Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Right To Get Smarter

David Mamet is the author of numerous plays including Glengarry Glen Ross (which won a Pultizer in 1984), American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow, and screenplays for films including The Verdict and The Untouchables. He politics are well known--formerly a Puffington Host blogger, he's castigated President Bush for "abrogat[ing] the Constitution," possibly because he thinks the President "vetoed" stem-cell research (Bush didn't). Mamet is a conspiracy theorist and a global warming alarmist. Mamet's exhorted the Democrats toward boldness. Heck, he co-authored the screenplay for "Wag the Dog," the film about a "fictional president who tries to stage a fake war to distract from a damaging sex scandal."

More recently, Mamet's been accused of "selling out." That's mild compared to what the liberal establishment will scream after reading his column in Tuesday's Village Voice titled Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal':
John Maynard Keynes was twitted with changing his mind. He replied, "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?" . . .

I wrote a play about politics (November [NOfP note: review here], Barrymore Theater, Broadway, some seats still available). And as part of the "writing process," as I believe it's called, I started thinking about politics. This comment is not actually as jejune as it might seem. Porgy and Bess is a buncha good songs but has nothing to do with race relations, which is the flag of convenience under which it sailed.

But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it's at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that 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.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life. How do I know? My wife informed me. We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up. "?" she prompted. And her terse, elegant summation, as always, awakened me to a deeper truth: I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as "a brain-dead liberal," and to NPR as "National Palestinian Radio."

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

But in my life, a brief review revealed, everything was not always wrong, and neither was nor is always wrong in the community in which I live, or in my country. Further, it was not always wrong in previous communities in which I lived, and among the various and mobile classes of which I was at various times a part.

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? 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.

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.

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.

To that end, the Constitution separates the power of the state into those three branches which are for most of us (I include myself) the only thing we remember from 12 years of schooling.

The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long.

Rather brilliant. For, in the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings in Washington doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.
I've said the same. But Mamet's musings are very much Dr. Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs: "you are surprised to find it done at all." There's more--read the whole thing.

Could Harold Pinter be next? Nah, that would be way too much to expect.

(via reader Doug J.)


Iowa_John said...

What was really surprising was how he felt like he had to hang on to liberal shibboleths like W "stealing" Florida. Still, always good for us to have one more.

Carl said...

I_J: Agreed, hence the Dr. Johnson reference.

OBloodyHell said...

Wow. The bear waltzes indeed.

In addition to his comments about triumvirates (PotUS, Congress, SCotUS), you can look both to recent history (the USSR had a triumvirate, more on this below) and long-past history -- The Roman Republic really only began to crumble when its own triumvirate -- Caesar, Pompey, Crassus -- crumbled (when Crassus died).

The Con creates a remarkably stable triumvirate, since it has strong rules on succession, each of which grant power over the other two legs to each leg.

Also in recent history, there is evidence of French intelligence, absurd as this sounds. After the near-miss of the Cuban Missle Crisis, France essentially gave China "The Bomb", which changed it from a two-legged face-off into another triumvirate -- if any two nations really went at it, the remainder won... which, arguably, reduced the chances of conflict from escalating anywhere near as close as they did in 1962.

This also ties into the reasoning behind giving Pakistan "The Bomb", as we arguably appear to have done... While most Americans are unaware of it, there is a long historical enmity between China and India, and, since both have the bomb, there was concern that this might boil over. Since there is a measure of enmity between Pakistan and India, this, too, now represents another triumvirate, and increases international stability.

Triumvirates are politically... very interesting.
The strongest and most rigid geometric figure is the triangle. From the Eiffel Tower to the framework of a railroad bridge, engineering uses triangles universally to produce structures of strength and stability. The
same is true of political structures. Political systems based upon the division of power and the interplay of three balancing forces have been the most stable and enduring throughout history.

The political system of the USSR was based upon such a triangle of forces. The three corners of the triangle were the Party, the Army, and the KGB. Each of these possessed enormous power, but the power of each could be exceeded by the combined strength of the other two. Of the three, the Party had the fewest resources for self-defense in an open conflict, but to counter this weakness it had the lever at its disposal of authorizing the appointment of all officials -- every general of the Army and every colonel of the KGB could be posted, promoted, and demoted only with the approval of the Central Committee. This right was supported by both of the Party's rivals; for if that privilege were to pass to either of them, then the other would be in mortal danger, and both of them knew it.

The system thus functioned as a tripod that would stand, provided that none of the legs tried to extend itself too far. Whenever this began to happen, the other two immediately intervened to chop off the excess.

When Stalin died in 1953, observers concluded that Beria, the feared head of the predecessor of the KGB, would take command. He possessed files on every senior Party official and general that would have enabled him to put any one of them before a firing squad. But it was this very power which destroyed him. The Party and the Army, understanding their joint predicament, executed the chief executioner and eliminated the heads of his security apparatus. But this released one of the leashes around the Army's neck. Marshal Zhukov, the legendary commander of WWII fame, began acquiring extraordinary powers at home and abroad, and demanded the removal of all political commissars from the Army's units -- to shake off the leash remaining. The Party and the newly formed KGB promptly closed ranks, Zhukov was dismissed, and the military machine drastically pruned. This extended the Party leg of the tripod to an alarming degreee, and in response, the impossible happened, when the two mortal enemies, the Army and the KGB, united to bring down the Party's head, Khruschev, who fell almost without a sound. And in the era that followed... the secret of Brezhnev's survival lay in his skill at maintaining the triangular balance, restraining any two of its sides from combining against the third.

- James P. Hogan, 'The Mirror Maze' -

Cappy said...

I like it!
I welcome the addition of Mamet to the world of the sane. But I do predict he'll be shredded by his former pals, much as Dave Gelernter was.