To the editor of The Sun
Snoozing in my Chair
Remembering That First Kiss
Lost to the Clouds
"I'm Old," he said
My Visit with the Director of Lawrence Radiation Lab
Plodding Down the Path
Read To Me
Tax Time
On Being Fully Alive
If I Should Die Before I Wake
Theme Song Nostalgia
Fight or Flight or
Minor Island
Landings II and III
The Sun on Me in the Morning
Missing Pieces
Living Simply
I Had a Brother, Once
The Wild One
The Cost of Health Care
Popular Music
Sleeping Beauty
Full Moon
Are We Connected
Concert for George
Zoe Moon
An Opportunity to Feel
Over the River and Through the Woods
Saving Daylight
Garage Sale
Pushing On
My Little Town
The West Wing
Everything is Impermanent
Emotional Habits
My Shadow
The Power of Eyes
Being a Vegetarian
She Blushed
The Mouse in the Basement
Mind and Matter
Do You Love God
Writer's Lament
Releasing Dreams
Relating to Cats and
Free as a bird
Silk Scarf
Alice at 21
Alice Evelyn King Skiff
Cookies & Milk
Animals in Mountains

The West Wing
(or, "What is True?")

About the only television program I watch consistently these days is the NBC White House drama "The West Wing." I have a bit of an anti-TV bias, so Iíve wondered what there is about this program that draws me each week. Oh, Iím aware that continuing stories on television, such as this series, are designed to hook a viewerís interest and curiosity so that we return to see what happens next (and in the process expose ourselves to the programís commercial messages). On one level, I resent the commercials. On a more rational level, I recognize that they are the means by which the producers are able to broadcast the programs.

Humans are story tellers, probably by instinct. We are also story listenersóa trait just as important. "The West Wing" is an ongoing story, and Iím as hooked as was Sheherazadeís captor, King Schariar. It seems, however, that what draws me is more than just a story. I identify with some of the characters and issues that are part of it, sometimes agonizing over difficult decisions just as much as the characters themselves. At the end of a segment, Iím left thinking about what happened and often feeling strongly about the issues portrayed. Partly, thatís because the issues and events are not always just fictional and contained only in the story. Some are just as important in real-life, today, this minute. Our real-life president and his real-life West Wing staff are dealing with some of these same issues. Other problems are salient because they are not being dealt with in our real-life White House and Capitol. I suppose that some of my ongoing interest in the fictional version comes from frustration over what I see is a lack of effective action in Washington, but much of the frustration may be due to my lack of knowledge concerning whatís really going on there. If the real-life events in the West Wing were as publicly and intimately portrayed as those in the television program, I might have more tolerance for how things turn out. If nothing else, "The West Wing" illustrates the complexity of political life. One sees the diverse and often powerful forces at work in that eye of the national hurricane.

Iíve wondered how I would view this program if my political persuasions were on the other side of the aisle. Most Republicans I know do not watch the program. Does that mean that if the program were about a Republican administration, it would hold no interest to me? Because it began during the Clinton years, I thought it might somehow metamorphose into a Republican West Wing after the election of 2000. Because it did not, I wonder if I am holding the present real-life administration to different standards than I would if I were not watching the Alternative West Wing. During that last presidential election campaign, it occurred to me more than once that I wished Josiah Bartlet (or Martin Sheen, the actor) were running for President. Iíd have voted for him in a moment, over any of the other candidates.

Political polarities seem difficult to avoid. Whenever I read about a politician, whether in national or local politics, my first curiosity is: Is he or she a Republican or a Democrat? Somehow, all that follows will be colored in my mind by my stereotype of what that label connotes. Do I believe or not what the person says? What do I expect from them? Among my friends, I avoid topics of conversation that might reveal a difference in political viewpoints. Of those with whom I have established relationships and who donít share my political views, I tread lightly around them. Itís not like having a different religious viewpoint from someone. With them I can be curious, or I can be tolerant, or I can show interest or not in their tradition. Iím not threatened by their beliefs. A political viewpoint, however, almost always concerns me. Iíd like to be able to be curious, or tolerant of viewpoints different from mine, but itís hard not to see the difference as black and white. I realize that itís my own problem.

If I could see inside a Republican West Wing, especially if the actor playing the president were somebody like Gregory Peck, maybe I could learn something about the real issues. And maybe learn something about myself, as well.

The science writer Rita Carter, in her book Exploring Consciousness, says that our concepts are always associated with feelings. We may have an idea of what democracy is about, but the word has an emotional association in our minds. And every word we know is associated with some kind of movement impulse. Thatís because our language center evolved in the area of the brain where hand motions and facial motions originally were linked to enable us to get and eat food. Weíve learned to suppress the movements when they are not deemed appropriate, but beneath our consciousness, muscles twitch ever so slightly when we think our deepest thoughts. There are no neutral thoughts, even the most abstract.

So itís no wonder we find it hard to be "objective" about things, especially political things. One of my favorite quotes from fifty years ago is from a book by Vincent Sheean. "We absorb the assumptions of the time and place almost without knowing it, and are equipped with weapons we never bought. It takes years to learn how to throw them away and go, defenseless and undefending, toward whatever the truth may be."

"This is not to say," Rita Carter points out, "that rational examination of concepts canít alter beliefs, of course. If we were brought up, say, to dislike people of a certain colour we might later re-think our racist concepts and override our knee-jerk reactions. But in doing so we would not render them devoid of emotional content, we would simply develop a different emotional attachment to themóchanging Ďbadí to Ďgood.í"

I think that Rita Carter would not be encouraging to Vincent Sheean. Nor to me. Her whole book describes the mind as something a lot less under our control than we think it is. It makes it that much more difficult for me to feel secure in passing judgment on others. How can I know whatís really true?

Still, Iíll hope for something like "The West Wing" to illuminate my perceptions of ideas and values not presently within my grasp. Otherwise, Iím doomed to perpetuate the myths I know.

Donald Skiff, October 25, 2002

(Note: There's another, later, essay here about The West Wing program: "The West Wing" Turning Right?)

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