“Romanticism is the conceptual school of art. It deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence. It does not record or photograph; it creates and projects. It is concerned—in the words of Aristotle—not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be …
The events of their plots are shaped, determined and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence …If philosophical significance is the criterion of what is to be taken seriously, then these are the most serious writers in world literature.”
Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto
Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men remains my favorite movie. Sorkin took different worldviews, personified them, put them in a conflict situation, and played it out. It’s what Ayn Rand defined as romanticism. It’s compelling, it’s meaningful, and nobody does it better than Sorkin.
So it’s exciting for me when Sorkin comes out with a new drama. It would be even better if he didn’t horribly tilt his playing fields to the left, but hey, you take what you can get.
I find the articulation of the values clash the continuation of the Talmudic tradition. We don’t debate philosophic theories in the abstract. We see how different principles play out in real and hypothetical scenarios, and we hone our principles accordingly. The articulation of the views in real-world settings increases our ability to grapple with the concepts.
The concept driving the first episode of Sorkin’s Newsroom is American Exceptionalism. The trailer shows the hero lashing out at the smiling young woman who asks why America is the greatest nation. The hero announces that it’s not, and goes on a diatribe spouting statistics, some of them even accurate, about America’s infant mortality rates, and the like.
But here’s the thing: those that speak of American Exceptionalism aren’t talking about household income or infant mortality rates, as important as those stats are. (BTW, on the latter, Sorkin was off by a factor of 4). American Exceptionalism is about what America believes, and what it does, not what it gets back.
“American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy” — Wikipedia
“Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” — Gordon Wood
“The Marshall Plan .. the Truman Policy .. all pumped billions upon billions of dollars into discouraged countries. Now, newspapers in those countries are writing about the decadent war-mongering Americans.” — Gordon Sinclair, The Americans
“So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f*** you’re talking about. Yosemite?” — Aaron Sorkin’s protagonist in Newsroom
No Aaron, we’re not talking about Yosemite. We’re talking about defeating Hitler and Hirohito and then helping rebuild those very countries and those they destroyed. We’re talking about defending the world from Stalin, liberating South Korea, and winning the Cold War. Counltess technological breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to the microwave oven. Yosemite?!
Sorkin’s protagonist claims ”We lead the world in only three categories. Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending.“
Really? What about patents? Nobel Prizes? I don’t want to get all morbid in talking about things like concentration camps liberated, but yeah, those. The #1 (and usually #2 and 3) search engine, social media network, online retailer, computer manufacturer, etc. The US leads the world in Top 10 (and Top 20 and Top 100) universities. Americans work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of any affluent people. Number one in immigration. And number one, by far, in charitable donations, whether calculating per capita or as percentage of GDP. Though by all measures Democrats are far less charitable, even as a percentage of income, than Republicans, which is presumably connected to the different views of whether people or governments are responsible for helping others. Which is one of the key issues that makes Americans different.
Rather than acknowledge US accomplishments Sorkin takes cheap shots at America, the concept of exceptionalism, and his favorite targets imprisonment, religion and military spending. I wonder if he originally had six categories but then he found other places in the episode to bash oil companies, limited government, and Halliburton.
Sorkin does seem to be setting up the female lead to take the other side on these questions. He presents her as the quintessential true-believer in America. Her one statement so far on the subject is that America is not the greatest nation, but that it can be. Which is a start, I guess.
So Sorkin first pretends that American Exceptionalism is about being #1. It’s not. It’s about believing America has a noble purpose, which it’s been playing admirably, if imperfectly.
Then Sorkin pretends America leads the world in only three categories, none of them good, ignoring American leadership in medicine, technology, charity, etc.
Then he spends the rest of the episode bashing oil companies, Halliburton, and anybody who believes in limited government. While pretending that what America is really missing is a tough left-wing news network that sometimes pretends to be balanced.
The irony is that the best living practitioner at turning values clashes into compelling drama, is unwilling or unable to get to the heart of American values.
“It is often declared that America is not only a plot of land but also an idea and a cause. As the political theorist Martin Diamond has observed, words like ‘Americanization,’ ‘Americanism,’ and ‘un-American’ have no counterparts in any other language. Nobody says that a country is being Italianized or Japanized or Chinese-ized, yet the Americanization of the world has been a topic of debate for a century. This doesn’t mean just that there are McDonald’s and Tom Cruise movies sweeping the landscape; it means some distinctive creed, mentality, and way of life is felt to be overrunning earlier patterns and cultures. …
What Americans share … is an inherited sense that history has a story line; and that each of us, individually and as citizens of the nation, plays a role in bringing the story to its happy ending.”
– David Brooks, On Paradise Drive
I hope Sorkin hires somebody like David Brooks, Dennis Prager or Peggy Noonan (who consulted for West Wing) to help write the pro-exceptionalism side.
The bigger challenge for Sorkin regarding American Exceptionalism may be not the idea but it’s primary source. From the 1600s through today, the main inspiration for American Exceptionalists has been the world’s other creedal nation, Israel. That won’t play well with Sorkin’s Jewish problem. But that’s for another post.
For all Americans, whether Americans by birth or by creed, happy Independence Day.