There is a chance — not a large one, mind you — that in 2012 the most important athlete to enter public consciousness in the past few decades was drafted into the NBA. I am not talking about Anthony Davis.
Unless you are a basketball junkie, you have, even now, probably never heard of the person in question. But, if we are all lucky, supportive, and motivated, perhaps there will come a day when everyone will recognize the name Royce White.
If you are already familiar with White, it may be that you met him only recently, thanks to a story written by Chuck Klosterman
. The article is not a bad way to get to know the man. This is not because Klosterman provided a thoughtful, sympathetic, or insightful portrait. (Not at all, in fact.) It's because the story Klosterman wrote, and the person he reveals himself to be as the interviewer, is a perfect representation of the broader ideological challenges that White faces, and challenges, as interviewee. Chuck Klosterman represents common sense neo-liberal capitalist ideology. And maybe, just maybe, Royce White represents the antidote.
Before I delve into Klosterman's mis-reading of White, I want to provide a little context for the development of my own awareness of White and his increasingly well-publicized struggles with mental illness and basketball culture.
I first learned of White's story last year when he was starring as a point forward for the Iowa State University basketball team. Myron Medcalf wrote a lengthy profile for ESPN
chronicling the difficulties White had experienced -- specifically, with anxiety -- while at the University of Minnesota (which he attended prior to transferring to Iowa State). As someone who has experienced a fair share of anxiety myself — and as the child of someone who suffered from acute mental illness — I felt tremendous empathy for what White was going through, and tremendous admiration for his willingness to speak publicly despite the persistence of stigma in relation to all forms of mental illness in general.
I watched with interest as White was drafted 16th by the Houston Rockets in the 2012 NBA Draft, after an interview process in which he spoke openly (video)
with teams about his anxiety and his desire and need to work with an organization that would accommodate him. (If you watch the linked video you may be struck by how remarkably articulate White is, and also how candid he is about the challenges he faces. I was.) I hoped for the best for White (who happens to be a supremely gifted player) but didn't think much more about it at the time.
Then, in November, I noticed that White was back in the news, this time for what was offensively described by various media outlets including USA Today
as the Royce White Twitter Rant
. I'll reproduce this so-called "rant" in its entirety below.
On reading these Tweets (let's stop calling them a "rant" shall we?), I was immediately struck by a few things:
First, White's politics are far more sophisticated than I initially imagined. He understands that the NBA commodifies its athletes. He also grasps that, as a consequence, the league has little regard for the long-term health and well-being of its players (beyond the short-term ability to put them on the floor).
Second, White is remarkably courageous. We all know the kind of abuse that finds its way onto social networking sites. By making his position so public, White opened himself up to assault from legions of fans who believe that players are part commodity, part avatar for the vicarious fulfilment of their desires and aspirations.
Third (and this point is inextricable from the second), White consciously chose to articulate his position via Twitter in order to circumvent mainstream media outlets which are invested in the political economy of the NBA and thus, unlikely to fairly or accurately represent his position. The very fact that this sequence of arguments was framed as a rant by USA Today
and others testifies to the prescience of this decision.
This brings me to Chuck Klosterman, long-time music writer who has increasingly taken the liberty of reporting on and analyzing sports since the establishment of Grantland
last year by Bill Simmons and ESPN.
(Klosterman is listed on the website as a "contributing editor.")
Klosterman, according to his testimony in a podcast
taped with Bill Simmons immediately after the publication of the story on White, suggested that the impetus for the interview was a long-standing desire to explore the relationship between mental health and professional sport (he claimed to have attempted to pursue the same story with pitcher Dontrelle Willis). This may explain why he ends up finding himself so far out of his depth so quickly. For though Klosterman is interested in producing a de-contextualized puff piece on anxiety and performance, White forces him to confront political economy. And, unfortunately for Klosterman, that is something he appears, at least in the article itself, woefully ill-prepared to do.
Let's start at the top. After introducing White, Klosterman helpfully explicates the terms of his "contractual, philosophical dispute with the Houston Rockets." I quote at length:
"White wants the Rockets to implement what he calls a "mental health protocol," a medical curriculum that essentially hinges on White having his own personal psychiatrist decide when he's mentally fit to play. The Rockets feel they've already done enough (including agreeing to transport him to drivable away games so he won't have to fly). They want him to accept their compromise and show up for work. And for most people, this is the whole argument. If you side with White, you believe that his anxiety disorder is no different from a physical injury, and that his mental health advocacy is warranted and overdue; if you side with the Rockets, you suspect that White is something of a con man whose adversarial attitude is an affront to his $3.4 million contract and the calculated risk Houston took by drafting him 16th overall. It's a clash between labor and management, and his supporters and detractors tend to split down those preexisting lines."
The problem here is that Klosterman immediately informs us that this contractual dispute is not what is important. He writes, "But that practical dichotomy tends to de-emphasize something that's considerably more complex: Royce White's radical (but not absurd) belief about mental illness as a whole." Klosterman's failure here is not in his acknowledgement that there is something more at stake than a labour dispute; his failure lies in his inability to understand that the contract issue and the larger discussion around mental illness are one and the same.
White's argument and Klosterman's failure to comprehend it are evident in the transcript of their interview, which Klosterman, to his credit, provides. However, before getting to the interview, it is worth pausing to dwell on a passing comment Klosterman choose to make, for it is an early sign of the ideological investments that frame both the story and the broader society it can be seen to represent. Klosterman writes of White, "He's built like a double helix of panther sinew — whenever he adjusts his left arm, the biceps bulges so dramatically that it's distracting." What is evident here is a classic instance of racial coding. Klosterman's first reaction upon meeting White is to reduce him to base physicality.
Frantz Fanon wrote about this phenomenon in Black Skin, White Masks:
"There is one expression that through time has become singularly eroticized: the black athlete... The Negro symbolizes the biological. First of all, he enters puberty at the age of nine and is a father at the age of ten; he is hot-blooded, and his blood is strong; he is tough...I have always been struck by the speed with which 'handsome young Negro' turns into 'young colt' or 'stallion,'" (1967, 158-167).
Or, in this case, "panther." Fanon is indexing the tendency within hegemonically white societies for the racialized other to be fetishized and fixed as fundamentally physical or biological. The non-white other becomes an object onto which the fears and desires of the white subject (Klosterman) are projected. In the process, the objectified other (White) is dehumanized.
By engaging in this form of objectification from the outset of the story, Klosterman (likely unconsciously) undermines White's subjectivity. That is, he creates a contrast between his own implicit authorial omniscience and White's comparative corporeality. The power of Klosterman's description is that it draws on widespread cultural codes associating blackness with the body. Readers are pre-disposed to see White (as black athlete) in bestial terms; all they need is for Klosterman to push the necessary buttons.
Thus, by the time we as readers are confronted with the text of the interview itself, a power dynamic between interviewer and interviewee has already been established. Here is the first exchange reproduced at length (note that Klosterman, as questioner, is bolded in the source material):
Do you believe 26 percent of the league is dealing with a mental illness, or does mental illness prompt those dealing with it to self-select themselves out of the pool? Are you the rare exception who got drafted?
The amount of NBA players with mental health disorders is way over 26 percent. My suggestion would be to ask David Stern how many players in the league he thinks have a marijuana problem. Whatever number he gives you, that's the number with mental illness. A chemical imbalance is a mental illness.
So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that --
That's a mental illness. A gambling addiction is a mental illness. Addiction is a mental illness.
Well, then what's the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?
The reality is that you can't black-and-white it, no matter how much you want to. You have to be OK with it being gray. There is no end or beginning. It's more individualistic. If someone tears a ligament, there is a grade for its severity. But there's no grade with mental illness. It all has to do with the person and their environment and how they are affected by that environment.
OK, I get that. But you classify a gambling addiction as a mental illness. Gambling is incredibly common among hypercompetitive people. The NBA is filled with hypercompetitive people. So wouldn't this mean that --
Here's an even tougher thing that we're just starting to uncover: How many people don't have a mental illness? But that's what we don't want to talk about.
Why wouldn't we want to talk about that?
Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they're the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, "You stay over there and deal with your problems over there."
OK, just so I get this right: You're arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.
Exactly. That's definitely correct.
But — if that's true — wouldn't that mean "mental illness" is just a normative condition? That it's just how people are?
That doesn't make it normal. This is based on science. If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn't make it normal … the problem is growing, and it's growing because there's a subtle war — in America, and in the world — between business and health. It's no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.
So … this is about late capitalism?
There is so much to unpack. Let us begin with Klosterman's first questions about mental illness. Clearly, as discussed above, this is the story he is interested in telling. Yet, something strange emerges from the outset. As White begins to make a perfectly conventional case about addiction as mental illness (saying, "a chemical imbalance is mental illness"), Klosterman reacts as if this is a startling revelation: "So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that —."
There are three possibilities here. Perhaps, Klosterman is woefully ignorant about the nature of mental illness. This is possible, although highly improbable and distinctly unprofessional given that he has set out to write a story on the subject. There is also the possibility that Klosterman is simply teeing up White to provide the obvious answer to the question (which he does). This is the most generous reading, but it is also the least likely. For, upon hearing White's thoughtful answer, Klosterman attempts to problematize it: "Well, then what's the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?" The third possibility, and the most probable, is this: Klosterman is attempting to undermine and humiliate. He is trying to provoke White to fulfil his role as a bumbling athlete. There's only one problem. White refuses to play his part.
This becomes ever-more apparent as one reads White's testimony. He is a young man who has fully worked through the logical implications of his argument. We see from the transcript that Klosterman wants this to be a story about mental illness, or perhaps, if that story does not play out the way he has in mind, a story about a recalcitrant athlete using mental illness as an excuse for his own indolence and greed (which is how Bill Simmons seems to interpret White in the podcast mentioned earlier). What Klosterman is unprepared for is a story about how the NBA stands in as a microcosm for the way in which mental illness and capitalism are linked.
Again, I will let White explain in his own words:
"At the end of the day, we don't associate mental health disorders with having severe health risks. And they do," he explains. "In that Real Sports piece, they only touched on the addictive traits and the suicidal and homicidal behaviors [associated with mental illness]. But there are other elements that no one wants to talk about. Stress is one of the number-one killers of human beings. Stress hardens your arteries. And that's scary for a lot of humans, so they don't want to talk about it. It's like — what is the pollution in the air really doing to us? We'd rather just tiptoe around that idea and argue that it's the food that's killing us. But the reality is that stress is a killer of humans, and if we don't support mental health in the right way, the nature of the illness causes people to become overly stressed. And that's serious."
..."My request was to have an addendum to my contract," he begins. "Now, would that set a precedent? That's not really my thing. I asked for something to be put into my contract. Not something for all players to use."
But then he continues talking. And this is where it becomes difficult to see how White and the Rockets will ever find real common ground, even if he eventually ends up on their roster.
"But if you want to talk about it through that lens, every player should have their own doctor. The reality is that American businesses are built on the idea of cutting overhead. And how do we cut overhead?" White points to the door that leads from the patio to the main restaurant. "Why do restaurants put exit signs over every exit? I bet if Cheesecake Factory didn't have to do that, they wouldn't. Because it would cost less to do nothing. They have to be forced to do that. So if a team or a business can save money by making things less safe, they're going to do that. They don't care. It's a conflict of interest to have the team doctor paid by the team. What we need is a doctor who can look at a situation and say, 'Listen, I know the team wants you to do this, and I know their doctor is saying you should do this. But as a non-biased doctor with no interest in how you perform athletically, I recommend differently.' Right now, you have players pushing themselves back in three weeks who have three-month injuries."
I ask him if he understands why NBA owners might be reluctant to give players that level of input into when they're ready to play basketball, particularly for a disease that's invisible (and arguably subjective).
"I'm always going to run into problems with people who think business is more important than human welfare," he replies.
White's struggle is not just a contract dispute. It is not just a struggle with mental illness. It is both. White understands that capitalism inherently isolates, alienates, and dehumanizes. It is a system in which people are treated as commodities and in which generation of wealth is the highest social end. These are not simply abstract concepts, however. They have a palpable impact on people's lives. Marx gives us one vocabulary to talk about this (the one I have been employing in this paragraph). White simply gives us another: mental illness.
The reason why this is important is because it allows White to produce a sophisticated, logically-developed argument that connects subjectivity (experience) to political economy. In other words, it prevents him from betraying precisely the naivety that Klosterman craves and expects. Klosterman wants White to fall into the trap of admitting that he has a unique problem requiring a special solution, and that this is an indefensible position if taken to its logical conclusion (for, if he gets special conditions in his contract, everyone else will want the same, and the league will collapse). Only, White has thought of that.
What if stress is just part of it?
What does that mean, "It's just part of it"? That's like saying people getting killed is just part of war.
But people getting killed is part of war. That's the downside of war.
It doesn't have to be, though. We choose that. When you say, "That's just part of it," it implies that this is natural. Volcanoes don't kill human beings. Volcanoes kill human beings because human beings build houses right next to them.
Yes. But when I ask, "What if stress is just part of it?" I'm really asking, "What if it's just part of the choice that society has made?" It may be problematic, but what if we've all agreed that this problematic thing is part of the experience of being involved in a rarefied profession?
That's fine. But don't act like this wasn't a choice.
So what would you have done if, upon drafting you, the Rockets had said this: "Look — this is going to be hard for you. It might, in fact, be detrimental. But that is just part of competing at this sport at this level."
You can't do that, though. You can't discriminate against somebody, because that's ADA6 law. People say I'm getting special treatment, but it's the NBA who wants special treatment. They want to say they're this rarefied profession where laws don't apply. But ADA law is federal. I've always said the NBA should have a mental health policy. I didn't know they didn't have one, until I got drafted. But the NCAA doesn't have one, either … I had to sit my first year at Iowa State, because there was no mental health protocol. I transferred on the basis of mental health issues. Both my doctor and my psychiatrist wrote letters to the NCAA that said my staying at Minnesota would not be healthy, because I'd just been through a three-month case where I was targeted by police for a crime I was not guilty of, and that I needed a fresh start. Because I have a mental illness. But the NCAA denied my waiver.
What was the NCAA's argument?
They didn't really have one. They said it was my choice to transfer.
In a new paragraph immediately following the above exchange, here is how Klosterman responds: "There are times when White seems like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can't stop talking about it. He's arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be." There is tremendous irony here, for in this passage Klosterman displays the height of self-aggrandizement and insulting condescension. The reality is that it is he, not his interview subject, who is "not as wise as he believes himself to be."
The reason for this is quite simple. Klosterman is attempting to critique White from precisely the ideological position that White is in the process of deconstructing. Because he does not recognize his own ideological investments, Klosterman believes that he is outside of ideology itself and thus suitably-positioned to analyze it. In fact, this ignorance leaves him completely unequipped to understand the extent to which he embodies the very object of White's critique.
White is suggesting that those born into capitalist societies are socialized to see such a social structure as natural and normal. From this standpoint, it becomes very difficult to imagine another way of organizing society. Thus, on his podcast, Klosterman dismisses White's argument as ultimately absurd because it would culminate in chaos for the NBA: each player with his own physician determining whether or not he can play. Such a conclusion makes sense for someone who cannot imagine his way out of capitalism; who views its institutions as timeless and inevitable.
Fortunately, White is not similarly myopic. What Klosterman cannot understand is that the entire purpose of White's pesky, uninteresting contract dispute, his 'irrational' outbursts on twitter, and his "radical" views on mental illness is to challenge the very structure of capitalism itself, and following from that, all of the forms in which capitalism manifests, from the mass media to the National Basketball Association. The fact that genuine concern over mental illness (and other forms of bodily injury) might require a complete reorganization of the NBA to the extent that power would have to shift from ownership to labour is not a reason to throw these arguments away. They are the very reasons why such a radical change needs to occur and should be fought for. White gets this; Klosterman does not.
Clearly, much can be understood about the promise of White and the limitations of his society by reading his ideas in literal conversation with one of capitalism's organic intellectuals, Mr. Chuck Klosterman. However, I want to conclude by imagining White in the shadow of a person with a very different legacy: Muhammad Ali.
It is difficult now to imagine a moment when athletes stood for something more than their own brand. The last few decades can be summed up largely in Michael Jordan's infamous claim that "Rebublicans buy sneakers too." This has become a mantra to live by for America's most celebrated athletes, from Jordan to Tiger Woods to LeBron James. There was, however, a time when American athletes chose to use their remarkable public platform to challenge the inequities of racism and capitalism. Perhaps no one embodied that confluence of celebrity and political radicalism more fully than Ali.
At the end of his superb exploration of Ali and his era, Redemption Song, Mike Marqusee writes:
"If one day we're lucky enough to live through a sporting revolution in which the domination of finance is overthrown and sport is at last permitted to come into its own, not as an instrument for monetary gain, or national aggrandizement, but as an exercise with no end but itself, I have no doubt the revolutionaries will draw inspiration from Muhammad Ali. His example of personal moral witness, of border-crossing solidarity, belongs not to sixties nostalgia, but to the common future of humanity," (2005, 298).
Royce White may not see himself as the heir to Muhammad Ali. He doesn't have to. He has already demonstrated the same spirit of political conviction and courage that animated his predecessor. Now, all he needs is the stage. The challenge for White will be to find a way to reconcile his distaste for the structures of capitalism and the NBA and the political imperative to carve out a prominent place in those spaces. If he cannot, Klosterman may be the last obnoxious pop-journalist to be befuddled by him, not just the first.
We live in a unique era: one in which we can speak directly to those we might otherwise admire from afar. White has already demonstrated the power of social networking to disseminate an unfiltered message. It's time we showed him that he does not walk alone. Tweet your support to Royce at @Highway_30.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks
. New York: Grove Press.
Marqusee, M. (2005). Redemption song: Muhammad Ali and the spirit of the sixties
. London: Verso.This post was originally published by the journal Left Hook
It is difficult to reduce an ensemble drama to a single character or even relationship, as if such a deliberately small piece can be said to represent the whole puzzle. Yet, I think, there is sometimes a dynamic or individual character which seems to stand in for the heart of a work; to reside closer to the creator's outlook and intentions (to the extent we can imagine reconstructing them) than any other.
In The West Wing, I believe that character is Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) and the relationship is between Josh and his long-time assistant Donna Moss (Janel Maloney).
Josh is a flamboyant, wilful, immature character. He is the Deputy Chief of Staff and the thug charged with bullying Congress to vote with the President. He is also what i imagine creator Aaron Sorkin to be like. Donna is Josh's assistant. She caters to his every impulse and whim, recognizing his needs long before he bellows her name (instead of using the intercom at his disposal for that purpose). There is a romantic tension that lingers between them throughout the show, undermining the attempts each makes at relationships with other people and culminating in consummation in the seventh season.
On the surface, there is no question that this is a conventional story arc designed to provide a bit of heart in a show preoccupied with cold, hard politics. There is only one problem with this reading: creator Aaron Sorkin left the show
after its fourth season. It is only my speculation, but I don't think this is how Sorkin meant for this storyline to play out. And that's a problem.
It's a problem because I think that Sorkin's writing has, at the very least, distinct traces of misogyny. Sorkin's recent films--The Social Network
, and, especially, Moneyball
--have little room for women. They are homo-social dramas about male ambition and relationships. This is the realm in which Sorkin seems at ease. Women drift in and out, but they are accessories, little more.
For instance, in Moneyball, Billy Beane's relationship to his ex-wife is left undeveloped, although it seems clear that it is an important part of his personality, whether he understands it to be or not. This is the issue with Sorkin's writing: he has a masterful ear for the nuances of the professional arena, be it a tech company, a baseball team, or the White House, but is largely tone deaf to the complex personal relationship. It is little wonder that the one non-baseball relationship glimpse of Beane's is to his daughter; when Sorkin does write relationships, his grasp of their subtleties is childlike at best.
The last three seasons of The West Wing have a bad rep. There's no other way to put it. I remember watching the show when it first aired. It's popularity was immense, particularly in my social circle. Yet, by the time the fifth season was under way, post-Sorkin, no one I knew was still watching, myself included. This had a great deal to do with an inane story line about facilitating reconciliation in Israel, but it was just as much about Sorkin. Without him, it was thought, the show would become average network fare, or worse.
Fortunately, I was recently exhorted to give the series a second chance. Although the fifth season is indeed a bit of a dud, the nomination and presidential campaign of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and the waning days of the Bartlett presidency make for compelling viewing.
This is why the end of the show is entertaining, but not why it is important. For that, we need to return to Josh and Donna. Why do these two central characters finally give in to the latent desire they have (apparently) felt all along?
It is not merely vicarious fulfilment for loyal viewers who have stuck with the show through it all. No, rather, it is the logical consequence of a fundamental change in their dynamic.
In the sixth season of the show, Donna comes to realize that she will not find career advancement working for Josh, who sees her only as his assistant, not as a potential peer. She leaves to work for the Vice-President and his campaign for the Democratic nomination, in direct competition with Josh and his candidate: Santos. In the intervening year, as the leadership campaign runs into Presidential campaign, Donna ascends through the ranks, ultimately being promoted to spokesperson for the Santos campaign. Only then do she and Josh begin a relationship.
The salient point here is that Donna can only connect romantically with Josh once she has overturned the power dynamic in their relationship. This functions as a neat metaphor for the changes in the show. As long as Sorkin was at the helm, female characters generally remained either subordinate to men, or stereotypically feminine in a way that was clearly disempowering.
Like Josh in his relation to Donna, Sorkin's The West Wing sees women as incidental to the important business of governing. The most significant female character on the show is C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney). As Press Secretary, C.J. is clearly important. Yet, she is also the only member of the inner circle to shed tears in the White House. This is not to say that emotion is in itself a sign of inadequacy. The issue is that C.J.'s tears represent a failure to understand larger implications. She cries for the individual, and in the process, loses sight of the collective interest. Worse, her tears fulfill a stereotype of femininity that says that women aren't cut out for rational political work.
Perhaps the best exemplification of Sorkin's attitude towards women comes in a sequence of scenes in which Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe) interacts with Associate White House Counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor). Sam tells Ainsley that her outfit is "enough to make a good dog break his leash." He is then informed by another woman in the office that this was an offensive and demeaning comment. Sam obsesses over whether she was right, even asking Ainsley herself, who tells him she thought it was a compliment. Ultimately, the sequence culminates with Hayes confronting Sam's accuser (a woman named Celia who otherwise does not appear in the show) and telling her: "The point is that sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones like pay equity, childcare, honest to God sexual harassment..." (See below for the extended sequence to appreciate the full context of these remarks.)
Ainsley's (Sorkin's) "lipstick feminism" is basic apologism for a society that objectifies women. Whether or not Ainsley wants to wear lipstick or stilettos is beside the point; the question is whether the expectation that she should exists in the first place. Sam's comments make this implicit, gendered, social standard explicit. Ainsley may like it, but Celia doesn't, and with good reason. She and others in the office are being told they must look a certain way in order to receive respect. Ainsley may see the objectification of women as a "nonsense" issue, but I suspect that those legions of young women stricken with body and image anxiety would disagree.
Through Sam, Sorkin is espousing a particular brand of feminism that works for men like him: he thinks women deserve equal pay, but he also wants to ogle them to his heart's content. This scene is disturbingly close to one that might occur in Mad Men, yet Sorkin tries to pass it off as progressive.
The remarkable thing about attitudes to gender in The West Wing is how much they change after Sorkin leaves the show. C.J. ascends from her position as Press Secretary to Chief of Staff and handles the job adroitly. Moreover, whereas, in the early seasons it is the male leads who struggle to balance relationships with their all-consuming work (leaving us to feel that their partners are being unreasonable to ask for more from them--another troubling gender dynamic), in the last season it is C.J. who has little time for her long-time love interest Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield).
In the latter seasons, a new female character is added to the cast: Deputy National Security Advisor Kate Harper (Mary McCormack). She is thoughtful, dignified, and tenacious--perhaps the first significant role for a woman on the show that does not feel gimmicky in some way. Santos' campaign advisor is Louise Thornton (Janeane Garofalo), a more serious version of the grating Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) character penned by Sorkin in the first season.
And then, of course, there is Donna, who blossoms after Sorkin's departure into Josh's equal (at least professionally, she still outstrips him by a considerable margin emotionally).
The relationship is satisfying, not because she has earned his affection, but because he
has learned how to appreciate a woman who challenges his authority (this is a problem in his relationship to Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), the strongest female role written by Sorkin in the history of the show).
This would doubtless be more satisfying if Sorkin had still been pulling the strings on Josh--one wonders how he will write women in his upcoming HBO series The Newsroom
(a show that steals its title from an earlier CBC series
People often talk about the "progressive" end of the series, referring to the character of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), his race, and the fact that he seems an even more liberal successor to the Bartlett (Martin Sheen) regime, but it's really in the representations of women that the show grows over its lifespan. Without Sorkin at the helm, The West Wing
comes, contrary to all expectations, to outgrow its creator. I'm not sure she would admit it, but I'm pretty sure even Ainsley Hayes would appreciate that.
There is a not-so-secret secret about me: I love to eat.
In fact, I have a reputation as something of a glutton. One of the principal joys of my day-to-day life is the anticipation of my next meal. On occasion, I actually find myself counting down the minutes until I can justify my next feed (three hours isn’t quite long enough, but four? Off to the fridge...). (My feats at the dinner table are often viewed with some combination of awe and disgust), and the truth is that my primary reason for working out at the gym is a desire to be able to eat to my heart’s content.
I am not proud of this.
There are myriad reasons to condemn this behaviour, foremost among them the fact that it is entirely unsustainable and inequitable. It is also unhealthy, although that is the least of my concerns. The other major problem with the way that I eat is the fact that I am a completely unreformed carnivore. I live to eat flesh. When I fantasize about my next meal, it is the meat I am thinking about first and foremost. I can't imagine giving it up, though I believe that the only moral choice is to do so. Between the environmental and ethical repercussions of the meat industry (for humans and animals alike) there is no justification for the consumption of meat. And yet, as I write this, my mind skips ahead to the fried chicken I plan to eat tonight (prepared by The Stockyards
in Toronto—it's to die for).
Despite my love affair with all things edible and the fact that I enjoy television, I am not a huge fan of cooking shows in generally. This is probably because I am not much of a cook (another thing I'm not particular proud of, and am working slowly to change).
In general, my appreciation of food is unrefined. I don't have a sophisticated palate or vocabulary for food ... just a passion for its consumption.
And then, by chance, my partner and I stumbled upon a television chef who captured my imagination: Chuck Hughes. Chuck was born and raised in Montreal and currently runs two restaurants there. His show is called “Chuck’s Day Off
” and the premise is that Chuck loves cooking so much that he even likes to cook for those who help make his restaurant hum (staff, suppliers, etc.) on his days off.
Of course, one should be wary of anything seen on television, particularly that which claims to be ‘reality.’ Nevertheless, despite myself, I must admit that I was charmed by Chuck. He is unpretentious and exuberant. When he tastes the food he has just prepared, his knees seem to buckle with pleasure and he declares much of it to be “amazing.” In other words, he behaves just as I imagine I would if I had a similar gift for culinary alchemy. Aside from his charisma, what I like about Chuck is the way he approaches creative cookery. He seems less interested in mastering the art of French cuisine and more into preparing comforting (and unhealthy) dishes inspired by his Montreal roots but injected with twists his own imagination that cater to base desires rather than intellect.
It's not, I’m sure, for everyone (or maybe it is, but I can’t speak to Chuck's reception amongst gastronomical sophisticates). Chuck is, however, the perfect chef for someone like me, who imagines that the best way to improve a dish is by adding prosciutto and/or sending on a journey through the deep fryer.
It should be no surprise, then, that I had long been thinking about making a stop at one of Chuck's restaurants the next time we were in Montreal. That opportunity finally arrived this weekend. I phoned ahead to Chuck’s more established restaurant, located in Old Montreal: Garde-Manger
, smugly thinking I could ensure a reservation. Instead, I learned that reservations typically require thirty days notice, especially for a Saturday night.
Chagrined, I accepted a spot on the waiting list and booked us a seat at the bar of Chuck’s newer restaurant Le Bremner
(a quieter and less rowdy version of Garde-Manger also situated in Old Montreal). Fortuitously, late Saturday afternoon, I received a call to say that a spot at Garde-Manger had opened up; we would have the classic Chuck experience after all.
The reviews of Garde-Manger, as food reviews tend to be, range towards the snooty. It was once a brilliant restaurant
, they say. Then Chuck became famous and tourists began to arrive
. Prices rose and what was once cool now only pretended. This is the hipster way.
I was not to be put off. Cool or not, Chuck was my culinary soul mate and I was determined to consummate our relationship.
Now, I come to the part of the post in which I will rave about the food. There is no surprising twist or ironic turn to this narrative. There will, I hope, also be none of the overwrought pseudo-poetical prose of the typical restaurant review. I couldn’t do justice to the food that way even if I wanted to.
What I want to do is describe perhaps the most gratifying meal of my life.
We started with drinks. Jen had a classic gin martini (dirty, because she loves olives) and I had a giant Caesar (see above video), replete with a giant stalk of celery and crab claw I proceeded to mash and mangle as I greedily slurped out the flesh within.
We ordered two starters. The first was a seafood platter that is a specialty of the house. We asked for the smallest size and were taken aback by the magnitude of the multi-tiered dish that arrived at our table. The shrimp (served with homemade cocktail sauce covered in grated horseradish) was the only moment in the meal when I felt blasé about what I was eating. The rest of the platter—oysters and more crab legs—was delicious. Certainly, our enjoyment was aided by the wine that our server paired for us with the course, as she would for each that followed (including both starters). Yes, we had fun.
The second appetizer was another house speciality: lobster poutine. I am actually not a hug poutine guy—I’m often put off by the gravy which, if not at its best, can turn my stomach. Not a problem in this case. The dish was expensive--$19 for a very small portion—but (and I am cheap) I really felt like I would have paid more. It was incredible. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must concede that Jen did not think it was so great/worth the cost. But what does she know?)
Next I ordered a flank steak served with a fried egg on top, resting on a bed of deep fried mashed potato balls with a side of homemade sour cream. If this sounds excessive to you, we do not have the same tastes. I have never had a better steak. It was actually more delicious than it sounds, if that is possible. A masterpiece. Even Jen, who is not a potato person, declared the deep fried mashed to be incredible.
And yet, my steak, believe it or not, was the lesser of the two orders. Jen boldly made the choice I can never quite commit to: the risotto. Risottos always sound tempting to me, but I fear not being satisfied (there are also issues related to preparation, but I leave that for the professionals to discuss). In this case, the risotto was prepared in a lobster bisque with rock shrimp. After a single bite, my steak (my incredible, perfectly prepared, delicious steak) started to seem like a McDonald’ s hamburger. (Luckily, Jen couldn't finish her dish and I got to eat much of it as well as my own.)
I should add that we are not even lobster lovers. Both Jen and I tend to find it overpriced and understimulating. Not so when it comes from the kitchen of Chuck, who must be some sort of lobster whisperer. (Last year, in Halifax, I had a lobster bisque at McKelvie’s that might as well have been prepared by Campbell’s in comparison.)
At this point, Jen pleaded for me to stop. There was no doubt we had been more than sufficiently sated. But I found I could not resist the call of Chuck's famed deep fried Mars bar for dessert. Jen relented and the Mars bar arrived with ice cream on the side.
It would, it turns out, have been a tragedy not to try it. Jen had previously eaten a DFM in Scotland and declared that she was too old to try another, but even she admits that her previous experience with a fish and chips-style attempt bore no resemblance to the bread crumb coated festival of delight we were treated to at Garde-Manger.
(My prose is purpling, but I can’t help it. How to do justice in print to something that can only be appreciated on the palate?!)
All I can say is this: thank you, Chuck. I have never had a more satisfying (or expensive, I must acknowledge) meal. If you are a carnivorous glutton like me and you happen to have an evening out in Montreal, plan ahead and treat yourself to Garde-Manger.
May Chuck never take more than a day off.
The fall, America was gripped by a bizarre form of collective hysteria that has been called "Tebowmania
." This condition was characterized by ecstatic devotion to the exploits of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who defied NFL norms to achieve considerable success as a run-first pivot.
This winter, a new form of popular psychosis has replaced Tebowmania in the minds of Americans: "Linsanity
." This, of course (who hasn't heard of Linsanity by now?), refers to the way in which the performances of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin have been received in New York, the United States more generally, and even beyond. Lin is a Harvard graduate, who, in his second year in the NBA, was days away from being cut
by the Knicks before exploding as the Eastern Conference player of the week
Time Magazine, February 27, 2012
It is tempting to infer that Tebowmania and Linsanity are related afflictions, even that the latter is a mere extension of the former. Indeed, it is easy to assume that both are simply manifestations of a more transhistorical and universal adulation of the underdog, of David vs. Goliath.
I draw upon this religious imagery because it is relevant. Tebow and Lin are both devout and outspoken Christians. There is no question that this is part of their appeal in the context of a nation that has seen a renaissance of evangelical Christianity. However, the degree of relevance is asymmetrical in relation to the two athletes in question.
Tebow has become a religious icon whose endorsement has been sought
by candidates in the Republican presidential primaries. It is as an icon of this political movement that Tebow has found such widespread popularity. Thus, it is little wonder that his athletic accomplishments have been widely discussed (both in jest and more seriously) as evidence of divine intervention
The Jeremy Lin phenomenon is somewhat different. Certainly, his religion and underdog status have contributed significantly to his appeal. It would be ludicrous to deny this. There is, however, another aspect to Linsanity that has received barely any play (and trust me, having spent the past week in the United States, that is saying something given the ubiquitous Lin-talk): Jeremy Lin has been embraced because he represents the model minority.
A much older cover from Time Magazine.
What is a model minority? Basically, this label captures the way in which certain members of racialized groups in a society that is dominated by whites come to exemplify characteristics perceived to approximate the governing standards of whiteness. While many who use the term do so to encompass the way in which entire minority groups are represented, I find this approach to be over-generalized bordering on essentialist. Rather, I prefer to apply it to individual non-white subjects who, while never quite attaining the status of whiteness, nevertheless tend to satisfy middle class white values. In doing so, they reassure the white majority that they will not pose a threat to the general structure of society, which continues to privilege whiteness in various ways.
Rita Dhamoon and others have written about how model minorities also need to be understood in the context of their binary opposite: the 'bad immigrant.' The bad immigrant is a racialized, working class subject who is not easily assimilated. So-called bad immigrants are essential to the workings of nations like the United States in that they provide much of the labour required for these countries to function. Nevertheless, they are perceived to be a threat in numbers and culture to the social structure.
The issue of Jeremy Lin as model minority subject has been touched upon by academics writing in the mainstream media
and others writing in blog form
. Even here, though, the predominant concern is with whether Lin, as basketball player (a non-conventional occupation reserved for more recalcitrant marginalized groups, namely African-Americans), breaks down the model minority stereotype (yes, writes the author, David Mayeda). Although I credit Mayeda for raising the issue, he has it wrong.
Lin has been glorified precisely because, unlike the many African-American basketball players who have preceded him (many of whom have been born into working class communities and nearly all of whom have been assumed
to have such a history), he is a model minority subject. His Harvard education, his business savvy (he has filed to trademark the term "Linsanity"
), and his deferential manner have all endeared him to the U.S. media.
By repeatedly extolling Lin, media commentators disseminate an image of what all non-white citizens should aspire to. This is not only true of white media members, because hegemonic whiteness is ideological; it is not the necessary product of some mythical racial essence. Thus, writing in the Miami Herald
, Leonard Pitts Jr.
distils the lesson of Lin for black American readers: It is always jolting when someone breaks out of the context to which you have subconsciously confined them — like when you run into your teacher, at the mall with her kids. Similarly, when it comes to Asian guys, we expect that they will excel in engineering or chemistry. We emphatically do not expect them to break the defender’s ankles and take the rock to the rack with malice.
There is a word for expecting things from people based on the racial, religious, gender or cultural box you have put them into. The word is “stereotyping,” a form of mental laziness in which people believe they can know who and what you are simply by seeing you.
You should know all about that. After all, the stereotypes about you are manifold. You are supposedly given to innate criminality, promiscuity, rhythm, athleticism and, more to the point of this column, stupidity, i.e., the inability to conquer chemistry, master math or otherwise do well in school.
As troubling as it is to know other people believe such things about you, it is infinitely more troubling to know you too often believe such things about yourself. It is difficult to escape that impression when one hears you using the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite racial epithet. Or defining yourselves as thugs. Or suggesting that speaking English is “acting white.” Indeed, one is reminded of the axiom that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth — even the people being lied about.
It takes a prodigious strength of mind and sense of self to resist that. How many times do you suppose Jeremy Lin had people tell him there was no way a Chinese guy could compete in a game dominated by African Americans? Yet there he is, ballin’ at the highest level.
So, the most admirable thing about him is neither his scoring nor his assists, but, rather, the fact that he refused to allow other people to define him. He knew he was capable of things they’d never expect or believe. And guess what?
So are you.
A high school yearbook photo of Lin, from linsanity.com.
Pitt Jr.'s article is a neat illustration of the way in which model minorities are used to discipline other members of minority groups. Those represented as model minority subjects are examples of how it is possible to achieve acceptance by the white majority. Their successful realization of this version of the American Dream becomes more damning evidence that those who "allow other people to define" them as failures and threats are personally responsible for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. In other words, the celebration of the model minority subject conceals the existence of structural inequities, reducing them instead to questions of individual merit and responsibility.
It is not Jeremy Lin's fault that he has become represented as a model minority subject. His story is unusual, even genuinely exceptional, and he deserves credit for what he has accomplished. However, if Lin aspires to be a true role model in a society rife with racial prejudice and inequality, he needs to bring race to the foreground. In practice, this means that the next time a media outlet makes a racial slur out of a headline
, Lin cannot simply brush the issue aside as an accident
This is a lot to ask of a young man who is simply happy to have the opportunity to do what he loves. It is not his responsibility to solve a structural problem all on his own. It is fair, though, to ask those of us who produce and consume sports media to take a more critical stance. The very language of "Linsanity" betrays the way in which we have abdicated our duty to think carefully about what is happening.
It is precisely this sort of collective madness that contributes to what Antonio Gramsci described as "hegemony": the widespread acceptance as common sense of ideas that legitimize the power of some in society over others. The model minority is such an idea. By completely succumbing to Linsanity, that is, by failing to ask why it is we shower him with a level of adulation barely ever extended to others, particularly African-Americans who defy norms of whiteness, we are tacitly accepting a system of white privilege and racial inequality.
The mystery genre is not the place one would expect to find progressive political content.
This is a world in which police are heroes and brutality is always a justified option. There are some exceptions, however. Since the Cold War, spy thriller author John Le Carre has produced increasingly political novels that spotlight corporate hegemony and U.S. imperialism (especially The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, and Absolute Friends).
Le Carre's novels are not to everyone's taste. They are subtle and tend to provide little of the pay-off we have come to expect from the genre. Instead of an Agatha Christie reveal scene or an explosive climax, Le Carre forces us to fill in the blanks ourselves, piecing the narrative together from the events he discloses. This sort of writing is almost anachronistic in an era of tell, don't show.
For those who want a little politics with their mystery in a manner more in keeping with the times, there is the now-deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.
The three novels in the series tell the story of Lisbeth Salander -- a brilliant, tough young woman who seems to have a high fuctioning sort of Autism Spectrum Disorder (possibly Aspergers) and disgraced yet tenacious journalist Miikael Blomkvist. The Millennium books are the first mysteries I have read that seem to consider corporate scandal to be as intriguing as murder. (The first book uses such an event as a sort of frame for the rest of the narrative. Just when it seems the book is complete, we are confronted with another hundred pages concluding the corporate plot.) This feels ambitious, but admirable all the same.
If one of Larsson's arch villains is corporate greed, the other is patriarchy. Throughout his trilogy, he takes aim at the preponderance of violence against women in Swedish society. Larsson makes this case through scenes of horrendous sexual violence, and incredibly, even more heavy-handedly through statistics related to violence against women that begin his chapters. This sort of denotation is not uncharacteristic of Larsson's work. His writing style is more Dan Brown than John Le Carre, although I fear in saying this that I do him a disservice, not least because I have only read Larsson in translation.
The stylistic shortcomings of the Millennium Trilogy make it an ideal candidate for the big screen and are the reason I was excited to see the original Swedish films, the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo directed by Niels Arden Oplev, and the latter two, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, directed by Daniel Alfredson. They did not disappoint.
The casting is exceptional. Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) looks startlingly average (especially to someone like me, who is accustomed to Hollywood films, in which all leads appear as slightly different, mostly dull takes on perfection). Salander (Noomi Rapace) is Hollywood beautiful (in my opinion), but nonetheless manages to embody the role exceptionally well. Like the character in the books, Rapace betrays no emotion in the face of the worst horrors. This is the quirk of her character that makes her so engaging and so frightening to her foes.
The Swedish films do us few favours as viewers. Like Le Carre's books, we are left to piece the films together, inferring and extrapolating like detectives. Yet, the spirit of Larsson's novels remains intact. Scenery is stark. Blomkvist's magazine Millennium is a small, fly-by-night operation with few staff. Sweden is, well, boring old Sweden. The films, if anything, enrich their source material.
During the recent holidays, I went to see the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo. As I'm sure you can at this point surmise, I was not optimistic having already experienced the successful realization of this story on the screen; there was little upside here. Unwittingly, I chose to see director David Fincher's take on Larsson's work in the appropriate setting: at the Yorkdale Shopping Mall in Toronto. Just as my cozy living room served as the ideal place for the quaint Swedish-ness of the original, the giant screen and sound, and the pervasive consumption of the mall environment were the suitable home for Hollywood's take on Larsson.
Fincher's film superficially manages to capture the style of Larsson without corralling the substance. That is, the American film has all of the hammer-you-over-the-head obviousness of the books, without the charming and ubiquitous averageness (so central to the politics) of the original.
This is apparent from the opening credit sequence, a cross between a Nine Inch Nails video (the music for the film was written by front man Trent Reznor) and a James Bond intro. (Just take a look. The sequence is available on YouTube and I've embedded it below).
No doubt this nearly three minute sequence satisfies Fincher's flair for the self-indulgent. (Look at me, true heir to the Bond legacy!) It also betrays his lack of respect for Larsson. (Can you imagine the Swede tolerating Bond's rampant misogyny?) Indeed, it is an example of how this film simply misses the point.
Characters in Fincher's film don't speak in Swedish (God-forbid that level of verisimilitude). Instead, actors like Christopher Plummer, and, occasionally, Daniel Craig (who plays Blomkvist) wrestle with Swedish accents they cannot sustain, sometimes not even for the duration of a single scene.
The most loathsome villain in the book is Salander's new guardian (she has been placed under the guardianship of the state for various complicated reasons that play out over the course of the series) Bjurman, a man who ultimately subjects her to one of the more disturbing rape scenes to appear in popular culture. In both the original book and film, Bjurman is an average-build Swedish man. Fincher is evidently not satisfied with this: he transforms the lawyer (Yorick van Wageningen) into someone who is noticeably overweight and then gives us lingering shots of his glistening bare stomach. That is a man we can truly despise. This is both an insult to the viewer's intelligence and just the latest assault in the Hollywood war against 'fat' people, seemingly one of the last "legitimate" frontiers for hate-representation in American society.
(L) Bjurman in the Swedish Film; (R) Bjurman in the American version
Fincher's Stockholm is stylish and cool, an exciting place you would want to visit, not the tired seat of bureaucracy that hosts Larsson's characters. Millennium in on steroids in the film as well: a thriving, hip magazine staffed by dozens.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the American film is the casting of Craig. I expected to see the muscles-rippling Bond star and was struck by how thin, haggard, and normal he looked. He manages to adroitly carry the film. The part of Salander, on the other hand, goes to actress Rooney Mara, who seems to be getting plenty of acclaim
for her performance.
While she certainly looks the part (although I can't help feeling even her appearance is just-off after watching Rapace so thoroughly realize the role), her performance does not capture the character she is playing. No doubt this is largely due to the frustrating choices of Fincher, but Mara makes Salander too relateable. She gives us small but eminently perceptible emotional responses to the traumas she experiences. This is believable, but it is not
the Salander that Larsson conceived. And this matters because, as mentioned above, it is her inhuman-seeming detachment that gives Salander an aura of near invincibility.
Bizarrely, though many have liked Mara's performance, it is less plausible precisely because it is more realistic. I can't believe that a 'normal' person would act as she does; it is her exceptionality that makes her real.
Emotionless Noomi on the left; softer Rooney on the right.
Ultimately, Fincher's film debases the politics that make Larsson's work so endearing. He has produced a stylish action film that American audiences can love, and no doubt viewers will continue to flock to his sequels. As for me, I'll be holed up in my living room, sitting on Ikea furniture, and reading the newest offering from John Le Carre.
The West Wing debuted over a decade ago, an idealized shadow of the Democratic Clinton administration. What characterizes the show, perhaps above all else (including its incessant witty walk-and-talk banter) is its steadfast conviction in the American political process. Indeed, a friend of mine recently mentioned that he couldn't watch the show precisely because of how favourably it represented U.S. politics.
The West Wing is the Clinton administration as progressives wished it had been. Where Clinton is unseemly, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is merely unhealthy (his scandal isn't sexual, but a failure to disclose that he suffers from MS). The tension on The West Wing is never merely about re-election; rather, is is about the struggle to do good in a government structure beset by partisan politicking.
What defines The West Wing in its early years is the fact that Bartlet's staff, the intrepid heroes of the show, never succumb to cynicism. Deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) harangues recalcitrant members of congress and then returns to his office to playfully debate his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) on American tax policy. Deputy director of communications Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) refuses to end a relationship with a sex worker despite the public relations storm that is certain to result (his motivations seem more preoccupied with an adherence to moral high ground than a real enthusiasm for the friendship, but that is another issue). Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is reduced to tears over the plight of women in the fictional country of Qumar (the portrayal of women in the show is an important subject that will be addressed in a future post). Communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) presents a surly and cynical demeanour that masks a deeply ethical resolve. It is he who lambastes Bartlet upon learning that he has concealed his disease from the American public. Finally, the President himself is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, difficult but also brilliant and kind. He is a man who loses sleep over the death of every American citizen (although citizenship status, it should be noted, is a prerequisite for the onset of this empathic insomnia).
Perhaps the quintessential story arc of the entire series comes in episode nineteen of the first season. The staff is depressed as they realize that they are becoming increasingly preoccupied with making the careful move rather than pursuing the principles and policies they campaigned upon. The sequence culminates with chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) exhorting both the President and the rest of the staff to "let Bartlet be Bartlet." The scene is designed to restore our faith in the Bartlet administration and the American political system that the show represents. Check out the full sequence in the YouTube video below.
In the years since The West Wing premiered, much has changed. September eleventh altered the tone of political discourse and the nature of politics in the United States. This shift is reflected in the show, with the third season's debut being deferred by a week for the presentation of a didactic "play" called "Isaac and Ishmael" that instructs Americans on how they should perceive Arabs. From this moment forward, the show, like U.S. politics in general, becomes increasingly preoccupied with Middle Eastern affairs.
Thus, while there is little question that The West Wing views the landscape of U.S. politics through rose-coloured glasses, it is nevertheless a useful barometer of the issues and concerns that mark the real life nation. It is born of a historical moment in which politicians could still be seen as heroes and increasingly begins to flounder as George W. Bush and his war on terror put the lie to this romanticized view of government and leadership.
The West Wing as the network television scribe of American politics, it is The Good Wife. This is somewhat strange to say given that the show is really a legal drama following the career of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), a woman forced to return to work after the disgrace and incarceration of her district attorney husband, Peter (Chris Noth). Yet, there is a certain satisfying logic to this: by foregrounding corporate law at the expense of the political process, the show more honestly indexes the driving force behind American political life.
For, the political scenes in The Good Wife have none of the idealistic charm of The West Wing. Peter Florrick's key staffer in his campaign to return to office is Eli Gold (Alan Cumming). Like Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler, Gold is clearly identified as a Jew whose principal religion is politics. It is difficult not to see him as an allusion to his predecessors in the earlier show. This is where the similarities end, however. Gold is a calculating Machiavellian who, in the face of crisis, is quick to remind us, again and again, that, "it's not the scandal, it's the cover up" that gets candidates in the deepest trouble. As this mantra illustrates, his concerns tend to be at least two degrees removed from the substantive.
Gold is a spin doctor extraordinaire whose job is to get Florrick elected, period. In The West Wing, Lyman wonders whether he should hire Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) as an aide to the President because, although exceptionally qualified and deserving, the young man is black. Lyman worries about the representational impact of hiring a black man to wait upon a white President. What message will that send?
Gold, too, confronts race and representation, but with none of Lyman's qualms. His job is to craftily manipulate voters and he revels in his capacity to do so. Realizing he needs to appeal to racist white Chicagoans, Gold organizes campaign ads that feature exclusively white faces and discourages Florrick's son Zach's (Graham Phillips) black girlfriend from attending political functions. Racist? Certainly, but that's exactly the point.
What are we to make then of the pervasive cynicism that haunts The Good Wife? To some extent it is surprising given that the beginning of the show overlapped with Barack Obama's politics of hope. Indeed, it is no coincidence I think that the show is set in the President's Chicago. In fact, explicit references are made to members of the cabinet throughout the series, as if to remind us that Obama should be on our minds as we watch this world of greed and corruption.
The Good Wife is a repudiation of The West Wing and all that it tells us about politics. It is a shot across the bow at the optimism of the Bartlet and Obama regimes, and it is much needed for that. This is a show that my friend could comfortably watch, knowing that it paints an accurate picture of how difficult is is to enact change from within a political process stained by lobbying and gamesmanship.
Yet, this is not a complete endorsement of the show. The tone of The Good Wife is not always dark. Rather, if it is characterized by anything, it is a sort of mischief and fun. There is a delight in the hi jinx of Gold and the ruthlessness of Alicia's firm, Lockhart Gardner.
I think this is the true cynicism at the heart of The Good Wife. It marks a fundamental shift in the attitude of American politics. This is not merely a rejection of the optimism at the heart of the terms of Clinton, Bartlet, and especially Obama, or of the political process itself. Instead, it shifts our attention to the spectacle that politics have become; a game to be played, no different from a sporting event. The fun we have with the show is the fun we also experience watching CNN and John Stewart.
Whether intentionally or not, The Good Wife delights and then taunts by revealing how that very delight is responsible for the collapse of functional American politics. In a sense, through its irresistibly satisfying seaminess and its ability to seductively entice us to embrace a world of broken and corrupt politics, it reflects back the ways in which we have come to contribute to our own demise.
The Good Wife is, I think, the kind of show President Bartlet would never deign to watch. But, then, in the world of The Good Wife, President Bartlet could never actually exist.
It's hard not to see a great deal of similarity between this world and our own.
If there is an heir to
I was a luddite. No Facebook. No Blackberry. No iPhone. No cell
phone. Certainly, no blog.
However, I have a partner who is a bit of an online maven
. She does it all and she does it well. So well that I started to pay attention to what I was missing. In fact, I became so compulsively addicted to her tweets that when she was forced to make her profile private (due to a strange and sudden influx of what she calls "trolls") I had to get myself on Twitter just to see what she was saying.
And apparently, it's all something of a slippery slope. I realized I had things to say to the world beyond the academy and beyond the classroom, my typical domain. My days are filled with reading, writing and teaching, but only a relatively small community shares in that conversation. Suddenly, I wanted to speak more broadly about the issues that concern me. And Twitter only allows you 140 characters to make your point ... so here I am.
I hope you'll check back in once in a while to see what I have to say. It might be worth it.