I had always assumed that the playwright David Mamet was, as he describes himself, “a brain-dead liberal.” But, lo! it is the season of Easter, miracles are abroad, and Mamet, in the pages of The Village Voice no less, reveals himself to have undergone a political metanoia. Describing the plot of his new play, November, now at the Barrymore Theater in New York, Mamet notes that it revolves around 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.” The play, you’ll understand from this characterization, is a comedy.
Mamet’s account of his achievement of what a friend of mine calls “political maturity” is noteworthy. It is a chrysalis-to-butterfly evolution I’ve witnessed often in intelligent people of good will and sound instincts. “I took the liberal view for many decades,” Mamet admits, “but I believe I have changed my mind.”
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.”
This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.
But in my life, a brief review revealed, everything was not always wrong, and neither was nor is always wrong in the community in which I live, or in my country. Further, it was not always wrong in previous communities in which I lived, and among the various and mobile classes of which I was at various times a part.
How often I have felt that smile-tightening, fist-clenching, epithet-spouting anger rising up when confronted with NPR. (The New York Times has a similar effect on me: it’s gotten to the point where even its typeface sets me on edge; a glimpse of their logo is enough to make me change seats on the train.) What is it about NPR? I’ve often wondered. Do they send their commentators to a special elocution class where they learn to inject an emetic combination of smugness and pseudo-concern into every syllable? Does anyone really enjoy listening to the non-dulcet strains of Robert Siegel or Noah Adams or Cokie Roberts? Just typing the names makes me break out in a slight sweat as that horrible jingle that accompanies “All Things Considered” starts echoing in my memory.
In fact, the sound effects of the show, from the timbre of the announcers’ voices on down, are one of the most repellent things about it (apart from the content). Particularly loathsome, I’ve always thought, is NPR’s method of treating the exotic. You know, they send a reporter and sound crew to some godforsaken country where Something Bad Has Happened (usually, we’re meant to understand, because of something the United States is alleged to have done, or failed to do) and start recording the chickens and goats running around in the village where 85 percent of the population under 15 has just been massacred or something. Your hear the chickens and goats in the background, then the NPR reporter comes on, explaining that Geewampimubba is a 37-year-old unemployed cripple whose . . . well, you know. That’s bad enough. But the fiendishly horrible bit is yet to come. For the next thing you know, the poor fellow is chattering on in his native language while, with a few seconds’ delay, an NPR translator give it to you in English. Even thinking about it makes me feel sick.
So I know what Mr. Mamet means about NPR. Here’s a quick association-test. I say: “Garrison Keillor.” Admit it: the very name makes you feel queasy, doesn’t it? It does me. That cringe-making folksiness; dulcimers; powder-milk biscuits. . . . Stop! They don’t do this in Gitmo: why is the American public subjected to such torture every week?
But I digress. NPR does that to me. But David Mamet’s political maturation involves more than NPR. By his own account, it has involved a revolution in the way he regards–well, just about everything, including the United States and its place in the world.
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; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.
For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.
To that end, the Constitution separates the power of the state into those three branches which are for most of us (I include myself) the only thing we remember from 12 years of schooling.
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. For, in the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings in Washington doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.
And remember, you’re reading this from the pages of The Village Voice. Will it, I wonder, be the last time David Mamet appears in its pages? Mamet’s awakening brought him to a new clarity about other matters, too: about “corporations,” for example, “hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live,” or the “‘Bad, Bad Military’ of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world,” or the free market: “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.”
It’s an amazing, a heartening, apologia. It gives one faith in human nature. It may not, this side of paradise, be perfectible, but it is educable.