“America Has Never Been America”: Whiteness, Nostalgia and HBO’s The Newsroom

“America Has Never Been America”: 
Whiteness, Nostalgia and HBO’s The Newsroom
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
There is a speech making its rounds in the blogosphere and on social media that seems to galvanizing (parts of liberal) America.  Unfortunately, it isn’t Malcolm’s “Ballot or the Bullet,” Fannie Lou Hamer’s brilliance at the 1968 Democratic Convention, King’s “Beyond Vietnam” or Fred Hampton’s inspiring language, but rather Jeff Daniels’ monologue at the beginning of HBO’s Newsroom.  Capturing Aaron Sorkin’s propensity for sappy dialogue that is drunk on optimism, this speech also reflects his propensity to see the world through binaries, often erasing the complexities, divisions, and inequalities that define culture, politics, and society.  It also embodies a disturbing level of nostalgia that seems commonplace within televisual culture.  From Mad Men (more discussion here) to Pan-AM, contemporary TV (and film – The Help) is rooted in nostalgia for the past, one that fails to account for the less than idyllic world for people of color, women, the GLBT community, and others whose dreams remain deferred.
In responding to a young woman’s question about America’s greatness (American Exceptionalism), Will (Daniels) launched into a lengthy monologue:
Will: It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, 
that’s my answer.
 
Moderator [pause]: You’re saying—
 
Will: Yes.
 
Moderator: Let’s talk about—
 
Will: Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!
 
And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America’s so starspangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.
 
And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!!!
As I initially watched this Olberman-esque sermon, I was intrigued, although I didn’t find the information or the argument particularly powerful – it was unusual for mainstream TV.  It also did speak to how whiteness operates, whereupon Will or Sorkin can challenge American Exceptionalism without their patriotism or citizenship being questioned; yet people of color cannot offer these same arguments without denunciation and demonization. My interest quickly turned from frustration to annoyance to disgust to outrage as he continued with his myopic and white-colored lecture:
We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.
In a blink of an eye, Sorkin transports viewers from the problems of today to a time worthy of celebration and memory.  In erasing the violence, inequality, segregation, dehumanization, and denied rights, the monologue nostalgically imagines an exceptional time in American history.  It offers evidence of and potential for the American Dream; it sees the past as time for meritocracy.  America’s greatness rests with the hard work and perseverance of previous generation.  It exists with a time when anyone could live out his or her dream. At the same time, the show imagined a time where people struggled and triumphed, overcoming obstacles through personal responsibility, hard work, and community.
What a crock; clearly we need to crack open a history book in Hollywood. Ernest Hardy offered his assessment of the clip in a Facebook post:
Ugh. I really, really, really hate this ahistorical bullshit paean to an America that never existed. Every time I watch this clip, I think of Black GI’s who were denied the same loans as their white brothers-in-arms when they returned from WWII; of the Black men used as lab rats in Tuskegee to help America reach those dizzying heights of medical breakthroughs; of the Black women who endured all sorts of emotional/sexual/psychological horrors that ‘The Help’ would never have the balls to really detail; I see Medgar Evers’ assassinated in his driveway in a warm-up to the murders of Dr. King and Malcolm X. Fuck this angry white dude rewrite and whitewash of history.
His comments and the scene itself made me think of a spoken word piece I wrote a few years ago regarding “the greatest generation” and this commonplace racial amnesia:
The greatest generation
 
You mean the Jim Crow generation
White only signs, lynchings, and the Klan
 
You mean the Scottsboro generation
One of many incarcerated from the generations of blacks in American
 
You mean the sharecropper generation
Debt servitude, enslavement, and no protections
 
You mean the Tom, Coon and mammy generation
Hollywood representations: Amos, Andy, and Mammy
 
You mean the Emmett Till generation
Murder a boy for whistling, like so many others
 
You mean the Japanese internment generation
“No Japs allowed,” excepted in Hawaii and in the military
 
You mean the atom-bomb generation
Killin 1000s, but none It Italy or Germany
 
You mean the segregated military generation
German prisoners first, freedom and democracy not for you
 
You mean the St. Louis generation
A war to save the Jews, just not those on the St. Louis or 1000s others
 
You mean the McCarthyism generation
Red scares, loyalty oaths, and the absence of dissent
 
You mean the Zoot Suit Riot generation
Soldiers attacking all who are Mexican
 
You mean the Bracero program generation
Give us your tired, your exploitable, your cheap
 
You mean the operation wetback generation
Don’t give your brown, black and yellow
 
You mean the bordering school generation
‘Speak English,” not the savage tongue of your inferior generations
 
You mean the white affirmative action generation
GI Bills, suburban homes and white American Dreams
Dreams made for a white generation
 
You mean the restrictive covenant generation
“Whites only,” America’s ghettos become black and brown
 
The greatest generation
The greatest generation
 
1960s youth who stood face to face with Exceptional violence
Who stood toe to toe with police dogs, fire hoses, and COINTELPRO
 
The greatest generation
Malcolm, Martin, Cesar, Shirley, Cha Cha, Fred
 
The greatest generation
 
Fredrick Douglas, David Walker, Sojourner Truth
 
The greatest generation
 
Ida B. Wells, Clarence Darrow and Zapata
 
The greatest generation
 
Curt Flood, Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali
 
The greatest generation
 
Amzie Moore, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer
 
The greatest generation
 
BPP, Young Lords, TWLF, AIM
 
The greatest generation
 
Alcatraz, blowouts, Palante Siempre Palante
 
The greatest generation
 
“Serve the people,” “power to the people”
 
The greatest generation
 
Hip Hop
 
The greatest generation
 
Anti Apartheid
 
The greatest generation
 
Carlos Delgado, Etan Thomas, Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf
 
The greatest generation
 
Books not prisons, Books not Bombs
 
The greatest generation
 
Walkouts and blowouts,
 
The greatest generation
 
Down with 187, 209, 227
 
The greatest generation?
 
Ain’t never been THE GREATEST GENERATION TO ME
In other words, despite the nostalgia and the historic amnesia of Newsroom, one that reflects its social location and the refusal to interrogate privilege, America’s exceptionalism isn’t a waning reality in that as noted by Langston Hughes “America has never been America” for countless generations.

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