Thursday, March 13, 2008

"My Favorite Philosopher Is Thomas Sowell"

A number of years ago I wrote an entry, "My Favorite Philosopher Is Jesus", that took a jaundiced view of Thomas Sowell's In A Conflict of Visions, an effort to categorize political philosophies into two categories, "constrained" and "unconstrained". As is typical of this type of work, that really translates into "people like me," and "everybody else", with "everybody else" being wrong. Oh, I know, Sowell's proponents argue that he avoids saying, "all those who adhere to an 'unconstrained vision' are wrong," but how dumb would you actually have to be not to discern that message?

The title to that post is, of course, alluding to the conservative's conservative, George W. Bush, describing Jesus as his "favorite philosopher". If G.W. reflects the "constrained vision" to which Sowell would have us aspire, may his favorite philosopher help us.

The other day when I was browsing weblogs, I saw a post on Talking Points Memo,
David Mamet: Why I am no longer a 'brain-dead liberal.'
Okay, I thought, I'll bite.1 And at the other end of the link I found an intriguing essay written by a man who, although unquestionably bright, has spent sixty years on the planet without spending any discernible time contemplating politics. It's an analysis I might expect from an undergraduate student, who for the first time has come to realize that there is a lot of nuance in the world around him (but better written).

None of the other weblogs I read mentioned this essay. That's perhaps not surprising, given that there's really not much to it. So I did a blog search to find out what others were saying. The first thing I learned was that the essay was given prominent treatment by the Drudge Report - that explains the original link, and also explains the second thing I learned. It's all over the right-leaning blogosphere, with typical expressions being that it is a "brilliant piece of writing", "welcome to the real world", and "liberals are going to hate you for this."2 And thus David Mamet is welcomed into the world of shallow politics, a world in which he presently belongs.

I don't mean that as an insult of David Mamet, but it is his own admission that he spent sixty years on the planet without reconsidering political assumptions that were self-contradictory3, at odds with each other4, at odds with his body of work5, and at odds with the way he lives his life6. If he truly believed himself to be a "liberal" throughout those sixty years, he deserves his self-applied label. And while his "awakening" may put him on par with the right-wing bloggers who gush over his essay, I don't think you can read it without the sense that when it comes to political philosophy he is not only far from the deep waters - he is still splashing around in the kiddie pool. A high school student could shred his facile comparison of George W. Bush to J.F.K.

The line that told me exactly where Mamet is coming from was this:
I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.7
I doubt I would be the first to point out to him that you can have a profound understanding of economic theory and still be an unabashed liberal. Or maybe I would. But his comment on Sowell provided a context for his entire piece - he read In A Conflict of Visions and, without a second thought, swallowed the theory of "unconstrained" versus "constrained" visions.

This also gives me something of a chuckle, in terms of the warm embrace Mamet is receiving from the right-wing blogosphere. How many among them have read Sowell? How many of that tiny group would describe Sowell as "our greatest contemporary philosopher"? Sowell has written some very good stuff during his career, but his brand of (paleo-)conservativism isn't particularly fashionable. And more to the point, perhaps out of a newfound awareness of the limitations of his understanding, Mamet does not actually embrace a new political label. His conclusion, which like the endings of many of his plays leaves many questions unanswered, is,
The right is mooing about faith, the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side—but, at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler.
That is to say, he seems to be categorizing himself as some form of centrist - somebody who is now sufficiently politically aware to know that everybody else is "mooing" but not quite sure where to stand (other than by the water cooler). Perhaps after a bit more reading and a bit more thinking, he'll realize that his reluctance to join one or the other of Sowell's political camps results from the fact that Sowell has it wrong, and that political thought is a multi-dimensional spectrum.


1. I was tempted to write a piece about Mamet's early work being performed the Organic Theater and, well, basically drawing as many parallels I could between Mamet's background and Jonah Goldberg's notions of a "liberal fascist." Such a piece would be entitled, "I used to be a liberal fascist, but it turns out I was a conservative the whole time." That, of course, would be intended as a poke in the eye of those who gush over both this essay and Goldberg's book, but they wouldn't get it and everybody else would be bored.

2. Would Mamet fear small audiences? Probably about as much as he fears having somebody say, "That dialog wasn't realistic." But really, he's in the Kelsey Grammer category of, "respected for his work," not in the Dennis Miller category of, "Overdone schtick that can't even survive on Fox." Either way, it's not his politics that matter.

3. Mamet admits this, "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?" But that's why he presents his cutesy self-appellation, "brain-dead" - he wasn't thinking.

4. A contradiction he highlights is his former belief that governments, composed of people, are the solution to our problems while businesses, composed of people, act only in self-interest. Now it's pretty much the opposite, perhaps with the qualification that he relishes his own materialism, but somehow he no longer sees the contradiction.

5. It is hard to imagine Oleanna - in which a young woman plays the sexual harassment card and destroys her professor - as advancing a liberal philosophy. Mamet's new play, November, that supposedly inspired this political awakening is about interplay "between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter" - in other words, the "liberal" is a caricature, and an easily defeated straw man. And his views on race?
Races, as Steven Pinker wrote in his refutational The Blank Slate, are just rather large families; families share genes and thus, genetic disposition. Such may influence the gene holders (or individuals) much, some, or not at all. The possibility exists, however, that a family passing down the gene for great hand-eye coordination is likely to turn out more athletes than without. The family possessing the genes for visual acuity will likely produce good hunters, whose skill will provide nourishment. The families of the good hunters will prosper and intermarry, thus strengthening the genetic disposition in visual acuity.
Bambi v Godzilla, Pantheon (February 6, 2007). The purpose of the essay is to explain the high representation of Ashkenazim (and possibly Asperger's Syndrome) among film directors; but what's the implicit statement about other races?

6. "The observed rule in Hollywood is ‘feel free to treat everyone like scum." Did he believe that the peons who fetch him his lattes every morning do so because of their "inherent goodness"? "I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as 'a brain-dead liberal,' and to NPR as 'National Palestinian Radio.'" If he truly believed those expressions to be charming (or clever), I'm at a loss for words.

7. Mamet later elaborates, "I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow." Mamet is an unabashed Zionist. It shouldn't take him very long to think of one good thing that resulted from government intervention. But should I assume that he believes environmental laws, child labor laws, Medicare, Social Security, food inspection, drug inspection, public highways, etc., all stand in the way of great filmmaking, and are thus social detriments? More to the point, he's a playwright - a profession that could scarcely exist but for government grants, publicly funded education, charitable donations and tax exemptions.


  1. Wow this author sounds like an unconstrained asshole.

    1. Jeff, given your posting history I'm a bit surprised to see you come down so hard on Mamet. You're far from the first conservative to find him an embarrassment, but given your past embrace of birtherism and Tea Party politics it's good to see that you're coming around to the side of facts and logic.