Praying for a Broken Faith: Why I Never Liked The West Wing, A History Boy, 30/11/2014

A spontaneous blog entry about modern politics and politically-minded media, on a night when I’m too worn out from the last month of producing a play, dealing with school, dealing with the politics of changing my program’s working group around, and keeping up with publication work. Inspired by some random tweets I read Saturday night from regular VICE contributor Anne Thériault about why she hates The West Wing.

When the world didn't give Western liberals the US
President we wanted, Aaron Sorkin put one on TV.
I’ve talked before about how much the Sept 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and watching the Bush-Cheney Administration’s radical expansionist ideology of democracy by the gun wreaking havoc around the world shaped the fundamentals of my political perspective’s development. 

I had always been interested in politics throughout my life. I always enjoyed watching election night coverage — I’d get excited by election results and campaigns the same way most ordinary humans get excited by sports playoffs. Having been raised in a traditional left-wing household, I took for granted many of the views and political orientations that were important to my mother in her politically definitive years, her time as a women’s rights activist in the 1970s.

But those first few years of the 2000s saw me put a lot of those political values under a more critical lens. It wasn’t that I was leaving left-leaning positions behind; far from it. It had occurred to me that a lot of the political solutions of the traditional left, the values forged in that global revolutionary moment of the 1960s and 1970s, were simply inadequate to the Bush-Cheney ideology.

Take this example. From the time NATO forces first invaded Afghanistan in 2001 until sometime around the start of the Obama Administration, I did believe that this was a legitimate military action that could have positive consequences, especially for the women of the country, if we dismantled the Taliban regime and installed a more democratic government that would permit social liberalization again. We could achieve the goal of protecting women’s rights through military and state action. I believed that this military action was okay because of this eventual best-case scenario.

But I didn’t support the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. My reasons lay in that invasion’s never having received United Nations support, and that the Bush Administration had clearly fabricated its claims about collaboration of Saddam Hussein’s (secular, Stalinist) Ba’ath government with Al Qaeda as well as that regime’s possessions of WMDs. Much like the time's liberal consensus.

Dick Cheney is one of the great monsters of American
politics and history. Just visually, he's scary.
Over the following years, I became even more disturbed by what I learned about Bush-Cheney’s ideology and Iraq. For a political science course that I took in the Spring/Summer of 2003, I wrote a paper about the United States’ motivations for going to war. The major assignment for the class was to analyze the reasons why the permanent Security Council member state of your choice voted as it did. That was how I discovered The Project for a New American Century, the conservative think tank where Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and other key members and advisors to the Bush Administration developed their philosophy of foreign policy that it was possible to invade a country into democracy. Forget the “It’s All About Oil” conspiracies; this was more insidious. The world’s most powerful army near-bankrupted itself to put a philosophy into action.

They conceived of liberal democracy as the natural state of human civilization, the mode of government in which people were most free. Liberty being the natural state of humanity, societies would organize themselves to maximize their liberty as long as oppressive or otherwise restrictive state practices did not interfere with the process. The corollary was that, if a democratic country were to depose the government of a dictatorship that was otherwise culturally developed, free and fair elections would naturally produce a liberal democracy as an expression of a people in liberty.

This was when I first understood the power of philosophy, the tradition of the pure creation of ideas. If you believed deeply enough in an idea, you would live your life according to it, to the maximal power you had. Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the PNAC gang all believed in their philosophy so deeply that even actual facts couldn’t convince them to reconsider. And they controlled the maximal power of the United States' entire armed forces.

Niccolo Machiavelli on mercenaries: "Mercenaries and
auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his
state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor
safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without
discipline; unfaithful." – The Prince §12.
As well, the crimes of both the American state army, but especially the mercenary businesses who eventually took de facto control over the occupation force, created the conditions for the horrifying regional war that has engulfed Iraq and Syria today.

Over the course of the Obama Administration, I saw the inexorable slide also of Afghanistan back into civil conflict, de facto rule by regional warlords and criminal chiefs, and a resurgence of radical religious social conservatism there and in rural Pakistan that was expressed most publicly in the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. I can’t put my finger on when I had my final resolution on our intervention in Afghanistan. It wasn’t directly connected to a single event. 

During those years, I realized that, in terms of fundamental philosophy, there was no truly different motivation for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush Administration believed that a military force could destroy a dictatorial government and eject its state employees from their institutional roles and the natural liberty of humanity would raise a liberal democracy in its place. 

The UN-sanctioned invasion of Afghanistan ultimately had a goal of deposing the Taliban regime to secure, if not a pure democracy (though Bush often spoke of the Karzai regime this way, because he was regularly elected), then at least a more socially liberal government and society. In both cases, we sought to impose democratic government and society on a culture through military force. We did it all in the name of ostensibly liberal values, the social values of the left: individual liberty for self-determination, free elections, representative government, and women’s rights.

What does all this have to do with The West Wing? Well, I had a lot of very good friends with similar traditionally left-leaning beliefs as I had in the early 2000s who loved The West Wing. It was their dreamland, a place they could go where the world operated according to more sane rules. 

Jed Bartlet was a United States President who would have operated according to true liberal moral principles. It was like all the liberal ideals of the 20th century’s democratic left came true on The West Wing. It was our comforting counter-factual. For a lot of fans of the show during its years of peak quality, the years of peak insanity from the real American state executive, it was a refuge for liberal faith.

They were once some of the biggest musicians in the
United States, then they spoke their minds in public.
Thériault accurately pointed out that The West Wing, when it focussed on political principles instead of character drama, was simply the mouthpiece of Aaron Sorkin’s Conscientious White Liberal Values™. But those values had already been co-opted by the Bush Administration. Neo-conservative philosophy of international politics is expansionist liberal democracy at gunpoint. Domestic hysteria saw all critique of the government on matters of war to be treason. A government acting in the name of the national security of a democratic country must not be questioned, because questions about the defence of democracy undermine that very defence. Faith in liberal values was itself motivating the destruction of liberal politics. 

I always hated The West Wing, even though I could rarely admit it. At the time, I just found it too preachy, but the last ten years, and this moment of reflection, brought a deeper meaning to me. It was a retreat from the challenge the Bush years brought to liberal values. 

The West Wing let us hide ourselves from the truth that 20th century liberal values had been destroyed from within. We pretended that destruction had never happened because we couldn’t bring ourselves to ask ourselves the difficult questions that would help us articulate a new left, overcoming values that had been made to become monstrous self-subversions. I see the social movements of the last four years actually doing this: Occupy, Idle No More, social network feminism. But they’re very late in coming.

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