The West Wing and the Saudis

The West Wing cast. CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) is on the right.

The West Wing cast. CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) is on the right.

I’ve become a fan of the TV show “The West Wing”, which originally aired from 1999 through 2006. Every few weeks I watch a few episodes courtesy of Netflix, and now I’m up to season 3. I like it because the dialogue is entertaining, and because I see it as a kind of recent political archaeology, if that makes sense. The writers and consultants — who included one former presidential press secretary and various pollsters — were very plugged into the politics of the time, at least of the Clinton era, and the show provides a window into the way some of our political elite saw themselves.

Of course it’s a TV show and issues are presented without shades of gray. But the mildly liberal viewpoint — although sometimes conservative themes creep in — of the sympathetic characters represents an image of the conventional wisdom of the time. And it’s interesting to compare it to the political climate today. It hasn’t been that many years, but a lot has changed.

This past evening I watched an episode called “Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” which was shown for the first time on May 1, 2002. There were two notable moments. One involved the President saying that Beowulf was written in Middle English (it was Old English of course, a very different language). The other had to do with one of my favorite subjects, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The scene was a press briefing by CJ Cregg, the press secretary (Allison Janney) and one of my personal favorites — if I had writers, I would talk like she does. Cregg is informed just before the briefing of a horrific fire in Saudi Arabia. It was based on a real event which had happened that March:

One of the most widely criticized examples of mutaween enforcement of Sharia law came in March 2002, when 14 young girls died of burns or smoke asphyxiation by an accidental fire that engulfed their public school in Mecca. According to the statements of parents, firemen, and the regular police forces present at the scene, the religious police forcibly prevented girls from escaping the burning school by locking the doors of the school from the outside, and barring firemen from entering the school to save the girls, beating some of the girls and civil defense personnel in the process.

Mutaween would not allow the girls to escape or to be saved because they were ‘not properly covered’, and the mutaween did not want physical contact to take place between the girls and the civil defense forces for fear of sexual enticement. The CPVPV [Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice] denied the charges of beating or locking the gates, but the incident and the accounts of witnesses were reported in Saudi newspapers such as the Saudi Gazette and Al-Iqtisaddiyya. — Wikipedia

Cregg is beyond horrified at the stupidity and misogyny that this incident reveals, and bitterly excoriates the Saudis in front of the press corps:

CJ Cregg: Outraged? I’m barely surprised. This is a country where women aren’t allowed to drive a car. They’re not allowed to be in the company of any man other than a close relative. They’re required to adhere to a dress code that would make a Maryknoll nun look like Malibu Barbie. They beheaded 121 people last year for robbery, rape, and drug trafficking. No free press, no elected government, no political parties. And the royal family allows the religious police to travel in groups of six, carrying nightsticks, and they freely and publicly beat women. But ‘Brutus is an honorable man.’ Seventeen schoolgirls were forced to burn alive because they weren’t wearing the proper clothing. Am I outraged? No, Steve. No, Chris. No, Mark. That is Saudi Arabia, our partners in peace.

CJ received death threats shortly thereafter, which may or may not be connected to her outburst (I’ll find out in  a few weeks).

Like the Beowulf gaffe, this got my attention. And the reason is this: this dialogue would not be written today.

Cregg is a very sympathetic character, and I think that her voice would not oppose the point of view of the show’s creators. But today criticism of Saudi Arabia and Islam (there is also some dialogue about radical Muslims and bombs in the episode) is simply not done, at least not in public by the ‘responsible’ establishment.

What’s changed since May 2002? I think our culture digested 9/11 in different ways. Ordinary citizens got angry, but much of the political elite seemed, ironically, to develop a new-found respect for Islam and its political goals. Although this began to become discernible in Bush’s second administration, it has really come to full flower with the Obama presidency, which  brought us the Cairo speech, a tilt toward the Palestinians and away from Israel, and a prohibition against using the word ‘jihad’.

Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the embrace by much of the elite of the idea of a mosque overlooking the ruins of the World Trade Center, which has been called by opponents a ‘victory mosque’.

I don’t know what CJ Cregg would have said about this in 2002, but does anyone doubt that today her writers would have her appeal to the principle of religious freedom to support it?

A friend told me that the mosque controversy reminded her of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes. In that well-known story, everyone claimed that they could see clothes on the naked emperor because they had been told that they would be invisible to the hopelessly stupid or incompetent. Naturally nobody wanted to admit that they were stupid, so they extravagantly praised the emperor’s nonexistent garments.

Today we’re told that anyone who can’t see that the proposed mosque is a symbol of peace is a bigot opposed to religious freedom, which is much worse than being stupid!

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One Response to “The West Wing and the Saudis”

  1. Robman says:

    Actually, things hadn’t changed so much from the airing of the episode referenced above – 2002 – through to 2008. The great amount of change in relevant political discourse can be easily and precisely traced to January of 2009.

    Gotta admit, in a broad sense, Obama kept his promise on delivering “change” to America, didn’t he??!!

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