Night of the living “brain-dead liberal”

I know I’m behind the times, but last night I was reading some (seriously) backlogged email and in it was a link forwarded by my mom to David Mamet’s recent essay in the Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’.” It’s a strange essay that’s simultaneously difficult to follow and clearly intended as an embodiment of Churchill’s (perhaps apocryphal) dictum that “If you’re not Liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not Conservative when you’re 35, you have no brain.” It took Mamet more than 25 years to harden his heart, but by golly he’s done it! As for the question of whether he successfully traded it in for a new and improved brain… well, that’s not quite so certain.

It seems his first mistake is in assuming that his playwriting is an accurate reflection of reality, and then using an interpretation of his own play as a way to see back through to reality. His example of the clash between “conservative” and “liberal” is from his recent play, November.

But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

Notice that his “conservative” is actually just a jerk: “self-interested, corrupt, suborned” — I won’t grant him “realistic” since this is Mamet’s subjective interpretation of his own character after the fact of Mamet’s conversion to a more conservative philosophy about life. Nothing about being self-interested or corrupt or suborned has anything to do with political outlook. People across every inch of the political spectrum are sometimes self-interested (and sometimes not) and sometimes corrupt (and sometimes not). True, the stereotype of a conservative in our culture is of a self-interested “old white man,” and leading conservatives in recent years, from Dick Cheney to Tom DeLay and so on, have done a bang-up job of encouraging the belief that conservatives are also likely to be corrupt; but those things don’t really have anything to do with conservatism per se, only with the nonpartisan tendency of power to corrupt and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.

On the other side is Mamet’s stand-in for a “liberal.” The key term for her is that she’s “utopian” (though her being a lesbian is surely frosting on the cake for Mamet). And again, though utopianism fits the stereotype of the left, it’s an intellectual flaw that knows no boundaries. Hitler, among other things, was certainly a utopian (and certainly not a liberal).

So Mamet has allowed himself to be confused by the surface ephemera of cultural stereotypes, has embodied them in his play’s characters, and has then analyzed them in his effort to deduce essential truths. It’s no surprise that he’s missed the mark.

Mamet’s conversion is based on his revelation that people, alas, are not generally good at heart. Instead, he says, “people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.” He goes on to say that recognition of this truth of human nature is at the heart of the U.S. Constitution.

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.

Rather brilliant.

I’m in no position to disagree, but this points us towards Mamet’s next essential error. While Mamet is a fan of the separation and more-or-less balancing of powers between the branches of government, his conversion to conservatism (which, though hard to tell for sure from his essay, sounds pretty much like libertarianism) leads him to imply that the “free-market” should be left to itself and the power of government eliminated, or at least mostly so.

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.

But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?

I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own””take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

Let’s ignore the fact that, once again, Mamet is mixing up the metaphors of his reality. When you take away a director, you aren’t just taking away generic “government,” you’re taking away authoritarian government. It might be true that taking away any and all forms of government leads to beautiful theatrical productions, but that’s not a conclusion Mamet can legitimately claim from his example.

Anyhow, Mamet’s bigger confusion is one of scale and it leads him to fall for a bait and switch. Sure, a group of people the size of a bunch of actors and production crew can probably figure out how to behave with one another reasonably well most of the time. “Live and let live” works, mostly, maybe, at the level of neighborhood or community. (Don’t forget, however, that it has often been transformed into “live and let lynch.”) So conservatism/libertarianism might be perfectly reasonable at small scale; to paraphrase Churchill again, this might be the worst political philosophy there is for the small scale of society, except for all the others.

But our world is not as claustrophobic as Mamet’s theatrical in-crowd. We don’t live in one giant small town. And if the separation and balancing of powers makes sense for government, where is Mamet’s desire, post-conversion to “conservatism,” for a balancing of the power of corporations, of the market economy? This is Mamet’s most interesting mistake, in my opinion, because in pointing out the inconsistency of his thinking I’ve realized that the traditional “liberal” response doesn’t hold up well enough for me. Mamet’s bashing of government as leading to not “much beyond sorrow” is the knee-jerk conservative response to failures that are real; and while I think that government is necessary to serve as a balancing power against the whims of the market economy, the frustrations that both conservatives and liberals continuously feel at the state of our society leads me to a further conclusion: this balancing act isn’t working because it’s a two-legged stool. The Constitution balances the powers by splitting them up between three branches. If one branch gets out of hand, the other two–even if only for entirely selfish reasons–will be inclined to join forces to bring the first branch back within proper limits. But it takes three branches to enable such a dynamic.

In our contemporary society, there doesn’t seem to be a third branch of structural power available, not one that I can think of at least. Perhaps once the labor movement served that role. The civil rights movement and other mass social movements might be understood to have functioned as third branches of social power in their times. Nowadays, I don’t see anything filling the role of a third branch. The result, from my “liberal” perspective, is a government largely overrun by the power of the economic sphere. (Of course, it’s not just the “economy” generically speaking that can organize and direct power; it’s the people in elite positions of the economy who can do so.) And when the government has been “suborned” (my thanks to Mamet for that–I was annoyed at first that I had to look up his fancy word, but it’s a good one) by the economy, is it any wonder that so many of the government’s actions appear to lead to sorrow?

So what’s out there to rise up as a new third leg of power, capable of enabling a balancing with government and economy? A revived labor movement might do it, but I’m not holding my breath. Some new social movement, maybe, like that of immigrants or environmentalists. But I think I might be better off buying Bear Stearns stock than putting my hopes in one of those possibilities. Even if such a social movement does arise, what chance does it have to institutionalize itself to remain relevant for more than a few years, a decade or two at the most? What makes it even more unlikely is the fact that institutionalization of social movements seems mostly associated with the demise of their social power, their appropriation into the realms of government and economy, not the maintenance of an independent power structure. How about “the church”? That’s the most likely candidate, but frankly, I’d rather stick with the second-rate status quo than risk going the route of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The only suggestion I’ve heard that might do the trick–and I don’t know that it would–is that of Peter Barnes from his book a year or so ago, Capitalism 3.0 (available in full as a free PDF). In the book, Barnes argues in favor of the establishment of a legally empowered and widespread system of “commons”; that is, resources and organizations held as common property by some relevant group of people, from the level of neighborhood to nation to world. This commons sector wouldn’t replace the market economy and its associated private property (though some resources currently utilized as private property would be converted to common property) and it wouldn’t replace government and its associated public property (though some resources currently utilized as public property would be converted to common property). What makes a commons sector viable, perhaps, as a third leg in balancing the social powers is that it would (as envisioned by Barnes) be institutionalized in a manner that maintains its separate power base from the private property economy and the government. Unlike Mamet, Barnes has no interest in dazzling readers into a state of confusion and irritation, so his writing is clear and pleasant to read. Could the commons be enough to do the trick? Would it truly be robust and resilient over time? I don’t know, but the book is short and sweet, so check it out and see what you think.

Now I want to get back to something I touched on above. One of the ironies of Mamet’s essay is that, partly (though surely not entirely) due to his obnoxious tone of condescension towards all those “brain-dead liberals” he’s left behind in his conversion, the comments in response to the article are filled with back and forth vitriol between offended liberals and conservatives offended at the offended liberals. I tried reading the comments but quickly sickened of the dismissive attitudes that predominated. So here’s the irony: Mamet thinks that people work things out when left to their own devices, just like his utopian theater group that puts on such great plays when liberated from under the thumb of the governing director; and yet his article elicits evidence of exactly the opposite. As I suggested, the theory that people just work things out A-OK might be a good theory to apply to small groups (but then, why so many runaway teenagers? why so many battered wives? why so many suicides?) but, repeating myself, the world is much bigger than that. Our modern world is filled to overflowing with connections, some seen, some hidden, between people near and far, people who not only don’t know one another but don’t even know that the others exist. Farmers in Kansas converting their fields from wheat to corn, in order to cash in on the ethanol boom, are part of a system that results in skyrocketing bread prices in Egypt (and yes, I realize that this example is one in which government plays a leading role in screwing things up, though — does it really need saying? — the US government’s ethanol policy wouldn’t be nearly the disaster that it is if the government weren’t so susceptible to the lobbying efforts of Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and the other agribusiness corporations).

More banal, but experienced by almost anyone reading this missive of mine, is the fact that the anonymity and distance of modern modes of communication, perfectly presented in comments on blogs and other online pages, triggers so very many people to adopt an “act like an asshole first and apologize later, if I feel like it” attitude. It’s neither liberal nor conservative to be bothered by the decay in cultural decency; but Mamet’s self-described conservative preference for just letting it all fix itself leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, sometimes government action exacerbates a problem; sometimes there’s no good solution and leaving things alone is the best available from a set of bad options. But in a world of “people [who] are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests,” does it really make good sense to always and everywhere ask the swine to work their own problems out, regardless of the fact that some but not all of the swine are armed to the teeth, that some but most definitely not all are richer than God, that some revel in their swineness while others care at least to try for a little courtesy and decency and honesty? The answer to a swinish human nature in the realm of government was the balancing of powers. It also seems to me the best answer I’ve encountered for the overall realm of society at large. Balance those powers. Put a leash on the government, absolutely for sure, but also for sure put a leash on the economic powers cuz those pigs will steal the shirt off your back and then smile as they offer to sell it back to you at a special discount, “just for you ;).” For now, at least, that’s the liberalism this zombie is sticking with.


  • Reminds me of the line “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” since according to Churchill’s dictum, I’m regressing in age. The other quote this post reminded me of, regarding Mamet’s conversion:
    “That’s libertarians for you – anarchists who want police protection from their slaves.”
    — Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

    What a great quote from KS Robinson! It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything of his, not because I had any doubts that I’d like it, only lack of time and other things that seemed more pressing. But he is a great one–greater than I had previously realized.