The West Wing

Digital Democracy: When Culture Becomes News

Reactions to the events of September 11 have been varied, multiple, and at times utterly unanticipated. As National Public Radio's TV critic, David Bianculli notes, it has not been since the 1960s that American artists have acted upon a felt responsibility to respond immediately and directly to the political events of their day. This is just what Aaron Sorkin, writer and producer of the much-acclaimed American network television drama The West Wing, had both the inclination and the necessary influence to do. In the days after 9/11, Sorkin quickly wrote a one-hour screenplay for a "very special episode" of The West Wing; he then convinced the executives at NBC to postpone their already-delayed season premiere for another two weeks (one week to quickly shoot the special episode and one week to air it).

The episode, entitled Isaac and Ishmael, aired on October 3, but even before it appeared the event became news, as fans and media speculated about the nature of the show and the appropriateness of its timing. Now, more than ever, we feel that it is important to address the issues that arise from West Wing's unique position as both fictional drama and political force.

The blindspots that so commonly inhabit the lines of critique between culture and politics were apparent in a review of the special episode, posted the day after it aired on Reviewer Joan Walsh writes:

I figured out that these folks took themselves way too seriously, and were a little confused about their actual role in this country, when they were omnipresent at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles last summer, as though anyone cared about what these actors who played political leaders and staffers on TV had to say about politics. (Of course, the most horrifying thing was, people did care. The cast's little workshops were packed with star-struck delegates, while panels on policy and the Democratic platform were empty.)

The section seems at first to be a wash, with the phrase in parentheses voiding the previous comment. What keeps the contrary claims from amounting to merely a zero-sum game is the crucial remainder-an important indication of a belief that culture has no connection to serious politics. In the end, it proves difficult to tell who is confused here: the West Wing actors who rightly perceive that their celebrity role on a political drama produces political effects, or Walsh who steadfastly insists in the face of this phenomena that politics is one thing and culture another.

Any arguments about The West Wings' blindspots and its politics were put to rest on November 5, 2001. On that day, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley spoke to business and political leaders in New York City about the effects of American misconceptions about terrorists and the Canadian border. Manley used the "very special episode" as the centerpiece of his speech, pointing out that the show's description of terrorists crossing at the Ontario/Vermont border was problematic for two reasons. First, Ontario does not border Vermont; Québec does. Secondly, there currently is no evidence that terrorists are crossing the border between Canada and the United States. For Manley, these misconceptions are working to hamper essential cross border trade. For Canadians, they are yet another example of American ignorance of issues outside of their own country. National news broadcasts that showed clips of the West Wing's gaffe and Manley's speech gave proof of Sorkin's reach.

Of course, readers of CTheory do not need us to rehearse the relationship between culture and politics. Instead, we offer perspectives on why and how The West Wing has become both a forum for popular political debate and itself a vehicle for connecting culture to politics and broadening the very vision of what politics can be. We arrive at our analysis of the "cultural politics" of The West Wing from opposite sides of the phrase.

As a political theorist, Sam Chambers tries to ask after the politics of The West Wing outside the narrow frame of mainstream U.S. liberalism. Chambers argues that we can discern within the show a conception of the relationship between language and politics that he calls agonistic discourse. Within the particular episode that Chambers reads closely, he argues for a conception of political discourse that challenges both the deliberative democrats' notion of language as a medium of communicative action oriented toward the goal of consensus, and a pluralist theory that would define politics as the result of bartering and compromise. What emerges through the interplay of continuing discussions in this episode is an open-ended model of political discourse not governed by teleological endpoints, but serving to maintain a space for plural politics.

As a culture scholar, Patrick Finn examines the rhetorical use of space on The West Wing. Space has a dual function in the show. The manipulation of the now-famous "steady cam" creates a feeling of continual motion linked to the idea that the White House staff is hard at work. Sorkin's dialogue complements these jumping images with an information flow that seems hypertextual - in effect replicating the Internet in speed and connectivity. At a time when groups like CTV News Net, CNN and CNBC are presenting TV images that increasingly mimic the web, The West Wing offers a glimpse at the backward mediation of the web onto television drama. What we find when we examine this overtly spatial rhetoric is a manipulated desire that pits the perceived threat of a rapid, hypertextual world against the resolute calm offered by a distinctly textual president.

We both find that The West Wing produces a space for a new form of public political dialogue. Dozens of newspapers and radio and television broadcasters would seem to agree: the media found themselves in a frenzy both to hype Isaac and Ishmael before it aired and to review it afterward. Obviously, this was not the typical attention paid to a television drama. The media attention to the October 3 broadcast focused on the political content of the episode and its capacity to bring closure or at least understanding to the tragedies of September 2001.

On September 11, 2000, The West Wing celebrated; the cast and crew brought home more primetime Emmy Awards than had ever been given to a single show. One year later, audiences turned to the show for much more than primetime entertainment. The shift raises the basic question of how the transition to public soapbox is possible. Chambers suggests that the greatest political strength of the show lies in its ability to eschew the exceedingly narrow scope of the American political spectrum. (This capacity also likely explains the appeal of the show across that same small spectrum, since the show's demographic splits evenly along Democrat and Republican lines.) The West Wing thereby offers its viewers new and different political possibilities, precisely what was most desired by many in the wake of September 11. Finn elaborates on this structure, while adding the position that the secret to the presentation of voice on The West Wing lies in what is missing. In the show's dramatic structure, the use of short phrases and interlocking plots entertainingly distracts, while production provides the vehicle for meaning. What allows the program to serve as a forum for discussion is its resistance to tidy solutions. While the show clearly panders to familiar notions of Truth, Justice and The American Way, it avoids providing closure on specific issues. This leaves room for water cooler debate the morning after each episode airs.

Of course, the show has no shortage of detractors. Although, significantly, those detractors seem to be watching the show as well, thereby contributing to the very debates that The West Wing spurs. Like any close viewers of the show, we have our own set of concerns. While it would prove far too simple to pick problems out on an item-by-item basis, we both agree, for example, that Sorkin often stumbles when it comes gender roles.

At times, Sorkin is deft in refusing to construct a multicultural utopia in the West Wing of the White House. Instead, we as viewers see the effect of gendered power relations in operation, and we witness resistance to those power relations. Perhaps the best example here comes in the second season when White House press secretary C. J. Craig (played by Allison Janney) confronts a four-star Army general. C.J. matches the intensity of his angry shouting and masters what Carol Cohn has shown to be the thoroughly masculinized discourse of military terminology and strategy. However, at other times, Sorkin seems simply to reduce the female characters on his show to the oldest of stereotypes, to confine them to the subject positions that they sometimes seek to resist. This worrisome trend continues in painfully obvious fashion in the special episode. The opening vignette features the actors, costumed but out of character, commenting first on recent events and then falling into character. Once in their familiar roles, these talking heads give hints about the world-changing plots that they will soon be involved in-world-changing except for the final voice-Secretary Donna Moss who chirps "and I get a boyfriend!" Moreover, in the episode's main scene, CJ Craig's discussion of the need for popular support of the CIA is greeted with, "[y]ou know, they may need some comforting right now. When this crash is over, you'd best get in some fishnets and head to a bar." This is one among many examples. Clearly much that the show does is new, but its brand of liberalism comes with many of the same problems of its classical forbearers.

As evidenced by the comments from Joan Walsh, above, reception to the "very special episode" was mostly negative, but not for the reasons we might suggest. David Bianculli praised Sorkin for the fact that he responded to 9/11, but he, like many, found the response "too preachy." The main "set" (the opening of the episode asks the viewers to think of it as a play, not a TV drama) involves an impromptu lesson on terrorism-delivered, appropriately, to a group of high school students who happen to be touring the West Wing-that some have dubbed "terrorism 101." No doubt, for most of The West Wing's hyper-educated viewers, the "classroom" set might border on the tedious. On the other hand, a broad-ranging and open-ended discussion of terrorism in the twenty-first century does seem an appropriate topic in the face of 9/11.

But many critics were so let down by the "classroom" set that they failed to notice the political significance of the "interrogation" set. The initial scene of this episode informs the viewer that a captured terrorist has named fellow terrorists, the alias of one of whom matches the name of a white house staffer, an Arab-American male that the White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer) proceeds to interrogate. Walsh hardly mentions this set, except to say that the "hapless" Arab-American was "confused." She writes: "He was opposed to U.S. bases near holy sites in Saudi Arabia, and he was also opposed to Saudi oppression of women." Walsh quite simply misreads here: the Arab-American staffer was opposed to American military on Saudi soil failing to respect the norms and laws of Saudi Arabia by bringing women military officers into a country in which women are not even allowed to drive a car. He said nothing about opposing the Saudis on this point; more significantly, he was describing the U.S. military presence as colonialist. This was a crucial point in the show, which placed "us," the North American viewing audience, in the same contradictory position as Leo. Sorkin tempts viewers to make the same colonialist response that-in a move that shows the tragic flaw in an otherwise heroic character-he has Leo make: maybe, Leo suggests, we Americans can teach them to drive. We want to uphold our egalitarian principles of gender equality, but to do so we have to take up the position of the colonizer. So, Sorkin not only shows us the contradiction here, he places us within it.

Walsh misses the point on both counts, perhaps because she wants so badly for the special West Wing episode to provide resolution; she laments the fact that Sorkin was not able to make her cry. Of course, in a sense Sorkin too wants resolution-and therein, perhaps, lies the real weakness of the special episode. Sorkin's tidy resolution appears in the form of fundamentalism vs. pluralism, a false dichotomy that he constructs in order to reconcile matters by confining terrorism to an attack on pluralism. But Sorkin refuses to admit in the classroom setting what shows up clearly (if we watch more closely than Walsh) in the interrogation set-perhaps terrorism is an attack on colonialism. It is easy for viewers to be 100% behind pluralism, not so easy to do the same thing with colonialism. Sorkin erases the tension with Josh, Sam, and Toby explaining matters to the high school students. However, the episode navigates a very real dilemma. If it paints everything in terms of pluralism vs. fundamentalism then it rings hollow. If it paints everything as contradictory (we cannot "free" the Saudi women; we cannot leave them "oppressed"), then it does not make for good "healing" television in the face of 9/11.

Over the course of two seasons of episodes, The West Wing has addressed issues such as gays in the military, racial reparations, Puerto Rican statehood, the drug wars and the need for a "permanent revolution" in education. Yet, no single question has brought as much scrutiny as Sorkin's decision, coupled with NBC's blessing, to provide commentary on terrorism. In the following papers, we attempt to address some of the issues at stake in the construction of The West Wing and its position in public discourse.

The term "responsibility" has been keyed to the production and reception of the 9/11 episode. Both our papers insist on a certain concept of responsibility as central to cultural politics and they suggest that one of The West Wing's contributions to public debate lies in its impact upon our very idea of responsibility. Debate around the appropriateness of the show is of two sorts. The first owes a great deal to the very same blindness that affects much of the criticism of the show. This is the notion that some ideas are too serious for discussion in popular culture, that the realm of politics should remain preserved and shielded from the vicissitudes of celebrity, the fickleness of the entertainment industry, and the naïveté of television. We see this line of critique as both troubling and rhetorically inconsistent. Throughout history, various cultures have engaged with their own political issues on a day-to-day basis, and rarely does one see the notion of a historical "cultural politics" questioned. We insist on the viability of cultural politics in the contemporary context. The second form of responsibility is the personal variety, one that resides within both Sorkin and his characters. As the writer of the show, Sorkin seems to inherit a responsibility to continue in the vein of commentary he had already produced, and the events of 9/11 demand immediate reaction. Moreover, President Josiah Bartlet as the "real" president's doppelganger seems somehow implicated in any shifts in American political life. In the end, there is much to be discussed when it comes to West Wing and its position in contemporary America. Our papers seek to take up that responsibility, to contribute to those discussions, and to foster further dialogue.