Friday, September 16, 2011

Fifty Buck Crimes: "A Proportional Response"

The trouble with critiquing The West Wing's foreign policy is that the series occurs in a fantasy world where the actual motivations of politicians match the nice things they say in their speeches. The godawful inauguration two-parter in season four, for example, is based around the idea that humanitarian intervention is a serious concern, rather than a pretext by which self-interested power brokers justify themselves. The myth that drives "A Proportional Response" is that the deepest concern of Our Leaders is for Our Safety. Bartlet's impassioned speech about the grandeur that was Rome and Leo's remarkably histrionic reply about raising an army against him both depend on the notion that saving lives, first American, then foreign, is the White House's first priority. That would be nice, but I think Jonathan Schwarz said it best:

Second, making Americans safer is not a serious goal of the people who run the United States.

Now, I'm not saying Dick Cheney doesn't care about us at all. If he made a list of his top 100 priorities, whether we live or die might be as high as #96. It's just that other things are far more important to him. And if us staying alive conflicts with priorities 1 through 95, well, we've got to go.
A position entirely consistent with Fitzwallace's callous description of the attack on the airplane as "a fifty-buck crime," and the fact that he criticizes the large-scale response scenario because it'd generate bad press, not because it'd be morally horrific.

As Schwarz also points out in the essay I've quoted, which is well worth reading, "the sad reality of life on Earth is that horrible things happen all the time." Even if presidents wanted to protect people, they couldn't, any more than being a Roman citizen was actually a perfect guarantee of safety. The widespread failure to recognize that the only way to be absolutely safe from other people is to kill every last one of them, is one reason political demagoguery about military action guaranteeing safety works so well. Another benefit of this approach, from the perspective of the powerful, is that it distracts Americans from investigating the causes of violence against them. Consider that at no point in this episode does anyone inquire why Syria blew up an Air Force transport. Are we to believe that Hafez al-Assad woke up one morning and decided, just for shits and giggles, to kill some Americans? It's telling that the first military crisis in which Bartlet is embroiled involves no issue larger than how much force to use.

Meanwhile, the continuing saga of Sam and Laurie reaches new heights of self-righteousness this week, as Sam declares that his creepy manipulative friendship with this high-priced call girl may result in her "living her life in bounds, ensuring for herself a greater future," and compares her to someone who has a problem with "alcohol or drugs." Come on, dude; she's sleeping with rich men to make money, not because of an addiction. That her version of selling herself is more literal than yours is not a sign of psychological dysfunction. Then we have C. J. convincing Danny to bury this story, which apparently makes him "a good guy." Because nothing says morality like ignoring a top staffer's relationship with a prostitute! Not that I care particularly where politicians put their genitals-- I'm more concerned with where they put their armies-- but let's not pretend there's no potential in Sam's conduct (as Danny understands it) for misconduct that would be in the public interest. That C. J. then gives him a head start on the Syria story is at least more in the line with the amoral quid pro quo of politics, but it hardly reflects better on either character as a responsible professional.

The last major thread in the episode is the introduction of Charlie Young, who is, like Morris Tolliver, saddled with an elaborate family backstory in an attempt to make him instantly likable. He has a dead mother, but of course she's the convenient type of dead mother who never, during the run of the series, causes him a second's worth of noticeable grief. At the end of the episode, when Bartlet offers him the job, it's clearly supposed to be the president's redemption, not only for being rude to Charlie earlier but for his general dickish behavior. What's odd about this is that, instead of actually apologizing for his snappishness, Bartlet makes an entirely political appeal that demonstrates his ability to obtain personal information. It's insensitive (does he really have to mention that they're called "cop killer" bullets?), it's calculated, and it relies on the assumption that Charlie sees insufficient gun control as the cause of his mother's death, as opposed to any number of other things a smart young man might blame, like, oh, the guy who pulled the trigger.  If the writing were slightly more self-aware, this would be a chilling demonstration of Jed Bartlet's inability to relate to other human beings, a la The Social Network. Instead, it's the heartwarming conclusion. And that's pretty sad.

Random notes:

*Sexism watch: this time the offender is Josh, calling C. J. a "paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista." Is he supposed to be a liberal, or what? Then, when trying to make nice with her, he tells her she looks like a million bucks. I know we're not intended to sympathize with this behavior, but it's not quite as funny as the script thinks it is, either.

*Last week, when Laurie told Sam she made more money than he did, he replied "You and any kid with a decent paper route." This week, when Donna says she needs a raise, Josh says "So do I!" In the 2011 Annual Report to Congress on White House Staff, the two Deputy Chiefs of Staff made $172,200 annually (the maximum possible salary), and the Deputy Director of Communications made $150,000. I know the cost of living in Washington D.C. is high, but I'm still not feeling much sympathy for either character.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Way It Goes: "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"

One of Aaron Sorkin's less admirable comic tactics is to make a character say something unbelievably stupid, so that another character can point out that what has just been said is, in fact, unbelievably stupid. This episode offers the first clear-cut example, when one of Lloyd Russell's staffers describes "Nessun Dorma" as an Italian aria by Wagner, allowing Mandy to punctuate her outburst with "It's Puccini, Wagner's German, and you're a moron." (By the by, is Mandy's penchant for manic outbursts supposed to be funny? It seems more like someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown.) Anyway, this type of unbelievable stupidity shouldn't be confused with the expository variety, in which characters don't know things they should know so that those things can be explained to the audience. Like the scene from which the episode's title is drawn, in which we learn that no one in the main cast except Bartlet and possibly Leo has ever heard of the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy.

Speaking of stupidity, let's talk about Sam. In my post on the pilot I suggested that his circumspect conduct here meant he understood the political seriousness of his actions. I hadn't recalled that he informs Josh and Toby only so that he can feel good about talking to Laurie again. Is this naivete supposed to suggest that he's pure and idealistic and wonderful? Because instead it makes him look like a dunce. The real problem, though, is what happens when he goes back to see Laurie. Threatening her and her "date" with prosecution is bad politics-- the grand jury will enjoy hearing about how he tried to keep his prostitute all to himself-- but more importantly, it's the behavior of a domineering asshole.

When Laurie points out that he humiliated and scared her, he blithely responds "I guess that's just the way it goes." The follow-up is "Cause I've decided to become a good friend of yours." And instead of running away to report this stalker to the police, she starts to banter with him. And we have a cute little quasi-romantic scene as they walk away from the camera... before he hacks her head off and buries her in the crawlspace.  This is creepy behavior on a personal level, but it's also the ethos of authoritarian government, both left and right: "I've decided to change you whether you like it or not, and I'm doing it for your own good, so you should love me." He might as well just have her arrested and demand that she retire or he'll have them press charges; what happens here is no less calculated an abuse of power.

The big drama this week is the vice-president being mean to C. J. Seriously. The underlying issue is Hoynes having the audacity to pursue his own political agenda at Bartlet's expense, but the way it's played, his more serious offense is being slightly curt with the press secretary. Tim Matheson does a fine job of making Hoynes as unpleasant as the script requires, but really his behavior is the kind of thing only the characters of a teen drama would agonize over. It's telling that the political topic on which Hoynes was commenting, the A3-C3, is never explained, actual legislation being less important than gossip. In the big confrontation between Hoynes and Leo, the former's point about constitutional authority is treated as irrelevant, and what really gets the White House chief of staff pissed off is the vice-president's failure to use the appropriate term of reference for the president. Never forget to bow before the king!  You know, I think I'm going to refer to Bartlet as "Leo's Pal" whenever the opportunity arises.  Sycophantic respect for political office regardless of merit is one of this show's core values. Which is, of course, an accurate reflection of establishment politics.

In contrast to this, we have the president's friendship with Morris Tolliver, in which he gets to exchange lame jokes and talk about his nervousness around the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  See, he's just a regular guy with worries like everybody else. And Mrs. Landingham won't let him have his steaks! He's not the leader of the free world, he's a very naughty boy. I gather the early Bartlet years are based to some extent on Bill Clinton; you can't expect me to believe he wouldn't have grabbed those steaks, and probably showed Mrs. Landingham his dick as well. But back to Morris Tolliver. The episode really bends over backwards to make us like him, so his death will have some meaning. A new baby and a proud racial past, just to guarantee that the liberal guilt will kick in. There's obviously a lot to say about how Leo's Pal reacts to the Syrian attack, but I'll hold off on that until the next episode.

Random notes:

*Leo distracts Margaret from bothering him with a picture of Morris' wife and daughter, which she naturally coos over. He might as well have given her pretty flowers to smell. And then when informing Hoynes that C. J. didn't tattle on him, Leo says "She's a good girl." Well, I hope she got some table scraps for it. No wonder this guy's wife is about to leave him. Meanwhile, Leo's Pal tells Morris that his job is to "do what these ladies tell you to do." Contemporary TV writers have some very strange gender attitudes.

*So the president's joke about golf is a big deal. But when C. J. calls the Ryder Cup team "twelve guys named Clippy" and makes a crack about their outfits, that doesn't compound the offense? And the press didn't make noise about Leo's Pal telling the Christian leaders to get their fat asses out of his White House? This is, remember, a show where actions do or don't have political consequences based on writer fiat.

*In this Hilton Head draft Sam is working, he claims to use "pretty tough" language, and the examples he gives are "political cover" and "counterproductive." What a stirring call to arns. We have here a reminder that American political language is so neutered, so vacuous, that people have come to treat its flatulence as serious discourse. IOZ was dead right to point out that "our greatest, infinitely variable native poetic form is sanctimony."

*To end on a positive note, this episode did remind me how strong some of the show's performers are. The comic timing between Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney is amazing, for instance. And I liked Merrin Dungey as a foil for Moira Kelly; Daisy undercuts Mandy's shrill quality in a way that makes me regret they didn't keep her around.

I think that's everything. Don't forget to come back for the next episode, in which Bartlet learns how to stop worrying and love the cruise missiles.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I Am the Lord Your God: "Pilot"

[People who have not watched the show and plan to should not that I discuss details from later episodes in this commentary.]

While watching the pilot of The West Wing for the first time in over a year, and perhaps the fifth or sixth time overall, I kept a Blogger tab open on my laptop so I could take notes on things I might want to discuss.  At first I was more focused on the notes than on actually watching the show, but after a while I did get caught up in it and had to remind myself to think about what was happening onscreen.  Which means that, although I anticipate lots of snark on this blog, I do enjoy the show on some level, or I wouldn't be watching it.  Whatever my other sins, I'm not one of those fans who sticks with a show he hates just to tell people how much he hates it.

On that note, I should say that one of the remarkable things about the pilot is how fully the show's style is already established.  Obviously the walk-and-talk had featured in some of Sorkin's other work, including Sports Night (which was, as Family Guy put it, "a comedy that's too good to be funny"), but it works so much better now, as does much of the show's visual approach, even little things like the tautness of the teaser leading up to the smash cut into the opening credits, which never fails to thrill me even now that I'm a bitter, cynical crackpot.

I also continue to laugh at the show's jokes, because whatever else you want to say about The West Wing, it's one of the better goofy sitcoms of the past decade or so.  A lot of the humor, in fact, makes sense on a sitcom level but not as actual human behavior.  It's funny enough when CJ slips on the treadmill while trying to impress a man (if you can look past the mild patronizing sexism of it), but that's a 1930's level pratfall.   And the run where Sam spills his guts to a woman he doesn't realize is Leo's daughter is crisp and perfectly delivered by Rob Lowe, but why in the hell would he confess to any total stranger that he accidentally slept with a prostitute?  Later episodes will show that he knows full well this could be a serious story, and while Leo's daughter could make his life hell with the information, she's less likely than a random schoolteacher to call the National Enquirer.

Let's pause to examine the Sam/Laurie thing, actually, because I think it says a lot about how The West Wing treats political scandals.  He slept with a prostitute, but he didn't know she was a prostitute.  It's the kind of absurd story politicians spout when under scrutiny ("Sure, I paid the hustler for a good time, but I didn't expose myself to him"), but in Sorkin's idealistic political fantasyland it's actually true.  And, as will be pointed out in a later episode, the truth of it doesn't matter, because in this milieu, any development exists only as a story, how it might be spun, what effect it will have on the polls.  That may be realistic as a portrayal of Washington, but to a great extent the show's moral universe functions in a similar manner-- when Leo's addiction becomes news, when Bartlet is forced to come clean about the MS, the central issue on a dramatic level is not "Did they do wrong by the American people?" but "Will they lose their jobs, become slightly less powerful and influential, and feel bad for themselves?"  Some people will call me naive for emphasizing this-- of course politicians only look out for themselves-- but I think the true naivete is acknowledging such a truth in the abstract and convincing yourself that in a given situation it nonetheless matters who you vote for.  As you might imagine, I'll have a lot more to say about this kind of thing during future episodes.

Then there's the main plot of the episode, in which Josh fears he might lose his job. In light of later developments, this is pretty ridiculous: the interpersonal ideology of the show is so feudally loyal that Josh would have to drown the president in the bathtub before he'd be fired. But it adds drama to a series opener, I suppose.  The more interesting thing to me is the way the episode demonstrates that, from a mainstream liberal perspective, religious conservatives are about as evil as you can possibly get.  There's some middle ground, triangulating talk in earlier scenes about how Al Caldwell is a nice enough guy, but when Jed Bartlet shows up, Caldwell is included in the ensuing humiliation.  As an atheist homosexual with what I suppose are anarchist leanings, I hope it's obvious that I hold no brief for the religious right, but I do think their portrayal here is hard to take seriously.

I'm sure some religious conservatives are nasty manipulators like Mary Marsh (played with a brilliant slimy chilliness by Annie Corley).  I imagine some of them are even secretly anti-Semitic, although to me that development smacks of the tiresome liberal inclination to treat any hard-core Republicanism as a manifestation of unexpressed bigotry.  But the bit where John van Dyke doesn't know what the first commandment is? No, not buying it.  (Adding to the irony is the fact that Toby is also wrong; "Honor thy father and thy mother" is not the third commandment in any tradition, Christian or Jewish. It's either the fourth or the fifth.)

Of course, that part is mostly a set-up for Bartlet's entrance, his very first line in the program, in which he informs us that he is God.  Oh, Aaron Sorkin: to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "I think your subtext is rapidly becoming text." Jed Bartlet may not be an inerrant God, but he's certainly regal enough, and obviously expects deference; the scene where he grumps that no one is paying attention to him and asking about his trip provides a perfect example of the extent to which the character is a cross between a sitcom Dad and a self-centered autocrat.

Having announced his divinity, Jed proceeds to bat around some of his followers. I guess we're supposed to be impressed by his demand that Caldwell denounce some wacko nobodies who threatened the president's granddaughter (if only Ed Muskie had threatened the people who attacked his wife instead of allegedly crying), but I can't say I see the relevance. Yes, it's nasty to send a doll with a knife through its throat to a child, but why should Al Caldwell be held accountable for it?  This reminds me of the current-day vogue for demands that Muslims denounce terrorism, as though every single member of a religion must disavow violence before any can be trusted.  I think also of a quote from Adolph Reed Jr. on black anti-Semitism:
"Black anti-Semitism's specific resonance stems from its man-bites-dog quality. Black Americans are associated in the public realm with opposition to racial prejudice, so the appearance of bigotry among them seems newsworthy. But that newsworthiness also depends on a particular kind of racial stereotyping, the notion that, on some level, all black people think with one mind. Ralph Ellison complained most eloquently about white Americans' general refusal to recognize black individuality. Charles Rangel put the problem succinctly: When approached to declare himself on Khalid Muhammad, he complained that he was tired of being called on to denounce people he'd never even heard of. Any black anti-Semite is seen not as an individual but as a barometer of the black collective mind; belief in Blackantisemitism [Reed's label for the notion of a unique and particularly virulent black form of anti-Semitism], therefore, is itself a form of racialist thinking."
But even granting that Bartlet has some justification for his demand, it doesn't address either the pragmatics or the ethics of the original issue.  Josh still mouthed off about Christianity on national television.  The existence of Christian terrorists doesn't have anything to do with that, any more than Dan Rydell's dead brother had anything to do with the apology in the sickeningly heavy-handed second episode of Sports Night.  A day earlier, the president was going to fire Josh over this; has that decision been neutralized by subsequent events?  At one point, Leo says, "I've known him 40 years, C.J. And all I can promise you is, on any given day there's really no predicting what he's gonna choose to care about." Hot-tempered and capricious; just what you want in a guy with his finger on the button.  Besides, how well are ordinary Americans going to respond to the fact that an already unpopular president just told three major religious leaders to get their "fat asses" out of his White House?  This is another hallmark of Sorkin's style: bad decisions are guaranteed to have major political consequences, until the writer gets tired of dealing with them.

A few more random takes that I couldn't be bothered to integrate into the main commentary:

*The thing with Leo complaining about a misspelling in the Times crossword.  I get that this is supposed to establish him as a lovable old crank, but of course Gaddafi's name is Arabic, and therefore has no correct English spelling. Possibly this is supposed to be Leo's error; if so it doesn't reflect well on the character's intelligence. Given the difficulty American politicians seem to have with major topics like the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite, though, it may be true to life. I although think it's pretty ironic to see Gaddafi, recent made over into the latest model of the Worst Dictator Ever action figure, used in a running gag.

*I love that the scene where Sam can't see the girl he's slept with once anymore because she turns out to be a call girl is scored with wistful romantic music, as if it were a 40s melodrama. I know we're supposed to understand that this was more than just casual sex for the impossibly noble Sam Seaborn, but come on.

*For socially-enlightened liberals, some of Sorkin's characters make pretty sketchy comments. Josh implying that Lloyd Russell is gay and effeminate doesn't exactly warm the cockles of my heart, nor does Leo's description of Mary Marsh's fury at being called "Lady" and having her religion mocked as "a petulant woman being angry about getting her hair a little messed up on TV."

*And finally, there's the bit at the end where Bartlet waxes sentimental about the Cuban refugees.  Now, I do sympathize with and admire people like that-- they're suffering in a way that I, as a middle-class white guy in the US, never will, and they're actually doing something about a political system they think is horrifying.  But is it necessary to bring their struggles down to the trite level of "wanting a better life?" Everybody wants a better life.  These Cubans want a variety of specific, individual things, some of which may not be entirely admirable.  They deserve something more substantive than "They love us for our freedoms."

Well, that's probably enough from me.  Disagreement, mockery, and other commentary welcome, even if it's just to tell me I use parentheses too often.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why I'm a Crackpot

For a long time, I was a big fan of The West Wing, both as drama and for its political values.  Then, during the 2008 presidential election, as I watched in amazement while millions of liberals were impressed by the patently unimpressive Barack Obama, I started to drift away from the family history and faithful lesser-evilism that had tied me to the Democratic Party.  I read blogs (you can find some of them on the blogroll at the right) that offered various critiques of the entire American political system, not just one particular party, and after a period of resistance accepted their arguments as convincing, and indeed far more morally defensible than the casuistic reasoning required to make Democratic Party liberalism seem meaningful.

With this new perspective in place, I could see that The West Wing was full of things I'd come to despise-- dishonesty about American intentions, emphasis on process over content, and most particularly a sickening deference to power.  I was also having doubts about Aaron Sorkin as a dramatist, noticing that his writing tiptoed in the direction of addressing actual issues, both political and personal, only to back away when it truly mattered.  On the other hand, I continued to find Sorkin's dialogue style engaging, even though I'd certainly entertain the argument that it's hardly as intellectual as the show's reputation would suggest.  And I retained a shallow fondness for the characters, two-dimensional though they often were.

I've wanted for a while to do some writing about politics, but I never feel like I have much to say compared to the bloggers I read regularly (again, check the blogroll).  I tweet about politics occasionally, but that's a form that not only doesn't require substance, it pretty well rules it out, so I mostly make jokes or reiterate things other have said.  What I do feel confident about discussing is (to use the term loosely) art.  I review horror and fantasy books at another blog, and I while I don't pretend to any great insight, I think I do all right.  The point of overlap here is obvious.  So I decided that, after a hiatus of a couple years, I would watch The West Wing again.  This time, though, I'm going to approach it with a critical eye, examine its many shortcomings, and just generally suck the fun out of everything.  Politics will be the primary frame of reference, but aesthetics are also bound to pop up, particularly with regard to Sorkin's stylistic tics and use of sitcom tropes.

(You'll note that I talk about Aaron Sorkin, who left The West Wing four years into its seven year run.  That's because I was, and suppose am, the sort of puritanical viewer for whom the show basically ceased to exist once he left.  I tried to watch the fifth season, but even when I was an unabashed fan of the show I found it deathly dull, and although I own the full series on DVD, I've never watched more than a couple episodes from later in the run.  So, for the purposes of this blog, The West Wing ended with the fourth season finale "Twenty Five." If I get there and feel compelled to continue, I might extend the analysis into the Sorkinless seasons.  But before that, let's see if I can manage the first four years.)

Why is the blog called "Notes from a Crackpot?"  Devoted viewers of the series will recall the two episodes of the series in which the White House staff were, horror of horrors, forced to interact with actual citizens who held passionate beliefs about various issues.  The first of those episodes was titled "The Crackpots and These Women."  In light of my own angle on the show, and the likely view many readers will take of my comments, I thought that was an appropriate label.

I think that's enough for preliminaries This afternoon I plan to rewatch the first episode of the first season, aptly titled "Pilot."  If all goes to plan, and I'm not browbeaten back into party loyalty by the SHEER AWESOMENESS of Jed Bartlet, my analysis will appear sometime tomorrow.