Tag Archives: liberalism

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

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The last good fight

“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’  I agree with the second part.” – William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven

“Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls”Comte de Mirabeau

Warren Kinsella is a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and continues to assist the Liberal Party of Ontario during its election campaigns – to put him in West Wing terms, he’s a wartime consigliere.  I read his blog frequently and don’t always agree with him (not to sound like the Dos Equis guy here) but respect him for several reasons:  one of which is that he says liberals should always be full-throated go-for-the-gut liberals, and another is that he believes in the nobility of always fighting for what is important.  (He is the lone liberal voice on Canada’s pathetic Fox News clone Sun News Network, which gives you a sense of his willingness to take the fight to the enemy’s turf.)  The other day he posited that he thought the human race was evil and beyond redemption.  He cited the examples of the Syrian massacre and a particular website which offers video of disturbing violent acts (which I’m not going to link to for obvious reasons).  Clearly, if you want to go down that route, there are thousands of examples more.  It’s one of those arguments that you’ll always find more evidence to support if you need it – like “politicians are corrupt,” “democracy doesn’t work” or “Jersey Shore is a blight on society.”

I don’t subscribe to this thinking, because it’s the easy way out.  (And in fairness to the usually spunky Warren, he could have just been having a bad day or been thinking about the world his kids are growing up in.)  To me, it’s throwing up your hands and surrendering before you even strap on the first shin pad.  It’s saying that principles do not matter, values are not important and attempting to live a civilized, moral life is futile.  It’s looking at the world’s douchebags living high off the hog and wondering why the hell we’re trying so hard not to be them, with the idea that our way is better for the soul, when we’re getting screwed by the universe anyway while they reap the rewards.  Like the worker ant who dutifully and nobly carries food back to the colony day after day only to be scorched to death one sunny afternoon by a smirking brat with a magnifying glass.  But it’s ground that I don’t believe the human race as a whole can afford to concede.  It’s not a world I want to live in.  Indeed, it’s not a world that would live very long.

On Star Trek and its successors, you’d often find the crew visiting planets where everyone wore the same outfit and shared the same opinion.  Absent was the dichotomy that defines humanity – the extremes of light and dark and good and evil that share contradictory space inside the soul.  The same heart that loves one hates another; the same species that cherishes beauty creates ugliness.  But it’s important not to forget that despite the increasing societal obsession with what is worst about us (fostered by media companies trying to scare you into buying things you don’t need), we have truly done some remarkable things in our relatively short time in the cosmos.  We have forged incredible works of art, literature, music.  We have crafted a society of laws and good governance.  We have cured devastating illnesses and been able to shift the focus of our existence from mere survival to the enrichment of our spirit and of our collective consciousness.  We have even taken the tiniest of baby steps away from our world into the endless realm of possibility that lies beyond.  Why, when looking at this evidence, should we continue to base our opinion of ourselves on the abysses rather than the apexes?  Are we really no better than the very worst of us?  Are we all hovering forever on a tipping point of evil, just one fragile breath away from unleashing our inner Hitler?

No goddamn way.  Call it what you will – even dare to call it faith.  But to say humanity is evil and beyond redemption is to admit I am evil and beyond redemption.  And I am better than that.  I know I am.  I know we all are.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece criticizing the conservative moguls funding attack ads against the President of the United States.  I submitted it to The Huffington Post and was surprised that they liked it enough to feature it prominently on their Politics page.  The response was quite staggering, with what I’d say was probably a 3 to 1 ratio of comments supporting what I had to say versus condemning it.  And the ones who condemned it certainly didn’t mince words.  But I don’t regret writing the piece.  It was something that I felt needed to be said, and a lot of people agreed with me.  (Interestingly enough, not that I can claim any responsibility, an article subsequently appeared in Politico where these right-wing sugar daddies are now complaining that they are being picked on, apparently forgetting that one of the tenets of free speech is the right of everyone else to tell you you’re being a dick when you say something they don’t like.)  I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a billionaire or wield the kind of influence over the masses that some really awful people do.  But my voice will always be my own, and that is something that cannot be purchased from anybody else.  And I will continue to use it to advocate the world I want to see, the world I know we can attain, with every single breath, until I can no longer speak.  It’s like that wonderful poem from The Grey:  “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.”

The bastards will not grind me down.

Hey you, get your damn hands off her

I was standing in the express lane at the grocery store, waiting to purchase dinner, tapping away on my smartphone.  Three places ahead of me in line was an older couple who were quite exasperated with the cashier, for reasons difficult to ascertain; something to do with the amount of change being incorrect.  The cashier, a young kid no more than twenty, was doing his best to be accommodating – this did not impress the older man, who decided at one point to slam his hand on the conveyor and yell at him.  Giving the older guy the benefit of the doubt just for the moment, he could have reached the end of his tether after a rotten day.  But that was no reason to take it out on the kid, who was not being rude, or dismissive, or in any way belligerent.  What surprised me most about the whole affair was how my stomach turned at the old guy’s outburst.  You know that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex, having undergone the brainwash of the “Ludovico treatment,” starts heaving with nausea at any example of violence?  That was me.  It was this peculiar mix of revulsion and paralysis.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks reflecting on this and wondering where it came from, trying to contextualize it in terms of my overall personality.  And the conclusion I have come to is this:  I hate bullies.

Liberals aren’t supposed to be hateful.  We are supposed to be the compassionate and empathetic turn-the-other-cheekers who look at the world in endless shades of nuance and complexity.  Yet I can summon no sympathy or understanding for anyone who preys on the weak; who tries to get their way by intimidation, smears, threats and the perpetuation of hatred and fear.  It isn’t that I just want to see bullies stop bullying, I want to see them humiliated and utterly destroyed.  I am positively gleeful at the thought of the arrogant asses of the world sobbing in the corner.  I see it as justice and fair retribution for the torment they have inflicted on other people.  And it frustrates me that what seems on the surface to be wishing only for karmic just desserts makes me no better than they are.

When the news broke of Andrew Breitbart’s death yesterday, I was appalled at my initial reaction, which was, essentially, good riddance.  This man devoted his life and career to spreading hatred of the things that I believe in.  But at the same time, he was somebody’s father and somebody else’s son – a man with a young family and kids that now have to grow up without their dad, a situation I can understand all too acutely.  Andrew Breitbart’s children don’t deserve that, and at the same time, he doesn’t deserve to not be around to watch them grow up.  Maybe that is what makes liberalism such a challenging philosophy to uphold – the need to be able to look deep into the soul of one’s opposition, into the recesses of the ugliness that repels us and tears at our most cherished tenets, and locate the mutual humanity.  As Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) puts it in The American President, “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”  And to that say, Namaste.

What did I want to do in that moment in line?  What would have sated those intense feelings of anger and hatred simmering inside my gut?  Did I want to take a swing at the old man?  Did I want to excoriate him in a Sorkin-esque blaze of wit and erudition and Gilbert & Sullivan references?  Which of those options would have made it better?  The answer is, neither.

The perfect illustration of this dilemma, for me, is the climax of the first Back to the Future, when George McFly, thinking he’s playing out a scene to win the affections of Lorraine, realizes to his horror that he is in fact throwing down with his lifelong nemesis Biff Tannen.  Biff is such a detestable character, embodied memorably by Thomas F. Wilson, that everyone who watches the movie can’t help but smile when George finally decks him with one powerful left-handed haymaker.  But the crucial point of the moment is not the defeat of the bully – it’s George’s embrace of the confidence locked away inside him.  Biff doesn’t really learn much of a lesson or even stray very far from his bullying ways – it took two sequels to finally defeat his ilk once and for all – but George is forever a better man.  When we see George at the end of the first movie, he has no trouble dealing with Biff, and again, not because of one bloody nose, but because he recognizes Biff’s failings and pities him.  One can never be threatened by someone for whom you feel pity – it is an irreversible triumph, because it is a triumph of the soul.

Eventually the cashier and his manager were able to address the problems of the old couple and send them on their way – a happy ending for all concerned.  The rotten feeling I had inside, however, lets me know that I still have work to do on myself – I’m not George McFly at the end of the movie just yet.  And it remains ever difficult to find that pity in a time when bullies run rampant in our governments, our banks, our schools, tearing with greed at the very fabric of our civilization.  Yet ours too is a powerful flame, one that should be stoked constantly to ensure that our collective humanity shines on.  Our lasting impression upon history can be exemplified by the best of us, and those are the people I’d rather stand with.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”