“I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”

“I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.” August 28, 2012

Why I love “The Newsroom” – left vs right vs truth (part 2 and some philosophy)

McAvoy: I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage. 

So I love the Newsroom. A lot. In my last post on the new HBO show (shown in the UK on Sky Atlantic), I waxed lyrical about the importance of press freedom and independence from commercial influences. In this post, I want to look at where it has positioned itself politically, whether it is obliged to show “fairness” in its representation of the political stories it references, and how this all impacts approaches to philosophical truth.

The central theme, as set out fairly early in the series, is that news broadcasters should aim for good, honest and truthful reporting, doing their upmost to obtain from good sources news that serves the audience well.

Charlie: Have you read the New York Post?

Will: No. My eyes are connected to my brain.

There are memorable speeches and interplays of dialogue that move the watcher to really ‘get this’. However, after setting this paradigm up, it seems that the show moves very obviously to the left of centre in all of its coverage and references to the real world news stories that it portrays within a historical context (other than the fact that all the characters and the station are fictitious). What seems particularly cynical is divulging the information that the central role of Jeff Daniels’ McAvoy character is a paid-up member of the Republican Party. This is a crafty move, since, as the moral arbiter and compass within the narrative, McAvoy clearly drums out some left-wing rhetoric in attacking the Tea Party, gun ownership, Rick Santorum’s approach to homosexuality, lies from right-wing politicians and so on. The idea, it seems, is to show that Republicanism can be moderate; that it should dust its hands clean of those nasty crazies on the extreme right (just like the Democrats did of the extreme left decades ago). That all seems rosy, but one clearly sees through the guise to the fact that this is the writers’ way of dressing up left-wing views within the context of a moderate right-winger. Some of the things McAvoy says would never be said by even a moderate Republican, methinks.

These rather public (in the show) displays of righteousness are clearly left-wing moments of rhetorical glee on behalf of the writer. I am not worried about this and I will tell you for why. This is where we move towards a little philosophy. These are the questions that are raised, in my mind:

1)      Is Sorkin obliged to show more balance in recounting political shenanigans?

2)      Is the left-wing approach morally better?

3)      Is left-wing politics closer to some kind of philosophical truth?

What Sorkin, the writer, is looking at when writing are the core values that underpin the American political divide. When he attacks the Tea Party, he does so not on the foundation of actual politics (such as the free market economy or libertarian principles), he does so on pointing out their use of truth and lies and by showing how they are radicalising his own party, moving further to the right. He does point out the logic in following such principles to their extremes, such that a private restaurant owner can arguably have the right to refuse to serve black people. The lead does not attack ‘regular Repbulicans’ (and even stands up for one who loses his seat to a Tea Party candidate) but concentrates on this fringe, showing, through the storyline about the Koch brothers, that they are not the grass roots funded movement they claim to be, being helped with finance from the biggest corporate names in business. By showing that Palin, Bachman and so on use lies to bolster their attacks on Obama (through gun control, or the eventual lack thereof), Sorkin is using real events of misinformation to try to ‘unfairly’ score points against the opposition, critics say.

Do the Democrats ever do this? Quite probably. So why does Sorkin pick on the Republicans so much? Well, as mentioned, the attention is kept more heatedly on the extreme right-wing, though the same question could still apply. I suppose the question becomes, in the case of the Tea Party, as to how serious and viable a politic they are; or are they just an ideologically driven movement contingent upon presupposed worldviews (religion, kneejerk hating the left-wing, zero government etc)? Do they mirror the ID theorists when we talk about fairness in reporting news events with regards to evolution as mentioned in the last post? For a position (ID) only adhered to by “crackpot scientists”, and entirely non-consensus, the news are not obliged to represent their views with a parity to the level accorded to serious and consensus science (evolution). In the same way, I do not believe the Tea Party should be afforded a similar parity. This is answering question 1, but I will need to defend this with question 2. I don’t believe they deserve the parity because, morally and philosophically, their ‘politics’ are dubious.

Philosophically speaking, only 9.8% of philosophers adhere to a libertarian political view (and that is actually higher than I would have thought). Now, an argumentum ad populum gets us nowhere. Just because only less than 1 in 10 of the greatest thinkers in the world (arguably) adhere to a position does not mean it should be discounted. But we do need to ask why it is an extreme minority position. The positions of communitarianism, egalitarianism and ‘other’ are far more popular. Philosophers often base other philosophical disciplines upon their moral philosophy. It is as though all other philosophy supervenes on morality.

Charlie: We don’t pretend the facts are in dispute to give the illusion of fairness. Balance is irrelevant to me. It has nothing to do with truth, logic or reality.

There is no surprise, then, that the longer I am involved with philosophy, the more to the left I move. I used to be conservative, many years ago, primarily due to my parents and upbringing – a sort of inherited baggage. When I began to question the world and everything I had learnt of it, I began to move to the left. Part of the realisation that I was becoming left-wing was in the understanding that actually, human rights don’t exist. As in, they don’t have some kind of Platonic realism, existing in some kind of human rights dimension. As a result, we have to craft them from thought, building them up from our moral philosophy. In the belief that all humans are equal, and being a determinist anyway (as you can see form my first book, Free Will?), it is hard to give any other person, or group of people more special privilege than anyone else. We truly are philosophically equal. This requires a massive amount of extra work to set out than a couple of paragraphs in a blog about The Newsroom; suffice to say that, philosophically speaking, a mixture between communitarianism and egalitarianism is what I decree as being morally right. My moral philosophy informs my political philosophy.

In order to defend a position of libertarian political philosophy, or to spouse the extreme versions of capitalism such that the survival of the fittest is always the right way to go about economics, leaving the free market economy to decide things (involving moral and ethical dilemmas), one has to do an awful lot of philosophical contortionism. Basically, selfishness undergirds such positions. The will to have more and be more than those around you is the foundation of such politics, rather than wanting everyone around you to be as good as you, which is the basis of my politics, informed by my philosophy. (It is worth noting that true libertarianism is arguably neither left nor right, and that that paradigm is perhaps incoherent, or that it bridges a place between the left and right in some sort of circle).

It is in this way, therefore, that I really do believe that the left-wing has stronger moral values. This is why, in Ed Clint’s post here on SBs, there is talk that the (religious) right-wing are not funny, and why the right-wing is almost always the butt of political jokes, and the left-wing rarely is. It’s hard to take the piss out of a system which nobly tries to make society better for more people, rather than people who are trying to engineer society to be better for them.

And that is what defines left- as opposed to right-wing politics: left-wing politics has at its core the value the desire to bring everyone in society up to [your] high standard and quality of life. The right, on the other hand, has at its core the notion that one, themselves, needs to be better and have more than those around you. The free market economy depends upon inequality and competitive advantage. And this makes for successful economics, for sure; but there is little or no moral dimension. Morality within the system depends upon it being an attractive ideal for the consumer to demand (within their consumer habits and product consumption). Left-wing ideals, on the other hand, start with a moral position, with morality as a foundation, and move on from there (in economic and societal decisions and systems).

So when Sorkin gives the right a hard time, under the pretense of the protagonist being a moderate, I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem because all of the issues picked up on are issues that need addressing. And I don’t mind that it is partisan because the left-wing really does have a moral dimension that the extreme right-wing does not. People that criticise The Newsroom for not showing enough balance do so because it does not defend their worldview; these people are themselves sitting to the hard right.

You must remember that from a European perspective, the Democrats are, at best, centrist. There really is no left-wing party in the States. In the UK, the Democrats are like our right-wing Conservatives, the Republicans like our UKIP (UK Independence Party), the Tea Party like our BNP (British Nationalist Party) and there is no one like our Liberal Democrats or Labour. So to opine that the show is too left-wing is to more accurately opine that it is centrist (with elements of centre-left rhetoric), a claim that the show itself makes in episode 3.

Personally, I believe no political position is perfect, and there is often recourse to having aspects of both sides. I like the idea of having a liberal politic with a bite, due to human nature being, at base, selfish in many ways, and thus requiring a liberal system to be able to defend itself form being taken advantage of by other systems and freeloaders. It’s all very complex, of course, because viable economics does seem to need notions of inequality such that inequality, to some degree, might be seen as a ‘good thing’. But these are much bigger debates for another post. My larger point here being that the US, and the world, needs shows like The Newsroom to keep our more divisive natures in check, and to vocalise and fight for fairness in a world that sometimes forgets that ideal.

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  • Copyleft

    Well, as an admitted leftist myself, I think there is plenty of dishonesty and irrational behavior on the left to make fun of.

    Conservatives of integrity DO exist, they just never seem to get much airtime, which could lead the observer to conclude that “rght-wing” is inherently equal to “dishonest” or “irrational.” I don’t think that would be an accurate picture.

    It’s true that virtually all the high-profile denial of science and reason these days is coming from the right, but we shouldn’t let that persuade us that the right is therefore anti-science. Just the most obnoxious of the noisemakers are.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Sure. I totally agree. Maybe I wasn’t being clear enough. You can easily take the piss out of people on the left and the right. PEOPLE are dishonest, PEOPLE do stupid things, both left and right.

      However, it is harder to take the piss out of the politic of the left, I think, and the core philosophical values that underpin them.

      For example, comedians often take the mick out of politicians left and right in the UK, but they only really take the mick out of right-wing politics, in the light of it being elitist, selfish, having self-interest at the heart of political motivations, upper classed and so on. It is harder to get away with mocking people who want the world to be fairer, more equal.

  • Copyleft

    As regards morality, I suspect that the left and right have literally different definitions of what that word means. Saying one side is ‘more moral’ than the other may often be due to a misunderstanding of how the other side uses the term.

    In-group loyalty, for example, is less important to liberals on average as a priority in making ethical choices. But for conservatives, a choice that violates loyalty literally CANNOT be moral, because loyalty is a bedrock principle of their morality. (Haidt, “The Righteous Mind”)

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Something I want to do in the future is a post on this:

      It is funny how right-wing politics is all about freedom of economics and less government intervention….

      until it comes to morality and ethics, when they want to regulate family, sexuality, religion, blah blah blah.

      It is funny how the left want to regultae the economy and political society and yet are happy to have liberal unregulated approaches to individuals and family, sexuality, religion blah blah blah

      I find this an interesting irony.

      • Copyleft

        Me too. For me, it was interesting to learn that an action which violates group loyalty is as unthinkable, as automatically immoral, as one that causes harm to innocents–IF you’re a conservative.

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          Hey Copyleft
          Can you give an example – I’m not sure I get you here?

  • I’m really enjoying The Newsroom. Thanks for recommending it!

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Great! Glad I could be of assistance!

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