Monday, July 23, 2012

The Other Half of the Story

If you were a fan of West Wing, you will remember that wonderful scene in the 25th episode, titled “The Midterms,” in 2000, when Martin Sheen as the President puts down a radio talk show host named Dr. Jenna Jacobs – a clear take-off on Laura Schlessinger (Laura Ingraham would do, as well, actually).  Watch it here

Writer Aaron Sorkin took the script from an e-mail which had gone viral, and which revealed the ridiculous inconsistency of hypocritical Old Testament literalists who cherry-pick the Bible to find hate material against LGBT people, leaving out things like adultery and divorce that might impinge on their own behavior:

Here’s the dialogue:
President Josiah Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination. 
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.   
JB: Yes, it does. Leviticus. 
JJ: 18:22.  
JB: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? 
While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?
Here's one that's really important 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?
Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side?
Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? 
Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits. 
How many times have we said, “I wish I had said that.”  We think of the bon mot we failed to call up that would have fit the occasion, the witty retort, the proper putdown that would have put some smartass in his place, and the frustration is palpable.  It’s too late now, the moment of victory has slipped through your fingers when you might have triumphed over some pusher of foolish notions and set the record straight.

Aaron Sorkin, one of the more articulate voices of the political left, has put on screen two of the best perfect squelch moments I've ever seen.  To that West Wing one, Sorkin has added another masterpiece of putdown, this time by Jeff Daniels playing anchorman Will McAvoy in The Newsroom.  Watch it here.  

Will is at an academic conference when a girl he identifies as “sorority girl” asks a question from the audience:

“Sorority Girl”: Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?

Karen: Diversity and opportunity.

Lewis: Freedom, and freedom.  So let’s keep it that way....    Will?

Will: It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor.  That’s my answer.

Lewis: You’re saying…

Will: Yes.

Lewis: Let’s talk about…

Will: Fine.  Karen, the NEA [the National Endowment for the Arts] is a loser.  Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he gets to hit you with it any time he wants.  It doesn’t cost money; it costs votes; it costs air time and column inches.  You know why people don’t like liberals?  Because they lose.  If liberals are so fuckin’ smart how come they lose so goddam always?  And with a straight face you’re gonna tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom?   Canada has freedom.  Japan has freedom.   The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom.  Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like, 180 of them have freedom.

Lewis: All right…

Will:  And yeah, you, sorority girl.  Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know.  And one of them is there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.  We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force, and number 4 in exports.   We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.  Now none of this is the fault of a twenty-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst (period) generation (period) ever (period), so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.  Yosemite?

[We] sure used to be.   We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed.  We cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.   We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.    We reached for the stars.   Acted like men.   We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior.  We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.  And we didn’t scare so easy.   We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed.  By great men.  Men who were revered.

First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.  America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. 


The right will call this display of verbal bravado in Sorkin heroes sanctimonious, smug, intellectually self-serving, and an unbalanced attack on Republicans.  The left will call it sanctimonious, smug, intellectually self-serving, and just what the doctor ordered.

The characters are from real life.  Just as Sorkin based Dr. Jacobs of West Wing on Laura Schlessinger, many are trying to see in Will, the Jeff Daniels character, the personality of Keith Olbermann (a connection Daniels denies, by the way).

Manipulators on the right wing saw the potential early on for tapping into American sexism, racism and homophobia to get out the vote, knowing America’s masses could be counted on to vote against their own self-interest if you could persuade them a defense of their religion or their civilization was necessary.

The West Wing scene was written just before the tide began to turn against homophobia and it began to go the way of sexism and racism in this country.  There was still serious harm being done in the name of religion against LGBT people, and the progressive left was beginning to recognize the phenomenon.  Today, leftist scorn has shifted somewhat to the jingoists on the right who wave the flag in your face, pray loudly at national sports events, put down the French with their “freedom fries,” and parade around as “patriots.”  Same combination of religion and politics in both cases.  With the West Wing monologue it was religion in the foreground, politics in the background; with the Newsroom monologue it’s the other way around.

Curiously missing in all this is the fact that in America, what we call the left is what most of the modern world would call the center.  We look at the Will character telling Americans they are not Number One anymore and we assume with pleasure the likelihood that the right wing is going apoplectic.  Most of us don’t recognize, though, that if you’re not American, this is anything but news.  Certainly not something to celebrate.  More like a big yawn.  

Of course we’re not number one in the heroic sense.  We have had our great moments, obviously, but as much as we like to think of ourselves as best personified by Superman, we have a terribly spotty history we run and hide from.  Slavery and genocide of the American Indians, for starters.  Consider what the U.S. meant if you were a kid in the Mexican Army when Texas became American.  A fighter for Philippine independence from Spain watching your country simply shift masters.  A citizen of a banana republic owned by American agrobusiness, a Korean watching the Russians and the Americans use your country as a football field, a Palestinian watching America stand idly by.

I have no interest in demonizing America, and recognize my political views are not the most sophisticated, and I’m not interested in listing all of her faults.  I just mention a couple because I wanted to explain to myself why I was so uncomfortable with the second half of that Jeff Daniels monologue.  “We were great once.  We could be great again.” 

It was a pep talk.  A coach telling a lagging football team to get its act together.  After revealing so much that the right wing overlooks when calling America “the best country in the world” it doesn’t carry through with total honesty.   Some honesty, yes – pointing out that we no longer wage war on poverty but now wage war on the poor, for example.

The second part, the romantic appeal to the good old days, when we were somebody, when we were brilliant and strong and noble, pretty much had to be added to the monologue in order to make it palpable as a TV script.  Without it, it would be an impossible downer, and nobody would watch.  It would feed into the Rush Limbaugh/Fox Network view of the left as people who hate America. 

With it, it’s a powerful talk-back to those on the right.  It does demonstrate there are patriots on the left – we just have fewer scales on our eyes preventing us from seeing America’s faults. 

But take a closer look at the script.  Just as religious homophobes cherry-pick the Old Testament for reasons to withhold dignity and civil rights from gay people, this left-wing list of American accomplishments is also cherry-picked.  It’s true, the Will character did tick off things in the first half like the number of people incarcerated and the high level of infant mortality, but there’s no serious criticism of the failure of democracy which we have experienced in our generation, in tandem with the failure of the financial system.  It’s still entertainment.  Not critical social analysis.  It’s more feel-good than a call to action.  One for “our side.”

I’m being unduly harsh, possibly.  Like most people on the left I loved the piece and forwarded it to friends – who, not incidentally, were simultaneously forwarding it to me.  I recognize that it is only the first step in facing a social problem – recognizing the problem.  As a creative piece, it should be judged on those terms and not criticized for what it doesn’t do.

But I guess that’s my point.  It’s only a first step.  Not a righting of a wrong, but a half-hearted call to arms.  Things are seriously broken – and that includes the American political system.  The Occupy movements show that some of us have begun to recognize it, but we haven’t found our legs yet.   Leftist television and Occupy are still feeble first attempts, but we’re not yet serious, and there are indications – the impotence of labor unions, for one – that the way out is still a long way off.

I don’t want to belittle these early efforts.  But we’re still just crying in the wind.

picture credits:


Lilly Rivlin said...

Dream in if you think that HBO will allow real social criticism on their screen. I am amazed that you think that Sorkin would have taken a chance like that, then he would never have had another hit.

Alan McCornick said...

I can dream, can't I? I didn't actually think he would. I only commented that - good as this was - it's in the entertainment vein, and not a serious kind of political action, as I wish it could be.