The announcement of the cancellation of "West Wing" last month came on the
night its bravest episode was broadcast: A nuclear power plant had a little
whoopsie, some workers had to sacrifice their lives to save California from
acquiring a permanent glow, and viewers got a reminder of the reason why no
new nuclear plants have been built in this country since Three Mile Island,
a message delivered right at the threshold of our president's promised
world-wide nuclear revival.
It was a reminder of what the show could have been, but never quite was, in
all the years it served as liberal fantasy wish-fulfillment. In trying to
look like it was bucking the system, "West Wing" always wound up embracing
the system, its comfortable failure never more apparent than when it was
extolling the joys of globalization. Free trade was "West Wing's" Vietnam,
the place where the show almost came to grasp its deep-rooted problem.
In an episode five or six years back, communications director Toby Ziegler
was depicted braving waves of rude, ignorant anti-globalization protesters
who descended on Washington and filled an auditorium to shout slogans at
him, refusing to let him speak. Ultimately, however, he apparently got a few
words in edgewise, off camera, as we are informed in a subsequent scene by
an exultant colleague that Toby "blew the doors off the place" and the
protesters "never knew what hit 'em" as he refuted their arguments, whatever
they might have been, and made the case for corporate free trade lifting all
boats, ending poverty, and saving the world.
Fast forward a few seasons to a 2003 revisitation of the theme, and things
had changed. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman was being congratulated for
negotiating a trade agreement on behalf of a big tech company. The west
wingers are crafting the message for the big press announcement -- "free
trade produces better, higher paying jobs" -- but then Josh finds out that
his corporate negotiating partner is going to outsource 1,700 programming
jobs to India as a result of his swell trade deal, despite the promise of
free trade to grow the new economy (i.e. programming jobs) here in the U.S.
of A. The Republican Speaker of the House assures Josh that the "labor side
agreements" he insisted on are never enforced and, chuckling, asks him to
run for Congress on the Republican ticket. The administration's union allies
drop by to acknowledge Josh for betraying them.
By now Josh is feeling not so hot, so President Bartlett takes him aside and
confides that "Global economic forces are unstoppable just like technology
itself." Yes, promises were made to the unions when they were campaigning.
But now the administration can do naught but put on their grim faces and
promise to do more to help working people with the transition, for the tides
of history and change they are a-rising. The market is God. Whaddayagonnado?
It was a long way from Toby's triumphal protester smack-down three years
prior, but, like an addict constructing a last redoubt of rationalization,
the problem was acknowledged only as a means by which the juice could keep
flowing to the pleasure center of the brain.
Still, with another three years of this-doesn't-seem-to-be-working under the
bridge, who knows what another revisitation of the theme might bring? One
fantasizes an episode unburdened of the show's usual mix of Clintonista
consultants like Dee Dee Myers and Lawrence O'Donnell leavened with neocon
empty suit John Podhoretz, replacing them with, say, Arundhati Roy and Naomi
Klein. An episode in which Josh strays from a junket to New Delhi or
Kathmandu and gets to see the losers in globalization's famous "winners and
losers" construct: The rest of the world, toiling at those "better, higher
paying jobs" that are neither. The scales fall from his eyes, the dots are
connected, he sees that the man behind the curtain is pulling the levers to
make the tide of history flow into his pocket. Back home, he bursts into
Bartlett's office, bats aside the "creative destruction" economic homilies,
and delivers something like "Baffler" publisher Thomas Frank's critique from
"The God that Sucked:"
"The market is the reason our housing is so expensive. It is the reason our
public transportation is lousy. It is the reason our cities sprawl
idiotically all across the map. It is the reason our word processing
programs stink and our prescription drugs cost more than anywhere else. In
order that a fortunate few might enjoy a kind of prosperity unequaled in
human history, the rest of us have had to abandon ourselves to a lifetime of
casual employment, to unquestioning obedience within an ever-more arbitrary
and despotic corporate regime, to medical care available on a
maybe/maybe-not basis, to a housing market interested in catering only to
the fortunate. In order for the libertarians of Orange County to enjoy the
smug sleep of the true believer, the thirty millions among whom they live
must join them in the dark."
Or words to that effect.
"West Wing" served as the TV equivalent of JFK's second term, when the
troops were to be withdrawn from Vietnam, the Cold War and arms race
terminated, nuclear stockpiles eliminated, and relations with Cuba
normalized. But Kennedy was unable to complete his story arc -- going from
anti-Commie hawk to the statesman who gradually came to realize that his own
advisors and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were the greatest threat to the
world's survival -- and "West Wing" will never make it to the final
free-trade epiphany it was heading for.
It is a teaching moment and an opportunity lost, just as Toto had the corner
of the curtain in his teeth and was starting to tug, right before Dorothy's
Andrew Christie is an environmental activist in San Luis Obispo, California.