I have a thesis. You might not like it. Back in the day I watched the West Wing. It was phenomenal television – pertinent, often issues driven and, perhaps most importantly, cuddly. It made people like me feel like the world could make sense and we were making progress. Sure, it had it’s issues (lack of representation being a BIG one) but it was fundamentally a show without cynicism that loved people and, most importantly, believed in them and their power to do good.
The thing is it also peddled a myth which, with the election of Barack Obama, many of us swallowed wholesale. The myth of progress, of a people united by rationality and their love for others whose only real differences were not in temperament but in the policies to reach the same progressive ends. Collaboration, cooperation and compromise were the hallmarks of successful episodes where solutions to, what in the real world were frequently intractable, problems could be reached in the space of 40 minutes.
I am all for these things being the mark of mature and good humanity. The problem is hard to explain so bear with me. The issue is with the myth the West Wing sells us. It tells us people are fundamentally on the same side, that we all want the same things and that, with enough discussion we can arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.
I’d really love for this to be true and, in many cases it is. I spend my working life negotiating among disparate businesses, often with multiple parties in play at any one time, all of whom have their own agendas. Even here, especially here, that truth is the one which brings people back to the negotiating table until deals get done (or not).
The problem is that examples like the above elide a fundamental truth – a truth so obvious it remains invisible to us – that we are talking the same language and want the same thing. It is the myth at the heart of the West Wing and it’s poisoned liberals and progressives into believing there’s only really one culture out there and all of us are kind of a part of it.
The problem with this myth – that we all want the same thing – is that when we imbibe it we stop being able to believe or understand how others might want something different to us. Not different in that they choose ramen when we choose steak but different at its very heart.
Our inability to see that, even though we’re the same biological species, we might live in entirely different worlds leaves us unable to process the political reality we’re facing today. It leads to people like Corbyn saying with a straight face ‘we won the argument but lost the election’ which is the most egregious example I can think of where someone has internalised this myth and literally cannot understand how being reasonable (in their own minds) hasn’t led to the logical outcome of the world aligning itself their way. (I’ve been married a long time and one of my main lessons? Winning the argument and losing the person is the very definition of catastrophic failure).
In other words we’ve forgotten how to accept there are different weltanschauung out there
First of all, even though I subscribe to this world view in terms of my woke/anti-racist politics, it’s simply not the only coherent world view out there. It’s where we fall down and fall down badly because it leaves us entirely unprepared to truly engage with those who see the world different to us.
It leads to us thinking people who don’t agree are wrong headed – not in that they see the world differently, but that they haven’t thought it through properly and if only they would they’d come around to our point of view. All the evidence tells us that’s not true. Sure, some people change their minds based on evidence and thank the world for them, but most of us including everyone reading this, is predisposed to agree with the news that supports what we already think. There are entire medical disciplines dedicated to exploring these biases in human cognitive architecture.
So we tend to see people who are on the other side to us as evil and their motivations as non-explainable by ‘rational’ people. The former may well be true from our perspective but the latter most definitely isn’t. The thing we forget is that with the exception of a small slice of people whose brains are properly different to the rest of us, most people believe they’re doing the right thing most of the time and won’t willingly do something they consider morally wrong without great justification.
Remember that slave owners looked to the bible for their justifications, looked to science and that those sympathetic to their beliefs still do. The news this week that the Southern Baptist elections were essentially captured not by a Christianity which is focussed on helping the poor and seeing the truth that there are no slave nor free, jew nor greek, but instead is the captive of right wing conspiracy theories worried about the attack on white wealth and supremacy. Southern Baptists were more worried about anti-racist movements than Qanon’s grip on their members. I mean, sure, the entire denomination was set up because Northern Baptists were too much in favour of people being equal and emancipation but, as an example of people believing they’re right? Here’s a doozy.
You might dismiss them as loonies or extremist but that’s a mistake made by following after the world mythologised in the West Wing where words can only mean one thing and the world can only be seen one way by reasonable people.
Mary Douglas’ works, inter alia, Purity and Danger, and her essay on Taboos remind us that we are all products of our cultural environments and our ideas of risk, taboo and purity are culturally constructed, that our identities fit into that sense of community and the reflexive feedback involved in defining our own sense of self and how it fits into the multiple communities we are a part of is both something constantly in flux but also, crucially, a process which is almost entirely invisible to us.
The myth of the West Wing is that there is no process and our preferences and fears are objectively the right ones.
Sorry, I’m risking getting all technical. (Read Mary Douglas though).
My point here is that the kind of myth promulgated by the West Wing is one which damages our ability to be political actors because it plays into an idea that there isn’t really politics anymore, there is only technocratic processes by which we can all, eventually, arrive at the same place.
There is a culture war and there are more than two sides but those of us on the ‘woke’ side (and yes, it’s a fucking badge of honour for me) have made a massive error in our approach to those on the other sides. We have assumed far too often that our opponents know the truth of what we want and are either extremists or imbeciles.
the truth is both more mundane and decidedly more challenging. Our opponents exist in a different weltanschauung. The world us fundamentally different from the place where they stand. yes, we might be able to say, ‘they feel threatened about having to give up privilege’ and be right. But to diagnose the difference like this is to miss the point – what drives the underlying view of the world in which holding onto that power is seen as morally right? What are the structures which are in play that support such kinds of thinking?
So much nonsense has been written about the culture war between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ that we should have spotted this earlier. Because dismissing these theses, nonsense to someone like me who sees the crass simplifications, caricatures and othering inherent in these arguments misses the crucial point. Those writing these kinds of polemic have actually performed a really helpful act of self diagnosis which we’ve ignored. We’ve then ignored the fact that for people for whom these kinds of texts are serious also see us as a ‘culture’ to be made war upon.
The entire framing of ‘anti-anti-racism’, of deriding BLM as ‘marxist’, as passing laws to ban Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline arising out of legal studies as somehow un-American are not symptoms of madness in their own context but logical steps for a culture which believes it is at war. Someone can say they’re ‘anti-anti-racist’ with a straight face not because they’re racist (although, you know) but because they see anti-racism as an element of a culture which is trying to extinguish them.
Our memetics are in conflict and we progressives haven’t yet recognised it. We cling to the idea that if we’re reasonable, that if we behave a certain way, then others will come around. They won’t because they see us as part of an alien culture trying to conquer them.
To be sure this is an extreme reading of the situation – but I’m trying to make a point – that coddling ourselves with re-runs of the West Wing is to engage in the childish act of insulating ourselves from the reality of the situation, which is our enemy has seen us more more clearly than we have seen them and if they are running legislative and policy rings around us it is because they have, somehow, understood this is the way to maintain their pre-eminence. Because don’t misunderstand, White Supremacy as a fundamental guiding world view remains pre-eminent in law, policy, politics and entertainment.
Do I have any policy ideas? Not really but I think we need to be plainer in our language for those on the other side. We should cut through with how we see it – Anti-anti-racism is racism. Full stop. Being against CRT is to take the side of White Supremacy. Why? Because for many they don’t see it that way and it just might provoke a conversation and if they’re deeply offended or dismissive? Well they’ve told on themselves. It should be disgusting to be racist and transphobic but it isn’t in far too many places. We have to guard our spaces more carefully – not with ideological purity (because ugh) but with a clear idea of what we believe and why that is important.
For those who are bewildered in the middle we owe them clarity with compassion because for many they simply don’t understand the fuss – they too have internalised the myth of the West Wing and can’t see the conflict for what it is. Too often their confusion is fertile ground for those with clear ideas – and that, right now, is the right racist, white supremacists, not us.
I love the West Wing but it is bad for our health. Watch The Underground Railroad instead.