Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism
The idea that there is something inherently superior, noble or even virtuous at the core of America, it’s culture and morality, is, at least outside its own borders, almost too absurd to elicit any serious or organised opposition. Just as the evidence against young earth theories is so overwhelming that their proponents are obviously unwavering dogmatists rather than merely ill-informed individuals so a similar antipathetical sense seems to apply to American exceptionalism. The burden of proof then rests on America; if it were such a nation, if such a nation were even possible, it ought to lead and inspire, to have a sense of its own failings, faults and deficiencies and perhaps also the humility to eschew such plaudits in favour of redoubled efforts and greater works. But this isn’t about real life; this is about something much more important: This is about television. More specifically this is about The Newsroom and its antecedents, in particular The West Wing, but since they are both television programmes I’m giving myself a pass.
Aaron Sorkin’s work (even Charlie Wilson’s War) has never been set in the world as-is and trends, as much as I enjoy his writing, towards resembling a garrulous liberal’s Gilbert & Sullivan-influenced utopian fantasy. Nonetheless in the garrulous liberal’s Gilbert & Sullivan-influenced utopian fantasy developed in The West Wing the spreading of liberty and democracy, of a nation being bettered which then bettered others, provided the overarching structure of the entire series. It was obviously ridiculous when the Israel/Palestine conflict was resolved over a couple of episodes set at Camp David or when the White House manages to fix the American social security system because there’s nothing distracting them one slow afternoon… Nonetheless even these absurd impossibilities don’t jar the audience out of The West Wing’s reality, because it’s understood as patently fictional. The Newsroom, playing its interpersonal dramas against a background of genuine events, has far less leeway in this regard. Instead of showing an idealised world where eloquence and reason rule, Sorkin has written an “in-hindsight” guide to the decorum of catastrophe.
In the series’ opening, when Jeff Daniel’s character is asked why he thinks “America is the greatest country in the world” it’s a message which says “It’s not. But it could be.” that makes him lose his temper. It’s the gap between the fact of America and the idea of what American Exceptionalism says the nation ought to be which sends him over the edge. The implausibility of the particular scenario aside, it seems crass to say that the exceptional was a missed opportunity, that better journalism could have saved the world all on its own. I’m not positing an alternative; no other nations, even those which have exceptional traits in their past or current forms, should covet or attempt to claim this illusory mantle. Instead they, and we their occupants, should aspire to the process, the gradual amelioration of the global stage, the human condition. In that world, not-perfect, never perfect, but always striving towards it, maybe Aaron Sorkin will be able to write something a lot less fucking jingoistic than the assumptions around which all The Newsroom‘s well-rehearsed though somewhat-rehashed virtues shine.