24 June 2012

I would love to see a boxing match between Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet

That title has almost nothing to do with this post. But it is true. I would pay a lot of money to see that.
NPR: Monkey See | Linda Holmes | Sorkin's 'Newsroom' Is No Place For Optimism

The underlying thesis of The Newsroom is that the problems of TV news – no, the problems of news media – no, the problems of American political life – are really pretty easy to solve. What could turn things around, the story suggests, is one newsman who will look into a camera and speak the objective and easily discernible truth. And, it suggests, the only reason that hasn't happened anywhere (and is thus so revelatory) is that everyone in every media organization in the country is so obtuse that they've never thought of offering objective facts in a civil manner before, and is such a money-grubbing coward that they'd never do it if they did.
That's essentially the same problem I had with Sorkin's West Wing. Many of my conservatives friends think it's biased towards leftism; I think it's biased towards Great Men.* In Sorkinland all of America's problems could be fixed if only the right people were given the reins. This is the antithesis of how I see the problem: it's not who holds the reins, it's that the team they're hitched too is far too large.

Putting your faith in finding just the right people to be in charge is not only juvenile but also dangerous. We need to design systems to work even when the wrong people are in the driver's seat, because sooner or later (it'll be sooner) you always get the wrong people.

I find Sorkin's world deeply disturbing. It's cynical and a fairy-tale all at the same time. In my world there are political divisions because people fundamentally disagree about what is right, and there are structural issues which reinforce those disagreements. In his world there are divisions because everyone is an idiot, and everything could be fixed if everyone who is wrong just shut up and listened to the few Smart People who are right.

I used to think that Sorkin was born several centuries late, that he would have been an excellent playwright creating dramas to boost the egos of courtiers in the Doge's Palace or Versailles. It's too bad, I thought, that he missed his calling putting on plays that flatter the intellectual and political elite about how smart and powerful they are, and how everyone needs their wisdom and guidance. But I just realized something: he didn't miss his chance at all. That's exactly what he does now, except instead of flattering some inbred Bourbons who actually could change history with a proclamation, he's flattering all the people who wish they could do that, all the people who would be courtiers if such still existed.


* I used to think this was in large part a result of general Narrative Bias. Sorkin is telling stories, and stories have a small and finite number of characters, and so a small and finite number of people must be the ones solving all the problems. But then I meditated on The Wire a little more and realized that David Simon well and truly proved that good narratives do not need to fall back on a handful of relevant people around whom the rest of the narrative universe revolves. Fiction, even political fiction, does not need Great Men. Indeed, it is better off without it.

2 comments:

  1. "Putting your faith in finding just the right people to be in charge is not only juvenile but also dangerous. We need to design systems to work even when the wrong people are in the driver's seat, because sooner or later (it'll be sooner) you always get the wrong people."

    Amen. Have you checked out Bitcoin? The way it's designed is very brilliant; even if as much as 49% of all the computational power behind Bitcoin were deliberately, overtly hellbent on sabotaging it, it would still be fine.

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  2. I have seen BitCoin, yeah. Very clever system. I wouldn't have thought to connect it to this theme, but you're absolutely right.

    Only thing that stops me from adopting it is that there just aren't enough merchants I frequent who accept it.

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