Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No longer a liberal. Still brain dead.

I know that David Mamet's vacuous political musings in the Village Voice are a bit old-news now, but they've been nagging at me ever since I had the misfortune to waste my time reading them.

In 'Why I am no longer a "brain-dead liberal"', the acclaimed playwright managed to assemble such an enormous army of zombie strawmen than the result was not only a seriously flawed argument but also a genuine fire hazard.

I am glad to see that Erich Shulte at Ruthless Reviews has taken the effort to subject Mamet's screed to the more detailed mockery that it deserves. (Via LG&M)

If you haven't read Mamet's piece yet, it will be a less painful experience when accompanied by Shulte's interpolations.

Now, I'm far from thinking that the left side of the political spectrum doesn't require some vigorous critique (and even a good kicking). Furthermore, loads of people are actually making those necessary critiques with a great deal more intelligence and real-world relevance than Mamet's vaporous mutterings.

A few of them can be found among the blogroll to your right. Peter Ryley is one of the best, and he discussed the issue of critiquing-the-left v. leaving-the-left with great insight recently.

Judging by the number of keys that have been stroked in recent weeks about liberal/left 'defectors', changing political teams seems to be seen as an important topic at the moment. However, if his essay is any insight into Mamet's 'liberal' beliefs, then I think it suffices to say that -- if he ever actually was a liberal -- Mamet will be among the least missed of the supposed apostates.

He may have an ear for vulgar dialogue, but as to political thought...well, let's just say he's not a closer on that score.

I'll confine myself to a few selected points in his article and then I plan to leave this sorry mess behind me.

I thought it was clear that Mamet began going off the rails right near the beginning of his essay (after the somewhat long-winded and pretentious opening) when, in explaining his rejection of liberalism, he says:

This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.

Patently absurd as a statement of liberalism, this utterance is even more preposterous as an justification for Mamet's move to the right.

It doesn't seem to me, for instance, that conservative parties anywhere (least of all in the American case) are suffused with a feeling of quiet contentment about the state of the world. I'm not sure what kind of conservatives Mamet's been hanging around with, but pretty much all of those I've had any interaction with (whether via the internet or across my family's kitchen table) are quite fully convinced that everything is always wrong. (Indeed, this could be the motto for any nation's variety of right-wing populism. It would even make an ideal slogan for Fox News or The Daily Mail.)

How American conservatives have managed to hold this point of view while simultaneously dominating the country's political institutions is, of course, a strange little paradox all its own. But if your criteria for determining your political allegiance is the extent of bitching and moaning about the world and you wish to avoid same, becoming a conservative is a rather odd choice.

There is also a lot of murmuring in Mamet's article about how he no longer thinks that people are essentially good. He now seems to think that they are basically self-interested swine.

Curiously, though, he argues that no institutional form for regulating and working out the inevitable differences that emerge among said venal pigs is necessary. Instead, they'll work it all out themselves in some mysterious way.

His evidence is very solid, coming as it does from his own imagination:

Strand unacquainted bus travelers in the middle of the night, and what do you get? A lot of bad drama, and a shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact. Each, instantly, adds what he or she can to the solution. Why? Each wants, and in fact needs, to contribute—to throw into the pot what gifts each has in order to achieve the overall goal, as well as status in the new-formed community. And so they work it out.
Well, excellent, I guess that's proven that. 'They work it out'. How nice.
Seeing that he just pulled this description of things out of his...imagination, I could well imagine a similar scenario that ends differently, in something that looks a bit more like Mad Max and involves cannibalism. I mean, while we're imagining, we might as well have some fun.
However, it never seems to occur to Mamet that the 'new-formed community' (ah, such a lovely, soothing, sedative word that is) might, say, institutionalise exploitation.
Such as the early settler communities that his offhand historical reference points to. Remember? Those real-historical communities where various forms of unfree labour (from indentured servitude to slavery) were deemed acceptable, indeed, even essential to social life. Mamet, however, seems to see American history solely as the almost supernatural unfolding of constitutional wisdom.
See also that most magnificent of schools, the jury system, where, again, each brings nothing into the room save his or her own prejudices, and, through the course of deliberation, comes not to a perfect solution, but a solution acceptable to the community—a solution the community can live with. (Emphasis, most emphatically, added.)

I haven't had the pleasure of serving on a jury -- though I've always wanted to. However, I have heard from enough people who have done so and spent a bit of time examining some of that very ambiguous institution's history (this book is a good place to look if you can manage to get a copy).
Thus, I can safely say that Mamet's argument is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- bullshit.
Each brings 'nothing into the room save his or her own prejudices'? Ah, that must be OK then. Since prejudice can't be all that important, historically speaking. On juries.

And I suppose, just to take one example, that he suggests here that the treatment by white juries of blacks in much of American history was not all that significant (we wouldn't want to say that something in the world was 'all wrong' would we?) It was certainly 'acceptable to the community', David, but only someone with as retarded a notion of 'community' such as yourself would nod in complacent agreement with the (strangely panglossian) notion that things just work out for the best.

I have no doubt that people do -- as Mamet suggests -- have inherent abilities that allow them to form and maintain social relationships. We are a social species. However, even a fairly glancing familiarity with psychology, history and anthropology should suggest to you that this doesn't always work out in ways that are acceptable or just.

Like many on the American right, however, Mamet seems to think of 'government' as some strange alien institution imposed from without, rather than being one of the ways that people 'work things out'. Governments are there to monitor, regulate and rebalance social relationships according to the will of the governed.

Obviously, Mamet must in some way know this, so what I presume Mamet is actually objecting to is Big Government, the one that was supposedly dropped on us from an oppressive race from beyond the stars rather than the one created by elected representatives over time and which presumably at least a good number of people in 'the community' support.

I'd like to think he was being funny here, but Mamet quips:

What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow. (Emphasis added.)

How about helping to end segregation, you stupid fuck. Or was that an illegitimate intervention on the ways that the 'communities' you so adore had found a solution 'they could live with' via a system of apartheid?

Of course, I see the very clever caveat you have made here. Obviously this is something that is not among 'those things which affect' you or which you have 'observed'.

It does seem a tiny and very cramped little world you inhabit, David, really it does. It makes me suspect that your reputation for having insight into the human condition is undeserved, since it is obvious that you can't see past your own nose into the world as the rest of us live in it.

The GI Bill? Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Workplace safety regulation? State universities? (Ah, our David was privately educated. That also presumably doesn't affect him, allowing him not to have to mix in his tender years with the great unwashed.) Environmental protection laws? The roads you drive on? The police? Firefighting?

Not that 'government' is the 'solution' to 'everything' (whatever a meaningless statement like that would mean), but, really: 'Hard pressed'? Nothing much 'beyond sorrow'?

Put down the fucking Thomas Sowell, David, and read something serious. (Mamet refers to Sowell as 'our greatest living philosopher'. I don't know much about his work to be honest, but you may wish to peruse this Great Mind at work here at the National Review. Profound. Definitely.)

Finally, I was struck by the curious provincialism of Mamet's essay.

I mean: Here's a world-renowned playwright writing for a newspaper in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities and he seems to not realise that there are societies out there in the rest of the big wide world which have different relationships between government and people and differently calibrated varieties of capitalism that might be worth considering.

Thus come pronouncements like the following:

Do I speak as a member of the "privileged class"? If you will—but classes in the United States are mobile, not static, which is the Marxist view. That is: Immigrants came and continue to come here penniless and can (and do) become rich; the nerd makes a trillion dollars; the single mother, penniless and ignorant of English, sends her two sons to college (my grandmother). On the other hand, the rich and the children of the rich can go belly-up; the hegemony of the railroads is appropriated by the airlines, that of the networks by the Internet; and the individual may and probably will change status more than once within his lifetime.

Stirring stuff. Someday, when we finally overthrow our feudal overlords and free ourselves from serfdom, I hope, too, to help create such a wondrous society. Oh, if the revolution would only come...

Unfortunately, for all his bluster, Mamet's vision seems a bit clouded. At least, it appears that social mobility is not necessarily any better in the US than it is in other countries. And it may be worse.

Last year, I cited a comment from the New York Times on an OECD survey of research on the topic. A brief, but relevant, extract:

One study found that mobility between generations — people doing better or worse than their parents — is weaker in America than in Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain and France. In America, there is more than a 40 percent chance that if a father is in the bottom fifth of the earnings’ distribution, his son will end up there, too. In Denmark, the equivalent odds are under 25 percent, and they are less than 30 percent in Britain.

Life is far from utopian in the borders of our humble European Union, I'd agree, but when I run across supposedly weighty commentary about How Society Should Be Run that replaces thinking with blinkered nationalist cheerleading -- especially when the home team isn't doing so well right now -- I tend to think that the commentator in question is not worth taking seriously.

By all means, David, extol the virtues of markets and democracy if you will, but please come over for a visit sometime -- no really, come on by, we have a spare room -- and we can take a tour of a country that has exported more goods than any other in the world over the last few years (and where people are healthier and where there are far fewer murders) while having a great deal more of that Big Government that you deem so poisonous.

Mamet's obviously an imaginative fellow, and he may just prefer to stay locked away in his little theatrical fantasy land (and his privileged life) where he can create characters representing the simplistic little manichaean ideological struggle he seems to get so worked up about.

As far as I'm concerned, he can play with his puppet show all he wants. I just hope he leaves the rest of us out of it in the future.

Put that fucking coffee down, David. Coffee's for closers only.

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