Patrick Goes to Hollywood

I'm concerned that Catallarchy is getting just a tad too lighthearted, what with the ongoing discussions of things like organ donation and abortion. So I figured that in my inaugural post as a full-time Catallarch, I'd help us all...relax...with a nice little discussion of torture. Hey, wait, don't skip to that next post just yet. It's not as bad as all that. We're going to do some pop culture, too. There's even video.

These past few days, Jane Mayer's New Yorker article has gotten a bit of attention from both the MSM and the blogosphere (see here and here). Mayer spills a whole lot of ink discussing a stunning revelation: it seems that 24 is a fairly popular show. What's more, it turns out that 24 has a really large following among the jingoistic, nuke-the-fuckers, wingnut set. And it seems that at least part of the excitement about 24 is that Jack Bauer tortures people on a pretty regular basis.

See, I told you there'd be video.

Okay, so lots of people have commented on the increasing prevalence of torture in 24 (see Drum, Lean Left, Yglesias, and Sullivan; CT looks at the odd worldview of the show more generally). But what seems to have stirred interest in Mayer's article is her discussion of the effect that 24 is having on the military. Mayer reports that the dean at the United States Military Academy, one BG Patrick Finnegan, put on his dress uniform and caught a flight out to Hollywood where he showed up on the set of 24 and asked to speak to the producer. According to Mayer

Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”

Finnegan, who used to teach military law to firsties (i.e., senior cadets), complains that "it [has] become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not," and he went on to suggest that 24, with its "whatever it takes" mentality is contributing to that difficulty.

Now as some of you may know, my very first post grad school job was at West Point, where I taught ethics and just war theory to sophomores. And I have to say that, in at least one respect, Finnegan is totally full of shit. The simple fact is that the "whatever it takes" mindset popular with cadets has nothing whatsoever to do with 24 because they've pretty much had that mindset since at least my very first day at the Academy. I would suggest that the only difference between pre- and post-24 is that perhaps the cadets are more willing to express their views to people wearing green. In my classroom, anyway, cadets had little hesitation in suggesting that niceties like "military ethics" went out the window just as soon as bullets started flying and their men -- the people whose lives they are responsible for -- started dying. They also hinted (and by "hinted" I mean actually told me) that they would never dare say these sorts of things in the military law and ethics courses taught by the military faculty since that would usually just mean having to stay in class longer.

Now I certainly respect Finnegan for taking a stand against torture, and I suppose that I can respect his trying to get to what he sees as the root of the problem. But the sad fact is that Finnegan's actions seem like a typical West Point approach: our cadets are doing something we don't like, so let's make a rule about it. I'd be willing to bet that Finnegan's flight to LA happened only after a serious discussion about whether or not just to put a ban on watching 24, and that only the practical impossibility of such a ban prevented its entering the long, long list of prohibited activities. So Finnegan decided on the next best thing. If he can't ban cadets from watching the show, maybe he can intimidate the producers into changing it.

See, in actual fact, the world is pretty complicated. There is no single, simple reason why it's hard to convince cadets that torture is wrong. Sure, television may -- hell, it probably does -- play some role in desensitizing them to the horrors of torture. But so do things like the atmosphere of moral relativism that pervades our culture -- and particularly our schools -- today (thanks so much, postmodernism) and the cynical attitude that Gen-Xers and Millennials have toward anything that sounds too much like abstract idealism. For that matter, the typical West Point method of teaching ethics (here's the right answer, dammit, and when I want your opinion on the matter, I'll give it to you) isn't going to do much to actually change anyone's mindset. At the Academy, ethics is just another aspect of training, and like all those other stupid things they ask you to do (fold your socks this way, cadet), ethics is yet another hoop, one that you jump through by quoting all the right answers when prompted. That cadets aren't doing this as much strikes me as a good thing. I mean, I know that this probably comes as a shock to General Finnegan, but at some universities professors actually look forward to having students express their own ideas in class and regard it as, you know, part of their job to push students to defend those ideas. Really smart students -- and West Point has those in spades -- see the force of reason way more often than not.

There are way more effective ways of countering the influence of 24. A few, just off the top of my head:

    1. Make The Siege mandatory viewing in class. If you haven't seen the film, you really should. It's shockingly prescient, and the torture scene makes exactly the point that Finnegan wants, namely, that torture is horrible -- and usually doesn't work, to boot.
    2. Show Dances with Wolves. Yes, I know, Kevin Costner as a role-model for cadets? Are you kidding me? I'm sure that there are far better examples, but this is the one that struck me. Because (one of) the messages of the film is that when "civilized" soldiers brutalize an "inferior" and "savage" foe, it just makes brutes of the soldiers.
    3. Bring John McCain to class. I'm not a huge fan of McCain the politician, but McCain the soldier is a worthy role-model. One who understands first-hand the particular wrongness of torture.

Look, it's all fine and good to make the attempt to counteract the corrosive effects of pop culture on cadets. Still, at the end of the day, I'm reminded of those who wanted to blame the Columbine shootings on The Matrix. Maybe there's something to the "it's all Hollywood's fault that our kids are screwed up" mentality. But I smell at least a small whiff of scapegoating here, of the usual conservative knee-jerk response to blame the liberal media for all of the world's ills. The only real irony here is that, in this particular case, we have a general officer from West Point, one of the most conservative subsets of the extremely conservative U.S. Army, complaining about a show that is masterminded by a conservative producer. This is just the sort of thing for which the saying "hoist by your own petard" was invented.

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