As I’ve written before, I like The West Wing. Admittedly, season 2 lacks some of the urgency of the first season (except in the double episode that starts off year 2 of the series), but it’s still a witty, well written and acted, greatly enjoyable 42 minutes per episode. I appreciate its politics and the idealism of its characters, tempered as it is by an appreciation that there’s a gap between ideals and reality that needs to be negotiated almost constantly.
Every now and then, though, the series does something that strikes me as uniquely American, and it annoys the hell out of me: it goes into Pledge of Allegiance Mode. A typical example of this is at the end of the season 2 episode “Midterms”:
To give you a bit of context: after an assassination attempt by a white-supremacist group Toby, perhaps the character on the series who is furthest left-wing (and one of my favourites, the grumpy old Eeyore that he is), spends most of the episode desperately trying to find ways of legally restricting the constitutional rights of such groups. Obviously the Constitution is sacrosanct, this being the United States, but Toby’s take is that there may be things more important than a piece of paper, however old and revered that piece of paper is. By the end of the episode he comes around to believing that perhaps it isn’t all that bad that the government protects the rights even of those who try to bring it down. His “God bless America” is earned, it comes out of a process. I may or may not agree with the sentiment, but Toby’s not made this easy on himself.
The others, though? They’re basically joining in the choir, cheapening the sentiment. It’s not idealism in the face of ambivalence and reality: it’s facile, slogany patriotism. Now, I have to admit that patriotism is something my brain fails to comprehend in general, but I can accept that the main characters on The West Wing are patriots. At the series best I can almost grasp that when these people talk about the United States of America, they mean an almost mythical construct, a symbol of perfect democracy, and that they’re aware that there is, and always will be, a huge distance between the symbol and the reality. But when they go into cheerleading slogans, with everyone in the round repeating the words, there’s something disturbing about it to me. With every repetition it’s stripped of the self-awareness, meaning and complexity that a character like Toby brings to it and becomes something insultingly, childishly simple and chauvinistic. It’s this belief that the ideal, the symbol and the actual country are close enough to one another that allows for crusader-style action around the globe – hey, if your country is the embodiment of all that is good and just, then your actions must be good and just by definition, right?
To be fair, those moments on The West Wing are just that: moments. By and large, the series remains firmly aware of the clash between ideals and reality, and of the fact that it is practically impossible to negotiate the two without despairing that you’ll never get to where you’re going, that you’ll always be compromising your ideals in the end – but that, in the face of compromise, you can still keep fighting for your ideals and achieving small victories every now and then. I just wish they could do without the “Rah, rah, USA!” moments altogether, because they just feel tacky.
Okay, and after all this heavy stuff, dude, here’s a fun little something for those of you waiting for or already watching the final season of Lost. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers.)