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Lessons from The West Wing

Okay so bear with me. I know I’ve been talking a lot recently, and a lot of it hasn’t been of any interest to a lot of you. But this is one thing I had to talk about. 

As anyone who’s been talking to me knows, I’ve been watching a lot of The West Wing recently. It’s a great little tv show and it brings me hope during a time when we have a certain Oompa Loompa running the United States. Now, I know there are certain homophobic or misogynistic comments dotted throughout the seven seasons but they address those as each comes up – quite nice in my mind. They call each other out for their comments or behaviours, and the women of the story are as important as the men.
However there’s one episode I think everyone should watch, regardless of whether or not you want to watch the series as a whole.

Issaac and Ishamel is a standalone episode that aired just before season 3 started. It was aired October 3rd, 2001. I don’t think there’s a person on the internet who hasn’t heard about 9/11. To be honest, I would be surprised if most people over the age of 8 hadn’t heard someone make reference to it. But what struck me about this episode is that 3 weeks after the attack, this episode addressed a nation still in mourning, still scared of what had and could happen. 

Now I won’t sit here and tell you that it’s a must see episode. To be honest, I think it’s one of the episodes you would skip if you just wanted to watch the story. However, it raises some key issues and sends out a message that was needed at the time, and still needed today if racial and sectarian crime rates are taken into consideration.

There isn’t much to this episode. A brief summary would be that Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh, is meant to be speaking with a group of teenagers when all he wants to do is go home. After a very brief introduction, the White House is put on lockdown, due to a security risk, and Josh and his assistant, Donna, escort the group down to the canteen to have a chat and be comfortable as they could be there a while. While in the canteen, various students question different members of staff (and eventually the First Lady) about why “everyone” hates Americans. This then develops into a talk about terrorism, arabs, muslims, the whole lot.

I suppose you could say that that’s the subplot. I’m not entirely sure which is which in this episode. But in the other half of the story, we see Chief of Staff, Leo, become involved in the interrogation of an Arab man who is working at the White House and unfortunately shares his name with a terrorist known to be at large. What doesn’t surprise me is how racist Leo is at first. When you put this story into a timeline, imagine working in the White House just weeks after the attack in New York. Imagine discovering that an employee in your building, the building that houses your most powerful politician, is a possible terrorist. I think most people would surprise themselves at how racist they would become in that situation. Towards the end of this part of the episode, Leo goes back and apologises to the man, admitting he was racist and it was out of character but nonetheless it’s no excuse and he is sorry. And that’s something I love about this series. The writers had no difficulty in letting these egotistical big boys in town show when they are in the wrong. 

Sorry I got distracted there and forgot where I was going with this. To bring it back to the message the writers were trying to spread – terrorism never wins, it only serves to strengthen the thing it’s against. They talk about the first ever act of terrorism. There’s mention of Toby’s hatred of people. And finishes up with the First Lady telling the story of Isaac and Ishamel. How the two brothers were raised to dislike each other from the start. She goes on to say “and so it began – the Jews the sons of Isaac, and the Arabs the sons of Ishamel. But what most people find it important to remember is that in the end the two sons came together to bury their father.”
And that’s the key story here. Just because someone has different beliefs, different skin, different preferences, whatever, to you, doesn’t mean you should spend your life in fear of these people or fighting against them. Because some day, you will discover something you have in common and those differences will have to be set to one side.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from The West Wing

  1. I love this, it’s so true and now I want to watch The West Wing, I’ve been looking for a great TV show to hook on to for a while so I’m excited to start watching this 🙂

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