Aaron Sorkin has made a living out of writing to be read, watched and heard. A perennial polarizer who pushes the viewers’ buttons through what Edward R. Murrow once described as “wires and lights in a box” – the television – Sorkin has been a consistent media force for the last two decades. Parlaying his early writing success that birthed A Few Good Men (both the play and film), Sorkin moved to more actively engage the politics of the day with The West Wing and, more recently, HBO’s The Newsroom. Along the way, he accumulated countless accolades including an Academy Award for his work on the 2010 film chronicling the birth of Facebook, The Social Network. As described by the New Yorker’s entertainment correspondent Emily Nussbaum, “Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice.” In sum, Sorkin is an intellectual, and a very public one at that.
But is Aaron Sorkin a public intellectual? In a piece authored by Stephen Mack entitled “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual (?),” Mack argues that the role of a public intellectual in a democracy is to “keep the pot boiling.” Additionally, he observes, “The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.” For Sorkin, these “things” worth talking about – the chunks of meat swirling in the cauldron – boil down to issues of patriotism. Explaining what drives his writing, Sorkin commented in a June 2011 interview with Interview Magazine:
Just the whole idea of patriotism and democracy and the struggles that we have in this country…I find those things very emotional. As a dramatist, you’re looking for points of friction, and there are all kinds of points of friction in those areas. So that’s why I write about that stuff.
Sorkin does not bleed blue, but rather red, white and blue. Independent of political affiliation, Sorkin’s work speaks to America’s volksgeist and the issues of the day. The series The West Wing stands as a prime example; in a special episode following the September 11 attacks, Sorkin explored the differences between a devout individual and a religious extremist. In many episodes he explored the ongoing challenges of a politically divided government, and what made the series so successful was his earnest effort to include voices from across the political spectrum. With The West Wing, Sorkin was stirring the pot with multiple spoons – simultaneously – where each spoon represented a different political ideology.
The public intellectual term exists as a construct, a simplified high order abstraction drawing upon a variety of figures across a multitude of disciplines. The fact that the late conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre can occupy the same public intellectual sphere is a testament to this fact. Along the public intellectual spectrum, Sorkin stands firmly planted as an artist. Not weighed down by hard qualitative data tests or the need to develop and defend a new theory explaining the origins of the universe, Sorkin’s primary constraints are Neilson ratings and the court of public opinion. And therein lies his public intellectual rub; Sorkin’s ability to capture and hold an audience for years has cemented his status as a public intellectual. In the introduction of “Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline,” renowned jurist Richard A. Posner draws on an quote by Edward Said contending:
The role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they have to do…it is to question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and excepted, to reexamine rules and institutions.
Sound familiar? It should. Aaron Sorkin has made a living out of challenging conventional wisdom. The contention that this contrarian approach has been limited to diatribes aimed at right wing reactionaries is downright fallacious; Sorkin is an equal opportunity critic.
If one were faced with the challenge of assigning Aaron Sorkin an epitaph capturing his central thesis, the most appropriate sound bite would be lifted from The West Wing episode entitled “Manchester, Part Two” at the start of the show’s third season. The fictional president at the center of the drama, Josiah Bartlet (a functional equivalent of Sorkin), reminds his staff that: “It’s not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s our job to raise it. If you’re going to be the ‘Education President,’ it’d be nice not to hide that you have an education.” In this moment, Sorkin is not only speaking to politicians but also viewers; he wants to remind the audience that intelligence is virtue and something to be respected and revered. This notion that politicians distill complex issues into bite-size form for the voting public is disturbing and reinforces a vicious circle of ignorance. Phrased differently by Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter, “Sorkin would like to take on the plague of anti-intellectualism that runs amok in political circles and thus the country at large.”
Sorkin’s main strength as a public intellectual, that being his indefatigable desire to engage the audience in elevated discourse, is also his main weakness; there is a tendency for his writing to be more condescending than constructive. Public intellectuals exist to engage an audience and motivate them to rethink an existing assumption, and if an audience is talked down on and alienated the market for a change in opinion quickly dries up. As put forth by Stephen Mack, the “assumption that common citizens are forever childlike and must be led by a class of experts is politically corrosive and historically dangerous.” And it is on this front that Sorkin loses some ground as a public intellectual. Making Professor Sorkin’s proclivity for lecturing the audience more disturbing is his admission that he is no expert at all but rather a concerned citizen with a penchant for writing and the credentials to get the show made.
And then there is The Newsroom, Sorkin’s latest foray into television with the premium entertainment channel HBO. Unlike The West Wing which received near universal acclaim, The Newsroom – from the first episode – has been subject to an onslaught of criticism. The show tells the story of a fictional news team – this would never happen in real life – who vow to forget ratings and tell the news as it happens without public interest distractions. Not unlike fictional President Bartlet in The West Wing, “News Night’s” Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) has become Sorkin’s mouthpiece. Some of the zingers that come out of McAvoy’s mouth are downright condescending to any audience with any education level, or what Hank Stuever at the Washington Post calls a “Sorkinesque logorrhea of righteous self-importance.” In an early episode of The Newsroom, McAvoy – during one of his frequent diatribes – shouts to a colleague that he is “on a mission to civilize.” While the line made for great television and was the sound bite of the evening, it reflected the supreme air of condescension that has come to define The Newsroom. Rather than stopping at reporting the news, McAvoy often enters into heated debates cutting down his equally worthy opponents with the argument that his position is based on fact, and thus correct. It is his way or the highway, which leaves the viewer in want of car.
Aaron’s Sorkin’s saving grace is his honesty. Returning to the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, “Sorkin is always true to himself and doesn’t try to cover his tendencies or be embarrassed by them.” The net effect is that sometimes the viewer gets turned off, and then turns off the television, but at other times he can “make the politically jaded feel patriotic and the cynical see hope in any situation.” That is precisely what makes Sorkin a public intellectual; having the ability to steer opinion through words read by actors appearing on an impersonal screen is a reflection of his talent as both a writer and as a shaper of public opinion.
Public intellectuals place the burden on us – the public – when it comes to figuring out how to join them in discussion, and Aaron Sorkin is no different. When one tunes in to watch Sorkin’s work, a Hobbesian social contract binds the viewer to screen – an agreement stating that for the next forty-seven minutes one should expect to be engaged in timely debate and, on occasion, talked down to in an effort to motivate and educate. Sorkin stirs the pot to a boil, and occasionally raises the viewers’ temperature as well. He is quick on the trigger and never afraid to lace “things worth talking about” with his own opinions only to quickly submerge the viewers’ thoughts in a Sorkinesque soliloquy. Yet his work reflects a rise in stature as a public intellectual; in 1992 he had Jack Nicholson shout “You can’t handle the truth” only by 2012 to reverse course and have Jeff Daniels enter into “a mission to civilize.” The change in tone is dramatic, but even amidst the abuse that comes with any campaign to civilize, the viewer is left wanting more of Sorkin’s one-liners and lofty speeches. While it may often be difficult to agree with Sorkin’s arguments, he remains an incubator for elevated discourse and a public intellectual ready to make a case for the facts.