Aaron Sorkin, come back here with Marx’s armchair!
My friend Tomemos recently blogged about the lack of coverage, by liberal blogs, of the recent fighting between Israel and Lebanon. He makes a good point, and, although I don’t usually read political blogs, I did follow up by skimming the one site he thought had covered the issue respectably. That’s Billmon’s Whiskey Bar. I went through Billmon’s Foreign Policy Archive until I came to a piece entitled “Babes In Toyland.” Sure, the cutesy neologisms annoyed me (“Cheney administration”), but up to a point, I thought Billmon did a great job analyzing the current Middle East situation.
Then I read this:
What this means is a need to choose: between a conviction of moral superiority that lives within its means, so to speak, or a much more aggressive mobilization of America and its resources to fight the “long war.” But that kind of mobilization doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s to-do list, except for a few Fox News gasbags.
Perhaps a sneak attack on Iran would revive popular popular enthusiasm for endless war — it’s one of the reasons I fear it so much. But that still wouldn’t fill the additional combat boots needed to fight the evildoers on their home turf, whether that’s Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran. For that America needs either a much bigger army or many, and more cooperative, allies.
The way this passage reads, Billmon is actually aligning himself with the “Fox news gasbags.” He may not want to do that, but his treatment of the subject sets up a contrast between half-way measures (“moral superiority that lives within its means”) and a real commitment to exterminating Islamic threats (the “long war”). Moving to the second paragraph, since America can’t create a bigger army without a draft, we need more cooperative allies to fight this larger war. This links up with Billmon’s pleas, throughout the post, for a saner diplomatic foreign policy.
In other words, Billmon outsmarted himself. Sidetracked by a war game taking place in his head, United States v. Iran, he wrote his way into a hawkish position on the Middle East, softened though it may be by a commitment to a real international coalition.
It would be one thing if this was just another fumbled touchdown in the blogosphere; our experts tell us such fumbles happen twenty times a minute, wherever cable modems are sold. Instead, it is indicative of a serious problem with American liberal thought, a problem I blame entirely on Aaron Sorkin, creator of the acclaimed television show The West Wing, and fantasy baseball leagues.
I’m kidding, of course, but let me explain. A fantasy baseball league is a website where ordinary people are allowed to pretend to be general managers: they buy, sell, and trade players, and try to accumulate a good record based on the real performance of those players in real games. This is what’s happening to Democratic politics: ordinary people have the fantasy of being campaign managers. Since, like all campaign managers, they are ambitious, they want to be John Kerry’s campaign manager, not Ralph Nader’s, or Paul Wellstone’s, or some lunatic from the Socialist party.
The popular conception of the campaign manager is that of an extremely intelligent individual who knows how to make compromises and win on demographics. Campaign managers, as we imagine them, are sort of like James Carville – a genial guy who’s married to a Republican strategist. After all, politics are about intelligent bipartisanship, right?
This has emerged as the core sensibility of the Democratic party – to insist that every problem can be solved with “intelligence,” which is treated as an absolute quality, and to embrace a reasonable mediocrity in every sphere of public debate. We’re going to invade Iraq, but we’re going to do it right. You shouldn’t vote for Bush because Bush is stupid, and we’re not.
Enter Sorkin’s television show. Throughout the Bush years, The West Wing comforted liberals with the image of a Democratic President whose administration fought for gun control, education, and reasonable taxation…and lost on gun control. Most of the plot in the show involves a series of compromises with various Democratic demons, including Republicans, religious fundamentalists, foreign terrorists, and the voting populace of Orange County. (Or no compromise, in equally revealing circumstances: at one point a foreign official involved in terrorism is assassinated by the CIA, on Bartlet’s order.) It is characteristic of fictional President Bartlet to walk into a quarreling room full of Christian leaders, silence them with a quote from the Bible, and then take the biggest one aside to scorn him, as one friend to another. It is characteristic of him to appoint to his staff a smart Republican woman so he can hear the opposing side. Eventually, you realize that the show tends to alternate between praising raw intelligence (Bartlet is a Nobel laureate, and everyone around him went to a really tremendous college) and dramatizing compromise. Very often, the limelight is on ex-campaign manager, new chief-of-staff Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford. So we’re back to the campaign manager.
I love to watch Sorkin’s characters interact, but I don’t love what he stands for. After all, I just watched the pilot for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and that too was a very clever type of fake idealism. A man seizes control of a network (just like in the movie Network, as the show painfully points out) and goes on a rant about television’s pandering and commercialism. We hear his speech, but he is also conclusively fired. He’s replaced by two guys, and a plot point about a recovering drug addict (Whitford again) who’s fallen off the wagon. The cycle of brilliance (one of the two guys wins a Writer’s Guild Award), contrition (Bartlet and his staff are always making apologies, too, for addiction and other things), and compromise (agreeing to run “Studio 60” under the watchful eye of a cynical executive) begins again.
When Martin Jay, a renowned scholar of the Frankfurt School, spoke at Irvine, he busied himself with foreign policy and announced that the Iraq War was “a failure of diplomacy.” Well, it wasn’t. It was a co-optation of the American military machine, based on a seizure of power by the executive branch, and justified with a series of deliberate lies. The reason that Jay invoked the plush ideal of “diplomacy” is that he wanted to sound like a reasonable man. To my way of thinking, Jay’s original heroes, Adorno and Horkheimer and Marcuse and the rest, sounded more reasonable. They made no compromises, but they also didn’t succumb to the insanity of thinking a speech to 35 graduate students and some English professors would echo in the halls of the United Nations.
Similarly, I don’t want to hear Billmon pontificate on what it would take to defeat Iran militarily. He hasn’t a clue what that would require. I’m not saying the average citizen shouldn’t try to be informed, or that a blogger shouldn’t try to understand the best approach to take in the Middle East. I’m saying that the best thing we can do, as people holding no office, is to start articulating our fundamental political values. We don’t need to do Josh Lyman’s job for him. We can just go ahead and tell our leaders that we want the United States out of Iraq and Israel out of Lebanon. We can advocate for universal health care and a renewed investment in higher education. We can point to the absurd deficiency of the current minimum wage, and the worrisome trends being hastened by Wal-Mart.
If we don’t know, exactly, how the American government would make the transition to universal health care, that’s okay. There are smart people by the thousands who have thought about and written about that issue. We took on de-segregation without knowing how it would work, and amidst the direst predictions. If Democrats are as intelligent as they make out, they should be using that intelligence in the service of genuine leaps in national policy.
Otherwise, all this talk of smarts is going to keep making plenty of Americans furious. The undecided population in this country thinks George Bush stands for something. They’re wrong about what he stands for, but I respect that they prioritize values. Reclaiming our values as liberals is the only way to reclaim our sense of political possibility in a time of Republican monopoly. Stretching our imagination out towards the fulfillment of human needs — that is a kinder, and more American, act of imagination, than is the fantasy of walking down the narrow halls of power.