Burmese Democracy Activists Took Lessons From ‘The West Wing’

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"Burmese Democracy Activists Took Lessons From ‘The West Wing’"

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a recent speech about Burma’s democracy movement, noted that a leader in the struggle once told her that the country’s activists were educating themselves about the way democratic governments work by watching The West Wing:

All of which got me thinking: what lessons are the political shows we’re airing now teaching people about democracy, American or otherwise?

1. Yelling safeguards the health of the political culture (The Newsroom): America may be the greatest country in the world thanks to an intern Will McAvoy shouted down in the season premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s latest and hired in the finale. But stupid is universal, as is the need to speak truth to it. Hopefully other free journalists in newly-minted democracies will spend their time hollering at actual people in power instead of beauty queens.

2. Niceness and integrity can win the day if you work very, very hard, and your opponent is a transparent idiot (Parks and Recreation): If we want to export democracy, can we mail a lot of Parks and Rec DVDs overseas? Leslie Knope may handle sister city delegations poorly—Viva Mayor Walter Gunderson!—but if she can take down the Man From Sweetums (or Glee‘s Burt Hummel can beat Sue Sylvester’s dirty campaign), maybe upstanding candidates fighting against the tide in corrupted elections everywhere can have a chance.

3. If niceness fails, kitchen sink disposals handle human ears nicely (Boss): Mayor Tom Kane is a Chicago strongman, a reminder that elections can become formalities when you couple machines with a lack of term limits. He’s a useful warning that sometimes the strength of democracy is its inefficiency, and the desire the bulldoze through the process for the sake of getting things done can be an awfully dangerous compulsion, one you can’t indulge once and walk away from.

4. If you’re a sucker for demagoguery, sometimes you get the jerks you deserve (Homeland): William Walden (Jamey Sheridan), the vice president Nicholas Brody almost assassinated in the finale of the first season of Showtime’s Homeland is a blowhard, but an effective one. He’s very good at talking tough about the threat of terrorism, and he’s rising towards the presidency on the strength of his pedantic oratory. And he’s a warning about following the person who makes you feel best, rather than the person who has the best to offer you.

5. Even the lead of the free world can be a sentimental idiot (1600 Penn): This horrendously awful sitcom from Jon Lovett, who used to write speeches for President Obama, starts airing on NBC in January. On a meta level, it’s a reminder that the people behind democratically elected leaders aren’t always visionaries who are upholding the highest ideals of their political systems. And the show itself, about a President who can’t resist indulging his dumb, frat-boy son, is a cautionary tale against seeing the people who represent the people as avatars of the ideals we invest in them.

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