For years now, I’ve been talking about what I call the “West Wing Problem,” a phenomenon in which media liberals declare that it is offensive for people on the left to be straightforwardly proud of their own values.
I was never really a fan of The West Wing, but I also never had the same problem I heard again and again (and again) from other liberals: “it’s like a liberal fantasy!” Then, as now, this attitude baffled me. Why would liberals have a problem with a show that straightforwardly believed in the moral value of contemporary American liberalism? Certainly, there’s no equivalent dynamic on the right. The idea of conservatives saying that a show or movie is objectionable because “it’s like a conservative fantasy” is absurd on its face. I would argue that this is the basic reality of American politics: conservative intellectuals treat conservatism as something to be proud of; liberal intellectuals treat liberalism as something to be ashamed of. Is it any wonder who has the rhetorical advantage? Whenever people question why so many voters evince liberal policy positions but vote Republican, I immediately think of this problem. People don’t want to vote for a party that is ashamed of itself.
You can add a corollary to the West Wing Problem, which is the Aaron Sorkin problem: the liberal conviction that the biggest political problem is other liberals. Alex Pareene offered a scathing attack on Sorkin, which begins “Aaron Sorkin is why people hate liberals.” In the piece (which seems to acknowledge the West Wing problem), Pareene asserts the same old nostrum that people hate liberals because liberals have the temerity to unapologetically believe in stuff. I don’t particularly see much difference between Aaron Sorkin and Bill O’Reilly’s flavors of certitude. Smug? Condescending? Self-righteous? Check, check, check. It’s just that liberals spend all their time calling Sorkin an asshole and conservatives would never do so to O’Reilly. It takes Pareene until the 16th paragraph to share that he “certainly agrees with [Sorkin] on many particulars.” If conservatives know one thing, it’s that you never bury that particular lede.
One of the most popular and consistent pieces of liberal conventional wisdom is that Americans hate self-righteousness and sanctimony. The proper political response, in this reading, is to stop acting like we know what’s right. But where does this conviction come from? After all, the more successful political ideology engages in almost nothing but sanctimony. I assure you: Sean Hannity does not lie awake at night, concerned that he’s become too self-righteous. And the rest of movement conservatism certainly doesn’t criticize him as such. Sure, people say they don’t like self-righteousness, but they follow and vote for people who are purely self-righteous. Maybe we should start paying attention to what people do instead of what they say.
I think the truth is that a lot of liberals just want to complain about what they think is annoying, so they turn it around and claim that the American people think it’s annoying. That this materially hurts their cause goes unconsidered.
As someone on the loony fringe, I am used to the notion that I am the problem, and that if only Jon Chait was allowed to carry out the cull he so clearly yearns for, moderate Democrats would rule the country and bring on a new age of only-slightly-less rapacious capitalism and oligarchy. I think, in fact, that the complete opposite is the case. I think the problem is exactly the Jon Chaits, who constantly chase the center while conservatives, cackling gleefully, drag it to the right. Even if you win an election, you end up giving them all the ground. We’ve been doing it and doing it and doing it and it is not working. If centrism and captulation and triangulation actually worked, we wouldn’t have lost so many of the rhetorical battles, and we wouldn’t have newscasters claiming without consequence that this is a center-right country.
If you’ve keep losing, you’ve got to go after your most basic assumptions about what it takes to win. Particularly the assumptions that justify self-injury.
Anonymous At Work
I think the problem is that liberals believe in stuff and believe they/we know better than others, or at least have used science/knowledge/reason to get there. Conservatives, especially the self-righteous O’Reillys, Hannitys, etc, believe in stuff *on behalf of others*. They say, “I’m carrying the flag for all you hard-working real Americans and waging a fight against do-gooder liberals on your behalf. Here is what I believe that makes me fight for you.”
Combine that with the liberal instinct for intercine warfare over policy details, and you get the reason that a lot of liberals outside the media aren’t avowed-ly, proudly, openly liberal.
Ok, personally I would never watch a show like this. How can you create a fictional WH without insulting people’s intelligence? Oh, right, people are stupid. Even some liberals.
Rob in CT
Are you saying liberals should go for self-righteous fantasy? And that our failure to do so is why we lose more often than we otherwise would?
I think we’re liberals in no small part because self-righteous fantasy rubs us the wrong way.
Umm… people in general tend to do this (mistaking their experiences & preferences for the norm).
Jon Chait is the problem? Jon Chait? Oh by the way, isn’t your thesis that the Left needs to stop hitting itself? But Jon Chait is to blame. Oy.
Look: I happen to agree that a stronger left wing of the Democratic party would be a good thing. I’m generally onboard with a decrease in ritual hippie punching. But this is like the inverse of what you’re arguing is the problem. You’re basically just liberal/centrist punching. And I’m sure you think the centrists punched first. Maybe they did, I honestly don’t know.
We’re a herd of cats. And yes, this weakens “the cause” as you put it. But I think it’s who we are.
The Moar You Know
Goddamn, Freddie, way to come out swinging on a Friday morning.
Needless to say, I agree with every word. It’s harder to make the case for liberalism when so many of its practitioners are obviously ashamed of it.
The Moar You Know
Somebody tattoo this on the forehead of every damned Democratic politician in the country.
I watched West Wing and you know, I don’t remember this issue framed like this there. Yes, the ‘liberals’ on West Wing debated how to present their positions in a manner that would be palpable to the low information voter. Is that what you are calling Sorkin out?
I don’t care about the man himself. He obviously has some good and not so nice qualities. I enjoy his shows. His characters have depth and are more real than most you see on TV.
The truth is, some liberals aren’t a whole lot different that much different than some conservatives. If they see something that they feel doesn’t reflect their own values, some will immediately go to firing squad mode (bad day to make that analogy) even if it’s a circular firing squad.
So I don’t know….maybe you are using Sorkin as a meme alluding to the actions of others. Yea, that happens. But to blame him for the woes of a political group? That is kinda shallow, don’t you think? He isn’t the cause of the fdl self flagellation. He isn’t why some love to roast their own as much (if not more than) their opponents. He isn’t emblemic of the problem. He’s a guy who writes shows with interesting characters and decent dialogue.
Gin & Tonic
@The Moar You Know:
Like 20-something twits who come on the FP here to deign to share that they’ll “probably” vote for Obama.
You complain about setting self-defeating story lines; fine.
So why do you repeat the following tired story line:
“If you’ve keep losing, you’ve got to go after your most basic assumptions about what it takes to win. Particularly the assumptions that justify self-injury.”
Liberals are on the offensive now. Economic inequality, the obscene corruption of the financial sector, and the entire logic of market fundamentalism are major issues. They were invisible five years ago. The right wing has gone nuts, and they have lost both the young and a lot of intellectual vigor. And yet when you read a lot of commentary from the left you get this sense that we’re simply engaged in a doomed rear-guard action against the minions of the billionaires.
Obama is not triangulating; he’s flat-out battling the right on a lot of fronts. He’s not alone – my senator (Sherrod Brown) is a fierce advocate too. Celebrating progress is an important motivating tool too.
I don’t have a problem believing in things and being proud of it, and guys who are a bit in your face about that don’t really bug me. But Sorkin really is a superficial dumbass who gives real liberalism a bad name, and I don’t think I need to put up with inch-deep engagement with the issues and thinly veiled (unveiled? proud?) misogyny for the sake of group solidarity. I think Freddie might want to consider that Sorkin’s liberalism, what there is of it, is of the Hollywood cultural type and has no affinity at all for the class and economic issues that Freddie (and a lot of us) care about. Guys like Taibbi and Krugman who call people out and use direct language don’t appall me or embarrass me by being unapologetic about their views because they know what the fuck they’re talking about and aren’t just talking because they’re hypnotized by the sound of their own voice. Sorkin is an ass whose overweening narcissism makes me want to kick him in the nads, and I don’t see why I have to keepsilent about that for the sake of Team Liberal.
I don’t understand what the upshot is here. As Rob mentioned, a lot of us are liberals largely because we are put off by self-righteous fantasy. I saw and largely enjoyed The American President, but it was a fantasy and didn’t engage honestly with reality, which is what we need to do. Setting up a competing liberal fantasy world to combat the conservative fantasy world will divorce our politics from reality further than they already have been.
@Rob in CT: Piggybacking off this, I’d throw out the thesis that one of the bigger problems liberals have is that when they attack, they tend to attack the person rather than the ideas. I would think that we all would love a “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” style of politics, but no. Aaron Sorkin is smug, so fuck him and everything he stands for.
The hell kind of sense does that make?
I think a lot of the “but it’s just a liberal fantasy!” objection comes from the currently prevailing belief that only “dark” and “gritty” and “edgy” TV shows/films/books are artistically worthwhile. The West Wing is certainly no more unrealistic than, say, Dexter, but its hope and idealism make it a guilty pleasure for people who feel like they have to be on the cultural cutting edge. Conservatives, IME, don’t tend to feel that way.
I don’t think TWW’s idealism is exactly liberal idealism, by the way, except inasmuch as liberals are the ones who believe government is worthwhile. There’s a lot of centrism and compromise, and little challenge to, say, the idea that American military might is a force for good in the world. The Bartlet Administration not only isn’t achieving some kind of left-wing utopia, it isn’t even really striving for one. But what is idealistic is that the characters (at least in the first four seasons, and I largely stopped watching after that) passionately love their country and believe that they can make it a better place through their work in the government. That, and the chosen-family love between the characters, is what made me fall in love with it.
Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge the damage to the party brand that can be caused by radicalism. The dirty truth is that people generally enjoy the status quo (at least in the US) even if they think this or that politician has a head up the ass.
And Bill O’Reily and Bill Maher love sparing by dredging up the worst, most embarrassing, usually most distant and fringe aspects of their rival parties and trying to paint them as mainstream components. That scares people, because people fear change and things that are wildly different.
So Democrats and Republicans do well to present themselves as moderate, reasonable, status quo-defending stalwarts. Even if their underlying policies are wide-right or wide-left, they want to look staunchly centrist. Obama – the most left-leaning President of my lifetime – is regularly billed as this grounded centrist. And it wins him elections. Republicans were tossed in ’06 and ’08 because they appeared to radical. Democrats got the same treatment in ’10. Pitching policies as moderate IS smart politics. Hell, even Aaron Sorkin understands this, which is why his main character in Newsroom is a bleached white, blonde haired, network news anchor who built his career as being a blander Jay Leno. :-p
Moderation, regardless of your policy ramifications, is a powerful position to stake out.
Republicans embraces their fringe. The tea party and their ilk. And then uses them as the excuse for why they can’t move one millimeter towards the center on any issue.
Democrats do their best to reassure everyone that they have nothing to do with all the DFH types who are their fringe.
This is a centrist country. Problem is you have one party pushing as hard as they can in one direction and the other party saying “here, let me help you with that”
When did the left stop being macho? Used to be different. Back in my grandfather’s day there were a whole lot of leftists who were tough as nails. Teamsters, miners, veterans, farmers. They were ready to rumble and take on the 1%.
Only two problematic assumptions in this here post: Aaron Sorkin is not a liberal. And The West Wing was never a liberal fantasy.
In later seasons especially The West Wing was all about the virtue of compromising liberalism. It was all really kind of silly. And the premise of Aaron Sorkin’s whole career is that navel gazing makes for fascinating propaganda. Just blech all around.
OK but why would saying “it’s like a liberal fantasy!” necessarily be an expression of the attitude you rightly decry? Why doesn’t mean ‘would that the world we live in were a little more like this’?
I agree that Liberals ought not to adopt the cringing, apologetic attitude one sees all too often. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a liberal spokesperson preface his or her remarks, by something along the lines of ‘Of course I’m a Liberal so I would say that’
Sorry, but “Why can’t we have delusional fantasies like the right-wingers do?” is not a compelling argument. Speaking for myself, the main appeal of liberalism (aside from “it improves peoples’ lives”) is that it’s based in reality, unlike conservativism.
The “it’s a liberal fantasy” critique came along just about the same time that “irony” began to dominate music and literature.
I think it’s pretty simple: If you’re a white collar stooge making damn good money, you can only really play at being a leftist. If you’re playing at it, sincerity will only embarrass you. The ad exec with a faux-hawk and big tattoos would be terribly embarrassed in the presence of real punks (fortunately the American city has been purged of them); he also develops a taste that steers clear of the Dead Kennedys in favor of Blink 182 (or whoever). Eventually you get what we have: an entire scene based on saying nothing and standing for nothing, commenting ironically on the official establishment version of events. In other words the SNL template for Rebellion or Irreverence now applies to all media (especially indie-).
Real liberal values, when they manage to get articulated somewhere, are relegated to fantasy because the affluent liberal does not desire their reality.
I see, now FDB is dissing West Wing. Why is Girls done for this season?
I miss DougJ, suddenly Balloon Juice feels like Daily Dish when Sully’s on vacation and his minions take over. In one word, boring.
Rob in CT
Bullshit irritates me. I try not to do it myself, so yes, as a white collar stooge making good money, I don’t bother trying to claim I’m the salt of the earth. But I do indeed advocate (w/o apology) for liberal policies. A more progressive tax code (including a real inheritance tax, and capital gains taxed as income after inflation adjustment), public health insurance for all, less military spending, ending the war on drugs… need I go on? How does that make me a faux-liberal? I do desire that reality.
Is this whole thing really a bunch of people shouting “you NEED me to win, damnit!” at each other? It feels like it. And both sides are right. We do need each other to win.
Or we could try the circular firing squad thing again and see how that goes.
@Rob in CT:
Exactly. The “it’s a liberal fantasy” critique isn’t a response to liberal ideas being expressed openly and forthrightly and proudly. It’s a response to the idea proffered by the show that such expression will inevitably win (with a swell of triumphant music) peoples’ hearts and minds who would otherwise disagree with you.
There’s also the “liberal fantasy” issue of Alan Alda’s Republican presidential candidate in the show, a professed atheist and moderate on many social issues. It’s just divorced from reality. When I say it’s a liberal fantasy, it doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that liberal fantasy world were real. It’s saying that I know it’s not, and that it’s largely a waste of time to devote mental energy to pretending that a show like that reflects reality or strategies that could be successful in modern American politics.
I don’t disagree with this post, but I also have a problem with the opposing narrative, the one that goes “if we’re loud and proud about liberalism then people will respect us for it.” One example is the folks who argue that Democrats should stop saying “safe, legal and rare” with respect to abortion and boldly proclaim that it’s a constitutional right and no one should be ashamed of it.
Alan Grayson legislated and campaigned like an aggressive liberal’s wet dream and it didn’t work out so well for him. He might have lost anyway, so you can’t say the reason he lost was that he was loud and proud. But it’s a strong piece of evidence against the belief that taking strong positions is some kind of magic bullet.
Man. This is a topic today. Lawyers, Guns & Money runs with a post on Sorkin, Sully did as well and I think I saw one other one but forget which one it was.
Having said that, I do think the discussion on how liberals can best present their beliefs and preferences is valuable, so long as that doesn’t include beating up on other liberals who aren’t sympatico. Making fun of them on the other hand, is not only fair game but good sport.
Along these lines, the Obama campaign needs to get out there and trap Romney in this lie about his distortion of the “You didn’t build that” speech. It’s the perfect argument to have with the right at this point.
“There you go again, Mitt, covering up the truth: here is what I said….” Then say, “By that, I was referring to roads and bridges and our American infrastructure.”
End with: “Does Mitt Romney think Bain built this country’s roads and bridges?
“No, we did, together.”
Hammer that fucker with arguments you believe in.
@Rob in CT: You know, the whole history of the Sixties is how “liberals” like you got right up to the brink, where the whole view looked very pretty from their vantage point on top of the mountain … and then realized it was time for them to get down from the top of the mountain. And they found they did NOT want to do that.
Any truly leftist vision is going to mean (in the short-medium term) more work & less money for Rob in CT. And voicing your support for policies that Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon would warmly approve, that don’t address the underlying power structure, only shows that you haven’t studied that power structure in any depth.
(This isn’t personal and I definitely don’t want to give the impression I’m singling you out. The fact is, one sees this absolutely everywhere.)
@BGinCHI: The standard rule is that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. What you’re suggesting counts as explaining. The fact that you frame it in the form of imaginary dialogue where the other side doesn’t get to answer doesn’t change that.
The Tragically Flip
I like the West Wing, but it’s not a “liberal fantasy.”
Think of the one where they “saved” social security by raising the retirement age, raising payroll taxes and cutting benefits while adding optional private accounts in a bi-partisan deal.
Or Bartlett buying into School Vouchers for DC because Charlie Young would have gone to a voucher school if he had the choice.
Or that Bartlett murdered a foreign Defence minister and the show concludes that he made the right call.
No, it’s left of the current DC consensus and a Bartlett administration would be mostly an improvement, but it’s hardly the second coming of The New Deal and Great Society.
I didn’t watch it that regularly, but it grated me (and I was as big fan of Sports Night), and it more often struck me as closer to matching the conservative fantasy about the way liberals think, than being a liberal show.
Bighorn Ordovican Dolomite
@The Moar You Know:
I’d like to second you, seconding Freddie.
The Tragically Flip
As I recall, a milquetoast corporate Democrat in the next district lost by more than Grayson did.
No, I don’t think Grayson is a particularly compelling data point one way or the other. 2010 was a horrific election.
You can say that Grayson was targeted by national Republican big-money to an unusual degree, which is something they deliberately do to outspoken liberals. If there were more of such, they wouldn’t be able to make examples of them so easily.
I am a proud liberal who cannot stomach Sorkin anymore. I used to love West Wing – but it had great characters, snappy writing, fantastic acting. Newsroom? It is like a lecture. The drama and the characters are secondary to the monologues. I’m sorry but I can’t do it.
Actually, not the conservative fantasy. More like the DC bubble-head fantasy.
Horrendo Slapp (formerly Jimperson Zibb, Duncan Dönitz, Otto Graf von Pfmidtnöchtler-Pízsmőgy, Mumphrey, et al.)
I don’t know about self-righteousness, but I’d sure as hell welcome a little righteousness.
I, too, have a hard time understanding why liberals (professional ones, anyway) seem so unwilling to preach a little. Here we have a political party that preaches that women are essentially sluts, minorities are shifty and lazy bums and moochers, gays are the spawn of the devil himself and who knows what all other vicious, nasty shit.
Why shouldn’t liberals stand up and say, proudly, “I think we’re all worthwhile, all of us. I want all of us to have decent lives. It pisses me off when rich, selfish assholes screw everybody else over. It pisses me off that society has come to believe that when workers want to go take a piss or eat lunch or work fewer than 10 or 12 hours a day, they’re taking advantage of the ‘job creators’. It pisses me off that we’ve come to believe as a society that we should all be kissing plutocrats’ asses for every little crumb they deign to let us fight over. I think it’s unconscienable that people like Mitt Rmoney pay a lower pecentage of their incomes in taxes than the people who clean his office. It angers me when we equate ‘poor’ with ‘lazy and worthless’.”
I could go on, but you get the idea. In many ways, William Jennings Bryan was a tool, but he understood that when it came to economic justice, he was on the right side. And he was ready to stand up and preach that social and economic justice. Liberals need to preach more. I don’t mean religious preaching, but secular preaching. Now, I know not everybody can preach effectively; it’s a skill that one can hone, but it’s a gift, too. If you don’t have the gift, it’s hard to hone it much.
And today, Democrats tend to lean away from the preachers. We like teachers more. Now, to be sure, it helps to have somebody who can spell out in detail what we want to do and how it would work, and how much it’ll cost and why it would be worth doing. We have all kinds of people who can do that: President Obama is a master. Hillary Clinton can do that. Most of our Congressional leaders can do it. But too much of that can get dry. Sometimes you need to fire people up. You need to preach.
One of the things that made martin Luther King so effective in the civil rights fight was that he could show Americans how segregation was wrong. he didn’t take a lot of time (so far as I know; I wasn’t alive back then) showing how segregation was economically stupid, or how everybody would stand to gain from integration. He didn’t wade into the details of how the laws would work or how much they’d cost. He preached justice. And he brought a lot of people on board who might not otherwise have gotten into the movement.
Dry, practical plans and details are important. But so is firing people up enough that they’ll get up off their asses and go vote, or even work for candidates, or even run themselves for some thankless, low-level office with no perks but all kinds of responsibilities. We need as a party and as a movement to groom more preachers. I know how most people feel about John Edwards. But I voted for him, twice, in the presidential primaries. And one of the things that I think made him a good leader was that he could preach effectively. He could take complicated issues of social and economical inequality and distill them into something everybody could grasp: Two Americas. It makes sense to me that he’d be good at that, for what is a plaintiff’s trial lawyer, in many ways, but somebody preaching justice to a congregation of 12?
We need John Kerrys. We need Hillary Clintons and Barack Obamas. We need people who can see what’s wrong, and find ways to do something to make it better, who can tell us all how it’s going to work, how long it’s likely to take, what pitfalls we might run into along the way and how much it’s going to cost. But we need preachers out in campaigns, and on the Hose and Senate floors, and in hearing rooms, thundering away, and telling us why we should care. It won’t matter how good an idea something is if nobody cares whether we follow through on it or not.
My take on this sort of thing is as follows: unless you’re committed to Stalinism, Leninism, or some other variety of the authoritarian Left, you have nothing to be embarrassed about (Leninists, in my experience, are never embarrassed, though they should be). At the risk of a little self-righteousness, you shouldn’t hesitate to say your values are humane, compassionate, egalitarian, and tolerant, and therefore better than the petty-minded bigotry and resentment of the Right. When I characterize the Republican Party as the Party of (Depraved) Values, that may strike some as over the top, but I do it for two good reasons: 1) to challenge the arrogant presumption of so many on the Right that THEY are uniquely motivated by (correct) values; and 2) to underscore that certain policies (like denying healthcare to millions of people who can’t afford it, or invading countries that pose no threat to us) are vicious, immoral, evil, depraved–pick the word you like best. You’re right; your opponents are wrong, and you can’t hammer on that enough.
@Steve: I hear you. But “if you’re lying you’re winning” has to have a counter. Maybe punch back without explaining.
I’d still try to turn the guy into a serial liar….
And honestly, I don’t buy “if you’re explaining you’re losing” completely. If you think Al Gore and John Kerry were good at explaining, for example, then that’s the problem right there (not saying you think that).
Better explainers, please.
I’ve come to see Jon Chait (and Kevin Drum) as Moustaches of Understanding, without the multi-million-dollar book deals.
Chait is a load of centrist clap dressed up as liberalism.
I’ve never seen The West Wing. But I can see how The Newsroom is definetly fantasy, not necessarily liberal fantasy, but perhaps a fantasy where some part of the American people actually give a shit.
No one gives a shit. Anything more in depth than “Obama was on the Kiss Cam” and people’s eyes glaze over. Ask them about why they don’t care more about issues and you’ll get some epic cop out like “Both parties lie so much how can we possibly know what they really think.”
I kindof just want Obama to go on the news and shout “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?!”
Sorkin’s problem isn’t that he’s liberal. It’s that his shows are preachy. I’m not embarrassed by liberal convictions, or even the articulation of those convictions. What I find unpleasant is that Sorkin consistently violates the most elementary principle of good writing: show, don’t tell. Sorkin’s style of writing is to constantly tell — but rarely show — why liberalism is right. I never watched a conservative fantasy like 24, but I’m under the impression that it never suffered from this particular problem.
I would add that I realize Jonathan Chait is not everyone’s cup of tea; but he’s done a great service these last several months in exposing and dissecting one piece of Republican villainy and/or idiocy after another. He’s practically always worth reading.
@The Moar You Know:
Capitulation is the key. Most humans loathe weakness, even (or particularly?) people who are themselves weak. The Democratic party stopped being a kicking donkey a while ago and became a pack mule. They/we capitulated to carrying the water of the job creators rather than the job-doers.
Triangulation may have been a decent short-term strategy for one President in one time in history, but we shouldn’t keep running a set of plays from the early 90s.
So right on Freddie!
One question: why is Newsroom even being held to any standard other than fantasy? It’s a TeeVee show, fergoshsake.
I mean, does anyone think Mad Men is too fake? No. It’s entertainment. Why is Newsroom, or West Wing, sen as predictive/emblematic of a movement? Was Gunsmoke realistic? Really. What is this about fantasy that isn’t being seen as, y’know, fantasy a.k.a. fiction.
OK, back to Chait-punching. (Actually, I was probably too hard on him upthread).
I think both you and Alex Pareene misread Sorkin’s problem.
Both sides of the “They hate our pride/We should be proud” are fighting with strawmen originating on the right and having a discussion which is distant from actual politics at best – and tends to be a favorite topic of centrists and faux-liberals.
In the very first scene of Sorkin’s new show – a scene which is a pile of facile stupid strawmen and sexism – his main character mouths that “Why people hate liberals” crap while making an inane argument against the NEA.
Sorkin isn’t a liberal, or rather he’s a liberal in the Phil Ochs sense: one of those centrists who worships the idealized notion of a benevolent elite of mostly white males, loves progressive ideas in the abstract but acts in a sexist, reactionary way in reality.
It’s also good for liberals to condemn sanctimony. Being rigid, superior and calling people inferior in order to elevate yourself is pretty much the opposite of how leftist politics function. The right may be sanctimonious, but you’ll notice they don’t take pride in calling themselves such.
It seems you are confusing determination and being unapologetic about one’s beliefs with sanctimony. Well, there are plenty on the left who are determined and unapologetic. Sorkin isn’t one of them with his radical centrism and depiction of a veteran female war correspondent as a babe who can’t operate email and finds a bloated guy 15 years her senior irresistible.
From The Daily Show to 24 there are examples of a work with a clear political subtext which succeeds because it has other qualities as well. Sorkin’s politics are a distraction from how he keeps producing shows which are poorly written, mean spirited while pretending to be elevating and contain some of the ugliest “white guy who thinks he can write women and minorities but can’t” material this side of David E. Kelly.
@BGinCHI: Al Franken is a fantastic explainer, as is Elizabeth Warren. I agree, we need more like them.
Democrats move to the center for a reason similar to the reason Willie Sutton robbed banks.
That’s where the voters are.
The Tragically Flip
Many potent political points are made through fiction. People don’t neatly seperate all fiction from influencing their political views or how they think about things. We’ve seen right wingers cite “24” as influencing their thinking on torture, so no, Sorkin doesn’t get a pass on criticism of his political content just because it takes place in a fictional show.
The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath were fiction too, but both authors intended, and did, have a measurable effect on the political debates of their day through the works.
I think a lot of liberals tend to prefer to watch stuff which isn’t insipid.
This would include both the super-smug programs from the liberal perspective in which conservatives are just too easily dumb and dealt with (and nicely wrapped up), as well as programs in which the smugly written characters have to fight contrived other smug liberal characters doing dumber smug things, because this is what too many writers think is the only available alternative to the former.
A silly example of the former, but one which couldn’t be clearer. I was curious about the noises on the right made about the TBS cartoon “Captain Planet,” so I tuned in. First, it just sucked — shitty animation, shitty writing, and the most amazingly simplistic stereotyped agglomeration of multi-culti kid heroes imaginable. Worse, all the bad guys were the sort of laughingly loud right wing anti-environment type super-villains who were forthright in that their ‘plots’ were to dirty up the environment, ha ha ha ha evil belly laughs. And once the insipid hero used his insipid powers to drive away the magic polluting bad guys, the only ones left were the mean old guys wanting to dump in the lake, and all the town rallies around to placard them out of town.
For more supposedly grown up shows, if only the polluters were so easily dealt with, and if only these episodes could end with a clean victory and the townsfolk all rallying around to end their reign and run them out of town — instead of demanding that we leave them alone so they can keep creating jobs and surely whatever they’re doing can’t be that bad anyway.
It’s not that you have to make right wingers sympathetic or all of them James Bond / Moriarty villains — it’s that evil and even evil ideologies and notions often occur in the most deviously complicated of ways — i.e., environmentalist groups lured by big money donations to always squash more fundamental arguments in favor of greenwashing bullshit.
And yet, there’s the other polar attraction, in which ostensibly liberal (at least, not openly right wing) writers / directors / showmakers feel like they just have to make the right wingers likeable, and admirable in their own ways, and really in search of the right things.
And also, I already know how the world is; I want to tune into programming which offers something more interesting than recapping the realities I’ve just read about as factual matters.
Smug is a big theme in so many of these shows. I assume it’s just because of standardized Hollywood out-of-touchness.
Who on Earth would tune into the liberal version of Walker, Texas Ranger?
Lots of right wingers like blindingly, insipidly stupid shows and movies.
The notion that someone could cite Red Dawn as some sort of touchstone is amazing to me.
Yet, look at V for Vendetta. It was amazingly anti-authoritarian, anti-state-concentrated power that during the height of the years of frightened post-9/11 Bush Jr. authoritarianism, audiences filled theaters and even cheered (yes, in the actual theater) a bunch of terrorists blowing up government buildings in a modern city.
To this day, protesters around the world wear those masks. Smartly or dumbly, there was something in there which touched off emotions.
On the other hand, look at Bullworth — it was a riotous condemnation of right wing, big money politics and big money right wing media. But it had to end with Senator Bullworth being shot, because, hey, if we’re going to make a movie with all this lefty rabble-rousing, we’ve got to make sure and depress you in the end so you don’t leave the theater wanting to dress up in a funny mask and go protest or anything.
I tried to watch the West Wing. It bored me. It was insipidly preachy, not wondrously defending liberalism. Maybe I didn’t watch enough; and maybe I really am just not that fascinated (actually, no maybe there) with the inside-the-office politics / behind the scenes dramas between individuals, particularly those involving closeups of intense, challenging stares exchanged between strong-willed and conflicting main characters.
If there were a secret videocamera on White House Cabinet meetings, I’d be tuning in to see what their interactions taught me about policy, about reality, rather than the entertainment of who turned to who and whose nostrils flared angrily.
And where’s our fascinating, beloved Alan Alda conservatives, in reality?
The problem is not with “liberals that believe in stuff”. The problem is with liberals who treat with barely contained disdain anyone who actually doesn’t believe the same things they believe. Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing just drip this kind of shit. The “liberal Fantasy” of that show was not that it showed people who had liberal values and were proud of them. The “Liberal Fantasy” was that the mere statement of those values with a proud tone would just cow everyone else into submission because they were so obviously correct.
I am more and more convinced that Sorkin is one of the biggest reasons why the progressive movement has derailed in recent years. He sells the fantasy that if you just state liberal values honestly that the people will be wowed and come over to your side. The only people who are wowed by it are those who already agree with it. The rest are just insulted.
(And I happen to agree with most of the values expressed by Sorkin’s characters, yet I also find his characters incredibly condescending.)
@burnspbesq: Obama needs to rob a voter bank.
It’s the Chicago way.
Rob in CT
You know, I’m not a moron. Really.
A more progressive tax code: less money for me.
Capital gains taxed as income: likely a little less for me.
Real inheritance tax: less money for me.
No shit, Sherlock.
Now I get the sense you feel my short list of policy preferences aren’t enough: that they’re bandages on the wound or somesuch. So what’s your “true leftist” plan? Changing the law to benefit unions? Go ahead.
I choose to believe you didn’t mean your comment personally (despite “liberals like me” in the 60s, a decade before I was fucking born), and leave it here.
OK…Am I alone here in liking The Newsroom? And really, when I watch it, I’m watching a TV drama. I’m not going there for soul food or reinforcement of my beliefs. How can you bitch about a show that puts Jane Fonda as the conservative Media titan we’re all supposed to hate on the show? Don’t you see how just that paradox alone will make Rush’s head explode?
@Chris Andersen: Also, how would the characters react if they gave the noble, stirring, undeniable, shaming speech and the targets reacted with “Solyndra! Where’s Al Gore now ’cause it’s cold in Siberia! When’s Obama gonna stop killin’ the economy!”
How does Michael Douglas react after giving The Speech and instead of looking at their shoes, he gets a guy in a Revolutionary War re-enactor outfit with a sign about Hitler screaming about the Constitution?
Or the news which totally just makes up bullshit about one line of his speech so that no one ever much hears the rest of it?
What type of reaction shot do you do for that?
@El Cid: “I think a lot of liberals tend to prefer to watch stuff which isn’t insipid.”
Sorkin writes like we’re one well-oiled bully pulpit from Nirvana. I like a show that doesn’t pretend all problems can be solved by talking fast for 36 minutes plus commercials.
The West Wing isn’t too liberal – it’s too simpleminded. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but to the degree that people internalize the message that President Obama could or should act like Martin Sheen, it’s damaging to morale and the real-life liberal cause.
In general, I think this a reactionary response by the cynics on the Right and Left (DLC, for example). They ‘know’ how the system operates (“there has always been corruption in government”) and have adjusted their game to take advantage of the situation. By pointing out something from an idealistic viewpoint, it shines a light on the less than good practices that the cynics feel are necessary to operate within the system.
I think this is similar to how religious authoritarians react when they find an atheist or agnostic in their midst: there is an instinctive desire to counter a dissenting viewpoint in order to keep their worldview intact, and any negative feelings are directed outward, rather than allow any dissent or god forbid, self-examination.
@Gin & Tonic:
Liberal does not equal Obama. Wake up.
Poor thing. Having our little fee fee’s and think think’s challenged a wee bit, are we?
It would probably be best for you if you stopped reading BJ altogether and didn’t return. You’ll feel much better.
@kindness: I find Sorkin’s characters – in the Newsroom at least – palpably unreal. But that’s in the wake of shows like the Sopranos and the Wire.
@kindness: I find Sorkin’s characters – in the Newsroom at least – palpably unreal. But that’s in the wake of shows like the Sopranos and the Wire.
@kindness: I find Sorkin’s characters – in the Newsroom at least – palpably unreal. But that’s in the wake of shows like the Sopranos and the Wire.
@Spatula: Be nice. That post wasn’t. Especially in wake of this post discussing liberals thrashing each other.
@Chris Andersen: This is complete and utter bullshit, at least when it comes to The West Wing. Sure, the main characters spouted a lot of speeches about wonderful gun control is or how public schools are the backbone of our country, but those speeches never convinced anyone on the other side to change their minds. The laws they passed got through like they usually do: threats, bribes, and horse-trading.
@Spatula: Your advice was not solicited. Will go back to ignoring you now.
No, you’re not alone in liking Newsroom. I’m enjoying it myself. It is my escape from reality.
The same as when The West Wing aired. It was my escape from the Bush Bullying years. And like John I enjoy an occasional marathon watching the DVDs.
Both are idealistic and simple, but sometimes that’s just what I need. Plus, Sorkin writes so purdy.
A) I don’t think that unleashing more smugness or sanctimony is the key to more successful liberalism. If the standard of political success is “What Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity Does”, we’re doomed for two reasons. A strategy that is founded on lying and being obnoxious might well get you a popular FOX or talk radio slot, but not an electoral majority. Our problem as liberals isn’t not getting enough love from our own zealots, but moving the discourse and the “center” more in our direction. Being more assertive and confident doesn’t mean being more self-righteous or smug. I think there’s something of a straw man being pounded here.
B) Don’t write a post about how liberals need to be more proud of their ideology that draws an equivalence between Aaron Sorkin and Bill O’Reilly. Whatever Sorkin’s flaws – and frankly I think he’s doing a pretty good job as a writer of popular entertainment that has an element of political and social commentary – he’s not a liberal analog to Bill O’Reilly. Among other things, his signature show averaged 12 times as many viewers as O’Reilly. He’s not even close to O’Reilly or Hannity in the smugness or sanctimony department. And, while he’s not Dostoevesky he doesn’t insult the intelligence of the average TV viewer, as does O’Reilly (which is why O’Reilly can only scrape together a million get-off-my-lawn types to watch his show.)
Honestly, I don’t know a single Democrat who is ashamed of themselves. Nor, for that matter, is Jonathan Chait an example of a horrible Democratic centrist. He’s not my favorite but he’s not a faux-liberal mess like Tom Friedman – he’s been doing a pretty good job of sticking it to the GOP, his TNR origins notwithstanding. I wouldn’t predict greater success for “our side” if, as example, Jon Chait decided to become Matt Taibbi. Better the two co-exist, with somewhat different styles and appeals.
Have you been following Chait at the NY Mag? He’s doing a fing fantastic job. Have not seen him pen a single, the problem is the left, columns. maybe the 2000 chait was a dick, but the 2012 chait gets it.
They’re ahead of you. Already have a great ad out on Romney’s lie – but it’s actually even better than just catching the lie.
Stephen Colbert gives a more brilliant, well-written, more entertainment, bolder, more accessible defense of liberalism than anything I saw on the West Wing — though, again, I just couldn’t watch much of it.
@Bruce S: Finally — someone realizes that the techniques that The Daily Show uses for comedic emphasis really can be used to demonstrate obvious hypocrisy for real.
I refute the notion that Sorkin is a liberal, as several others above have mentioned. He’s anti-union and misogynist. If he gets to call himself a liberal, then he’s an example of why liberalism is losing because what does it really mean? He’s a wealthy, condescending gasbag. Unfortunately, that is EXACTLY what a lot of people think liberalism is, and that’s not appealing to anyone except other wealthy, condescending gasbags.
I think liberalism in America has a proud tradition. It might also help if organizations and value systems to the left of liberals had more visibility, both to push liberalism away from the condescending totebaggery of Sorkin types and to show to the rest of the country that actually, liberalism ISN’T communism, or collectivism, or any other “ism” Rush likes to bellow about. You know what’s communism? Communism.
Meanwhile Aaron Sorkin needs to do less blow and get out of his limo more often.
This is little more than an unnecessarily long MOAR BULLYPULPIT argument.
I’ll eagerly await your explanation of how running proud, perhaps “sanctimonious”, very liberal candidates will get those candidates elected all over the South.
You sound like you’ve been talking with Matt Stoller. You should ask him how this theory worked out for Alan Grayson.
Fuck off. Captain Planet was awesome.
(I was a kid when it aired.)
You’re half right. Alan Grayson got elected to Congress. That he didn’t get re-elected is a problem. But it’s no more an indication that your right that overtly populist candidates don’t have a chance in the South (or Midwest, for that matter) than the equally flawed theory that Democrats becoming louder and more liberal is the key to an electoral sweep. There’s no “logic” that Sherrod Brown should be elected in Ohio – other than that he’s got certain political skills and credibility built up with Ohio voters that has allowed him to win as an authentic liberal. It can be done, but it can’t always be done. You’re winning a particular state or a particular district with a particular candidate. Elizabeth Warren has a good chance of beating Scott Brown and her outspoken populism will likely serve her well in the attempt. There’s no formula and a talented candidate who’s got a good grasp of their district or state will likely have a shot, whether they’re outspokenly “populist” or more “centrist.”
@Recall: Captain Planet sucked. It sucked donkey balls. It’s as bad as the super-cheap shitty 1980s crap as you can imagine.
There have been great animated shows — hell, even the Transformers cartoon looked like an Oscar nominee compared to the melange of pseudo-liberal crap which was Captain Planet.
Inspector Gadget looked like Akira Kurosawa compared to that steaming heap of Jack Chick-level environmentalism. I’d watch reruns of Automan over that thing. Star Blazers rivaled Richard III if Captain Planet was the standard of good writing.
I’d sue them for every dollar they put into it for being so awful, but since that’d be like $13, it wouldn’t be worth my time.
If that thing had been done in Japan in the 1950s, it’d be one thing; but in the era in which Batman: The Animated Series was airing? C’mon, you’re joking.
@El Cid: No, I’m not. I watched it as a kid, and I liked it.
Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again)
The problem with Sorkin’s sermons is that they’re aimed, like all sermons, at the audience that chooses to attend the services regularly…And even amongst that crowd, there will be someone snoozing in the pews, and someone else who listens and nods, but doesn’t, in the long run, never starts speaking in tongues with the rest of the true believers.
@Rob in CT:
OK—what do mainstream “liberal” pundits do when someone proposes a real anti-war agenda? They say it’s a nice fantasy and stop short of endorsing it to any degree that would get them disinvited from the DC champagne parties.
Liberal yuppies outside the media have more leeway to talk the anti-war talk (although using that leeway merely to call for “less military spending” is not exactly bleeding your heart out), and it warms my heart when they talk about accepting marginally higher tax rates … but, just to take a tiny little outside-the-trodden-path example, what would they do if called on to participate in a general strike? What would YOU do? History suggests you’d show less than complete solidarity, but maybe in your case that’s wrong. I hope it is. (But I have this feeling you’d rather just demand to know what the hell solidarity w/ labor has to do with leftism.)
Anyway: yeah, going on strike would harm you, personally. Getting off the capitalist tit with no guarantee of finding any tit so juicy and bountiful for yourself in the future would be a scary prospect for you, personally. Not being willing to do it wouldn’t make you an asshole. OK? It would be only natural. But IF you’re not willing to do it, have a little respect for those who actually do oppose or live outside the establishment, and show your respect by not wearing their clothes or copping their vibe or claiming their values. That was the point of my original post. If you’re not a tatooed punk rock executive it doesn’t apply to you.
Freddie, given how much shit you talk about every progressive blogger marginally to your left, are you seriously playing the “thou shalt not speak ill of other liberals” card here?
@Corey: You do mean marginally to his right, don’t you?
@Rex Everything: Ah, right, of course.
1950s. The Red Scare led to the purge of the far left from all political institutions, largely a bipartisan endeavour because liberals figured they’d won enough under FDR and Truman that radicals were no longer needed.
There was never an equivalent purge of the far right, and even in the years of moderate, even liberal dominance from guys like Eisenhower, the Republicans never cut off their ties to the McCarthyist/Bircher lunatic fringe. It was too reliable a source of voter support for that.
Those two little things have gone a long way towards defining our politics since the fifties.
Another Halocene Human
@Recall: Fuck off. Captain Planet was awesome.
(I was a kid when it aired.)
I was a kid too. It sucked. Even I knew that polluters polluted because they were too greedy to bother not polluting (take Exxon Valdez, for example) not because destroying the environment was their evil plan (soooo underpants gnomes), and what the f*@# kind of power is HEART?!?
I was also offended that the American kid was (of course) the red-headed boy from Brooklyn. Al. Fucking. Ways. (Scout out some superficially “diverse” TV shows and you’ll see I’m right.)
Another Halocene Human
@El Cid: There have been great animated shows—hell, even the Transformers cartoon looked like an Oscar nominee compared to the melange of pseudo-liberal crap which was Captain Planet.
That is true. And that’s saying something because the cartoon show (the animated movie is another matter, heh heh) does not watch better as an adult.
The first episode of Transformers: Let’s Sell Us Some Toys, with the power struggle between Optimus Prime and, er, Megatron(?) is 100x better than any segment of the Captain Planet oeuvre. I am not exaggerating.
Now as to good cartoons from that time period, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pirates of Dark Water, which was cancelled Too. Soon.
Another Halocene Human
@El Cid: Inspector Gadget looked like Akira Kurosawa compared to that steaming heap of Jack Chick-level environmentalism.
Maybe it was just because I was on the cusp of adolescence and cared deeply about the environment, but my theory at the time was that Captain Planet was created by industrialists to discredit environmentalism.
Another Halocene Human
@Rex Everything: Anyway: yeah, going on strike would harm you, personally. Getting off the capitalist tit with no guarantee of finding any tit so juicy and bountiful for yourself in the future would be a scary prospect for you, personally. Not being willing to do it wouldn’t make you an asshole. OK? It would be only natural. But IF you’re not willing to do it, have a little respect for those who actually do oppose or live outside the establishment, and show your respect by not wearing their clothes or copping their vibe or claiming their values. That was the point of my original post. If you’re not a tatooed punk rock executive it doesn’t apply to you.
Dude, you are waaaaaay too hung up on authenticity. Even “teh real hippiez” were liberally larded with rich upper middle class kids slumming. Hell, the movement probably wouldn’t have been possible without them.
The revolution will be commodified and repackaged. Probably while it’s happening.
The saddest posers these days aren’t corporate “weekend warriors”. They’re working class kids who are attracted to the 21st century bohemian hipster lifestyle, only to realize too late that they were always priced out.
Chait criticizing aspects of the Bain attacks doesn’t make him a centrist suckup given the rest of what he writes, but it does make me think that you don’t really know what you’re talking about.
@Another Halocene Human:
Yeah, but at least those had the basic decency not to wear their “slumming” costumes to the office.
They were less ignorant then too. Even the rich kids. I mean saying “I’m all for the leftist agenda: I support a more progressive tax policy!” would not fly until quite recently. As I said before, SNL parameters apply to everything.
(By the way, I too was born after the 60s. But a person can learn about events that happened before they were born. Amazing but true.)
Does he? I just read the piece, and I think Pareene’s criticisms were largely about how Sorkin’s TV shows work as TV shows. Along with criticisms about the misogyny, which surely we all agree with. Are you aware that the word “liberal” only appears twice in Pareene’s piece, in the first and fourth sentences?
Can you give any examples of Pareene saying what you claimed he said? Honestly, I can’t see anything you’re arguing with other than maybe the first sentence.
A-fucking-men. Thank you, Freddie.