photo credit: Warner Bros.
I’m under a cloud of suspicion amongst my friends, families, and relatives because not only did I used to work for the dreaded Fox News, but I’ve written a book that asserts that maybe Sarah Palin isn’t the enormous thicko that so many progressives would like her to be and that her reputation is a result of expert political marketing that took them for suckers (“You mean she really DIDN’T say ‘I can see Russia from my house?” they wail, and I must reply, “No, no she didn’t”).
But this week my star has fallen further amongst my right-thinking friends because I’ve called out the guru of middle-class twaddle, Aaron Sorkin, as a mediocre merchant of mawkish, overwrought poppycock. It has nothing to do with Sorkin’s political beliefs; it’s that all of his works are simplistic packages of bombast that don’t understand how humans behave, let alone politics or entertainment.
Let me give you an example. There’s an episode of Sorkin’s beloved show The West Wing called “The Midterms,” which aired on NBC in the US in December 2000. In it, Dr. Jacobs, a conservative talk show host is invited to a reception at the White House; when President Bartlett enters the room, she remains seated as her fellow guests stand. Bartlett notices this, and, aware of her Biblical anti-gay stance, proceeds to destroy her with a number of “facts” from the Bible about ancient practices which earned the same scriptural condemnation as homosexuality. In the show, she is so ashamed and embarrassed that she doesn’t say or do anything, allowing Bartlett to reign triumphant over the field. In real life, of course, she would be free to rebut the President on the numerous factual errors and problems in his diatribe. For example, she would correct his statement that according to the Bible, the Washington Redskins should be put to death by touching a football made out of “pigskin” every Sunday by pointing out that American footballs are actually made out of cowhide, a kosher animal. But this isn’t the real world, it’s SorkinLand, in which progressives are allowed to rabbit on about any old thing they like and their opponents stand dumbstruck by their complete and utter brilliance, and Sorkin fans clap and cheer.
What this means is that Sorkin is actually having a negative effect on American politics and civic dialogue. An excellent case study is what’s currently happening in the Supreme Court oral arguments about President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act or, as it’s sometimes known, “Obamacare.” During the first day of argument, the government’s Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, whose job it is to argue on behalf of the President, was widely acknowledged to do a terrible job answering questions from the conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench. It was as though he was totally unprepared for their questions, and in an important sense, he was.
Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler noted that the problem was an “increasing separation of the legal academy from the practice of law — a separation that is greatest in fields, such as constitutional law, that touch on broad questions of public policy… The current Supreme Court has a right-leaning majority, but legal academia leans decidedly to the left… This means that when ideas are floated in the faculty lounge, they may get a far more sympathetic hearing than they would ever receive in court.” Obama’s lawyers, who all come from legal academia, never had a chance to intellectually engage with arguments against the ACA, and therefore, when presented with those intellectual arguments, were unable to rebut them because theysimply hadn’t thought that way before. The results, as CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said, were that the first three days of oral argument were “a disaster for the Obama administration.”
If the Supreme Court were to rule that Obama’s healthcare plan is unconstitutional, of course it wouldn’t be Aaron Sorkin’s fault. But he is a symptom of a sickness in our culture, which is a lack of empathy and intelligent understanding of differing political opinions. University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done research into this phenomenon, and has discovered that conservatives and independents are much better at understanding their political opponents than progressives are. In fact, those least able to understand their opponents’ arguments described themselves as “very liberal.” I can’t help but think that a reason for this is because of the prevalence of progressive arguments in popular culture, which are, in SorkinLand, totally undisputed by anyone else. It’s a nice fantasy, but when Sorkin’s ideas come up against real-world tests, they fail.
Aaron Sorkin’s delighted his fans yet again with the trailer for his new HBO series, Newsroom, about a handsome newsreader who has a political awakening. He is a moderate Republican who just can’t stand the nutburgers in his own party, but decides to use his political conversion as an opportunity to bully women, whether it’s a conservative college student or his producer, the target of his flying Blackberry. Despite the fact that this sort of thing was done much better in the excellent movie Network, The Newsroom yet again shows Sorkin’s ideas failing in the real world. The newsreader, played by Jeff Daniels, echoes American television anchor Keith Olbermann, whose charismatic television personality engaged big audiences and basically created MSNBC as the progressive anchor to Fox News. However, Olbermann got fired from not one, not two, but three TV networks, and has developed a reputation for diva behaviour, bullying his staff, and just generally being a jerk. Despite the fairytales of SorkinLand, the most correct ideas in the world won’t protect you if you’re a jackass.
So with apologies to my left-leaning friends, I can’t forgive Sorkin. Not just because he produces terrible television, but because his legacy is our worsening public discourse. His creation of fantasylands where nobody ever encounters anyone they disagree with is actually making us stupider. This isn’t a good thing, and I won’t endorse it, no matter how much we all had a crush on Richard Schiff.