What would Bartlet do?

I have a tendency to think of the world in a two-type model. Of course I know this isn’t true, and I’ve spent plenty of time explaining false dichotomies to people, both in my personal and professional lives, but in a non-literal, knowingly unrealistic way, I like to do it anyway. My wife and I have a long-standing view, for instance, that there are two types of people in the world: people who would lick the plate if it were socially acceptable, and people who wouldn’t. “Lick the plate” is, in many ways, a statement of passion for food, but also for life. The “plate-licker” gestalt reveals a person with a zest not just for food, but for life. Somebody who wants to get every last drop out of the good stuff, and lick the plate. We’ve recognized this (false) dichotomy since early in our life together (we’ve been together for almost a quarter of a century, married for a fifth of a century), although it seems to have become an unspoken thing in the last few years.
I’m certainly not alone in my dichotomization of the world. Others have different splits, cat people and dog people, organized inbox people and those like me with thousands of unread emails, Coke vs Pepsi…we’ve seen these all.
So here’s my false dichotomy of the day: there are people who seek a label, and people who shun them. I’m one who seeks a label, and I think one has finally dawned on me. I’m a “Bartlet Democrat,” and proud of it.

Of course, those who shun labels will criticize me for trying to box myself in. They seem to get some kind of pleasure, or feeling of superiority by saying that others are just “sheep” or “sheeple” for following a political party, even though almost every single person I know who uses those phrases as insults, follows lock-step with some political party anyway. I don’t get a feeling of superiority by not fitting a label. Indeed, I seek a phrase that describes how I feel. This doesn’t mean blind adherence to some group; it means I want a shortcut way to describe my views. Generally speaking, for instance, I’m a democrat, even though I tend to disagree with many democrats on some issues (GMOs, nuclear energy, free trade, etc.). I believe in things that today’s democrats are fighting for, but if democrats started fighting for things that didn’t make sense to me, the label wouldn’t fit anymore and I’d stop using it. And, “democrat” has changed quite a bit throughout history. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have been a “democrat” back in the days when the democrats were fighting for slavery to continue and were fighting against teaching evolution in the classrooms. But, “democrat” today is a rather convenient label that is highly predictive of how I feel about issues. An even better one is “Bartlet Democrat.” I am, without question, a Bartlet Democrat. Yes, I know he wasn’t a real president, and I probably should say that I’m a Sorkin Democrat, but that doesn’t change that in policy and approach, the more a candidate acts, speaks, and approaches policy like the fictional character, the more I like him or her.

Because Bartlet is a fictional character, we only know so much about him, but when I think “Bartlet Democrat” (a label that I plan to start using for myself more often), this is what I think:

Compassion for fellow humans, even those who want to do us harm:

Season 1, Episode 2, Bartlet talking about how meeting with the Joint Chiefs makes him feel like he’s “back at my father’s dinner table.” He says, “I’m not comfortable with violence. I know this country has enemies, but I don’t feel violent toward any of them. I don’t know whether that’s a weakness or not, but I think I know how the Joint Chiefs would answer that question.”

Of course, when push comes to shove, Bartlet does not shy away from using military force. Indeed, later in his presidency (yes, I know it’s fiction), he even makes it his legacy to have a foreign policy that involves intervention for humanitarian purposes only.

We’re for freedom of speech everywhere. We’re for freedom to worship everywhere. We’re for freedom to learn for everybody. And because, in our time, you can build a bomb in your country and bring it to my country, what goes on in your country is very much my business. And so we are for freedom from tyranny everywhere, whether in the guise of political oppression, Toby, or economic slavery, Josh, or religious fanaticism, C.J. That most fundamental idea cannot be met with merely our support. It has to be met with our strength. Diplomatically, economically, materially. And if pharaoh still don’t free the slaves, then he gets the plagues, or my cavalry, whichever gets there first. The USTR will go crazy and say that we’re not considering global trade. Committee members will go crazy and say I haven’t consulted enough. And the Arab world will just go indiscriminately crazy. No country has ever had a doctrine of intervention when only humanitarian interests were at stake. That streaks going to end Sunday at noon.

Even that use of force, which will ultimately lead to deaths of foreign combatants, is ultimately about compassion for other humans.

For me, this includes helping those around us who need it the most. It includes making sacrifices to do so. It includes being respectful and thinking about our words and actions, and not belittling an effort to be kind as “political correctness.” It includes all of those things that make us kind and generous human beings.

Respect for religion and religious groups:

Anybody who knows me, or has read anything else here, knows that I am not a religious person. I do not believe in the the supernatural parts of religion, but I have a deep respect and love for many parts of many religions. I love the community that religions bring to the world. I love the work that religious groups do for others, all in keeping with having compassion for others. I love the inspiration that comes from religion and faith (music, art, literature, activism). And, as somebody who is deeply empathetic, I love the joy that I see in people of faith when they talk about what God means to them and how comforting, and moving, and inspiring their faith can be.

This isn’t air tight, and there’s a logical side to me that balks at some gestures of faith. I hate when an athlete, for instance, points to the sky, thanking God, after making an amazing catch. I appreciate the humility of the gesture, but that athlete just did an amazing thing, and I don’t like taking that away from him or her. I also don’t like the logical conclusion: that God failed him or her when they dropped the ball or missed the shot or tripped and fell. As somebody with empathy, somebody who shares in joy and pain of others, I like it when people feel good about themselves. I am not against pride (when it’s not empty). These things make me feel good inside, and I like to feel good inside.

President Barlet was respectful of religion. That doesn’t mean he agreed with religious groups, but his disagreement often was rooted in what he saw as a bastardization of the religion for other purposes. We learn in the series that Bartlet wanted to be a priest at one point in his life, and we see him seeking guidance from religion throughout the series. He has a bit of a crisis of faith after a tragic death of his maternal figure, and lashes out at God, but he comes back around to the clear love of and faith in God that he has throughout most of the series. It seems to me that this love compels him, much like my respect compels me, to be intolerant of flawed versions of theology that go against the parts of religion that mean the most to him. We see this in several scenes. Indeed, we see this the very first time we see the president, in the pilot:

We also see him take down an AM radio figure who is clearly intended to represent Laura Schlessinger, using a script taken from an open letter  criticizing her for cherry picking the Bible for her personal and political gain. It’s an exceptionally good scene, and worth posting here.

Bartlet was clearly personally against abortion. In the first episode, we hear his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry tell a religious leader that Bartlet “spent eight months traveling around the country discouraging young women from having abortions.”  Leo goes on to say that, “He [Bartlet] doesn’t believe that it’s the government’s place to legislate this issue, but that has not stopped him from playing his role as a moral leader.”

I could go on and on and on, and maybe I will. Maybe I’ve found a recurring theme for Hitting Bregma. Maybe I’ll remember to post something regularly, once a week, month, year, decade, that shows how I’m a Bartlet Democrat….first I need to figure out what Bartlet would do, then I’ll know.


5 thoughts on “What would Bartlet do?

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