“…the delusion masquerading as reason takes the form of nostalgia, the reactionary’s visceral and dangerous faith in a lost golden age that never was.”
— James Meek
In the Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin opens with a long monologue that has at its core several of his well-established stylistic tics. It’s maintained by a steady use of floating opposites in an a/b rhythm scheme both internally (the words balance between a string of this and that – we did this, and we did that, we have been this and we are now that, etc) and externally (he criticizes the liberal and the conservative in equal measure and seizes the moral high ground – such as it is – while lamenting our faded glory so he is at once both critic and champion, both liberal in the expanse of his angst but conservative in his sense of outrage) and he laments a bygone era in which “America” was at its best – less fearful, more willing to take risks, able to leap the tall buildings of both economic expansion and support for creativity.
It’s a romantic vision.
It’s sophisticated easy listening.
It’s also, utter crap.
It is, White Jazz, utterly devoid of truth, relevant facts, moral rigor or intellectual honesty.
But it sure as fuck sounds good.
Until you actually think about it.
After all, the artists he says were nurtured must not include every Black musician who ever had to sit at the other counter or stay at the other hotel or got busted for something he didn’t do, or for just being Black. For example where does Sorkin’s ode leave James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison? Yes, they had their success but it was the success of the Blues singer who is turning terror and heartbreak into art, not a mandarin of the system expressing joie de vivre or existential dread at his leisure. After all, consider Thelonious Monk getting arrested for driving in a car with a White woman and losing his cabaret license and being unable to perform. Or Miles Davis getting his ass kicked by a cop, for standing outside a club where he was playing.
But of course it’s not just a question of color. Consider Dalton Trumbo being exiled, or Hemingway being hounded to death by the Hoovers. Or Dashiell Hammett and Ginsberg being locked up or Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao being hauled into court, or…do we really need to regurgitate everything? Don’t we all know that the ugly truth makes Sorkin sound not just bad, but bad in the same way any number of moral hermaphroditic populist goons sound with their atavistic lamentations for the lost American arcadia?
Sorkin being no fool, if still foolish, sets up coverage for himself. First comes the counterpunch in which he demolishes claims to American exceptionalism. The NEA we are told is a loser which establishes Sorkin as hip both to the basic jive of the fascists but also to the cynicism of their media flaks – in other words it’s not just that the NEA is an entitlement program for spoiled elitists, but is also a convenient political piñata and Sorkin through his Muppet “Will McAvoy” gets to display the assumption of moral superiority via cynicism. McAvoy/Sorkin are world weary, burdened by (to borrow a line from another pop culture narrative) glorious purpose – in other words they are weighed down by the White man’s burden 2.0. He is superior but it pains him. He is not against the NEA per se, rather he’s against the arrogance and shallow Tourette’s syndrome reflexes of the limp dick liberals who are always losing – which makes the NEA an easy target for GOP punks. And that is what bothers McAvoy (and perhaps Sorkin as well but it’s so facile who can say with any certainty what Sorkin actually believes) the absence of spine on the part of the liberals. But, and this crucial, it is an absence of spine that bothers him (McAvoy) in the way such things bother a frat brother, a leader of men. In other words, McAvoy is saddened in the manner of an old school Protestant, Ivy League Chancellor, who remembers leading men in battle, who recalls the camaraderie of a sealed social order that did what was right for those who were less fortunate precisely because the closed social order had made them less fortunate, and was going to go on making sure they stayed that way. So, the hell with the limp liberals. And it’s hard to argue with that as Sorkin again being no dope, per se, smells blood in the water. The liberals are in fact spineless.
But then he pivots and slams the conservative by telling him freedom is widespread and not unique to America. France has freedom, and so does Canada and Japan and Belgium and so on. And of course he’s right and the crude mile wide inch deep rhetoric of the standard conservative is to be dismissed with a verbal flick of the wrist. But then comes the deep dive.
The lost American arcadia where we used to do all sorts of wondrous things.
What do we say when Sorkin gives us:
“We sure used to be (great). We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
This is not just a pack of lies, it is a pack of slick populist shit that in the hands of a demagogue would be more dangerous than anything Trump or Bannon have ever said in the sense that a Wolf is more dangerous than a hamster in a cage. Count your blessings that Sorkin is a liberal prince of the entertainment empire, and that the fascists are too stupid to make use of this type of rhetoric. (or perhaps smart enough to realize that their base of mongoloids wouldn’t understand it because it’s more than one incoherent slogan in length).
It’s not just a meaningless shambolic train wreck of empty historical calories, but in a sense criminally negligent because of course what do we say about the Americans who lived in perpetual fear of being lynched, or any number of other nightmares that stalked America and have never vanished? What do we say to the ghost of Freddie Grey? What do we say about busted unions and all those lost souls in Springsteen songs who are searching for the Ghost of Tom Joad? And what about the litany of horrors visited on the people of this country, by our Dr. Strangelove government? MK Ultra anyone? Tuskegee? Radiation experiments and Tonkin Gulf, Vietnam, and Palmer Raids? Manzanar, J. Edgar Hoover and the mafia and the Klan? What do we say about Fred Hampton and when Sorkin laments this lost America does it include Emmett Till or Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman? Didn’t beat our chests? Tell it to the Mexicans and the Filipinos and the Chinese. Tell it to the countries we conquered and our own soldiers who we betrayed.
We fought wars for moral reasons? Well I guess if your sense of morality is defined by world wide gangsterism, coups, counter coups, slow motion industrial scale genocide and a sense of expedience that would make Mussolini blush then he’s right. Vietnam and morality? Operation Condor and morality? Supporting Francisco Franco and morality? The Bay of Pigs and morality? How does any reasonable person talk about American morality and ignore The Trail of Tears and Henry Kissinger?
It seems a cliché to call it out as a middle aged White man lamenting his lost privilege and yet what else should we call it except that? Well actually there is more to it than that because Sorkin is clever. He’s checked off his boxes and told us about our lost place in the world by listing (like a drum solo) all the ways in which we’ve slipped. Mortality rates for children and literacy and how we make nothing useful except movies video games and bombs. And, he’s not wrong about all of that but it doesn’t mean he’s right about the rest of it.
And of course there’s been no criticism of it, just the standard praise for Sorkin Inc. Because of course while it’s true that the White fascists are again howling the fact is the complacent, smug self satisfied liberals are complicit in all of it. And Sorkin is one of their favorite crooners. What I assume you shall assume as well, is transformed here from a universal ode to the commons, and the glory of the common man, into a self-absorbed masturbatory drum solo that begins nowhere, sticks the landing and means nothing, except that it’s toxic precisely because it is false and thus empty. But then that’s ultimately Sorkin Inc.
After all, the dialogue is usually clever if not witty and it’s generally skewed left of center, because while it’s true the left may have lost all the battles, they had all the best songs. And Sorkin has said he’s a fan of screwball comedies and Gilbert and Sullivan and it shows. In an episode of The West Wing there’s an argument about a line being from Pinafore or not and someone says: it’s the one about duty and honor and the retort is: It’s Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re all about duty and honor. And so is Sorkin.
In that same clever, light-hearted and strangely creepy way that humor in the imperial pavilion is always creepy. And not because it isn’t clever but precisely because it is – clever in a tea on the bridge of the Titanic manner, and you’re laughing while wondering what that god awful sound is as the ship lurches to one side like an alcoholic having a seizure.
And everyone speaks fast and is very smart but wary, and weary because it’s hard being smarter and Whiter than everyone else but fear not, there’s young Charlie Young and smart jokes about bigotry and solid liberal street cred (with the notable exception of Alison Janney’s C.J. doing the Jackal and Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn acting the cross between a fool and a minstrel) but overall the tone is…generous, hopeful and above all else, romantic. In other words it’s liberal. It’s great at faking self-awareness and the acting is almost always good, and the dialogue is generally so much faster and so much smarter than just about everything else, it’s hard to realize just how empty it all is.
Sorkin, wears his heart on his sleeve. And at its best the dialogue it delivers is a needed tonic to the putrid national discourse and its aesthetics of the steel cage 24 hour cable news deathmatch. It shows us that binary thinking, a perpetual either/or gulag of atrophied imaginations is a catastrophe, and that sometimes politicians actually make decisions not based on expediency, but on choosing the lesser of two evils. And they do it for noble reasons. They do it because they are not free to choose between good and bad but instead are forced to choose between bad and worse. And the characters do seem to talk about things of substance – they talk about sex and misogyny and bigotry and mass surveillance, and the rule of law, and so on and they do it with wit and style. And clearly they are not bigots, pers se, but as Chris Rock put it, they are the worst sort of bigots – they won’t burn a cross on your lawn but they will tell you you’re not the right sort of Kappa, and won’t be happy in their frat or sorority. After all, what do C.J., Sam, Josh and Toby all have in common? That’s right, they’re not Black. But they are liberals and they care and the President’s daughter was in love with a Black guy. And no, it’s not about a quota and it is about Sorkin being smart enough to have a scene where Josh is arguing with a Black man about reparations and says he’d hold his grandfather accountable for it but he was too busy handing his wallet over to the SS to remember to pay out to people who also deserve a slice of the pie. Again, it’s clever and it sounds righteous.
And yet. It’s crap. The speech McAvoy gives is just a great big lie and it’s dangerous because it feeds the bubble of liberal satisfaction. And all bubbles eventually burst. It says the system used to work and can work again. When the truth is, the system works, is what they said with unintended irony when they sent Nixon into temporary political stasis. The system works for the rich who are mostly and have mostly been White. The system works for the well-connected and their friends. It works for frat boys who were born on third base but spend their lives telling you they hit a triple. After all, just imagine if Will McAvoy had been a Black man. And had delivered the same speech. You’re head would explode as you exceeded the g-force tolerance of the liberal rocket ship and people started screaming Uncle Tom, or Clarence Thomas and (to borrow a phrase) I apologize for being redundant.
We did not used to build great things. We used to build great things on the backs of slaves and wage slaves. We did not reach for the stars. We reached for the stars with the help of Nazis (who aimed for the stars but sometimes missed…and hit London). We did not revere great men. We revered great men because we were ordered to and if you spoke out of turn about them, about their slaves, their mistresses, their drinking and drugs and their crimes then their thugs would come for you and burn a cross on your lawn. Or bust the windows of your union shop. Or beat you to death for being a radical or some sort of punk. Or they would make sure you never got another job.
Which doesn’t mean we didn’t win World War 2. It just means that we won it after having first been perfectly willing to do business with the Nazis just so long as they devoted their considerable charms to killing Jews and queers and communists, inside Germany, and left our friends alone. It’s not that FDR didn’t save the country, it’s that the Roosevelt family fortune was built by selling opium to the Chinese and he used part of that pirate’s treasure to save the country. It’s not that JFK didn’t avert World War 3, it’s that he was a charming rogue and a gangster who was reckless and effective. And, so on and so on and this and that and sometimes one and then the other because history is this and that not this or that. Floating opposites are the bedrock of reality not just a cool rhetorical device.
It’s pretty damn star spangled fucking fantastic to be able to make words dance. It’s even more impressive when you use them to say something that’s true instead of using them to just sound like you’re saying something that’s true.
But then, that’s the difference between being a writer and just being someone who writes.
See the Newsroom speech here: