Sorkin-land and Higher Education

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In general, I’m not a fan of fantasy, but I have a weak spot for Aaron Sorkin’s work.

I understand that Sorkin is generally not viewed as a writer of fantasy, but he populates his stories with characters as mythical as unicorns and dragons, like politicians who at least sometimes put principle over power (The West Wing), or a politically liberal, born-again Christian late-night sketch comedy star (Studio 60 in the Sunset Strip), or his latest creation, a news anchor who decides to throw ratings to the wind and do a newscast focused on actual news (The Newsroom).

The inciting incident of The Newsroom shows anchorman Will McEvoy (Jeff Daniels) on a panel discussion in a university auditorium. He’s described by the moderator as the “Jay Leno” of news because his persona is so unthreatening and blandly palatable. McEvoy throws out pithy bon mots while his co-panelists spar predictably from opposite sides of the political spectrum, up until an audience questioner throws a true softball, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”

McEvoy begs off answering until pushed by the moderator to give him a “human moment.” McEvoy responds with “It’s not the greatest country in the world,” followed by the kind of rat-a-tat, statistics-heavy monologue that only Aaron Sorkin characters can deliver, in which he tells us all the ways the United States doesn’t excel: literacy, science, life-expectancy, infant mortality, etc…

McEvoy goes on to lament an America that used to be great but has since disappeared, an America where, “We fought for moral reasons…” where “We built great big things and made ungodly technological advances…” where “We reached for the stars; acted like men…” The missing ingredient, according to McEvoy, is being “informed” like we used to be when giants like Murrow and Cronkite roamed the land, and they were good and we trusted them.

Like a lot of Sorkin’s writing, it is simultaneously absurd and inspiring, absurd in that the sophisticated audience Sorkin aims for knows his notions of “truth” are grossly oversimplified. Inspiring, in that they’d like it not to be that way.

Sorkin is derided as a classic example of limousine liberalism, but his world view of truth, justice, and the American way is straight from the Eisenhower years. In Sorkin’s world “acting like men” is indeed the highest compliment available. Sorkin’s men are meant to be both strong and selfless, adherents to a higher calling, namely loyalty. Sorkin can and does write strong female characters, but they are strong because they also behave like “men.”

In Sorkin-world, family is on top, country a close second. In The West Wing, we see this hierarchy play out repeatedly as Bartlet invokes the 25th amendment, handing the reins of state to his chief republican rival because Bartlet’s daughter, Zoey, is being held be terrorists, and he’s afraid he’ll be acting like a father, rather than a president. Later, presidential aid Toby Ziegler commits possible treason in order to save his brother, an astronaut stranded on a space station.

Sorkin’s characters are expected to take personal risks for the greater good. President Bartlet will order the secret and probably illegal assassination of a foreign leader knowing discovery may bring down his presidency. Will McEvoy gambles his high status and absurd salary to bring enlightenment to the masses. In Sorkin’s play, A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee will find himself court martialed if he doesn’t get Col. Jessup to admit his role in covering up the murder of a marine.

One might argue that Sorkin is simply trying to paint the world as it “could” be, or maybe “used” to be, though even this seems to be a stretch. Sorkin-world relies on characters as kind of Platonic ideals, the sort of people we’d want to be president, or news anchors, if they existed, which they do not.

All of this sounds like criticism, but I am, in truth, a Sorkin fanboy. I’ve loved all of his shows, even Studio 60, which no one liked. Sure, he’s peddling a dream, a thirst for a world gone by that never existed in first place, but…oh! What if it could?

I can just picture an Aaron Sorkin production set at an R1 university. Our main character is a provost, let’s make her female, but do not doubt that she has the stuff of a Sorkin man, deeply held morals and the guts to stand by them. Our provost will embody the ideals of the university: critical inquiry, equality of opportunity, the joy of intellectual pursuits. After a confrontation, as the provost walks away, one character will say to another, “she’s got some real balls,” and this will be the highest praise possible. I imagine that in addition to her administrative duties every semester she teaches an introductory ethics class in her specialty (Finance), in which she engages in Socratic dialogs that convince the future titans of America to forsake greed for goodness to be old-fashioned captains of industry, engines of the economy, rather than financial engineers crafting the next fiscal bomb.

In one episode she will testify before the state legislature to save the funding for both romance languages and minority scholarships in nursing. In another, she will threaten a deadbeat tenured professor with endless humiliation if he doesn’t do the right thing and retire.

She will tell corporate fat cats to stuff it when they want to install one of their shills in an endowed chair in exchange for a generous donation to the career center. When she walks in on a Sandusky-like situation going on in the football weight room, she will kick the perpetrator in the stones and frog march him naked to the cops. When campus leftists try to disrupt a scheduled talk by a conservative talk show host, she will shame them with a three minute monologue delivered through a bullhorn about the Constitution and the rights of free speech that incorporates verbatim quotes from Jefferson, Jackson, and Hume.

She will involve herself in the plight of non-tenured faculty, brokering raises and benefits for all, financed by a salary giveback by administration and tenured faculty. Here, another speech about how when you’re a family, your first responsibility is to look after your own. Afterward, she will host a potluck dinner where faculty, tenured and not, get together for a game of ultimate frisbee, and an adjunct instructor will sprain her ankle, but not worry so much because thanks to the provost she now has health insurance.

She calls a press conference during which she shreds the U.S. News & World Report’s yearly rankings and gives a speech about how the true spirit of America isn’t about ranking highly on some stupid list.

Because Sorkin heroes are driven, but never ambitious, when another university calls, offering its presidency she turns them down because she knows she can do more good right where she is.

Like I said, a fantasy, but a seductive one, because we would like to believe that deep down we are perhaps capable of being our best selves.

But we obviously don’t live in Sorkin-world. Sorkin-world Mitt Romney would embrace “Obamacare” and argue that he should be elected because the current president’s most significant achievement was actually authored by him. Of course, Sorkin-world Barack Obama never would have backed Obamacare because he would’ve refused to move off of his desire for a single payer system, championing his cause with a stirring speech capped by “What’s good enough for the United States Congress should be good enough for the citizens of the United States of America!”

Fantasy.

Sorkin seems to subscribe to a kind of “great men” theory of history, that if our leaders can be sufficiently awesome, the rest of us will follow. This is perhaps the least believable part of Sorkin-world, as in reality, even our most powerful figures like presidents, or presidential candidates are more likely to be constrained by the forces surrounding them, as table to rally their supporters to the cause.

Occasionally, though, our real world delivers a Sorkin-world moment, as in the recent case of high school runner Meghan Vogel, who chose to stop and help a fallen rival, carrying her toward the finish line, before pushing her across ahead of herself. The video brought spontaneous tears to my eyes because it embodies everything I’m sure I wish for myself and the world.

What is most interesting, though, is that this is not the top-down inspiration that Sorkin find so seductive, but is instead a message of hope from the grassroots. Ms. Vogel is interviewed after the race, and perhaps the most charming part is how ordinary she views her own actions. She says how she’d already done her personal best in a previous race and that she “Just wanted to pay attention to the girl. She needed help, and I just wanted to help her get across the line.”

We don’t really need to return to some kind of bygone age when men were men. We just need to channel our inner Meghan Vogels.

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