It’s a work of art that runs for a mere twenty minutes, but speaks to a fundamental conflict in the nation’s capital. We are, at our core, not a war-ridden country. But so many of us, in this political atmosphere, feel the urge to stand for war. To act, as it were, to uphold the sacred rule of law, universal rights and the rule of law. It’s hard to find a politician these days who hasn’t blurted out such an apology. Yet the idea of serious, nuanced governance seems much less common now than it did in the days of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. “We are not a war-torn country. And we will never be,” declares Henry Kissinger, in “The Threatening Storm: America, World Politics, and the Meaning of National Security.”
When commercial broadcasters travel to Washington for an industry meeting, they often choose the home of Condoleezza Rice, who served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. They are, of course, not attacking Rice’s record, or criticizing her as an “idiot” or a “man who was so wrong that he had to be wrong.” What they are doing, without fail, is publicly praising her, and thanking her for her service to America. (I speak from experience. Some years ago, I was doing the same thing for James Baker.)
Enter Jake Wood, co-founder of the online video news site Vice and host of “Documentary Now,” the sketch show that debuted on “Saturday Night Live” over the summer. It’s one of the most requested features on the show’s YouTube channel. “Documentary Now” also often gets picked up by other outlets, such as Comedy Central’s “The Break With Michelle Wolf,” to name just two recent examples.
What makes these clips different from the typical TV show is that they are never actually from “documentary” films themselves. The format is distinctly Hollywood, from the celebrity interviews to the dramatic special effects (including some rather random sharks). You can’t take a Democratic staffer to the International Spy Museum without seeing some time spent in the previous week talking to people who actually do spy and are working for the opposition. And whatever happened to selling party-of-capitalism policies and spending as less important to citizens than upholding a legal system that is unpredictable, legally challenging and is supposed to restrain politics?
For many voters, this kind of treatment marks an unofficial definition of partisan bias, not unlike what many conservatives feel when networks like CNN highlight Republicans as though they are the object of the show. “Vice” has gained a sizable audience with this kind of thing. People like Wood because it is practical—it can be sold as nonpartisan, if there ever was such a thing. There is a feeling that if his views are deemed to be so legitimate, others may be too. But these “documentary” shorts feel less like content for a documentary magazine than the media equivalent of a summer vacation television spot, a 30-second commercial selling the World Trade Center Memorial as a new and cleaner and safer place for families to visit after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
In the same vein, ThinkProgress—a liberal website with financial backing from the Clinton Foundation—recently posted a short film that it helped finance. The film, called “Bad Men: Should we be afraid of the NRA?” promotes a recently-released documentary about John Lewis, the Georgia representative and civil rights leader. He is depicted in the film as somehow a villain in a bad situation, not a patriot who was courageously fulfilling his duty in defending the rights of others. All of this points to the fundamental confusion at the heart of liberal politics and the failure of liberal narratives about progressive American politics.
A major reason conservatives see the current political moment as threatening to all they hold dear is precisely because it is a correction to the wariness they have felt of liberals. Many of us stand on the wrong side of history. We’ve watched with bemusement as the Democratic Party has shifted its rhetoric to embrace the values that conservatives held dear in the past, but are now spurning in the name of fashion. Many of us will experience additional discomfort as the country chokes on the Republican health care agenda or allows itself to fall under the wrong conspiracy theory. But, essentially, we have made a choice to not fight for our values, but instead to embrace those of others.