The Better Angels of Our Nature
Tonight is the final episode of the West Wing on NBC. I hesitated to write anything about this, even though it’s one of my all-time favorite shows, because there are so many enormously pressing news issues out there. But sometimes, a post on the better angels of our nature has its use — and in today’s climate of anger and fear and political disgust, thinking about where we ought to be and what we could achieve as opposed to where we are at the moment has an enormous value.
One of my favorite episodes on the West Wing was one from very early on — either the first or second season — where the President dresses down a wingnut radio host (Dr. Jenna Jacobs, a thinly veiled portrait of Dr. Laura Schlessinger) on her hijacking of religious belief for her own personal gain when she doesn’t actually walk the talk in her own life. (The exchange can be heard here.) And I’ve always had this fantasy of some political leader doing the exact same thing in the real world. For some reason (probably because the Brent Bozell’s of the world start a snotty e-mail campaign every time they air the episode or something), they rarely show this particular episode, but it is one that could use some more play these days.
I don’t think that it is too much to ask that our political leaders want to do the job for the good of the rest of us, and not to line their own pockets or those of their crony friends. It would be naive to think that it doesn’t happen — especially given the environment in Washington right now and the number of politicians currently under federal investigation or threat of indictment — but it’s not too much to ask that the people’s business be the first thing on the list every day.
Not running for re-election. Not keeping my donor base happy. Not lining crony pockets so I can get some kick-back and a 14th century antique.
But the people’s business. Little things like protecting at risk children by ensuring that they have health care and head start education programs and enough social workers in the communities so that those who are most at risk for abuse and neglect and child sexual abuse have the safety net that society ought to find much more important than they do.
Or really digging into homeland security so that cargo containers are actually inspected, instead of us all collectively crossing our fingers and hoping no dirty bombs show up because we only inspect a tiny fraction of what pours into our nation daily.
The thing that has tugged at me each week as I watch the West Wing is that I wish I could believe in the integrity and the values of my real world political leaders as much as I can believe in the values of the fictional characters that I saw each week on the show. Sometimes the disconnect between them was painful and harsh — that was true when the show began, back during the days of the Monica issues during the end of the Clinton era and the mess that surrounded it when government seemed to take a back-seat to tabloid ick on so many levels. And it is especially true today, when the Orwellian public pronouncements that black is white and domestic spying without a warrant is a good thing for the Constitution and anyone who says differently is a traitor — well, the disconnect is even more painful these days, isn’t it?
Sure, it’s a fictional show. But through fiction, we can often express those hopes and insights that you can’t really get across in a non-fiction context. As many of our long-time readers know, I’m a huge science fiction reader — and some of the very best of science fiction has included political insight in the storytelling — often using the oddities of an alien culture to illustrate how a current political action ought to have been alien in our own.
The best episodes of the West Wing did just that as well. I’m reminded of the great episode right after 9/11, wherein Leo makes a mistake about an Islamic employee who is mis-identified as a potential terrorist because his name is similar to an alias in the national security computer system. The pain, the disconnect from values — all of it played out fully in that episode, with brilliant writing and dialogue.
The best shows on television and the best movies make you think about who you are and what you want to be — and what you ought to value down deep. MASH used to do that for me as a kid, and I still love Alan Alda for it, and for all the laughs, and the West Wing has been that sort of weekly companion since its inception. There are a lot of other shows and movies that do the same thing, but I wish there were more of them.
But what I really want is for the entirety of the American public to understand that we get the government that we ask for — and with so many people who do not pay attention to political discourse (sometimes because the level of corruption and idiocy is such a turn-off that they have to walk away, some because it is just ignorance and laziness or whatever), I’m worried that things will continue to get worse instead of better.
So with that said, I’ve been thinking about something that all of us at FDL could do: take two friends to the polls to vote on election day. Pick out a couple of friends from work, from church, from around the neighborhood…whatever. Start talking to them about how important it is to have their voice be heard now. Make sure they are registered to vote. And when the day comes for election day, take them with you to the polls.
Imagine how much more participation we could all get if we all just did that one, simple thing. It is good-bye to the West Wing this evening, but I refuse to give up on the dream of integrity and honor in government. And if by some miracle we all — every single one of us in this country — stand up and say "You work for us. And we deserve better." — well, imagine how far we could all go.
Use this thread to talk about your favorite West Wing episode or other political moments, and whatever practical stuff you’ve been doing in your community to make the world and our country a better place. One of my favorite things about our readership is how creative everyone is in standing up and being counted — the Roots Project that Pach is coordinating is such an amazing example of this. On those dreary days when I get frustrated or angry that things are going so badly, someone in the comments invariably lifts my mood up with some action they have taken on all of our behalf. And for that, I thank all of you — every day — for making our world a better place.
And as my present to everyone, take a peek at the Al Gore bit on SNL. Crooks and Liars has the video up, and it’s quite an intro.