Jack Bauer may be the greatest American ever. An agent of the United States government, his selflessness, patriotism, and intrepidness go unmatched. Yet perhaps his most inspiring characteristic is his willingness to sacrifice his life—and to endure a lot of accompanying pain—for the safety and well-being of the American people. Indeed, he never allows the situation to change his priorities; he is the true dispositional hero, one who unfailingly views his nation’s interests as paramount and whose behavior and choices always reflect that.
Unfortunately, Jack Bauer doesn’t really exist. He is a fictional character played by Kiefer Sutherland in the television series 24. And despite what Jack Bauer evidences on our TV screens, the human mind, even inside those most heroic, is deeply affected, often in unappreciated ways, by the surrounding situation. That is not to say that a Jack Bauer-type person cannot exist, but if he or she is out there, our nation should quickly turns its lonely eyes and find’em.
But then again, maybe we shouldn’t look so quickly. After-all, the latest episode of 24 casts a slight shadow on this shining star. In the episode we learn that Jack apparently grew up in a highly-affluent family. Jack, who had not spoken with his father for over nine years, has to call him. But guess who answers the phone? “Sam”–an older man who Jack clearly knew and who appeared to be the Bauer family butler. Butler or not, it seemed highly probable that Jack’s dad was of profound wealth.
It was a surprising scene. Jack had seemed like the quintessential All-American hero, and until that scene, there was no evidence that he might have grown up with a silver spoon. Just the opposite, actually, his “toughness” and “resiliency” seemed to suggest that he might have come from an Oliver Twist kind of childhood. The resulting disappointment, ever so slight, has been evidenced on blogs and message boards alike.
But why should we care if, in fact, Jack grew up rich? Does that change the fact that (spoilers to follow) he was willing to endure 20 months of torture in a foreign prison in order to not spill state secrets? Or that his torture only ended because he was willing to endure worse torture and likely execution at the hands of a foreign terrorist because that was the only way to stop terrorist attacks in the U.S.? Or that he was willing to kill himself by flying a plane containing a nuclear bomb—one that was set to go off in Los Angeles—into the Mojave Desert? Or that he was willing to become a heroin addict as part of an undercover mission to prevent an Ebola-like virus from being released? Or that he was willing to kidnap the President of the United States upon learning that the President was a murderer? (end of spoilers) I could go on. If you watch the show you could come up with numerous other examples. The basic storyline is almost always the same: Jack breaks the law, thereby exposing himself to some combination of pain, incarceration, and condemnation, and he does so only because it is in the nation’s best interests.
So why should we care about his parents’ wealth? Why can’t the greatest American hero grow up rich and enjoy the same level of admiration? Like all of us, he didn’t select the circumstances in which he was born. Why do we need certain life stories to validate how we feel about someone’s accomplishments?
One explanation might relate to John Jost’s work on system justification theory. Jost has identified that we all have a powerful motive to embrace and justify the social systems to which we belong. He finds that people, even those disadvantaged by social systems, “justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social arrangements are perceived as fair and legitimate, perhaps even natural and inevitable.” Two of the more prominent ideologies in the U.S. are the “meritocractic ideology,” the idea that our system “rewards individual ability and motivation, so success is an indicator of personal deservingness” and “belief in a just world,” the idea that “people deserve what they get.”
These system-justifying ideologies certainly seem observable when thinking about our social systems. We are culture that values the American Dream, the idea that hard-work, pluck, and determination can enable anyone to rise to success. Because of that, we tend to latch onto endearing narratives and vignettes of those Americans who intrepidly rose from poverty to wealth (and thus fulfilled the Horatio Alger story), while we tend to ignore aggregate statistics that confirm the more common difficulty of moving out of poverty in spite of work ethic. In that same vein, we have always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with wealth. Just consider how we believe firmly in equal opportunity, and yet we paradoxically loathe the estate tax (i.e., “the death tax”).
Of course, Jack Bauer isn’t the first person whose privileged upbringing attracts notice, and he won’t be the last. And more generally, perhaps we don’t like children of the rich because we can so obviously see that they didn’t “earn” it. But what about less obvious recipients of “situational support”? Bill Gates’ dad was a prominent lawyer; Warren Buffet’s dad was a Congressman; Michael Dell’s dad was an orthodontist. That is not say those three sons didn’t “earn” their success, but they didn’t exactly begin two touchdowns down, either. In fact, I suspect most of those who become successful get a lot of breaks along the way, and yet we tend to focus on their apparent dispositional qualities—work ethic, brains, doggedness etc. Perhaps we downplay their situational support because the more we recognize the power of situation, the less legitimate differences in wealth and status seem. And Jack Bauer or no Jack Bauer, that wouldn’t sound like the American Dream anymore.