Monday, February 3rd 2003

posted @ 11:03 am in [ ]
I got a very thoughtful response to my last posting about how The West Wing makes me wicked sad. I’m reprinting it here because I think our esteemed webhost has some good points, and because my particular brand of egotism does not include thinking I have a monopoly on the truth. Besides, anyone who is as articulate and informed as Lisa always contributes something to the discourse. Thanks, Lisa!

Is West Wing a Good Thing?
Dear Meg,

I wanted to write in reply to your post regarding how you think the TV show West Wing is sad — sad because it mocks our desire for true leadership by providing one on TV that is so sorely lacking in real life.

I was inspired to write in part because I think I like the show for some of the reasons you don’t. After the election, West Wing became part of my psychic force-field, allowing me to deny and avoid the reality that George W. Bush was president until I could deal with it. I figured, I would just pretend President Bartlet was the real President until George Bush II went away. It was made much easier by the fact that that other tv show — Bush White House II — had crappier production values than The Blair Witch Project and whose bizarre plotlines and dialogue had apparently been written by people who neglected to Just Say No.

Denying an entire Presidential administration seems like kind of a big thing — the kind of heroic delusion that can only be sustained by those special people who wear the tin foil hats. But it was easy for me, because I had long thought that Presidents didn’t matter. In a way, they were like management at my old company. They issued a lot of proclamations, announcements, and rules, but when it came down to it, none of them changed my daily life a jot — when management spoke, I didn’t suddenly have my PC taken away or my cube walls painted hot pink, and so it was with Washington — streets didn’t suddenly become unpaved after a press conference or anything — so it was pretty easy to just turn down the volume on their blather and get on with my life. They could sit up there and churn out the Big Four types of bills — Political Grandstanding (eg doomed flag-burning amendments that please the dupes, oops, I mean constituents back home but won’t stand up to a sideways fart in court), This Is Thus And So Day (for big donors and other muckety mucks), Tax Fiddles (practically everything, including, let’s not forget, the Mohair and Beekeeping industries), and Pork (It remains a mystery to me why Pork is so reviled, when of the Big Four it is the only kind of activity in Washington that actually results in something tangible). The actual fact of America was always a lot stronger than whatever leaders said or did, and my feeling was that the American Way — by which I mean class mobility, the Big Mac, and unlimited consumer electronics — could withstand 8 years in a cage match with any bozo, even if the bozo came equipped with a metal folding chair.

Of course, that was in the happy time before September 11, the time when we could safely ignore Washington and the world beyond America’s borders. Poof — there went my fantasy of holing up with President Bartlet & Co., and riding out the Bush administration in their loving if overly talky care.

Even though we have different reactions to the West Wing, we’re both reacting to the same basic thing — our distress as citizens at having lost any control over our government. In fact, my basic problem with the post 9/11 leadership is that it’s still too much like the pre 9/11 leadership — that is, run by and for the interests of large businesses — and not just oil businesses. The perfect case in point is the recent bill that established the Homeland Security department — which many commentators fhelt was entirely toothless, but managed to contain a rider from the drug industry protecting them against any and all lawsuits that might stem from kids being killed or brain damaged by the childhood vaccines they produce. (even more disgusting, the congressional sponsor of the rider, and the name of the lobbying group or drug company who wrote it has been supressed, so we can’t even send crabby letters to them).

My big fear, though, is not that, effectively, my vote has been taken away. My big fear is that after 20 years of deregulation, giving power that used to be the peoples’ power — hand over fist, by the truckload, by the 55 gallon drum, to corporations, is that we are becoming, as a nation, an aristocracy — and the reality of that would mean that losing the power of my vote wouldn’t be the only thing I’d lose. I’d lose the hope I have for my son of doing better than I did. I’d gladly never vote again if I felt that it would preserve his chance to succeed — the same chance my parents and their parents, and your mom and dad and grandparents, gave us.

But first, what do I mean by aristocracy? I mean this: Lords are lords. Peasants are peasants. Peasants never become Lords. The children of Lords are also Lords, and the children of peasants are always peasants. Class portability — the idea that you can do better for yourself and your children — doesn’t exist in an aristocracy.

Why would I have the strange idea that an aristocracy is forming here in the US, the very country that was formed in opposition to the idea? Well, a lot of things give me a bad, sick feeling. The first inkling I got of it was in 1993, when I worked for an executive recruiter whose business it was to help venture capitalists find CEOs for small technology startups. The VCs routinely picked candidates that had cratered other companies, which baffled me. Weren’t they looking for a track record of success? When I asked, a VC told me, “I want somebody who learned their lessons on somebody else’s money.” After that, what I realized is that the industry had created a revolving door for dangerous incompetents, who, once having become a CEO, just kept on being a CEO, ruining people’s lives by destroying their workplaces, and wasting investors’ money (let’s not forget that the money in many VC funds comes, in fact, from pension funds, so it’s not a victimless crime). Now I see this at all levels in society. Look at Enron; look at Worldcom; look at Henry Kissinger. People who should be in jail, people who should be publicly reviled, are simply waiting it out until they can make the big bucks again. It makes me long for the reintroduction of public humiliation as a punishment. All I want is a half-dozen CEOs and other charlatans in stocks on a flatbed truck, and half a ton of spoiled produce. Their punishment will be up after every man, woman, and child in every podunk town from coast to coast has had their chance to pop a rotten tomato right in the kisser. I feel that George Bush himself is a creature of this phenomenon — a permanent revolving upper class of leaders and powerbrokers who always stay in power no matter how terrible they are and how often they fail.

And in fact, Washington has become so weak that they cannot even close a meat plant whose e.Coli tainted meat killed people, effectively sanction car companies whose cars kill the occupants even more than the people the cars hit, or get GE to stop flouting no less than 16 injunctions to stop dumping cancer-causing PCBs into the Hudson River. We can’t even ensure our citizens that they or their children won’t be poisoned by what they bring home from the supermarket. We used to be able to do that. We gave the power away, because many of our citizens and a majority of our elected representatives got themselves snared in a psychotic delusion that government was bad and letting corporations do anything they wanted was better.

I’m writing a satirical novel set in 2035, in a world in which the same trends I see now have played out. In doing the research I was surprised to learn that although I didn’t have tons of company, I wasn’t completely alone in thinking this. The economist Paul Krugman thinks that we are passing out of a brief period of democracy that began in the 1930’s and ended with the election of George Bush. In the 1920’s, he posits, the country was largely run by a cabal of large business interests with politicians at their beck and call, and would have continued doing so if they hadn’t robbed the public to the extent that they tanked the entire economy into the Great Depression.

By the way, we are now experiencing the first episode of deflation (widely falling prices) since the Great Depression, and the recession we just came out of was the longest recession in the post World War II period, and many people think we will be back in a recession within the next two quarters. Like the US in the late ’90s, Japan experienced a speculative bubble that burst in 1991 — and they’re still in the trough over a decade later. A speculative bubble, followed by a bust and deflation, was exactly what triggered the Great Depression. So, there are self-regulatory mechanisms. The greedheads at the top can screw up so badly that the people will revolt. But it takes a lot of pain and suffering to get to the point where enough people will be out there on the street saying NO to make it happen. I really don’t think marches on Washington or postcard campaigns are gonna do it. I hate to think we’d have to have a rerun of The Grapes of Wrath to get there, and it makes me genuinely afraid for my family. Let’s put it this way: whatever I’ve got is staying under my mattress.

One question I have for you is what, in particular, triggered this? I mean, why now, exactly? Did something you saw on CNN make your head explode?

Oh, and one more thing. See, you weren’t raised as a Catholic, so you might not have this important skill — the skill of dissassociating the leadership from the thing itself. The Church isn’t the Pope, and the US isn’t George Bush and his C+ cronies.

It’s us. We’re America. That flag is ours, dammit, not theirs.

How about one of these, with this fine American sentiment? (You’ll have to check my journal at to see the image).