Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mamet's "coming out" essay

David Mamet's coming-out essay in The Village Voice in 2008 was a precursor to his 2011 book, The Secret Knowledge (which I'll review shortly). The article is also worth some attention. 

Mamet was a long-time Hollywood Leftist, who converted to conservatism after considering the incoherence in his views and the facts on the ground. As such, he opens this essay with a Keynes quote: "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?" The quote is appropos in that Mamet's sense of the facts had changed-- and thus, he needed to change his opinion. 

Mamet's political journey began with two catalysts: he wrote a play on politics ("November") and in an election season, his rabbi challenged his congregants to consider the "quality of [their] political discourse" and thought. In the play, Mamet was running with the tension between a bad "conservative" who was practical and an intolerant "liberal" who was a dreamer. And he began to realize that the prevalence of such conservatives was exaggerated and that the dreamer had unavoidable problems. 

Beyond that, he realized that his actions throughout his life were not consistent with what he professed. And it bothered him that Bush II (villain) and JFK (hero) had so much in common. But in particular, he couldn't reconcile how he had believed that many things were so messed up while believing that people were basically good. 

Of corporations and the military, he asked himself: 
Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not “Is everything perfect?” but “How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?”
Note the conservative/constrained view of trying to optimize outcomes subject to the relevant constraints. (It's worth remembering here that there are few conservatives in politics!) The Leftist usually looks at benefits only and ignores (or downplays) costs or constraints. (Of course, many others make the same mistake, although not out of ideology-- "moderates" and other folks who pay little attention to politics-- through a failure to think things through carefully.) 
And then...
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.
But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out? I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production...
Mamet was struck by frequent failures in politics and then wondered whether freedom and the market could handle things. His answer was yes-- again, by the evidence of his own life and his evident beliefs about the nature of things. 

One more thing: In this essay (more in the book to follow), Mamet has some terrific thoughts and delivers them eloquently. I'll give you this one on the genius of the Constitution: 
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.


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