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David Mamet Abandons “Brain-Dead Liberalism”

An English professor is walking along Broadway in the Village when he's approached by a homeless man asking for change. The professor instead imparts classical words of wisdom: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." And as if to underscore … Read More

By / March 13, 2008

An English professor is walking along Broadway in the Village when he's approached by a homeless man asking for change. The professor instead imparts classical words of wisdom: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." And as if to underscore the pedantry, he adds, "William Shakespeare." The homeless man wears a sour expression on his face and after pausing a moment replies: "Fuck you. David Mamet." Who really didn't see this coming in the American playwright who invented a discourse — and used a metronome to do it — to accommodate every shade of masculine barbarity? David Mamet has confessed in the Village Voice that he's no longer a "brain-dead liberal," and he describes his slow-mounting epiphany, as it was helped along by his wife, the unnamed but lovely actress Rebecca Pidgeon:

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."

Anyone who has read Mamet's penultimate book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews is aware of his religious zealotry. And I can recall scanning his helpful guide to drama, Three Uses of the Knife, when I was playing Shelley "the Machine" Levine in a college production of "Glengarry Glen Ross" (half the cast was female!) and being surprised to find that even the smashmouth bad boy of the Great White Way reserved a saintly word for Theodore Herzl. If you will it, "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" is no nightmare. The essay's written in Mamet-speak, which is a hard taste to acquire if you haven't got it already (I have, even though I enjoy parodying it as much as appreciating its staccato rhythms and intellectual abrasions: "Baby, I'm so cool, Disney Land visits me.") What is it, though, about the stylists of heartburn prose that makes them all go public with their goodbyes to all that? Martin Amis had "The Age of Horrorism" in the Guardian two years ago, and there was Kingsley Amis' "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" in the sixties. Mamet's stuff is pat ball to this father-son team's champion game. And yet… Mamet has his moments, too. He reminds us that there is such a thing as a tough-minded, no-bullshit liberalism that takes a view of history longer than the Bush administration, and an assessment of human nature more complicated than the Halliburton tax returns:

Bush got us into Iraq, JFK into Vietnam. Bush stole the election in Florida; Kennedy stole his in Chicago. Bush outed a CIA agent; Kennedy left hundreds of them to die in the surf at the Bay of Pigs. Bush lied about his military service; Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book written by Ted Sorenson. Bush was in bed with the Saudis, Kennedy with the Mafia. Oh.

Knowing the symptoms of Mamet's conditions pretty well (I've made a minor study of changing ideological fever-dreams), I'd wager that most of his policy prescriptions have not changed much since he came to the realization that the free market is better than the command economy, and that the United States is not reflexively vicious, but rather resilient against vice because founded on the best kind of pessimistic doctrine of government. The Independent newspaper in Britain has taken the occasion of Mamet's piece to distinguish between the British definition of "liberalism" and the American one (the "brain-dead" adjective must have really upset the leader writers). Mamet will of course be called a "conservative" by his ex-friends in Hollywood. Or they'll use the more convenient dread term "neoconservative," which is preloaded ammunition for fools. You're either with us or against, the lefties will tell him. Either you're scrawling Etch-a-Sketch political cartoons of Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face for the Huffington Post, or you're calling the more pacifistic elements of the American Enterprise Institute "stupid fucking cunts." Which is it, David? Welcome to the counter-revolution.

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