Why Aaron Sorkin’s Idealism Won’t Change The Real World

Can I first get this straight – I love the work of Aaron Sorkin.  Newsroom is the best thing on TV at the moment.  The dialogue is crisp, tight and admittedly slightly formulaic (but then I guess the Elizabethan press were all “Gawd, that Shakespeare guy really verdoes that iambic pentameter stuff”) .  Can I also get this straight – I am as wooly a libral as they come.  I’m the sort of person who says things like “Some of my best friends are conservatives” (I do mean it.  Some of them are)


Aaron Sorkin does idealistic lead characters.  They might be idealistic presidents, idealistic showrunners, idealistic news anchors.  I was hoping the news anchor would not be idealistic.  I was hoping we would have a conflict between an idealistic producer and a cynical, hardbitten, newsman.  But three episodes in, and my hope has gone.  Now, idealists make for good heros.  Idealists stand for something, and, in the traditions of storytelling, if they stand true to their ideals, deserve ultimate success.  Idealists’ flaws also stand out, silhouetted against their principles.

Yet for Sorkin, the idealism doesn’t work.  Not quite.  There is something about it which feels forced.

And it is all due to Aaron Sorkin being a liberal.

All of Sorkin’s heros are liberals.  Sorkin’s ideals are the liberal ideal.  Even the Bill Pulman ‘I’m shockingly a republican’ news anchor, settles on liberal sounding arguments.  Characters don’t so much argue their position as they do joust for the position of being the most liberal.  It isn’t quite the America I’m used to from the news and internets.  Perhaps Sorkin feels that everyone he writes about are intelligent, young, and insufficiently rich yet to have become evil.  And that intelligent, young, not rich enough people have no choice but to be liberal.

There are intelligent republicans.  The liberal end of the media doesn’t want to show them.  The conservative end just isn’t interested in them.  But they are there.  They exist.  They are in the offices, the workplaces.  The belief that intelligence equals a left leaning outlook is just wrong.  I’ve wondered about this.  Then, watching the third episode of Newsroom there was a quote which explained it all to me.  Something along the lines of

“Facts aren’t the left.  Facts are the centre”

Aaron Sorkin believes that if everyone just got all the facts given to them, they would all become well meaning, left leaning liberals like him.

And the more I think about it, the more I think all of us liberals have the tendency to do the same.  We argue for evidence based politics.  We hate it when we get ‘fair and balance’ coverage of issues where there are facts and lies – not just two equal sides.  We shift around uncomfortably when a law is made based on a selective reading of a book written two thousand years ago, rather than on who gets hurt.  And we think ‘If only we can educate people more, this will all go away’

The problem is this is the liberal mindset.  This is what makes someone liberal.  Something else makes someone conservative.

Now, I’m going to overgeneralise a bit about republicans and conservatives.  There are lots of shades of grey here, many fine points I’m fully aware I’m glossing over.  I want to get to the heart of the matter.

Republicans don’t care about facts.  Facts are not the center.  Facts are the left.  What republicans care about is emotions.

When I described this argument to some friends down the pub, they refined it “What Republicans care about is values”

Value and emotions are they same thing.  They are the gut response to the world.  They are what you are told you need, by your heart, not your head, to feel safe.

And there is nothing wrong with values.  We’ve been guided by values for millennia.  Our values are a good heuristic for acting in a way which will keep out society together.  They have likely been honed by evolution (or, if they doesn’t make you feel good, they have likely been put there by God himself).

There is research into this.  Republicans get scared more easily than liberals – but they spend most of their time happier than liberals.  Quite possibly because they don’t fight their instincts.  Quite frankly, facts are not going to change anything.   What will change things are stories.  We’ve all seen the politicians who stand firmly on the right, decrying the fall of civilisation and blaming it on atheists, druggies, and immorality.  They quickly change their tune when one of their children comes out.  “Yeah, drugs may still be bad, but I fully support homosexual marriage” they say.  Because they’ve become part of a story.

Sorkin’s characters don’t tell stories.  They spout facts.  They want to educate, when they results they want don’t come from education, but from reaching people deep down in their heart.  These are liberals doing the liberal thing of hitting their heads against a liberal glass wall, and wondering why they don’t ever get through to the people on the other side.  I’ve been guilty of this.

Very occasionally Sorkin stops writing about this own character, and makes a biopic about someone who actually did something.  Charlie Wilson’s War.  The Social Network.  These films have flawed characters.  Driven characters, with their won ideals, certainly, but real characters.  There is an extent to which these films work better than the lecture which underlies his television.  I’m more likely to learn something by watching someone struggle and fail through or succeed despite  their own character flaws, than by being repeatedly told what is right.

If I was going to fix the Newsroom, I would do just this.  Let the idealist see that idealism doesn’t work.  Let him experience  life outside of his liberal elite bubble.  knock him down.  Put him in the world of local interest pieces and personal stories.  And let him realise that, through emotions and stories, he is reaching the people who he never contacted with facts.

But keep writing the witty dialogue too.  Because frankly, that is why I’ll keep returning to Sorkin time and time again.

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