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.

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