Playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, essayist, children's author, theologian, social critic, drama critic, amateur sociologist, cartoonist of modest talent, and fan of con games and magic acts, David Mamet has concluded that his lifelong liberal convictions are, more or less, a pile of unexamined and highly derivative horseshit.
Better late than never.
Writing in the Village Voice, Mamet recounts his path to revelation. He used to believe that governments were corrupt, corporations evil, and militaries murderous, but people, at heart, basically good. He's now realized that governments,corporations, and militaries are actually made up of people (allegedly, at heart, good), and this has thrown a spanner into his worldview.
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. "?" [sic] 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.
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.
This is fairly basic stuff, but more significantly, perhaps, he has come to realize that the liberal temperament assumes the attainability of a world - perhaps not perfect - but flawed only by minor glitches and imperfections, whereas, to the conservative mind, life always encompasses the tragic, and we'd do well not to compound tragedy in our zeal to abolish it.
The liberal - or at least, extreme liberal - vision, being profoundly optimistic, tends to induce only greater frustration and impatience over time, since it strives toward the attainment of a near Paradise, made possible if only the right people come to power and implement a few obvious and utterly benign reforms. Who could object to a better world? Hence, the tendency of millenarian revolutions and cult societies to resort to bloodshed when Paradise fails to arrive on cue.
Paradoxically, one of the difficulties of espousing a conservative vision in most Western societies is not that life, from day to day, is such an irremediable disaster, but that, it so often isn't. Things may not work perfectly, but they often enough work well enough to seduce us into believing that we can, by dint of political activism, make them work a whole lot better. In other words, things are so wrong because they could be so right. Again, who could object to a better world?
We Americans have a weakness for believing that there is no problem so intractable as to be beyond a solution. We take an almost algebraic approach to any human failing, believing only that the right combination of research, methodology, and funding will rid us of everything from childhood aggression to teen pregnancy to violent crime to middle-aged despair (old age we simply deny). As Mamet acknowledges, despite his sense that, from an overarching point of view, the world is characterized by invidious corruption and greed, on the personal level, that is, on the level of his own experience, things generally work rather well.
I rather like Mamet's plays, or at least the ones that I've seen (on video, of course), but to be honest, I don't find his prose any more lucid or compelling than that of a decent part-time blogger. I mean this not only of the piece that he's currently written, but of the essays of his that I've read as well. You may judge for yourself, but his political insights seem fairly pedestrian to me, and he talks an awful lot about the theater, as always.
Still, he seems to have realized that though from the liberal perspective life proceeds through a series of crimes and brutalities, which in fact it often does, on the personal level, where life is actually lived, it usually works better than we have any reason to expect. Mamet ultimately concludes that we're probably better off maintaining the personal latitude to figure out how to live it.
There is, of course, a more concise way of saying all of this. I used to know a guy named Wes who once observed that, "For this world to be perfect, everything would have to be different."
To both David and Wes, I say indeed.
Addendum: Here, you may read a Salon interview of the pre-conservative, "Brain-Dead Liberal" David Mamet. You can also view the Alec Baldwin motivational speech from Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross here.