I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.... 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."You know, somehow, "charming" is not the word that springs to mind. "Insufferably pretentious," maybe. "Self-loathing" would also be applicable. "Bloody idiotic" works pretty well. Or, how about this: "unconsciously right-wing." I mean, come on, in what world is "brain-dead liberal" not a right-wing frame? Even the awesome power of irony can't make it anything else.
So, what is the "brain-dead" set of ideas Mamet once had? Were they actually liberal? Well, no. It turns out they were just, well, brain-dead:
The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.There's the classic right-wing frame: the conflation of liberal and "utopian-socialist." In that view, there is no difference between, say, FDR's New Deal, with its complex, multifaceted, mixed-economy techniques, and Stalin's central planning and purifying massacres. Never mind that there was always a vast difference between these things, and that FDR's liberalism had as a primary goal the prevention of utopian socialism from gaining a domestic foothold. Never mind that, as writers from John Gray to John Ralston Saul keep pointing out again and again, the only functionally utopian thinkers these days are on the political right. No, Mamet thinks he's got it all figured out: conservatism is realistic, and liberalism is utopian, and that's that -- just like Jonah Goldberg said.
The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it's at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view.
So: David Mamet once thought (or thought that he thought) that the world could be perfected. He assumes that everyone else of a liberal mind believes what he once did. And now he feels he deserves congratulations for figuring out things that most of the rest of us have always known. Consider the brilliant insights he now contributes to us:
I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day.No! Really? You mean people aren't perfect yet life goes on? Do continue!
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.Yeah, rural electrification totally sucked. The G.I. Bill? Crapola. Medicare? Ahh, who says old people need medical insurance? Public highways? Food safety? They make me cry. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow. Of course, none of these were an attempt at perfecting the world: they were and remain specific solutions to specific problems. But never mind, Mamet is apparently eager to toss them on the scrap heap, if he even remembers they exist. After all, why does a wealthy playwright and film director need any of these things anyway? They've got nothing to do with his life.
The really funny and sad thing about all of this is that Mamet begins by quoting the great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes:
John Maynard Keynes was twitted with changing his mind. He replied, "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?"But the facts haven't changed. What Mamet observes in this piece -- imperfect people muddle along as usual -- is pretty much what the rest of us had figured out by the age of, oh, let's say seven. That's always been the case. The only thing that's changed is Mamet, who is now, apparently, a proud member of the intellectual right: that is to say, someone who pays a lot of lip service to the obvious imperfection of the world, while supporting policies that blithely ignore or attempt to erase that imperfection.
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.Just because Mamet called it liberalism doesn't make it so; and if he honestly thinks that Friedmanian "free" markets aren't a thoroughly utopian idea, well, he may need a little bit of shock therapy to cure him of the notion.
Update: As a number of commenters have correctly pointed out, Mamet's claim to have been a liberal in any sense is dubious at best anyway. His 1992 play Oleanna, for example, is a significant culture-war document: as Frank Rich noted at the time, it emerged in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings as a polemic about sexual harassment (and it doesn't side with the harassed). It also did quite a lot to scare the public and the chattering classes by offering up distorted, cartoonish versions of such right-wing bugbears as campus speech codes, political correctness, feminism, identity politics, and postmodernism, in exactly the paranoid terms that the right used to great political effect for the next fifteen years. All of which suggests that Mamet was always a right-winger and was just insufficiently self-aware to realize it.