Our heroes speak to our identity. They embody the strengths we hope to have. The fight the monsters we most fear. When we cheer them and root for them, it is because they confirm the world as we think it ought to be.
As a Brit, looking at American culture from the outside, I find the progression of the three “Jack” American heroes worrying. I’m sure you know these Jacks well: Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer and Jack Ryan. Their popularity makes them hard to miss.
If that popularity is, as I believe it to be, an endorsement of how these men behave, then the American Dream has become quite a dark one, in which violent white men are saviours who have the skill and the courage to take the direct action against our enemies that we wish we were able to take ourselves.
I see the Jacks as a progression of escalating violence and an expanding sense of threat. Each Jack becomes more educated, more closely linked to US security services, has access to more fire-power, has a more widely defined set of enemies and bigger scale of action.
Reacher is perhaps the least threatening. He’s the lone cowboy. The man you want on your side. In “Echo Burning” (book 5) he was presented as someone who never killed a man who didn’t deserve it, which mostly meant getting in Reacher’s face of threatening a damsel in distress. By “The Hard Way” (book 10) he’s executing people he things have stepped over a line only he can see. To me, he’s a dangerous pyschopath with delusions of being a knight errant.
Reacher as Hero can be written-off as a testosterone-driven desire for simplicity as in: “violence is the answer, now what is the question?”
I found Bauer more chilling than Reacher. He’s an educated man. He has a wife and child. He has been given a lot of authority and considerable resources. AND HE STILL ENDS UP GOING OFF THE RESERVATION because he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. He tortures people, up close and personal. He piles up a huge body-count. He regularly breaks the law. He lies to colleagues and superiors. He justifies it all because IT NEEDS DOING.
Bauer as Hero is saying: we don’t believe in the rule of law, we don’t trust due process to keep us safe, we’re willing to waive (other people’s) human rights and applaud torture if it keeps us safe. Hell, we’ll even applaud the man who has the guts to do it.
Jack Bauer is a creature of extreme rendition and torture in Abu Ghraib. He was the symbol of Bush’s slow slide into lawlessness that prepared the way for Trump. As a non-American, Jack Bauer is a warning that the Americans are so afraid and so insular and have such a dangerous and childish need for simplicity when dealing with a complex world, that they cannot be trusted.
Jack Ryan is my worst nightmare. An educated, well-informed man, capable of analysing and understanding complex situations who still uses violence as his main means of solving problems. In Season 2 of the Amazon Prime Jack Ryan season, he feels entitled to run around London shooting at people, he arranges for black ops forces to enter a foreign country to carry out military missions, he leads an assault of American forces on a Presidential Palace and tries to assassinate the President.
And all the time he’s presented as a normal, rational, empathetic guy, on the side of the angels. He seems completely unable to see his own enormous sense of entitlement.
Having Jack Ryan as Hero shows a nation that has become insular and afraid. A nation that cannot be trusted by its allies. A nation that truly believes that having the biggest stick is all it takes to make the world in your image.
So, I look at the Jacks and I worry that America, TRUMP’S AMERICA, is turning violent, non-rule-following, educated white guys into the heroes of the day.
I know the Jacks are meant to be extreme entertainment but I’m convinced that making them into heroes undermines the liberties the American Constitution is meant to defend domestically and shows the rest of the world an America that we are going to have to take steps to protect ourselves against.