West Wing Plagued by “Terminal Whiteness” – Whatever the Hell That Means

In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, columnist Michael Darer, contended that the beloved political drama, The West Wing, was a near perfect encapsulation of “contemporary white liberalism” – and that this was a bad thing. The reason Mr. Darer gives as to why are two-fold.

  • He really hates Aaron Sorkin’s self-aggrandizing, bloviating style (on this we agree).
  • All of Sorkin’s main characters are smart, morally upright white guys (and this is bad).

You might very well be thinking that this is a oversimplification, but I assure you it is not. Don’t believe me, read the piece http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/there-is-no-better-encapsulation-of-contemporary-white_us_584a59aae4b0151082221a0c  and see for yourself.

He writes,

The West Wing is responsible for shaping popular conceptions of political righteousness for modern Americans—specifically a vision of righteousness that (while perhaps not intentionally) is fundamentally white.

So here we have the ‘implicit/explicit’ distinction rearing it’s ugly head. You will often hearing this from the likes of CNN contributor Van “White-lash” Jones and ditzy e-celebrity, Francesca Ramsey. Such individuals have a penchant for saying things like, “X organization may not be  explicitly racist – but it is implicitly racist.” Now all this really means is that they are purporting to be mind readers, for when people tell me they aren’t racial bigots I tend to believe them – the KKK and Huey P. Newton Gun Club aren’t shy about their feelings for those who do not share their melanin levels, after all.

Now, what to make of all of this? Well, firstly, it should be noted that Mr. Darer is certainly a very talented, if overly self conscious, writer. Secondly, he tackles his subjects with great seriousness and ambition, rightly noting that many of his sticking points, as a progressive liberal, are vigorously championed by Sorkin’s “Terminally white” heroes in The West Wing. I believe that he, rightly, notes that one of the principal problems with many mainstream liberals when talking about subjects such as racism or homophobia, is that they tend only ever to discuss such issues in the abstract (e.g. this country has a serious problem with [X]) instead of tying their claims to more pragmatic heuristics.

But he goes on,

Right now, I imagine (if you’re still with me) that you’ve begun to take issue with my stressing of whiteness again and again, although I have yet to explain what’s ultimately so terminally white about the liberalism on display here. Well, don’t you worry. I had no intention of denying you the pleasure.

“Pleasure,” is not exactly the word I would use – “befuddlement,” perhaps, would have been a better choice.

Where I believe the article goes awry is when he starts hammering on and on about The West Wing’s “Terminal whiteness.” What, exactly, does that even mean? Paleness of skin color alone? Surely he means more than that by it – but what? It has been popular among anti-racists (such as Tim Wise and Noel Ignatiev) to speak at great length about “whiteness” without ever really defining it, even in the most nominal of terms. It is ever some kind of terrifying phantom, powerful and imposing, but ever beyond one’s reach – indefinable as the shaded khefts of Egyptian folklore. As such it would seem that the central pillar of the article – the claim that modern liberalism is plagued by an excess of “whiteness” – has crumbled before even the roof has been raised.