Story Pile: This One Fucking Episode Of West Wing

This fucking show.

Okay, so The West Wing is this right-wing propaganda show about learned helplessness and the power of pageantry. It thinks it’s not. It thinks it’s a liberal show about an idealistic Presidential cabinet as they try and enact their policies and make America better while maintaining their principles and working with their equally principled opposition that is definitely only just a little bit bad time to time for a few small bad things. The heroes are flawed and struggling difficult men who are doing the best they can in a truly extraordinary situation and that they do it every day for eight years (spoilers I guess) is a testament to just how amazing they are, and how important their gains are, even when those gains amount to fucking dick nothing.

It’s a little more reasonable to point out that this is a show that lionises every Republican as good people who try hard, and needs to make sure that you absolutely do not imagine the Bartlet white house trying something hard or doing something big or making things better for the American populace outside of extremely parliamentary things. The West Wing paints ‘standing in the middle of nothing’ as noble, and paints Bartlet’s aggressive doing nothing as being some great byproduct of letting him off the chain. There are some good moments, absolutely, but they are moments of rhetoric – and when considered outside of their rhetorical weight, you wind up asking: Wait, why did that even get a chance to happen?

As an example, in Season 2, there’s a standin for Bush-era conservative radio host Dr Laura (who long-memory people may remember as ‘that lady who said the n word 11 times on the radio to a black caller on her show, and then quit when she received criticism for it’) at a White House function who Bartlett dismantles with extremely specific references to the Bible. This looks like a triumphant moment where he meets Not-Dr Not-Laura on her own turf and beats her with her own tools, resulting in her looking mildly bothered for being hectored by the President of the United States. Seems like a potent moment until you consider that far more interesting and far more ambitious a moment is for him to simply order her out of the dinner, because he does not tolerate bigots in his White House. But he wouldn’t do that, because that’s an action, not a speech.

Oh oh, and another thing. The series does not realise that Josh Lyman here fucking sucks. He’s bad at his job, he rarely, if ever achieves anything meaningful or good, and he is an awful human being. Like, if this guy is part of the guiding moral landscape of your setting, your setting suuuucks.

So let’s talk about an episode whose B-plot focuses on Josh Lyman and gay rights.

Woo!

Season 2, Episode 7, The Portland trip. This episode screened for the first time on the 15th of November 2000, so 9 days after the United States had a functionally hung election that would that would not be settled for another month in favour of the candidate who got fewer votes, who would then move on to directly cause two of the largest humanitarian disasters in history, killing thousands of uninvolved civilians a year for twenty years. The episode has two plots, one of which is about whether it’s a good idea for a liberal President who wants to make things better to run the risk of being compared to Chairman Mao or something else similarly stupid, or the B-plot, the plot that enrages me so much, is about Josh Lyman meeting with a Republican Congressman about the Marriage Recognition Act.

This act, which isn’t law yet, is basically a gay marriage ban. Oh, it lets states determine their own rules for marriage (states rights!) but also imposes a federal rule that they only recognise marriage as being between a man and a woman (federalism!). Josh hates this bill (showing that he has some modest humanity about him), but his hatred is opposed by the representative who is there to talk to him about it, Congressman Skinner, that anti-liberal superweapon: A Gay Republican.

They go back and forth on it, with Gaycules the Gay Republican doing Gay Republican Things like arguing about the constitution and small government and so on until Josh can take it no longer and asks: Why is this guy here to defend a bill that treats him like a second class citizen.

He delivers this fucking awful line:

You know, I never understood why you gun control people don’t all join the NRA. They’ve got 2 million members, you bring 3 million to the next meeting. Call a vote. All those in favor of tossing guns: Bam, move on.

And adds to it:

I agree with 95 percent of the Republican platform. I believe in local government. I’m in favor of individual rights rather than group rights. I believe free markets lead to free people… and that the country needs a strong national defense.

Now, it’s possible you don’t know how fucking stupid this is. After all, hey, isn’t that a good point? Why not just recruit 3 million people into the NRA and vote to get rid of guns? Well, first, you can’t marshal 3 million people to a single act of public engagement. Second the NRA has membership fees, so doubling its membership doubles its size and available money. Third, the NRA is a Special Interest group whose members do not vote on its policies, and as a Special Interest Group needs to operate in the service of its stated goal or it’s breaking the law, fourth, the NRA DOESN’T HAVE LEGAL AUTHORITY TO BAN GUNS. The entire argument requires you to not understand what the NRA EVEN IS.

What he’s arguing for here, what he’s justifying, is that by being a Republican, he can make the Republicans less bad about issues of Gay Rights. He says this, as he sits in Josh’s office talking about how the President has to sign this Republican bill banning gay marriage, so great job there, fuckhead. And this is how gay rights were being envisioned, in a supposedly liberal story back in 2000, by ‘smart’ people’ for ‘prestige television.

If you wonder why people now are so fucking happy to see cartoon characters be gay, it’s because we grew up in a world where the important media from our side of the conversation was busy stroking its fucking beard and going well, we best not try for things. This is serious drama. This was an award winning show’s vision of how to talk about Gay Rights, and it’s why you should view every single piece of media from the same poisoned root with the same ‘well maybe better things aren’t possible’ as rotten, root and branch.

This show shaped governments.

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