Sunday, February 03, 2013

Mamet's Plays vs. Political Commentary

I've seen David Mamet interviewed, so I know he's no slouch. He seems to be writing his political drivel in earnest, so I can't say that he's a fraud. So what does that leave me with? Some form of narcissism crossed with life in a self-imposed bubble. Back when Mamet "came out" as a conservative, he did so through an essay that reflected a surprising lack of depth and intellectual rigor. But the surprise is not that a smart person can be foolish, or that his initial comments on a subject that he has consistently overlooked will demonstrate the fact that he's new to the issues. The surprise is that somebody whose work suggests that he grapples with serious issues would be so inept at grappling with actual issues.

Five years later, Mamet shows no more sophistication as a political thinker than he did on day one, and if anything his positions are even further removed from objective fact and history. My inference is this: Mamet is good at picking up on serious issues, and of creating fictional scenarios that expand upon those issues, but he's not particularly good at relating his scenarios to reality. Meanwhile, he restricts himself to a circle of similarly minded people who gush over his brilliance, but have no greater knowledge or capacity for analysis than he does. That appears to have been true when he was coasting through life giving essentially no thought to politics except for occasionally fuming that NPR was too sympathetic to Palestinians.

Paul Waldman opines,
To be clear, the point isn't that Mamet is conservative, even though it's true that the overwhelming majority of artists are liberal, so that makes him unusual. The point is that he brings to his political analysis none of the things that make him a good playwright. It would be one thing if Mamet was, let's say, a widely admired painter or photographer who turned out to have simplistic political views. Visual artists sometimes disappoint their fans by not being particularly eloquent when they're called upon to discuss their work, but words are not their tools. A playwright, on the other hand, spends his time studying and manipulating language, ideas, and characters. That someone who has produced insightful art about corners of American life and the human condition more broadly would then turn around and offer political analysis with all the sophistication of the twelfth caller to Sean Hannity's radio show this afternoon is profoundly puzzling.

But it's a good reminder of something: Political writing is a craft, just like writing plays. Pretty much everyone who has ever read a newspaper thinks they could do it as well or better than those who do it for a living, but most of the time they can't. David Mamet spent a lot of time and energy working on his craft, but the fact that he got famous doing it doesn't mean he has any opinions about or analysis of politics that anyone would gain anything from hearing.
I agree with the latter part more than the former. That is, I agree that somebody who has great gifts in one area may lack gifts or skills in another. But I think the things that make Mamet an interesting playwright and screenwriter are the same things that make him a terrible political analyst.

I have enjoyed a lot of Mamet's work, but I have the impression from some of his work that he tell into the same sort of trap that we have seen with other writers, that of thinking he's smarter than his audience. Works like The Spanish Prisoner succeed based upon the strength of the acting, the "solution" to the protagonist's problem was obvious and I find it a bit painful at times to watch "brilliant" characters do one stupid thing after another when the solution is right before their eyes - and when the character finally figures it out, rather than applying a logical ending (not very dramatically interesting) he resorts to the deus ex machina. Even in works I like a lot more, such as The Verdict, Mamet demonstrates little patience with reality. When he needs to force an outcome, his characters do what is necessary to force the outcome - absurd evidentiary rulings, a "feel good" jury verdict without regard for what would happen on appeal. But in Mamet's better dramatic work, the deviations from reality are a form of poetic license. It's not important that the courtroom scenes are often absurd, because the goal isn't realism - Mamet is showing us the flaws of the characters, the arbitrariness of the legal system, how a case can turn more on the personality of the judge than on the law and facts.... And sometimes he's just spinning a ridiculous yarn about one con game or another, with uneven results.

To me, it seems that Mamet is doing the same thing in his political commentary that he does in his scripts, but that he has somehow lost track of the difference between spinning an entertaining yarn that happens to address some important issues and speaking about the real world. Much of Mamet's fiction leaves me with the impression that he does little research, that he's not interested in interviewing experts or poring over books to try to determine if his stories are plausible or if he could accomplish the same dramatic effect while hewing closer to what actually might happen in real life. His political writing displays a similar disdain for research - he'll go with the common wisdom, the buzz from his sycophants and adherents, with reality being less important than belief, perhaps justified by the narcissistic conceit that "If my friends and I believe it, it must be true."

From his political "conversion",
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.
From his latest screed,
The Founding Fathers, far from being ideologues, were not even politicians. They were an assortment of businessmen, writers, teachers, planters; men, in short, who knew something of the world, which is to say, of Human Nature. Their struggle to draft a set of rules acceptable to each other was based on the assumption that we human beings, in the mass, are no damned good—that we are biddable, easily confused, and that we may easily be motivated by a Politician, which is to say, a huckster, mounting a soapbox and inflaming our passions.
Has Mamet truly grown less informed about government over the past five years? Perhaps he floats in a circle of ignoramuses, and their ignorance is catching. Or perhaps he doesn't want to let the facts, even facts he has previously acknowledged, get in the way of his story. I recognize that many of Mamet's factual errors, such as his ignorance of Marxism, may simply be that - repeating the conventional wisdom of his new circle of peers, a reflection of the aforementioned conceit, "If we believe it, it must be right." But with mistakes like "The Founding Fathers... were not even politicians" it's difficult to imagine that Mamet even cares about whether his assertions of fact are correct. For the story he's telling, it's better that the founding fathers be non-ideological non-politicians so, just as with the fictional characters of one of his plays, he changes the facts and personalities to fit his story.

Another flaw of Mamet's political analysis? His logic is terrible. One small example,
As rules by the Government are one-size-fits-all, any governmental determination of an individual’s abilities must be based on a bureaucratic assessment of the lowest possible denominator. The government, for example, has determined that black people (somehow) have fewer abilities than white people, and, so, must be given certain preferences. Anyone acquainted with both black and white people knows this assessment is not only absurd but monstrous. And yet it is the law.
Except government rules are not "one size fits all". Even if they were "one size fits all," that would not necessitate that a "any governmental determination of an individual’s abilities" (whatever Mamet means by that) "must be based on a bureaucratic assessment of the lowest possible denominator". Mamet statement about race is absurd. It appears that he's alluding to affirmative action and civil rights laws, but those programs are not predicated upon a government determination "that black people (somehow) have fewer abilities than white people". They're predicated upon this nation's history of institutionalized racial inequality and racial discrimination. Based upon Mamet's false and absurd distortions, anti-discrimination laws become "monstrous", proof that the government can't believe what everybody knows, that the races are equal in every respect. And yet, in a wonderfully ambiguous flourish "it" is "the law".

Mamet continues,
President Obama, in his reelection campaign, referred frequently to the “needs” of himself and his opponent, alleging that each has more money than he “needs.”

But where in the Constitution is it written that the Government is in charge of determining “needs”? And note that the president did not say “I have more money than I need,” but “You and I have more than we need.” Who elected him to speak for another citizen?
We can start from, is Obama's statement true or false? Does Mamet believe that the President has insufficient money to meet his needs? Does he believe that Mitt Romney is struggling by on his quarter billion dollar fortune, barely able to keep the heat on in his five houses? From any reasonable standpoint the President was correct. But facts are boring, right? So Mamet goes off on a tear about how the Constitution does not place the government in charge of determining "needs". And after that non sequitur whines that the President is speaking for another person. As if Romney denied the charge. As if any person with a brain between his ears would dispute the charge. And then what he seems to think is his pièce de résistance, his brilliant and irrefutable point, "Who elected [the President] to speak for another citizen?" (Well, you see, David, we live under this system of government referred to as a representative democracy, and we do in fact elect our representatives to speak for us.) And yes, it gets worse from there - for the President to suggest that Romney has more money than he needs is the same thing as the government imposing "one-size-fits-all", never mind that the President was speaking about treating different classes of people (notably the ultra-rich) differently than the average working stiff. And there is no difference between that and slavery.

Mamet makes one ridiculous assertion after another.
What possible purpose in declaring schools “gun-free zones”? Who bringing a gun, with evil intent, into a school would be deterred by the sign?
The purpose of the law, of course, is to allow the police to stop and detain, and when appropriate prosecute and imprison, somebody who brings a firearm into the gun-free zone. If it's not illegal to have a gun in a school zone, the police are constrained in their ability to act before the gun is drawn.
We need more armed citizens in the schools.
Why? Because Mamet says so? And this is a universal truth? A school with a gang problem will be a better and safer place if every kid above the age of 18 has the right to bring a gun to school?
Walk down Madison Avenue in New York. Many posh stores have, on view, or behind a two-way mirror, an armed guard. Walk into most any pawnshop, jewelry story, currency exchange, gold store in the country, and there will be an armed guard nearby. Why? As currency, jewelry, gold are precious. Who complains about the presence of these armed guards? And is this wealth more precious than our children?
Actually, no, in most such stores there are no armed guards. But where they are, it's to protect against robbery. Fundamentally, Mamet knows the difference between children, money, precious metals and jewels - not one of the scam artists in any of his plays or movies has mused over whether it would be better to scam somebody out of a valuable patent, tens of thousands of dollars, $millions in gold, or their kids. I doubt we would have to explain to Mamet that just because banks transport cash and securities in armored cars, it does not follow that we need to replace the nation's school buses with armored cars. Businesses don't invest in bulletproof glass and armed security because they are protecting against obscure risk and enjoy wasting money, but because due to the nature of their operations they are under genuine risk of armed robbery.
Q. How many accidental shootings occurred last year in jewelry stores, or on any premises with armed security guards?
I'm not sure how many of the shootings were accidental, but it would seem quite a number - often by somebody who disarms the security guard. ("In 23% of shootings within the ED, the weapon was a security officer’s gun taken by the perpetrator."). As if we needed further confirmation that Mamet does no research and has little interest in facts. Mamet believes that all that is involved in having armed security in schools is "the cost of a pistol (several hundred dollars), and a few hours of training (that’s all the security guards get)" - reflecting his deep ignorance both of the cost of gun ownership and maintenance, and of the actual and continuing training required to make sure that the person with the gun has the necessary skills to use it safely and appropriately.

Did I mention Mamet's inaccurate claim that the President "just passed a bill that extends to him and his family protection, around the clock and for life, by the Secret Service". Does Mamet even know how a bill is passed? That the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans? Apparently not. Mamet makes the absurd assertion that by recognizing that the President and his family have different security needs than the average American, the government is "regulat[ing] gun ownership based on its assessment of needs", which is... Marxism. Wait - you thought Marxism was when the government treated all people as if they were the same, and that "one size fits all" solutions were tantamount to slavery? That was paragraphs ago. Things have changed. And is Mamet seriously suggesting that the only solution that avoids Marxism is to either extend Secret Service protection to everybody in the nation, or to leave the President unprotected? To the extent that you try to find logical coherence in his arguments, yes, in fact he is.

Getting back to Mamet's plays for a moment, some defend his often stilted, stylized dialog as being "how people talk in real life." I've met a lot of people in my life and none speak in the manner of the characters of, say, House of Games. But the manner in which Mamet spins into a verbal frenzy, taking the President's true statement about Romney's wealth and, in a matter of a few sentences, equating it with slavery? Perhaps the reason I don't think Mamet's dialog is realistic is that I can't hear the voices in his head.

Waldman's commentary on the craft of political analysis is fair to a point, that people underestimate what is involved in writing good political commentary, but if we look at the most commercially successful political analysts of the day we often see little of that craft in their work. If I open a newspaper, I might find Charles Krauthammer opening a column with a dig at the President's use of a teleprompter, an absurd, racially-tinged attack that long ago passed its expiration date. I might find George Will spouting off about how climate change is a myth, with no more interest in the facts than Mamet. And if I flip open a Newsweek... make that click open... I might find... Mamet.

Sorry to say, the biggest money makers in the world of political commentary are charlatants - Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the like - and many of the faces pushed upon us by the "respectable" media are well past their prime, or were never up to the task. Many of the best political analysts would struggle to get a column published by a major newspaper or to get invited to sit among the talking heads on a televised panel or news show. The shocking part is less that Newsweek is so eager to gain readers that it posts an editorial that is on par with an episode of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo". The shocking part is how many people who you would think would have more respect for themselves eagerly line up to play the role of Honey Boo Boo.

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