Yair Lapid is the kind of pro-peace politician the Middle East is crying out for (Independent)

I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.

As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.

On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.

Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.

Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.

He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.

He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.

That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.

Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.

Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

Where are the women in The Ides of March? (The Telegraph)

Forget the polls. Forget what the pundits think and what the ordinary Joes interviewed on the street have to say. The best barometer of how we view politics and what state politics is in surely comes from fiction, from the bumbling leaders of Yes, Minister to the spin-doctored puppets of The Thick of It.

Nowhere is that more true than with regard to American presidential politics. When Americans have faith in their commander-in-chief – or wish for a leader different to the one they have – contemporary fictional leaders have Abraham Lincoln’s ability to unite a divided nation, Dwight Eisenhower’s physical valour, Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to enact change and John F Kennedy’s glamour. Think Harrison Ford as the action-hero president in Air Force One (1997), Michael Douglas’s Andrew Shepherd striking a blow for liberty in The American President (1995) or Grant Matthews in Frank Capra’ss hope-imbued State of the Union (1948).

Likewise, times of low public faith in politics are often accompanied by films where power and the pursuit of it is shown as dirty, dank and Nixonesque. That’s no new thing; as the Great Depression got underway a film called Gabriel Over the White House (1933) was made, featuring a vacuous, do-nothing president in Herbert Hoover’s mould.

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s drama about political aspirations gone awry, reflects a profoundly dismal approach to politics at a time when Barack Obama’s popularity is at a new low. The film, set during the Democratic Party primaries (and based on a play that was itself supposedly based on Howard Dean’s shortlived run) takes a Hobbesian view of the state of politics; everyone is a dealmaker, everyone will ultimately act against their beliefs and nothing is sacred.

The subtext is that no politician – and, in this adaptation, for politician, read Barack Obama, with “Yes We Can” style posters and all – can ever be the ideal he purports to be. It’s a film about how the audacity of hope will always let you down.

But as dispiriting as that message was, also noticeable was the lack of a single credible female political figure. The sum total of female characters stood at three; the intern, the journalist, and the First-Lady-in-waiting (a Laura, not a Hillary or even a Michelle).

This was a film filled with backroom deals, high-stakes conversations and political chess games and yet the women were eternally on the periphery. Involved, yes. But not the ones leading the country, or trying to.

This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here

Gossip Girl recap: I am Number Nine

What if Sorkin wrote Gossip Girl (a girl can only dream)? That was basically the focus behind this episode, as Dan and Serena pouted about plans to Zuckerberg Inside all the way to the Oscars.

His book would be the Social Network, take two. Only with more parties, champagne and overly coiffed society girls.

Except between Serena’s inability to understand how the industry she is supposedly so expert in works, and Dan’s ego, the project is a goner.

“I’m done,” Dan wails, as if dropping out of the top ten of the bestseller lists means he is to be chained to a rock for all eternity and pecked at by bitchy columnists.

While Dan’s rise and fall was no shock, there’s no way in hell a poseur like him wouldn’t have secretly been thrilled that Sorkin was planning to write the script. He might not have watched West Wing – too mainstream – but Dan was blatantly into the woefully misunderstood intellectual supremo that was Studio 60.

Unfortunately, Liz Hurley’s character has gone from farce to worse. I have no issue with Nate and the cougar as a storyline (except that we’ve been there, done that) but she’s a cartoon character.When she gets all overexcited about how she’s going to destroy society one scandal at a time, I half expect to see animated dollar signs flash over her eyes.

She’s what teenage boys imagine successful businesswoman are like, and there’s no way in hell she’d have built a media empire when she was off in the back all the time doing the dirty with her staff.

Anyway, now she’s got Nate (be gone, random media celeb plus one) and she’ll be damned if anyone stands in the way of her teenage romance. Adorable. Or the opposite.

Meanwhile, the prince got some backbone.

Nah, just joking. He wouldn’t know what to do with a personality.

But he tried to pay Chuck’s therapist to spy on him and reveal the secrets of Chair, which backfired spectacularly with the sort  of party-showdown that back in season one would have prompted a Gossip Girl blast, but is now so routine that nobody even chokes any on their champagne.

It was quite dull (not exactly a plot worthy of his fiancée) but it prompted Chuck to see the light and apologise to Blair for his past misdeeds. Is that a rift in an engagement I spy. Gawd I hope so.

But despite the groom drama, Blair is all set for bridesmaids after hosting a minions-of-old gladiator contest. She ends up going with Ivy, which means she must have what Lily on How I Met Your Mother has – pregnancy brain.

As if Queen B would let another Van der Woodsen (even a fake on) steal the limelight on the big day.

Not a great episode. The prince storyline is really done to death, as is Liz Hurley. What happened to college bitchiness, friends their own age and, hell, people who drank something other than champagne.

The great thing about Gossip Girl was always its ability to balance high drama with biting social satire, to show the divide between rich and poor and to show rich and pretty teens playing havoc with people’s lives, consequences be damned. Right now, it’s just a soap, and a bit tired at that. News of Georgina’s return couldn’t come at a better time.

The Facebook generation

The Facebook film goes on release across Britain this weekend, and if US box office figures are anything to go by, it’s going to do pretty damn well. 

 You can read my interview with Ben Mezrich (author of The Social Network’s literary inspiration, The Accidental Billionaires) here. But the arrival of the film in cinemas got me thinking; Has it really been only six years since Facebook was created?

 I am undoubtedly a member of “The Facebook Generation”. I joined the site in May 2006, on the recommendation of American gap year friends. Initially i liked it, but I was also a MySpace member at the time and had no inkling of how important the site would become. Very few of my British friends were on it; it was fun, but limited. A passing craze.

Then I started university in September 2006 and suddenly everyone in my world was on it. Suddenly every party was organised on it, every morning spent studying Tagged photos. We wrote on people’s walls, we poked them. A birthday was no longer registered by text message or phone but by a generic Facebook post. Now everyone Facebooks (verb). Even my octogenarian grandpa announced recently that he had inadvertently joined.

It’s crazy how short a time it has taken for the vocabulary of Facebook to enter common usage, for the etiquette of the site to become part of normal behaviour. As a journalist, my job has been made far easier by the availability of private data, by the erosion of the personal into the public.

It’s funny, because I remember when I gained my first email address (age 12, on the school computer, under the questionable moniker of littlemisschatterbox2001) and boy did I think I was cool. But entering the email community, while exciting, wasn’t lifechanging. It became a feature of my life, but only gradually.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article marking Google’s 12th birthday. I had been surprised that the web emperor was still a preteen, so comprehensive is its involvement in our lives. But Google simply streamlined a process already in existence; it did what Lycos and Yahoo already did, but better.

You could say the same about Facebook, that it just improved the MySpace, Friendster and Friends Reunited mould.

It didn’t. Those sites were, variously, uncool, awkward, messy and limited.They were about utility, about practical pursuits; MySpace for music, Friends Reunited for high school reunions.

Facebook’s primary purpose was never to help people live more efficient or productive lives – it was the exact opposite.

Its agenda was gossip, snooping, Schadenfreude.

Facebook was from the outset geared towards replicating the best parts of social life on-screen. Not only could your internet alter-ego be a photoshopped fantasy, but you could use the site effectively to find out about friends, partners and anyone you damn well pleased.

Think back. Can you count on one hand the number of paper invitations you’ve been given this year? When was the last time you went to a party only to recognise half the guests from the dubious practice of stalking? How often have you messaged a distant acquaintance with a favour you’d probably never dare email or phone?

And even more importantly, can you believe you lived a large part of your life without being able to do those things?

There’s a wonderful moment in the film when Mark Zuckerberg (played disarmingly well by Jesse Eisenberg) comes up with the “Relationship Status” feature. It’s a stroke of genius, a lightbulb, a great scene.

But it’s also a pointed reminder of how one website can change the world.

Aaron Sorkin vs. Andrew Marr

After Andrew Marr registered his dislike for bloggers – calling them “socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting” – it’s good to see that one prominent public figure considers them worthy of engaging with.

 Aaron Sorkin, writer of the West Wing and more recently The Social Network, was so upset by remarks below a blogpost about the so-called Facebook film that he responded in the comments section.

After facing criticism by “Tarazza” for “the lack of a decent portrayal of women” in the film – they “were basically sex objects/stupid groupies” – on the blog of Emmy winning writer Ken Levine, Sorkin wrote back:

 “This is Aaron Sorkin and I wanted to address Taraza’s [sic] comment….

“….Tarazza–believe me, I get it. It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie but you have to understand that that was the very specific world I was writing about….

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Aaron Sorkin, Justin Timberlake (Photo: J Lipman)

 “….More generally, I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now.

 “….I wish I could go door to door and make this explanation/apology to any woman offended by the things you’ve pointed out but obviously that’s unrealistic so I thought the least I could do was speak directly to you.”

Having seen the film, I’d agree to an extent with the complaint that there are very few positive representations of women in it. But to my mind, that’s more about how male-dominated the web/tech world is than any failure on Sorkin’s part.

Nevertheless, all credit to Sorkin for taking the time to talk – and for doing it in the forum of his fans, rather than via a press spokesperson.

 I wonder if Marr would tell Sorkin his comments are simply “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.”

Aaron Sorkin goes back to the White House

West Wing fans, our prayers have been answered. Sort of.

OK so Josiah Bartlet isn’t going to get a third term, nor are we going to get a more detailed glimpse into the Santos administration.

But WW writer Aaron Sorkin has apparently agreed to work on a film about the rise and fall of John Edwards. Edward, you’ll remember, ran for president then suffered a spectacular fall from grace when the National Inquirer revealed the juicy details of his affair (and child) with an aide.

Keen WW lovers will recall of course that political scandal is no new subject for Aaron Sorkin. The dramatic demise of John Hoynes for a similarly stupid misdemeanour made for a nail-biting season four finale.

Of course, Hoynes was fictional… real politicians would never be so stupid. You’d think.

The Edwards tale is great Sorkin fodder, and I can’t wait for the film, which follows his political biopic Charlie Wilson’s War and the forthcoming Facebook flick The Social Network.

But as enthusiastic as I am about the project, there’s another caught-with-his-pants-down political affair I’d rather see the writer turn his attention to.

Bring on “Sorkin does the Bill Clinton life story”.

Read my feature on Aaron Sorkin here.

TV degrees and other true fictions

Outcry across the web because Harvard students are to study the TV show The Wire .

Said Sociology Professor William J. Wilson:

The Wire’ has done more to enhance our understanding of the systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor than any published study.”

Not everyone agrees.  “Just when you thought the show couldn’t be anymore overrated” wrote TheBaffler on the Huffington Post.  Another commented that if was a good show, if you had “to teach TV shows to rich and coddled post-adolescents”.  Over on Twitter, killahmcgillah is more forthright: “uh, #harvard students get to take a class on “the wire” next year? i knew that shithole was barely a real school”.

Well, apart from the fact that as I have previously commented, watching The Wire is more like work than play, I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Ok, TV shouldn’t be a replacement for all formal academic study. I doubt I could become a successful journalist based on the lessons of the newspaper staff in The New Adventures Of Superman. And I’m pretty sure I won’t hone my catering skills just by following the exploits of Monica from Friends. Just because Dawson Leery was a great film-maker does not mean I will be.

Yet I can still see the benefit of Harvard students watching The Wire.

For one module of my politics degree at Nottingham University, I spent a semester watching TV. West Wing, Yes Minister, even The Simpsons at one point. We also watched movies like Mr Smith Goes To Washington and heaven forbid, read a few books, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate being just one example.

The class, surprisingly very popular, focused on the representation of politics in fiction.  We used these sources as a starting point from which to ruminate on matters from how the non-political sectors of society perceive the political to the more philosophical question of whether life is essentially a social construct shaped by art.

All that from watching the work of the (great) Aaron Sorkin.

An unorthodox teaching method? Certainly. Useful and memorable? Very much so.

In arts subjects – perhaps science too though I’m no expert – we frequently refer to newspaper reports and commentary as source material. English students have long been using literature as a basis to consider pertinent social ansmits460d cultural questions.

So why not use unconventional source material like TV shows? It doesn’t mean dumbing down, and it doesn’t amount to a degree in David Beckham studies.

The reality is that we live in a worlds where the lines between the imagined and the actual are blurred. How many of us can distinguish between what Sarah Palin said in the run up to the 2008 election and what Tina Fey did as her TV alter-ego. Was Obama’s election aided by voters seeing ethnic minorities as the very capable Presidents Matthew Santos and David Palmer, from West Wing and 24 respectively, as successful holders of the office?

Fiction doesn’t come out of nowhere. Even the most outlandish story has some relevance in society – think Shelley’s Frankensteinian monster as a recreation of the outsider, alienated in a capitalist society, or The Simpsons as a comment on the changing face of the nuclear family.

Art imitates life. It’s only logical that life can learn from art.