Will the Real Africa Please Stand Up?

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I watched 24: Redemption on Sunday night. 

Unlike previous episodes in the series, this one was set outside the United States.  The fictional African country of Sangala played home to Jack Bauer’s latest counter-terrorist adventures.  The episode, which is supposed to be an interlude between seasons 6 and 7, fell short.  Watching 24 has always been a bit strange, sort of like watching an accident as you drive by.  You know you really shouldn’t but you just can’t seem to help yourself.  But there was something even worse about this episode.

There have always been some problems with the representation of enemies on 24.  From the Arab terrorist, to the Russian terrorist, to the corrupt American businessmen, to the corrupt American government, we often get a simple construction of good vs. evil.  We are encouraged to root against the bad guys—and for Jack Bauer—even when they engage in similar tactics.  Indeed, Jack Bauer’s reliance on torture to extract information, a technique which almost always seems to work for Bauer but is never effective against him, has had some real world implications.  Dahlia Lithwick’s August article in Newsweek outlined the limits of a counter-terrorism policy in which Jack Bauer’s fictional adventures are taken as gospel and provide the foundation for real world doctrine.

The problem with Redemption is that it presents a caricature of “those African countries,” a problem which Sean Jacobs illustrates in his ironically titled blog “Africa is a Country.”  In this simplified Africa, the victims are nameless and many, coups and political instability are rampant, and Jack Bauer is, in the words of Daniel Feinbreg, the “Great White Father, a disappointingly paternalistic and colonialistic cliché.”

Despite the horrors being perpetuated by the warlords, 24: Redemption saves its most pointed attack for the United Nations, whose peacekeeping representative is simultaneously a coward, a spineless peacenik, and ultimately a traitor.  Clearly, the UN has its faults.  Its response to the Rwandan genocide, for example, was nothing short of tragic.  But, as Alessandra Stanley’s review of the show concludes, 24’s “jingoistic political slant has not been lifted. This is the world according to a Chuck Norris movie. Heroes like Jack Bauer can save the nation from near extinction over and over, but they will still be persecuted for niggling human rights violations by pantywaist bureaucrats.”

For an interesting counterpoint, have a look at Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How (not) to Write About Africa.”

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