west wing

The West WingTonight, Jen and I cooked mini soy corn dogs and watched The West Wing–it’s our show, our must-see-tv. We’ve been fans since the first season. I love the witty, fast-paced dialogue (big words! on tv!), the fact that it addresses substantive social and political issues, the fact that it treats public service as a noble calling. I love that half of the action is intellectual; the suspense, the drama, the pay-off, they play out in ideas. That’s rare on the boob tube.

But this latest season (I believe it’s the fourth)… it’s starting to lose me. It’s not so much that there is liberal bias — it’s always had a liberal bias; the writer, Aaron Sorkin, is a liberal — it’s the _kind_ of liberal bias. In the first few seasons, he was fair and open about it, and he attempted to give Republicans a voice in the show. (There was even a Republican character, the lawyer Ainsley… what happened to her?) There were a variety of perspectives represented, even within the White House staff, and that made it more realistic.

This season, though, it’s been monochrome. The liberal bias has gotten more blatant, and as it comes out into the open, it takes a distinct shape, and I don’t like that shape. If by "liberal" one means "opposed to right wing nuttiness," well then I guess I’m a liberal, although I’m certainly not in agreement with the Democratic Party on every, or even most, issues (there are, for the record, positions on issues that are not represented by either party, crazy as it may seem). But what I do object to is cloistered Hollywood liberalism, the kind where smug moral certitude outweighs informed factual argument.

Last episode, Sorkin attempted rather blatantly to blunt accusations of liberal bias by having President Bartlett fawn all over the military. But he just made himself look silly, and demonstrated how little he understands his ideological opponents (or, for that matter, the military). Bartlett went on and on about how he loooooves the military, what an honor it is for him to address them, how wonderful and noble they are, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

But think about it, Aaron: members of the military don’t want to be treated like specimens under glass, or on a pedestal, to be gawked at and flattered. They are literal-minded folk; they want to get down to business. They want to accomplish whatever their mission is, and they want politicians to give them the means to do it. Flattery ain’t materiel. Watch right wingers address the military–they don’t wax poetic, they get down to business. They tell the military what the gov’t is doing, and when, and how it can help. Even Bush (although he’s not the best example, coddled little fancy-pants that he is) talks _to_ the military, not _at_ them.

Also on the last episode, Toby and Josh (Director of Communications and Deputy Chief of Staff respectively) met, through tortured plot twists, a middle-aged guy in a bar. This guy might as well have had a scarlet "E" on his chest, for Everyman. He was Average Voter incarnate, at least average voter as imagined from Hollywood Hills. The guy was trying to send his daughter to college, and he wished it was just "a little bit easier." Gov’t to the rescue, right?

Now, on tonight’s episode, Toby and Josh have concocted a scheme to make all college tuition tax deductible. The merits of such a scheme (and they could be debated) aside: are you telling me gov’t makes policy based on the sad story of a guy in a bar? This is how Sorkin wants the gov’t to be run, based on who policy-makers happen to run into, and what kind of warm fuzzy feelings they get from meeting "real people"? It’s absurd.

And the coup de grace: on tonight’s episode, we find out that some guys associated with some splinter "Patriot" group set off pipe bombs and killed 42 college students at a football game. Big tragedy, to lend this week’s events gravitas. So Bartlett gives a campaign speech to a teachers union shortly after, and he’s making what we are told are extemporaneous remarks. What’s the first thing he says? Does he console the victims and their families? Vow to find and apprehend those responsible? No. He says, "they were not born wanting to do this," and goes on to lament the sad state of public education! He blames poor education funding! First thing! Can you fucking believe it? The mind boggles.

Now, this is my point (I’m going on and on, I know): I think college _should_ be easier to pay for. I think, given all the tax breaks gov’t hands out to its corporate donors, it wouldn’t hurt to shift a few tax breaks over to tuition payments. I think the state of public education _is_ lamentable. And it’s true that no one is born wanting to commit such acts of violence (even Arabs!); such people are the product not of capital-E Evil, but of social and cultural forces that can be understood and changed. If we want to decrease violence, just jailing the violent isn’t going to work. The forces that shape them have to be changed.

In other words, I agree with the substance of a lot of what Sorkin seems to believe.

But right now, even _I_ don’t want to admit it. These questions are complicated, and the flat-footed bumper sticker way that he presents them is getting more and more irksome. He is playing into all the worst stereotypes the public has about liberals. Yes, public schools need desperately to be improved, but that’s not what you tell the public on the day of a mass murder!

Sorkin is increasingly smug and self-righteous, his characters are increasingly one-dimensional, and he’s increasingly demonstrating that he does not understand, much less respect, much less learn from, those who disagree with him. He’s shooting himself in the foot; I guarantee any Republican watching tonight will never be back.

When I went to see Lewis Lapham speak yesterday, I raised my hand and said something like the following: why do over-educated middle-class white lefties gather in basements like this and lament the fact that they can’t persuade "average" people to come to their plays, or go to their marches, or read their New Yorker articles? Why are they so fucking pompous and arrogant? If they want to change minds, why don’t they address people through the media the public actually consumes, in the language the public actually speaks, with respect and open minds?

And here’s Sorkin, who has the ear of a huge swath of the American public, with a _golden, unbelievable_ opportunity to challenge them, get them thinking, maybe change their minds, in an entertaining way. Instead, he’s speaking down to the public, lecturing them, scolding them, never considering that he’s one of them, that his opinions are just as fragmented and fallible as theirs. It’s a damn shame.