The Magical Powers of a New Shirt: on The West Wing, language, and violence

(In May of 2020, I posted something about The West Wing. I trimmed a lot from the original draft because it felt too tangential. This is what the tangent turned into.)

1: To Believe in Nothing and Dare All

I’m standing in line during the commute rush. Across the coffeeshop, I think I spot two former co-workers. I didn’t know them well, but I’m thinking about swinging by their table to say a quick hello. I’ve dropped my wife off at work, and now I’m going to sit and write here for an hour before heading home to get my own work day started. There’s a small TV on a high shelf behind the counter, with the sound off. I glance up at the screen: city skyline, crisp blue sky, a skyscraper with smoke billowing from it. They’re saying that a plane crashed into a building. Someone in line says it’s probably a small private jet or something. No other explanation makes sense. As the girl hands me my coffee, another plane enters the shot, flies behind a different building, but doesn’t emerge from the other side. No, the second plane has just flown into the building. Black smoke, flames. Someone says holy shit or oh my god. Two planes, within about twenty minutes of each other, each crashing into a building like that? What are the chances? A moment later, I’m back at my car. We just bought our first cell phones yesterday and I’m not sure how they work. I don’t seem to have any cell reception. Am I doing something wrong? I get home, call my wife from a real phone, and tell her what’s happened. She’s already heard. I turn on the TV. As I watch, one of the buildings collapses. Then the other. So this is my day: watching footage of skyscrapers collapsing after being struck by commercial jets, and watching footage of a large government building with plane wreckage, and watching footage of a field out in the countryside somewhere. Over and over.

2: To Be Poets

All summer, I’ve been taping reruns of a TV show I started watching last winter. It’s called The West Wing, about the senior staff in a fictional White House. My wife discovered it first, and tried to introduce me to it. But this took a while, since I almost always have something better to do than watch TV. But she insisted, and I surprised myself by how quickly and deeply I became engaged in the show. The planes and the buildings will delay the autumn TV schedule, so this is my day all month: dropping my wife at work, stopping in at a coffeeshop to write, going home, watching a West Wing rerun on VHS, then sitting down at my laptop to work. The new season finally airs, like most shows, nearly a month late. We tape the new episode as we watch it, then we watch it again four or five more times that week, then tape the next episode. And so on. Soon, the US government will begin undermining most of the goodwill it found on September 12th, forgetting that this was not a crime against America but a crime against humanity. And I will cling desperately to that show, constantly turning to it for solace, probably expecting too much of it. But the show’s appeal for me is not that it offers a sort of idealized alternate political universe from the one I’m trapped in. I don’t see it as a show about politics. It is, of course, yes. In a way. But not principally. (At least not until the fifth season onwards.) In fact, when my wife first called me in and insisted I watch an episode of this new show she had just discovered, she didn’t say it was a cool new show about politics. She told me to sit down and “just listen.” By the time Air Force One touched down after the Portland trip, I realized: language itself was the main character.

3: “You’re Lying” “Yes I Am, But Hear Me Out”

This, then, was what I found comforting about The West Wing during those grim years: not its politics, but its fidelity to language. But what does it mean to be faithful to language? To use it fluently, with skill and care? To speak clearly and truthfully? No, because language isn’t just about communicating — much less communicating truthful statements, specifically. Language can be informative (“My dog does not bite,” “it will rain this afternoon,” etc), performative (“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” etc), and manipulative (“make me a sandwich,” “throw me the idol!” etc). Language is also social: we constantly evaluate each other based on our pronunciation and word choice, which often reveal our backgrounds, ethnicities, education level, and so on. (You drop your aitches and I think that makes you sound low-class; I use double-negatives for emphasis but you don’t, and you treat me as somehow less-educated; etc). Language can also, of course, be musical. And it can be several of these at once, and often is. Let me be clear: none of these modes have anything to do with morality or innate goodness. That is, language is a tool, a technology in the most ancient sense, and is inherently amoral. Who uses the tool and why: this is where morality enters the conversation. A mendacious shyster and an honorable, compassionate teacher both must use language with equal skill. Beautiful language can be persuasive in a way that merely truthful language almost never is.

4: After Hoc Therefore Something Else Hoc

Now, just because The West Wing had a somewhat left-leaning slant, and was known for rich, rhetorical language does not imply a connection between the two. Rhetoric itself is not necessarily an indication of either trustworthiness or duplicity (whatever Plato may have thought of the Sophists). So I’m talking about something more than mere skill or finesse. There is a profound difference between someone who uses language skillfully to do great evil, and someone who uses it carelessly to do great damage. This is, apparently, something we as a species need to learn over and over again: that, in our ongoing story, the inarticulate slobs and careless dopes, bumbling around knocking things over, ruining things for everybody else in a thousand small ways, are the most ubiquitous and toxic villains.

5: How’s That for “Clever with Words”?

Rhetoric only works when the speaker and listener already have a lot in common. That is, if you see someone as too radically different from yourself, you may think that trying to talk to them is a waste of time, because they’ll never get it. They’re not like you; they talk funny and don’t have proper table manners. They’re not civilized people, and you can’t talk to them as though they were. Indeed, you may come to the conclusion that if you want them to do something, only brute force and fear of violence will work. It’s the only language these animals understand. This is why fundamentalists of all stripes so quickly decide that language is pointless. And it’s only a few more steps before you’re flying airplanes into buildings.