It's the only way I can sleep. It has been, for a good ten years, now.
Sleep has always been elusive - between my childhood worries and my teenage mania, I slept very poorly, often only between the hours of three and six in the morning. As an adult, I've grabbed at every chance for sleep, every method, and nothing works quite as well as The West Wing, piped through my earbuds, a fictional world carrying me into a solid eight hours of bliss.
I know it all by heart. And over the past year, my heart has been broken.
The West Wing is emblematic of a particular American dream - a liberal America, a country of witty discourse and impassioned monologues, of legislative victories and presidential accomplishments. It's a dream of intellect, of compassion, of selflessness, of hope. And I've been leaning on that dream more and more, because the country we live in is currently too far removed from any vision of political integrity. But now, when I watch my favorite show, when I'm supposed to sleep, I feel a deep pain in my chest.
If I praise The West Wing too enthusiastically, I also acknowledge its flaws. I can't deny that its version of liberalism is incredibly white and incredibly male - there are moments which grate, jarring when confronted with a more nuanced view of politics and intersectionality. The show improves in that regard, placing women and minorities more in the forefront, but its roots are firmly in one particular brand of progressive identity. Through a critical re-watching, one can see the fault lines in liberalism - it has been, for far too long, dominated by well-meaning but ultimately self-involved white men. No wonder, I think, that so many people feel abandoned by the Democratic Party - they are not included in its representation, neither on television or in Washington, D.C.
So my heart breaks with this adult understanding - if I understand and own my privilege, I must witness the deep flaws in my political party. But my heart breaks, too, for an America which tuned in and adored the characters who lull me to sleep. For an America which valued liberalism. For the state of America, today, so ravaged by the ultimately inevitable tide of white supremacy, bigotry, ignorance, and hate personified by the monster it elected.
Donald Trump could not have been elected without the bitter vein of selfishness which holds up this country like iron ore. It is that selfishness which justifies racism, misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, Christian fundamentalism, and tax breaks for the richest among us. I've got mine, says the Trump voter, and to hell with everyone else.
This is mirrored by the less grotesque but no less insidious selfishness of privilege - a privilege in which white skin is considered the default, when we expect to see white faces in our entertainment, when we choose to send our children to "better" schools, when the injustices faced by minorities are brushed aside, when we debate removing reproductive rights from the Democratic platform, on and on and all the ways we compromise and maintain the status quo. We are responsible, too.
We are, as we always have been, at a pivotal point in the destiny of this country. While a bumbling egomaniac threatens both the limits of sanity and nuclear war, the American people seem to be pushing for something better. Women and men are coming forward to tell the truths of abuse, asking all of us to question our actions, our histories, our own survival. We are beginning to demand answers, to ask for more accountability in our entertainment, to witness and rail against injustice. But it can't be ignored that, while we are undergoing a cultural shift, people are being removed from their homes. Black Americans are still being terrorized almost indiscriminately by the police, and too many Black men are in prison for the same business which is making white men wealthy in Colorado. Abortion is harder and harder to access, and the state of sexual education makes abortion more and more necessary.
And, yes, I have to say it again - people are being removed from their homes.
The West Wing is defined not only by its liberalism but by the thread of Judaism which runs through the characters and narrative. Many of the protagonists are Jewish, and the legacy of the Holocaust is ever-present. When the show aired, America was on the incredible high of the more progressive 1990s, and a reality in which a president could actively, brazenly, proudly call for the rounding up of the "other" would have been unthinkable. Monstrous. And Donald Trump has made it normal. And we all die, I think, on the inside, because that glorious American dream is a revealed at last to be a lie.
I don't really know where that leaves us. I think of my favorite show as an archive, as a relic, as a fragment of a time when we aspired to be better. That's not where we live, now. We live in horror. Most of us can see it more clearly, and I can only hope that the true liberalism is a liberalism which exists to defend minorities, to defend women, to defend the other. I hope that the Democratic Party can come out and champion the people who are suffering, who have been suffering, the most.
We must be honest about privilege and how it informs the evils on both sides. The time for denial is over. We are in a moment of war - with those who hate, and with the weaknesses in ourselves. With selfishness.
I'm going to keep watching The West Wing. I need to sleep. But I'm praying, before I close my eyes, for a just world which far surpasses the fleeting beauty of a well-written series.
I'm praying for our souls.