in its earlier seasons, it dealt with Islamic terrorism in a daringly frontal way. Indeed, it was the only television drama then, and continues to be the only one, to deal with Islamic terrorism so directly and dominantly. Granted, it often pulled its punches in a predictably PC way, and the FOX network felt obliged early on to cave to C.A.I.R. pressure and had its star, Kiefer Sutherland, deliver little video messages preceding the broadcasts (and/or during commercial breaks) of the show reassuring the public that 24 does not in any way condone bigotry, etc.
Nevertheless, the astounding popularity of the show indicates that, no matter how much the show’s creators and writers might have sincerely wished to be PC , the unavoidable subtext—depicted in various scenes throughout various episodes, of “sleeper cell” Muslims in the U.S.A. who seem pleasant and ordinary on the surface but who are in fact plotting horrific terrorism against Americans—must have hit a nerve among the American viewing public, however subliminal, semi-conscious, and bundled within the enigma of Politically Correct Multi-Culturalism that nerve was, and remains. I was a fan then, although I became increasingly disenchanted with the way the show was cleverly manipulating the story line in order to dilute the Islamic factor of the terrorism into a wider nebula that involved the blatant guilt of shadowy silver-haired Anglo-Saxon billionaires, East European ex-Communists, and—most preposterous of all—high-level American politicians reaching ultimately up to the President of the U.S.A. himself!
This overarching dilution in the plot was a subliminal way for the writers to communicate one of the dominant themes of Politically Correct Multi-Culturalism: that any injustices and dangers that we happen to notice to be emanating from the Islamic orbit must, ultimately, be of secondary importance and the Muslim agents involved must themselves be, ultimately, pawns in a broader and deeper process of international intrigue that redirects the blame, in one way or another, onto the West. So, because of this disenchantment, I stopped watching 24 after the fourth season. Nevertheless, I had heard a few anti-Islamists praise the sixth season so much, I thought it deserved a look. So I will for the next few installments on this blog be jotting down observations about what PC MC, or refreshing lack thereof, I can detect from this sixth season—unless I get too frustrated with the degree of PC MC in the show and abort the whole project.
Overarching Plot: As the sixth season opens with the first show, the U.S.A. is being plagued by random terror attacks perpetrated by a Muslim terrorist group in various unpredictable places around the country. The news is of course filled with this priority story.
PC MC moment #1: Near the beginning of episode one, people on a sidewalk in Los Angeles are watching a typical news story about the horrible situation, broadcast from a television in a store which they can see through a glass wall. A well-dressed brown man—brown with a light tan and looking vaguely Middle Eastern—looks increasingly worried (i.e., worried that he might get lynched by these Americans being whipped up by a hysterical media). He runs to catch a bus, the bus driver won’t let him on (obviously because he looks and sounds Muslim). The Muslim man shouts “that’s not fair! you can’t do that!” as the bus drives away. Seconds later, we see, preposterously, a patently oriental young man (billed as “Young East Asian Man”, played by actor Benito Paje, who could be anything from a Chinese to a Filippino) on that same bus detonate himself in a suicide bombing. The obvious subliminal message here is: don’t let the media-driven hysteria about Islamic terrorism cause you to discriminate against Muslims, because any given Muslims will more than likely be innocent, and the actual terrorist will likely be a Korean, or a Vietnamese, or a Chinese person, or—perhaps even a blue-haired Swedish old lady.
PC MC moment #2: The young ethnic-looking actor who played “Kumar” in the popular indie movie Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)—which included in its plot scenes depicting how racist Americans can be against the two lead characters, a Korean and an East Indian—and who is now part of the cast of the enormously popular TV show House, Kal Penn, comes out of his suburban house anxiously calling after the federal agents who are hauling his father away. “But my father is not a terrorist!” he cries out, desperately. A few minutes later, his friendly neighbors then see a couple of not so friendly white guys beating on his door. The friendly, “sensitive” neighbors, concerned about a possible lynching underway, go across the street to intervene. Then, when the white rednecks decide to leave for the moment, the friendly neighbors invite the young Muslim to their house, to stay indefinitely for his safety.
Thankfully, PC MC moment #2 is undercut by later developments that come to light near the very end of the first episode: it turns out that the young Muslim is in league with the Muslim terrorists who are behind all the attacks in various locales around the U.S.A. This, for a refreshing change, sends the subliminal message that any given Muslim you think is a good decent person could very well be harboring ulterior, dangerous agendas. (Significantly, the aforementioned actor Kal Penn—real name Kalpen Suresh Modi, a non-Muslim Indian of Gujarati descent who was born and raised in the U.S.A.—told New York Magazine that he had “a huge political problem with the role. It was essentially accepting a form of racial profiling. I think it’s repulsive.” He nevertheless took the role because, he said, gymnastically justifying his betrayal of his own politically correct dogma, “it was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up and take a family hostage. As an actor, why shouldn’t I have that opportunity? Because I’m brown and I should be scared about the connection between media images and people’s thought processes?”)
Unfortunately, the show overall (at least from my memory of seasons 2 and 3) does not clarify sufficiently the religious Islamic dimensions of this difficulty in distinguishing the harmless Muslim from the dangerous Muslim—in great part because the show does not sufficiently illustrate the religious Islamic dimensions motivating the Islamic terrorism in the first place. The viewer is left with only a vague, flimsy sense that these terrorists have some kind of intense allegiance to some kind of code that could just as well be similar to what motivates a Central American guerilla or a Mafioso or an IRA terrorist. There were a couple of rare instances in the early seasons 2 or 3 where, for example, they showed a Muslim praying to Allah before crashing his car suicidally rather than be arrested by authorities. Season 6 also has a couple of moments: the aforementioned Kal Penn, when his mask finally falls off in front of the nice white teenager who thought he was his friend, corrects the white boy’s repeated mispronunciation of his name as “Ah-med” by pointing a gun at his head and enunciating a grimly precise and percussively phlegmatic “Achhhh-MED!” In another scene, the lead terrorist, Fayed, encourages an underling to “martyr himself”. In yet another scene, Fayed again utters “Inshallah” when expressing hope for a particular plan. But these three instances are too far and few between, spread out among the first four episodes, to establish any sense of the religiousity behind the motives and goals of the terrorists.
PC MC moment #3: As part of the general preventative measures of self-defense in light of the terrorist attacks all over the U.S.A., a couple of F.B.I. agents visit the headquarters of a Muslim-American advocacy organization (perhaps modelled after C.A.I.R. which, ironically, pressured the show to soften some of what they claimed to be excessively anti-Islamic motifs in the earlier seasons), in order to gain access to their personnel files. One of the directors of this Muslim organization, Walid Al-Rezani, is a tall, handsome, coffee-brown African-American with a thick African accent, played by the actor Harry Lennix. In his performance, Lennix (and/or the show’s directors) really pushes the calm, patient, peaceful, decently-aggrieved-at-being-the-object-of-Government-suspicion buttons. In a complication of the plot, he also happens to be the fiancé of Sandra Palmer, the sister of the black President of the United States, President Palmer (brother of the recently assassinated President of earlier seasons). More than once, as the F.B.I. agents become increasingly intrusive and Sandra Palmer is becoming more emotional and vocal about her objections to their manner and methods as “trampling over their civil liberties”, her sweetly calm and patient fiancé tries to calm her down and preposterously argues that it is good for the country if they comply with complete cooperation. From the behavior of spokesmen for Muslim advocacy groups over the years, I have never read of any one of them expressing such a position—but rather the diametrical opposite.
The worst PC MC moment is more than a mere moment—it is a major theme that arcs over the first few episodes (if not, likely, the entire season). Namely, it involves the theme of a “reformed Muslim” (Asad), who wants to foreswear his terrorist ways (20 years of killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent people, according to the show, including personally beheading American soldiers on video!) and wants to stop the “bad Muslim”, Fayed, who continues to terrorize America with the current attacks that constitute the main threat of these episodes. This idea of a reformed beheader is, of course, a fantasy notion, for which nothing in the real world offers any precedent: there has been no Muslim terrorist who has wished to stop terrorizing, has promised to negotiate politically, and has taken it upon himself to hunt down other Muslim terrorists. It is obviously a manipulative element insinuated into the plot by the writers in order to remind the viewer, subliminally, of the ungrounded possibility that any given Muslim terrorist could be our ally if we only tried to work with him. (Other examples of this transparently manipulative device abound throughout the season: just to pick one out of a turban, there is the pretty young Muslim woman working for C.T.U. (the tactical nerve center of the show), Nadia Yassir, who is so nice and pretty and professional and loyal, yet who must suffer the prejudice of rules come down from on high by Homeland Security that limit security clearance for anyone of Middle Eastern descent—a prejudice that all, including the head of C.T.U., Bill Buchanan, agree is an irrational and unfair rule. Amusingly, the actress who plays Nadia Yassir is Marisol Nichols, half Hungarian and half Mexican-American (which reminds one of the actor of South African Dutch Afrikaans extraction who played the evil Muslim mastermind, Habib Marwan, in earlier seasons), and she remains conspicuously overdressed and demure, unlike her role in the short-lived television crime drama In Justice as the much more plausible Sonya Quintano, a police detective unashamed of radiating her sexy Latina earthiness.)
This subliminal message is amplified and broadened in episodes 5-8, when the bad terrorist Fayed detonates a tactical nuclear bomb in a suburb of Los Angeles, and the only people of influence who want the U.S. government to begin to move toward enacting stronger measures such as detention facilities, internment camps and deportation of Muslim-Americans are three decidedly smarmy characters, played to the hilt by the excellent Peter MacNicol, the perfectly cast Chad Lowe as a brownnoser with slyly ulterior motives, and the ruggedly menacing and sinisterly oily Powers Boothe as Vice-President. The regnant counter-argument, intoned at least three times, including by President Palmer himself, against the proposals of this dastardly trio is one we hear all too often in our dismally politically correct real life: namely, that if we take these stronger measures in our self-defense, it will not only “irreparably damage” our Constitution, but will also offend, alienate and “radicalize” the Muslim community and thereby jeopardize the effective cooperation of the vast majority of “moderates” who are axiomatically presumed to exist among them. Such a counter-argument not only rests on the absurd assumption that truly moderate Muslims would be so easily “radicalized”, but also presumes a vast majority of harmless Muslims abstracted from their unusually cohesive and trans-national sociopolitical religious culture whose defense against perceived “attacks” and “oppression” in Islamic tradition no less than in Islamic psychology is of far greater importance than individual concerns or non-Muslim national loyalties.
Furthermore, the show’s writers failed to present a key component in the mouth of Peter MacNicol when he was trying to defend his proposal to President Palmer who objected in imperiously PC tones that the Constitution should not be scrapped in the pursuit of security: namely, that one of the greatest Liberals of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the backing of the majority of the American people (a people still relatively undeformed by political correctness), implemented a comprehensive program of detaining Japanese-Americans in internment camps indefinitely for the duration of the war. Not only did the implementation not damage the Constitution, the country itself became more liberal and stronger in civil rights in the decades after that implementation.
In addition, I see, from viewing episodes 5-8, that 24 is perpetuating the same grand and preposterous conceit it pursued in its earlier seasons which first turned me off—namely, diluting the Islamic factor of the terrorism by making the Muslims involved only pawns in a much larger and deeper game of intrigue in which the truly evil, and powerful, plotters are in fact non-Muslim white Westerners (with a dash of “former Soviet Union” Russians here and there)—including Jack Bauer’s own father!—whose tentacles will probably once again, as they did in former seasons, reach right up to the White House itself.
Episodes 9-12 escalate the absurdity so much—solidly ensconcing all the Muslim terrorists in the role of pawns to a shadowy cabal of evil American businessmen and ex-Soviet Russians—that the only way I will be able to enjoy it from here on will be to abandon all pretense to contact with reality, and treat it as sheer fantasy. On that level, at least, it is more or less entertaining.
Incidentally, speaking of Russians, they have been stereotyped as bad guys so much in the post-911 years on so many TV shows (e.g., Law & Order, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, 24, etc.), that one wonders, have any television producers received complaints from Russian advocacy groups, like the veiled threats 24 received from C.A.I.R.? Or have there been any riots or torching of embassies by Russians around the world—as there surely would have been by Muslims had all these different shows over the last seven years depicted Muslims in such a decidedly negative way? We know the answer. Russian culture may be a dysfunctional mess, but unlike Islam, it’s not pathologically fanatical.