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The West Wing: All Grown Up

Watching The West Wing almost a decade after the show’s airings is an exercise in nostalgia and surprise. Because the show aired during a very formative period of my intellectual and political life (the time where idealism and self-importance is high enough to make one think one could change the world, but not high enough to make one think Atlas Shrugged is the most misunderstood piece of genius ever conceived), I think I’m abnormally aware of the paradigm shift that’s occurred since the show aired and how it has tainted much of the idealistic self-righteousness that drives every episode. Viewing the show now through the lens of a post-Bush II, mid-endless-war, mid-Arab-Spring consciousness tarnishes the idealism of the show, not because it seems self-defeating or dewy-eyed, but because it no longer seems idealistic.

Let me preface my subsequent scathing criticism by saying this: There are still incredible moments in The West Wing. The episode where Donna, Josh, and Toby get left behind in Indiana and finally, at the end of the day, Donna says, “I have such an impulse to knock your heads together…Eight modes of transportation, the kindness of six strangers, random conversations with twelve more, and nobody brought up Bartlet versus Ritchie but you.” Or in the first season when they decided to let Bartlet be Bartlet and they all dorkily stand and say, “I serve at the pleasure of the President,” but each with mildly different wordings. Or that episode where Leo has to testify before Congress and be questioned about his alcoholism, but Bartlet agrees to take the Censure to protect him. The show is funny, fast-paced, intelligent, and it has its intense moments of idealism.

But the central tenant of the Bartlet Doctrine (and something which I and my friends ate up with a spoon) is a morally ambiguous imperialism masquerading as a morally infallible humanitarianism. The West Wing isn’t 24 by any means, but the same cultural milieu of Islamophobia that produced and made wildly popular a show about the pursuit, capture, and torture of soulless “terrorists” also shaded what could be regarded as the antithesis of 24. After “Isaac and Ishmael”, the alternate universe episode in which the staff members and a group of students attempt to grapple with the complexities of domestic security and the understanding that Islamic extremists (read: not normal Muslims) perpetrate attacks on America, the show quickly begins to classify the leaders of the Islamic world as women-beaters and malevolent fundamentalists, spewing diatribes about “Death to America”. The show fixates on antagonistic Islamic countries while juxtaposing the unerring righteousness of America: the “Ayatollah” condemns his son’s medical saviors as heathen kidnappers while Bartlet convinces the reluctant doctor to fulfill his Hippocratic Oath and perform life-saving surgery on the boy; the US may be selling arms to Qatar, the evil nation that beats its women, but the US government has CJ and Nancy to, you know, make a scene and cry or whatever. What’s more, not only do the governments of Arab countries harbor terrorists, but countries like Qatar welcome them into their political ranks! The conniving, plotting Qatari minister is an incredibly convenient bit of story line that effectively vilifies Arab governments and portrays them as beyond diplomacy, beyond rationality. (I will admit, though, in light of the whole Iran-maybe-tried-to-assassinate-the-Saudi-ambassador thing, my point here might be moot.) Meanwhile, positive relations with Arab countries are barely mentioned; only when they exercise antagonism or political opportunism are they the focus of the Bartlet White House. It’s an incredibly narrow-minded approach to the Islamic faith and the complexities of foreign relations and leaves Arab allies out in the dark.

But this moralistic imperialism doesn’t only extend to Arab countries; rather, the Bartlet White House feels dangerously self-righteousness about Africans as well. And while the argument could be made that humanitarian intervention not only ignores the role that colonial exploitation played in the creation of atrocious poverty, but also perpetuates it, the liberal idealistic impulses it stirred in my 12-year-old self were hard to shake. The United States stepped in on behalf of the victims of an authoritarian government committing genocide! But a decade later, things look different. The invasion of Equatorial Kundu can be seen as an allegory to Rwanda or Sudan and the genocides that many feel the United States could have and should have militarily quelled, but the invasion, the ease with which US forces dominate the country, and the jerk-ish way Bartlet gloats to the Kundunese ambassadors that he’s taken their airport, all easily draw parallels to the ill-fated and morally-questionable invasion of Iraq. Watching the show again now, what seemed like Idealism, the triumphant intervention on behalf of the downtrodden, is suddenly no longer noble and just, but imperialist, ignorant, xenophobic. The cultural milieu of the show seems so out of date and uninformed that it frankly makes me uncomfortable.

The West Wing is still captivating as a wonderfully written and engaging piece of television, still incredibly entertaining, heartwarming, and charming. But watching it now at times makes me feel jaded, pitying the hapless middle-schooler so enamored of this fictitious and seemingly flawless White House. And it makes me wonder: What will we feel about the award-winning television shows of today? Will we find our idealization of the 1960s distasteful? Will Glee be considered paradoxically homophobic? Will we scoff at the moral relativism of shows that glamourize the drug trade, like Weeds or Breaking Bad? What about our cultural climate makes our favorite television shows so entertaining?

Food for thought, I guess. In the meantime, I’m going to keep watching.

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  1. Blogger Jeffery Blackwell | 8:45 AM |  

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Blogger Jeffery Blackwell | 8:53 AM |  

    Sam, this is some great analysis and writing. Looking back, it's clear to see the assumptions that were made by the writers. Mass media (a fading concept) necessarily incorporates the prevailing attitudes of audiences in order to gain viewers, and commercial media also represents the predispositions of it's sponsors. It also shapes public opinion and can be insidious. Speaking of misrepresentation, I just got a link to a brilliant film; Miss Representation (missrepresentation.org) Take a look at this; http://vimeo.com/28066212

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