I’ve been rewatching episodes of The West Wing this week, as a sort of inoculation against the real world of American politics. In one of the episodes, Keb'Mo performs the gorgeous America, the Beautiful with guitar accompaniment. In these last months in the real America, it's anger and hatred rather than beauty that have swept the fruited plains the song celebrates.
The country that gave us a model for a democratic republic has elevated something ugly in our humanity, a hyper-masculinity whose time is long gone, the occasional swishing dinosaur tail all that’s been left to remind us until now. Now anger and aggression have come back as ways to win. And while they may not be winning overall, they are winning with many, many people.
Americans may give a resounding No to anger and aggression on 8 November, but the shadow the experience has cast, having been unleashed, will take time to fade again from the world. In The West Wing, civility trumps aggression every time. Intellect trumps ignorance. My favourite character is press secretary CJ Cregg because she’s so smart across the range of ways to be smart, intellectual, emotional, kinetic. I like President Jed Bartlet too, because he’s brilliant but flawed and wants to be good. But most of all I like The West Wing’s idealism. It’s idealism I share. We make the world better by opening our hearts not by closing them.
I used to work in a university with people who were smart, maybe not as smart as the President in The West Wing, but leading in their disciplines. I loved the level of debate in executive meetings – which I attended as an assistant – the way ideas would develop and change, the way intelligence could improve decisions. My boss was the vice-chancellor, a mathematician, and in the morning when he brought in a speech or report we were working on, the back of the page would be covered with formulae. He did maths late at night to relax, he told me.
One of the senior managers who joined the university while I was there operated in the political frame, which is not my strength. One morning, after I’d disagreed with him on an issue in a meeting with the VC, he came in to my office. He repeated what he'd said in the meeting. I argued my point again, which had been supported in the meeting. He raised his voice, and then he shouted. He swore, became abusive. I was frightened of him, and I'm not easily frightened. It wasn't the only time I came up against aggression in the workplace but it stayed with me. if I'd ever wondered why women who are bullied or sexually harassed don't just push back against aggression, I knew after that experience. I could no more push back than fly to the moon.
In America right now, I'm watching the behaviour in my office on a national scale, anger and aggression replacing civility and debate. ‘America, America, God shed his grace on thee,’ the song tells us. Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency believing in that grace. And if his hopes weren’t quite realised, I am still glad as a world leader it’s what he’s offered relentlessly. Grace, from sea to shining sea.