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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Becoming a conservative convert; giving up on democracy

David Mamet, playwright, professed conservative
Conservative circles are doing much crowing because America's premier playwright--who is also a screenwriter, director, producer, and essayist--has made a noisy conversion to conservatism.  In 2008, Pulitzer-winner David Mamet wrote  an essay in Village Voice titled "Why I Am No  Longer 'A Brain-Dead Liberal.'"  This spring he published a book The Secret Knowledge:  On the Dismantling of America Culture.  Conservative propagandists are seizing on Mamet's loud proclamations as a kind of proof that the conservative attitude has been right all along.  

They could not have read Mamet's rationalizations for his conversion from a liberal by context and habit to conservatism.  That  is, unless the neo-conservatives are ready to deny liberty, equality, and justice as part of their belief system.  In the "Brain-Dead Liberal" essay Mamet explains his change of mind from liberal orthodoxy to conservative orthodoxy:

I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

He further  makes this observation:

I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.
He concludes:

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

... people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

His new book is a series of essays that expand on these idea, not with argument, but with the emphatic recitation of neo-conservative cliches on liberal education, the New Deal, Al Sharpton, global warming, "Obamacare,"  the bailout of the auto industry, and the usual resentment and whining about taxes.  

I cannot offer a legitimate review of the book because I have not read all of it.  I put it down and gave it away because of statements like this:  “The Left insisted that we abandon, in 1973, a war we had just won in Vietnam…”   If I want to read falsehoods, I will choose fiction rather than a political polemic which falsifies events in history I have lived through.  

I have taught Mamet's work  in American drama courses.  A distinguishing aspect of his drama is his ability to give incisive portrayals of the way "lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals" dominate so much of human life.  His Pulitzer-winning Glengarry Glen Ross is a deep probing of the values of the "
greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt" as it operates in American business.  (The film version, adapted by Mamet, is a powerhouse featuring actors Al Pacino Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce.)  It explores two days in the lives of four real estate salesmen who are told that two of them will be fired and the two who remain will be those who sell the most in a real estate development called Glengarry Glen Ross.  A sleazy office manager, has a list of leads, who he parcels out according to his  own power-hungry whims.  As an act of revenge, some of the salesmen conspired to steal the list of leads and sell them to a competitor real estate firm.   The drama explores the social psychology that motivated the real estate bubble which underlies the Great Recession we are struggling to climb out of.

D.H Lawrence, the English novelist who took up residency in New Mexico, once advised critical readers to trust the tale of writers not the teller.   In Mamet's case, this seems advisable.  What he portrays in his writing, which actor Jack Lemmon summarized as how "the morals and ethics are in America and how they have eroded in the quest for success," lends an insidious element to his contention that the market forces are superior to any government intervention.  When he states in his "Brain-Dead" essay that  "I began to question my hatred for "the Corporations"—the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live," he is making an admission that the material comforts and conveniences produced by human predation trump any moral or ethical considerations for him in the long the run. 

Mamet's reasons for his embrace of neo-conservatism are at once a definition of its premise and the admission of a moral defeat.  He contends that human nature is essentially perfidious, that nature cannot be surmounted, and so he accepts it as the determinant rule of human life.  Those lofty aspirations in America's founding documents--liberty, equality, and justice--are superfluous and irrelevant to the controlling realities of human nature. Democracy, rule by the people, is ultimately ruled by the contending forces of  greed, lust, duplicity, and corruption.

As one of America's most prominent literary figures, Mamet may well define contemporary America with more reality and precision than all the hopeless aspiration striving for true liberty, equality, and justice.  His dismissal of government intervention in the affairs of mankind, however, is done in the face of some salient events in American and human history.  Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Eisenhower's ordering troops into Little Rock, Kennedy's plan to reach the moon, Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act are milestones in the quest for liberty, equality, and justice.  Mamet's statements relinquish the progressive motive to a corporate-run world that supplies a lot of fraud and oppression along with what it thinks is neat stuff.

David Mamet has done something that is deadly for artists and teachers to do.  He has deferred to the small-minded, petty, and mindless imagery of partisan politics.  Artists and teachers may form political viewpoints from their examinations of life, but when they allow the trite and unexamined expressions of attitude to become their means of thought and expression, they betray their talents and their work.  Mamet has done just that.  I will continue to admire, read, watch, and teach his dramatic writing, but, as in this case, I won't waste time with his partisan hackery.  

Neo-conservatives may celebrate Mamet's vision of America; others who believe that liberty, equality, and justice are worthwhile pursuits will just have to pursue them in other places.    

Read more about David Mamet.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States