December Talking Meme, 12/1

Dec 01, 2014 23:04


I had a tough time comparing the Bartlet Administration to recent Democratic administrations. I would like to find a way to blame that on the show, and I do think it’s in part due to the characters/Sorkin/the narrative as a whole being somewhat lacking for an in-depth understanding of what, philosophically, renders liberalism not merely attractive to some people but necessary for all of us, rather than being quite familiar with the Democratic party line on the set of issues that audiences cared about in the late ‘90s. But really, that is not an unfair reflection of the “neoliberalism” that dominated the Clinton Administration and dragged down the party through most of the Bush years. I think I’m having a hard time with the collision of my 2014 political opinions and the way I gauge narratives. But West Wing characters and creators looked to US political history for inspiration, and I think we can do the same.

Earlier this fall, PBS aired The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. It’s a documentary series that does more or less what it says on the tin, looking at the careers and private lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I would give this documentary a B, maybe B+. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t stray from verifiable facts, which is more than you can say for most supposed documentaries, but these facts are molded and framed to make them fit into a suitably uplifting narrative. With this presentation of somewhat more distant history at the top of my mind, I’m finding it somewhat easier to compare the Bartlet Administration to both Roosevelt Administrations. Or, at least, Bartlet as a political personality to the Roosevelts.

Bartlet is a great admirer of FDR. He takes FDR’s presidential zip code as his own in “homage.” I believe he has personal and philosophical reasons to feel drawn to FDR. I believe he felt a kinship to FDR as a fellow president with a disability that he strove to keep private from the public. More importantly, as a Keynesian economist and a man with an ego the size of Lake Heron, Bartlet would hope to leave a legacy like the New Deal, which radically changed the nature of American government by giving the social contract just a little bit more bite. FDR could accomplish such a feat because he was an indomitable political machine. He was intellectually suited to politics, and he seems to have been temperamentally unsuitable for any vocation in life other than executive decision-making. Bartlet, of course, is not such a man. He had a long and successful career as an academic. He believes more in compromising with his opponents than inspiring the base.

Bartlet does emerge as having some commonalities with Theodore Roosevelt. As a president, TR was more of a patrician centrist than a committed partisan. Like Bartlet, TR’s competitive streak was fiercely personal as well as professional, driven as he was by Daddy Issues. Even Bartlet’s habit of shoving trivia on his staff as a matter of ~personal improvement is reminiscent of TR’s obsession with athleticism.

Anyway, that's kind of short and not exactly what you asked for. I have another post which is not what you asked for, but it's somewhat related and I've been meaning to put it up for a while, so.

Though Jed Bartlet admires FDR, he's not the fictional president who reminds me most of our 32nd president. FDR was a wartime leader who took over during one unprecedented crisis and found himself at the forefront of another. His tenure saw a stunning restructuring of American society. He was a leader who was capable of visionary leadership, and of things which should have been unthinkable. FDR has but one peer in the canon of fictional presidents: one Laura Roslin. However, both Roslin and Bartlet share a major commonality with FDR in that they are both executive heads of state who are people with disabilities.

Largely because of their positions of executive power, Laura and Jed both evoke and avoid the "Inspirationally Disabled" trope. As leaders they must enspire and embody concepts larger than themselves, but their leadership positions give them not only the personal agency denied to characters boxed into being "inspirationally disabled," but a great deal of power over others. Their respective vulnerabilities are a part, though not the only source, of their sense of empathy for and responsibility to those they govern.

Roslin in particular turns the trope on its head in how the show's mythology specifies a scriptural role for a "Dying Leader." In both the narrative of which she is aware and the one she is not, Roslin's power exists in context of her illness, and her keen awareness of her own mortality is tied closely to her commitment to the survival of others. Eventually, the character makes the proactive decision to offer the knowledge of her illness as a source of inspiration to others - not inspiration based in condescension to her, but faith that they can place their confidence in her. The agency and personal comfort Laura takes in this choice, as well as the concrete and external nature of her incentives to do so (accepting Scripture = possible map to Earth), place her firmly outside of the dehumanizing nature of this trope. I'm not sure Jed would kill for this kind of messianic purpose to his MS, but I'm fairly sure he'd die for it - and one could argue that's exactly what he's trying to do, running himself down by staying in office even as his health issues become more and more of a complication.

Critically, both characters differ from FDR in that they share the experience of being publicly audited for their disabilities. Bartlet is censured, nearly impeached, over having decided against disclosing his MF, while Roslin experiences having her credibility attacked during Baltar's trial. This is the source of my reservations about both of these storylines. There is an uncomfortable failure of both of these narratives to make a case for the president's privacy. Much is made of the public's right to know, and this is no small issue. But this absence occurs in a cultural context where PWD are presumed not to have the type of personhood which grants autonomy and privacy. This is one of the many, many down sides to "inspirational" disability: they are held to a higher normative standard, simply for existing. They are discreditable. It should not escape our notice that the characters who receive the most narrative support for doing this highly moralized discrediting are young white men in peak physical condition, who are at one point or another designated as spiritual successors to their respective presidents. Partly that's about the usual issues with character demographics, but it's also a subtle reinforcement of the ableist idea that physical strength connotes moral fiber.

This is an issue of which I believe viewers should be critically aware when evaluating these characters. However, concern does not detract from my appreciation of the wonderfully complicated depictions of these two leaders - two people who, I believe, would deeply respect each other in their shared strength of character, sincerity of conviction, in their patriotism and their faith and their optimism, and who are perhaps more aware than most that those things are what truly matter.

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west wing, bsg, bsg: laura roslin is my favorite, disability

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