Still not Welcome – Liberalism, Atheism, and the West Wing

Allow me to start this post with an incredibly controversial statement.  Binge-watching TV is awesome.  Ever since I got Netflix, I’ve experienced the joy of spending a couple weeks watching an entire run of a TV series.  Sometimes it’s something old that I wasn’t as familiar with as I wished to be like the original Star Trek.  Sometimes it’s something everyone’s been telling me about like Doctor Who or Breaking Bad.  And sometimes it’s spending some time with old friends like Star Trek The Next Generation.  Hell, sometimes it’s finding out something I loved once upon a time doesn’t hold up (trust me, don’t go back and watch MacGuyver – your memories are much better than the real experience).  Okay, I’m starting to sound like and advertisement.  Sorry about that.  It’s just… I love this stuff.

Anyway, my latest show is The West Wing, the classic Aaron Sorkin series about the inner workings of the White House staff.  The show is incredibly sharp and well written.  It’s got that charm that Sorkin brings to pretty much all of his work.  But there’s one way in particular that it really strikes me. It reminds me of Tom Clancy.

Wait, what?

Bear with me for a moment.  I love Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels.  They’re fun and adventurous.  They’ll never be accused of being high literature, but as far as airplane reading goes, they’re pretty damn fine books.  What I find most compelling about Tom Clancy’s novels are how they’re the idealized world of a conservative ideology.  Clancy, who was a pretty strong conservative during his life, wrote his books from a viewpoint that made sense to him.  He wrote business leaders and military men as proud and honorable people, and stressed the importance of duty and family over politics.  When I read a Clancy novel, I feel like I’m seeing the world as it makes sense to a conservative.  I see how all the parts are supposed to work.

The West Wing is that for liberals.  The Bartlet administration is the idealized image of how the world works from a liberal point of view.  Ideas are challenged and weighed on their merits, and politicians nobly work for the betterment of society and mankind.  Since I’m still early in the show (only  a few episodes in to the 2nd season) I don’t know what changes there will be in the post 9/11 episodes, but for the time being the show represents a liberal government that works effectively to help people.

Before I get into the point I want to make, I want to say that both of these stories appeal to me, though I think neither of them are realistic.  Both liberal and conservative ideologies have their shortcomings, and neither of these worlds address those effectively.  Which is fine, that’s not the point of them.  That doesn’t change the fact that whether your liberal or conservative, if you want to see what the world looks like from the other side – without straw men or a ton of hyberbole – these stories are great sources for that.

Get to the point, Dave!

Okay, okay, I’m getting there.  Today I watched an episode of the West Wing called “Shibboleth” and was left with a surprising sense of sadness at the end.  In it there was a subplot about an attempt to appoint the White House Chief of Staff’s sister to the Department of Education with the sole purpose of starting a fight with Congress over school prayer.  Without going into too much detail, the head speech writer, Toby, wanted to try to appoint the woman, who was staunchly against organized school prayer, because he knew the conservatives in Congress would opposed it.  Eventually Toby is forced to let go of the idea when some Congressmen he was talking to produced a photo of the woman breaking up a prayer at a high school football game by involving the police.

The key conversation was when Toby and Chief of Staff, Leo, are discussing why Toby wanted to start this fight in the first place.  He said he was doing it for the 4th grader who was being bullied because he refused to take part in a mandatory prayer.  He said that school prayer was another way to separate and isolate kids.  Leo’s response was, “What did they do to you, Toby?”

That line bothered me a lot.  It’s all too common that atheists are dismissed as having a bad childhood or some trauma that made them hate god.  The implication is that people can’t develop an atheist position by thought and reason, but must have an emotionally traumatic experience.  It’s not only wrong, but it’s also insulting.  It’s an attempt to take away a person’s agency.  It’s basically saying that to be an atheist, you have to be hurt and angry.  There certainly couldn’t be perfectly logical reasons someone might be an atheist.  Something must have happened to them.  This situation happened to J.T. Eberhard recently, and he wrote about it just yesterday.  It’s something most atheists are accused of at some point, if not with regularity.

As a quick side note, I’d like to point out that at no time was there a traumatic experience that caused me to question my faith.  On the contrary, when I was a teenager, I was given the choice to be confirmed in my parent’s faith or find one of my own.  After learning more about what Christians believe, I decided I couldn’t agree with it.  It was with careful thought and consideration that I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t believe in any deity.

In the West Wing episode, Toby was faced with the same accusation.  And keep in mind, he’s not atheist:  the show makes it very clear that Toby is a practicing Jew.  But Leo had to ask him what sort of trauma he faced just for wanting to take a stand against organized prayer in school – which, let us be clear, is illegal.  It never occurred to Leo that Toby might want to fight against school prayer because it’s the right thing to do.

To be fair, it was pointed out to me by my wife that the context of the conversation implied that Toby was taking this fight very personally.  The writers might have been hinting at some real trauma he faced in his past that makes him passionate about this issue, though they never explicitly said it.  But if that’s true, isn’t that even worse?  That would mean the writers themselves believe this argument – believe that Toby would have to have something in his history to make him want to stand up against school prayer.

Usually the show deals with issues in a very straightforward manner.  Intelligent people debate the merits of why one stance is better.  Occasionally they’ll cover something a little harder, and with more arguing.  Sometimes – and in the most interesting episodes, I think – they’re forced to go against they’re better judgement for political necessity.  But it’s not often that an issue is treated as if it’s only an emotional overreaction.

The main plot in the episode was about what the President would do about  almost a hundred refugees from China who stowed away on a container ship, and were asking for asylum in the US on religious grounds.  The refugees claimed to be Evangelical Christians, and the President had to decide if they were true believers or just faking belief to stay in America.  Faith was a major theme in the episode, and the President, who is a devout Catholic, praises the value of the faith throughout.  That alone doesn’t bother me greatly; it’s a consistent character trait, and a reasonable one to expect from a president.  But when juxtaposed with the school prayer subplot, the entire message took on a different meaning for me.

As I said earlier, the West Wing is an idealized representation of liberalism.  I consider myself  a moderate, but with distinct liberal leanings.  I tend to vote Democrat, and I have very strong opinions about social justice.  If I were to choose a team, it would definitely be team left.  But this episode made me sad because I was left with the feeling that this idealized version of liberal government didn’t want me.  I had no place there, and would’ve been seen as an extremist or crazy.  To paraphrase a line from my wife, I would at best be invisible in this world, and at worst be a villain.

Admittedly, this episode was written fourteen years ago (how old does that make you feel?), and politics have changed significantly.  The stance the show takes on gay rights are impressively dated.  For example, a character in the first season who was being nominated as a Supreme Court justice was being criticized for not being against gay marriage… and that was by the liberals.  But when I look at the state of politics now, when I see that atheists have no representation in any level of federal government, and not much in lower government, I can’t help but think that me and my community still aren’t wanted.

As an atheist activist, it’s moments like this that I’m left feeling daunted by the amount of work me and my non-theist brethren have in front of us.  And if the last fourteen years are any indication, our progress will go slowly.

That makes me sad.

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One thought on “Still not Welcome – Liberalism, Atheism, and the West Wing

  1. I was looking for the quote of Toby telling Leo why he opposed school prayer. Honestly, it’s my favorite TWW moment. I took it to mean that Toby was bullied primarily because he was a Jewish kid in a primarily “Christian” school. I found the scene powerful, touching and convincing.

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