“I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties,” [Sorkin] says. “I think the last time America was a great country was then, or not long after. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate.”
Coates thought Sorkin, in the interview, was insensitive to victims of segregation and “gender repression” back in the ’40s. He scolded Sorkin for extolling a great era that never really existed, and for expressing “attendant notions that the internet [has] ruined everything.”
What a crock. In the interview, Sorkin betrayed an unfortunate nostalgic streak and apparent insecurities about the quality of his work. But I’m still trying to figure out what it is about him and his new HBO show, The Newsroom, that so deeply offended Coates and the many non-fans of Sorkin who posted comments on Coates’ site.
Coates ignored the brilliance of the show’s initial rant about America’s steep decline, delivered by Jeff Daniels, playing (at least in this scene) a latter-day Howard Beale:
…We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports…. America leads the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending…
Does it really matter that Sorkin glosses over what was bad about previous eras, that he is old-fashioned in some respects, an asshole sometimes? That he is skeptical about some current uses of the internet?
Decades ago, who but Howard Beale would have imagined that the Supreme Court, with something called the Citizens United decision, would all but eliminate government by the people? That labor unions would be close to extinct by 2012 and the gap between rich and poor at an all-time high? That America would elect a Democratic president willing to compromise with those who would dismantle Social Security, and hang out with the CEOs who have off-shored millions of American jobs?
Yes, some overtly racist and sexist laws were overturned in mid-twentieth century America. However, at almost the same time this was happening, reactionaries were developing a blueprint for a country that would in some ways be even more inequitable than America under the old laws. That’s fact, not nostalgia.
And yet Coates, in putting down Sorkin, doesn’t even acknowledge that America took a turn for the worse in the late twentieth century, away from the ideals codified in New Deal legislation and toward the dog-eat-dog world of Birchers and Ayn Rand acolytes.
It’s a big mistake to forget that collective ignorance is a force than fluctuates throughout history, and that most Americans in our era seem to be profoundly ignorant of the rights and protections fought for and won by their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Question for Coates: Are we really talking social progress if more and more Americans, regardless of race and sex, are reduced to living like serfs, and the mainstream media all but ignores this fact?
Give Sorkin credit, if only for stating the obvious with energy and eloquence.
Footnote: After the initial scene, The Newsroom‘s first episode became more like Broadcast News than like Network, but that’s not a putdown. It should be fun to see whether the show turns out to be truly bold.