Lashing out at divided America

Last updated 09:24 25/06/2012

Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom makes its debut in the US tonight on HBO. Now, HBO makes half of all the television in America that people end up excited about. Sorkin has helped to create a whole bunch of stuff (The West Wing, The Social Network, American President, A Few Good Men) that I, and other respectable frequenters of American films and television, enjoyed. So there has been expectation for the Newsroom to be great.

RepublicanThere's something about the exchange of ideas in America at the moment that is redundant. As we approach the election, the zeitgeist is focused too neatly on the tussle between two irreconcilable ideas: conservative v liberal, Obama v Romney, Democrat v Republican. It is both boring and dangerous. Everyone is preaching to the choir. While campaigns are often reported on like sports games, it feels baser than ever.     

So for this reason I can't watch The Newsroom. I know it is a television show. As well acted and poignantly verbose as it may be... I can't do it. It is the straw that has broken this camel's back in terms of my tolerance for naïve, earnest and partisan entertainments that, unintentionally or not, keep people in their different corners. 

There's a spot in the trailer that needled me the most, where a news anchor (Jeff Daniels) scolds a student who asks his character what makes America the greatest nation on Earth.

He clucks, "Just in case you wander into a voting booth there's some things you should know. We're seventh in literacy, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor and number four in exports. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student but when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the f*** you're talking about ...Yosemite?"

This stance is a classic dismissal of American Exceptionalism by the left. It is delivered with such self-importance and condescension that it seems Aaron Sorkin really thinks that this is Serious stuff. But whether or not the facts check out (it seems they do) the style, tone and delivery make it as useful as discourse as a standard Fox News roundtable. 

But I guess, at least the Newsroom is having fun with tropes.

DemocratIn contrast, the presidential candidates have so, so meekly defined themselves by their opposition to the other, instead of actual ideas. 

Part of the fault lies with how dependent each candidate is on raising money for survival. When I see Obama or Romney in the news, they're mugging at $40,000-a-plate fundraisers held by people like Sarah Jessica Parker or Donald Trump.

Frank Bruni put it nicely in last week's Sunday New York Times, "...presidential candidates have been turned into platinum-level panhandlers. When they could and should be mulling the metastasising challenges of a country on the ropes, they're begging."

This has turned each of the two candidates into a slick figurehead for his respective side of the coin. Outside of smug photo-ops and black-tie fundraisers, Romney and Obama are most frequently spotted on news shows running clips from their stump speeches. The message of these speeches is invariably that Romney is an uncaring, hypocritical, rich jerk, or that Obama just made everything worse and still tries to blame it on everyone else.

The conversation, nearly four months out from the election, has become meaningless. The other week, Romney told a group of evangelical Christians that in regards to Israel he would simply do the "opposite" of what Obama did.

Frank Egan (from the same New York Times issue I quoted from above), said: "Elections are about narrative; as such, money and partisan reporting are vital to shape a story line that moves a majority of voters." 

In the current campaign actual facts are every day shown to be irrelevant. Obama announced a reprioritising of how his government would prosecute immigration cases, to free up a pathway for low-risk illegal immigrants to work. Republicans denounced him uniformly for not acting sooner to pass a law when he had both popular mandate and a majority. Except he did so in 2010, and Republicans blocked it. Maybe they forgot that happened, but I doubt all. 

Which all just makes The Newsroom more awkward. Because it acts as though there's a simple answer, which I'm not sure there is, and that it only needs to be stated in an authoritative manner to get through.

There's a lot of numbers and a lot of facts around, and none of them are good. There's $1 trillion of student debt, $13.2 trillion in consumer debt and $14 trillion in federal debt. There's $700 billion in bad equity sinking the housing market, 8 per cent unemployment, a hypersensitive stockmarket, looming crises in Europe and China, Syria, Iran, climate change, spiralling costs of education and health insurance...

So I get frustrated when each candidate makes me feel that he cares more about winning for his side, than addressing in any real way even some of the current list of problems.

Maybe I'm being too negative? There's always elements of all this in every election. Maybe the point is just to win at all cost so you can do the most amount of good, later.  

So enjoy The Newsroom, if that is your thing.

(The advance reviews have been mixed, which makes me feel better.)          

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22 comments
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Mister Cat   #1   10:17 am Jun 25 2012

The narrative of Democracy has shifted (and not just in the US) from 'respect and compromise' to 'win the election'. This is partly self-inflicted, as voters seem to be punishing candidates simply for losing, and for the 'piety' of their post-election conduct, rather than for how well they represent their entire constituency... as if totalitarianism, abuse of process and obstructionism is fine so long as it's neatly bracketed free and fair elections.

Even our own resident money-puppet seems to think that Democracy is all about winning the election then doing whatever you please because you have a 'mandate'.

Sarah   #2   10:25 am Jun 25 2012

For many decades american elections have only been about personalities and the person that the american people feel is the best looking usually wins. It is a shame that people can not see that the earth is spinning out of control with debt and environmental factors. I feel sorry for my children and my grandchildren:(

J Smith   #3   10:46 am Jun 25 2012

Great article. I read an article recently that also talked about politics as a sports event as well. You back your side and hate the other, regardless of what they do. This sort of bias is fine in sports supporters, (except to the point of violence of course), but very dangerous in politics.

A mindbending exercise is to set up an RSS feed that pulls articles relating to the two US candidates, from all sources. The difference can be staggering. Every point is presented two completely different ways. If you were only following the articles from sources in favour of your candidate you would have a very distorted view of what is actually happening. Its bizarre to see two articles one after the other, one saying that x issue has insured an Obama victory, and the other that x issue has cost him dearly.

Sin   #4   11:02 am Jun 25 2012

In regard to "American Exceptionalism", while it may seem a "classic" response from liberals, it's part of persistent effort to get Americans to see that being a true patriot, constantly banging the jingoistic drum, and draping your home with American flags doesn't really solve anything, as much as Fox News would have you believe that. Being a "proud American" doesn't require much effort either, but conservatives would have you believe it's really effing important.

They've boiled it down to a simplistic argument about "You're either for America or you're against it", which re-focuses people's attention on their level of patriotism, rather than directing it to real problems that need real solutions. That's probably why it's become a liberal cliche - because we constantly feel the need to point out that saying America is the greatest nation on the Earth doesn't make it so, and by focusing on maintaining that idea, the nation is actually rapidly sinking beneath a wealth of problems.

As for elections, until the two-party system ceases, it's going to continue to be an us-vs.-them debate. Bipartisanship is now seen a betrayal (at least by Republicans), and since Americans can only seem to understand hyperbole and black-and-white arguments these days, politicians continue to dance this dance.

-suppressed-   #5   11:08 am Jun 25 2012

At least in NZ our two party regime only includes one party noted for war crimes. If I was a yank I'd be ashamed to vote for either party. Where is Ralph Nader when his country needs him?

Joost   #6   11:31 am Jun 25 2012

Perhaps it is time for a change in the electoral system of the US. Proportional representation, and a move away from the adversarial system where (ofcourse) the facts are are no longer of importance.

REDACTED   #7   12:05 pm Jun 25 2012

The problem stems from a couple of Supreme Court decisions - firstly that Corporations are people (from the 1800s) and that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected speech - in other words, money is speech (from the 1970s).

Taking all the money out of the process and instituting strict public financing would be a good start.

Proportional representation is another good idea, one that'll never come to pass, unfortunately. The United Kingdom put forth a very timid electoral reform proposal (alternative vote) and it got sunk because of opposition from both the Conservatives and Labour, and it only ever came up because it was a condition of the Liberal Democrats to enter into a coalition government with the Tories anyway.

MC   #8   12:07 pm Jun 25 2012

Since you're talking about Aaron Sorkin - I've been re-watching The West Wing (thanks SoHo) which has only reinforced my belief that the American system of government is fundamentally screwed. In many ways the President is no better than a constitutional monarch. There are really only 2 main differences between Obama and QEII, 1 - Obama was elected and 2 - Liz knows she is powerless. The President can only really govern effectively is he (or she) controls both Congress and Senate. When was the last time that happened. They would be so much better off if they went to a single house system and elected the whole government including the President at the same time. If the people give their government a mandate to govern then let them rather than every policy or piece of legislation becoming so watered down and full of compromise that it becomes ineffectual.

Tim   #9   12:25 pm Jun 25 2012

While I sympathise with your frustration at the polarisation in US politics, your response is about as useful as Rodney King's "Can't we all just get along?" You suggest that the facts have become irrelevant. Once again I sympathise but giving up on trying to communicate facts is not the road to a better day.

The rant about the true status of the US in the world may seem to be delivered in a condescending manner but then you concede that the data is factual. I reckon that redeems the delivery.

That rant is crucial to the future well-being of the US. Improving their country will be easier if they can put behind them the idea that their country is perfect and that there is nothing to be learned from the rest of the world.

You bemoan the fact that it will perpetuate division but you appear to be suffering from the modern disease that afflicts a great many journalists - false equivalence. Both sides are not correct to some roughly equal degree. One is more correct than the other. You have to do the work, the endless work of democracy, of analysing what is said and pointing out what is factually correct and what is not.

There are a couple of sites on the web now that devote themselves purely to this task. I'm sure you know them. (Google Politifact and Factcheck.) They don't always get it right but they are definitely on the right track. Don't despair! As long as there are free and fair elections then the system can produce solutions.

mac   #10   12:32 pm Jun 25 2012

American politics has deteriorated steadily over the past few decades and has now become just another lucrative 'entertainment extravaganza'. It is now no different from the Superbowl or Wrestlemania and to be taken just as seriously. To many people on the outside looking in, the American political system is, in fact, directly responsible for the current state the country. Observers see nothing but greed and self-service celebrated as 'capitalism' and 'freedom'.

'...a government of the people, for the people, by the people.'? Sounds like a Tui ad to me...

It doesn't seem much better anywhere else, either. I think it has a lot to do with the type of person that is attracted to a political career. Perhaps the desire to be a politician should automatically disqualify a candidate.


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