As America tumbles ever closer to the pit, Aaron Sorkin is one of the few that can accurately chart the detritus and find hope in it.
Ah, the joys of the summer holiday. Camping with the family, sharing a caravan with the in-laws, driving to Coffs Harbour with Peppa Pig on the backseat. And then hopefully some things you actually do like to do. Things you pine for on the 358 bus, things that together comprise your happy place, where you go in your head when the Monday meeting is really too boring to stay focused. In the next couple of weeks, I will tell you something about my summer delicacies. Activities, mainly, that charge me up and give me joy. To me, they are worth the slight feeling of guilt for claiming some time for myself in this season of family and togetherness. I try to sell them to my loved ones as educational and inspirational. Not sure they buy that, but so far they haven’t minded a purring, very contented me.
This week I would like you to join me on the sofa. Mine is yellow with swirls, so maybe you can choose another one. But still, you need a couch. Not too hard, not too soft, with some cushions, and a television with DVD player or your laptop at just the right distance. If you are anything like me, you also need tea. Lots of it. Lady Grey, or Jasmine. And a pen and some paper, just in case what you see gives you ideas you want to use later. Then, very importantly, you need time. Days, if possible, but at least some hours. Binge-watching is only fun if there is nothing pressing going on, and if ordering pizza in between episodes is a possibility. In my house, we call it time to “hang”, and everybody gets some. “Hang”-time is sacred and not to be broken into by others. Once or twice a year mine is spent watching television. But not just television. Especially during my days in summer, I tend to erect a shrine to one man, the Shakespeare of screenwriting: Aaron Sorkin.
Of course, Sorkin is first and foremost the man of The West Wing. And you will know him from films like A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, Malice, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, The Social Network and television shows like Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Newsroom. He wrote plays too and was the man who gave us the immortal lines “You can’t handle the truth” and “Socialising on the Internet is to socialising what reality television is to reality.” Don’t get me wrong, I love that Sorkin. He is smart and witty and fun and sexy. But that is not the reason I go back to him year after year. For a while now I have been using Sorkin as a safety net. Whenever the world seems to have gone crazy (and boy, have we had some of that in the last year or so) I know I can count on him for wise words, motivating anger and inspiration. On and off screen he manages to find the language I wish I had at my disposal. He is my writing God, my political model, and he gives me hope that we, the people, can be better, should be better, and have to show our leaders we want them to be better too.
Sorkin’s ideal universe hasn’t materialised. But the fact that there are people like him fighting, without fear and without making excuses for being intellectual and nerdy and preferring integrity over ratings, gets me up in the morning.
The day after Donald Trump got elected at the end of 2016, Sorkin wrote a letter to his teenage daughter, Roxy. He called the new president a “thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn”. He also told Roxy to be careful of Trump’s supporters, “men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration”. Hatred and “abject dumbness” now reigned, Sorkin wrote, but instead of “wailing” and “talking about moving to Canada”, it was time to “fucking fight (Roxy, there’s a time for this language and it’s now).”
Of course, Aaron Sorkin had been predicting Trump and his cronies years and years before Toupee-Man was voted in. Especially in Newsroom (please watch at least the first season during day one of your binge; on YouTube for 2.99 an episode or less if you buy a season pass) Sorkin explained both the problems America was facing in 2012 and the “solutions” it was coming up with. The series starts with a sequence that has been watched online more than 8.5 million times. In it, Will McAvoy, Sorkin’s grumpy news anchor lead, gets asked why America is the greatest country in the world. After trying to wriggle out of an answer, he finally says it really isn’t: “Are we the only country in the world that is so star-spangled awesome to have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan, the UK, France…Australia, Belgium! We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defence spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined.”
Because Sorkin is Sorkin and never leaves you hopeless, Newsroom quickly turns into an exemplar of how to fight back, to reclaim “civility, respect”, and use journalism as an honourable profession, not one of “bitchiness, gossip and voyeurism.” It is time, McAvoy’s producer gees him up, to follow Don Quichote, “speak truth to stupid” and show that “self interest is not our basic resting pulse.” Part of that truth is getting some of the facts straight. The real ones. So this is how Sorkin describes the Tea Party, the crazies that funded Trump and think he is the best thing since sliced bread now: “Ideological purity, compromise as weakness, a fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism, denying science, unmoved by facts, undeterred by new information, a hostile fear of progress, a demonisation of education, a need to control women’s bodies, severe xenophobia, tribal mentality, intolerance of dissent, pathological hatred of the US government. In short, the Tea Party is the American Taliban.”
Of course, I am not spending days on my couch getting sad and depressed. On the contrary, Sorkin always teaches me how not to be afraid and what to do. As he quoted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead a few years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.” My job as a writer, according to Sorkin, is to write, because “the most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story.” That it works that way is evident if you read a 2012 article in Vanity Fair, where quite a number of Washington operatives were interviewed about their inspiration. They talked about the “Sorkinisation of politics”, the Sorkin-led belief that it was possible to steer a country away from division, conflict and cynicism and towards making things better and aiming for noble, idealistic, intellectual, ambitious, hopeful and smart. “Before Obama there was Aaron Sorkin,” one of them said, calling the West Wing in particular “shoulda-been history.”
As we know, Sorkin’s ideal universe hasn’t exactly materialised yet. But the fact that there are still people like him fighting, without fear and without making excuses for being intellectual and nerdy and preferring integrity over ratings, gets me up in the morning. That is why I need a hit of Sorkin every once in a while. On the sofa. Or at the movies, where his directorial debut Molly’s Game will premiere on the 19th of January. I will be there, no doubt admiring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. But probably also swooning over Sorkin, my own private moral compass and guru of hope.