In the pilot of HBO’s The Newsroom, Will McAvoy—a character played by Jeff Daniels—embarks a wide-ranging rant. The monologue is triggered by a doe-eyed twenty something’s assumption that America is the greatest country in the world. McAvoy tears into her in front of a packed lecture hall, making it clear that he considers her a naïve idiot whose adherence to jingoist patriotism is emblematic of the American public as a whole, who prefer to spout knee-jerk feel-good sound bites rather than embarking on a critical examination of their homeland’s faults.
The monologue is significant in that it introduces the viewer to several aspects of McAvoy’s persona, and because the furor raised by his rant makes it one of the key events defining the show’s overarching milieu. In my opinion, most of the claims made by McAvoy are either poorly reasoned or provably wrong, and I’ll be taking a look at them one by one.
Who cares whether or not some tirade by a fictional character makes sense? Glad you asked. I suppose most people don’t care, but for those of us interested in writing as a craft, I think there are lessons to be learned. And the Daniels rant is of particular interest to me—and others, perhaps—because it’s an example of a particularly successful, talented pro (Alan Sorkin, who created the series) diving down a rabbit hole and bringing back a goodly pile of bunny turds. To my mind, the fact that someone like Sorkin can fall victim to the sort of fuzzy thinking that pollutes the Daniels monologue makes the scene that includes it a cautionary tale. If Sorkin can screw up in this manner, so can anyone who writes professionally, or aspires to do so….
I’m actually a fan of Sorkin’s. While I never cared for The West Wing, I thought Sports Night was a great little show, and consider his Oscar for The Social Network to be well-deserved. I even liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and was befuddled when it was canceled while the similar and vastly inferior 30 Rock soldiered on. But a harvest as vast as Sorkin’s is bound to contain a few wormy turnips, and I contend that the monologue in question is one of them.
Apparently, Jeff Daniels contributed a lot of the material in the monologue, so I’d like to make it clear I’m not a Daniels hater either. I think most of his work is excellent, and believe he was pretty much born to play McAvoy.
For the most part, I enjoy The Newsroom. It has its faults, some of which plague Sorkin’s work in general and others which are specific to the series, but I consider it a consistently outstanding show in most respects. If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to do so.
Assertion #1: “It’s not the greatest country in the world…”
McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is responding to the question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” He’s beginning to get his rant on.
His response, that America isn’t the greatest in the world, is perfectly reasonable. Remember, though, McAvoy is all about facts and reason, so if he’s going to make a sweeping statement like this, we should expect him to back it up. And, as we’ll see, McAvoy’s attempts to do so fail miserably—both in terms of drawing on supporting facts and stitching together underlying assertions in a coherent manner.
For starters, naysaying anyone’s claim that country X is the greatest in the world seems like a tricky affair. If someone told me they thought Belgium (or Zimbabwe, or Chile, or whatever) was the greatest country in the world, I’d politely ask them why and mull the response. Perhaps the fellow touting Belgium (we’ll call him Zack) thinks that linguistic diversity and great chocolate are the measures of greatness. So be it. I might have different criteria than Zack, and come to a different conclusion, but I’m certainly not going to crap all over his opinion because greatness is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say chocolate and languages aren’t the proper criteria?
As we’ll see, though, crapping all over people—in particular, the young lady who asked the question—is exactly what McAvoy does here: “You, sorority girl, just in case you ever wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know. One of them is, there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”
McAvoy doesn’t just declare a difference of opinion, he says the young lady is flat-out wrong and implies she’s foolish for believing as she does. Remember, McAvoy is all about facts and reason, so if he’s going to claim someone is full of it, he ought to be able to back that up. If he doesn’t, then its patently out of character for him to make the claim in the first case.
So, how would someone go about demonstrating that when Zack makes Belgium #1 on his “greatest countries” list, he’s barking up the wrong tree? I can think of two ways. First, you could point out that some other country is a better fit for the criteria Zack’s established. You could also declare that some other country is best (any will do). If a country other than Belgium is the greatest, then clearly Belgium cannot be the greatest.
McAvoy never does this. He never tells the audience which country is the greatest, and he never calls out what criteria a country ought to meet to be considered great. He just barks a list of complaints—things he doesn’t like about the direction the U.S. has taken. Since every nation has flaws, the greatest nation (whichever one it is) will naturally have flaws, and pointing them out does nothing to support McAvoy’s claim regarding America’s greatness or lack thereof.
Assertion #2: “We lead the world in only three categories. Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults to believe angels are real, and defense spending.”
False. The U.S. leads the world in a number of categories. Here are a few:
GDP. The U.S. has the largest economy in the world.
Military capability. As McAvoy points out, the U.S. spends a lot of money on its military. What he fails to mention is that those dollars haven’t been completely wasted and that the country does possess considerable military might. One can easily argue that this isn’t a measure of a nation’s greatness (it’s obviously not on Zack’s list of criteria) but this isn’t what McAvoy is claiming. He’s asserting that the U.S. is only number one in those categories he lists. Now, if Sorkin wanted us to look upon McAvoy as a moron, it would be fine for the character to make a claim that’s so obviously false, but this doesn’t seem to be the intent.
Nobel laureates. The U.S. has the greatest number of Nobel laureates by far (350). Only a few countries mage to break the 100 mark.
Number of patents. At nearly 160,000, the U.S. leads the pack. It has almost as many patents as the #2 and #3 countries (Japan and Germany) put together.
Number of immigrants. At 46 million, the U.S. has almost four times as many foreign-born citizens as the next country on the list (Russia).
Number of Olympic medals. The U.S. has twice as many (about 2700) as the runner-up (Russia). Foreign aid donations. The U.S. gives $24 billion, almost twice as much as the runner-up (the UK).
I could go on. And on. And on.
Now, you could argue that none of this stuff matters—that the measure of a nation’s greatness lies elsewhere—but this is beside the point. McAvoy, a supposedly well-informed, intelligent character is making a claim, and that claim is false. He, like Zack, might establish criteria for greatness that don’t involve economic might, scientific achievements, etc. but this simply isn’t what the character is doing.