For the dramatist interested in the contemporary human condition, an ideal subject is the scab. The act of choosing self-interest over collective interest is psychologically and morally overloaded, wrapped in self-deception as avoidance tries to assume the tone and form of courage.
The playwright and television writer Jon Robin Baitz, in a letter published by Deadline Hollywood, used the current dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood agent industry as an occasion to sketch a devastating portrait of this mindset. The scab mindset, in this case, belonged Jon Robin Baitz, who was informing his WGA colleagues that he was rejecting their collective demand that writers fire their agents, because he’s personally getting rich off the existing arrangement. Also because of civility, also honesty, also loyalty—virtues of his that he must, with regret, consider more important than “the urge to tear down the extant structures, simply in the name of ‘fairness’.”
“I am a union man,” Baitz wrote, “but I do not turn my back on my loyal friends.” He then turned his back on his fellow members:
I cannot be the person you want me to be. I cannot cut ties with my agents, because I would be forsaking people I love, people who have helped me create a life where I go back and forth between two forms I know and love.
I cannot be the person you want me to be. It’s not me, it’s you. You want to make agents stop making deals where they get paid directly by the studios, rather than collecting a share of what they get the studios to pay the writers; I love my agents and my work. Irreconcilable differences.
(Note: I’m not sure whether or not I’m a currently a member of the WGA East. I became a member when my last job, at what was then Gawker Media, unionized through it. I meant to send in dues to keep my membership active, but I may have forgotten to. I have never written for TV or movies or dealt with a Hollywood agency.)
From end to end, the letter was a self-contradicting, blurting mess, a mix of vanity and false modesty, often impersonating one another. Baitz wrote that he could not join in the effort to disentangle the agents’ interests from the studios’ interests because he had, himself, just made a deal with a studio part-owned by his agents’ agency—a deal that was “the best I have ever made”—and so to object to the structural conflict of interest would be “hypocrisy.”
Also he had used some of the budget from the deal for “making a writer’s assistant, a female diversity hire, into a staff writer.”
To attack his agents would be to attack the people who had helped make the career of Jon Robin Baitz such a triumph:
In 2002, Joe Cohen at CAA asked me to think about working in TV. Aaron Sorkin had asked me to write an episode of West Wing, which I did, and which was shot pretty much word-for-word. Joe made that deal for many times the WGA minimum.
It was not that Baitz considered the writers’ entire complaint unfounded. “Yes,” he wrote, “there are real changes needed in terms of the agencies and packaging and subsidiary production companies.” Like most good people opting out of collective action, he was concerned about the tone and the tactics involved. The union, he wrote, was “insisting on a tone of incivility.” It was pursuing a “scorched earth policy”; it was driven by “blood lust” and “white hot rage” and the desire to “cast the entire business into chaos and darkness.”
It was also, he wrote, being “bellicose,” “histrionic,” and “lacking in scale and perspective.” The union man and straight-to-camera wordsmith had spoken: someone was being histrionic.