Thursday, March 13, 2008

On David Mamet "Brain-Dead Liberals," and more...

Just to see if we can't get two semi-political bits out of the way at once, let me preface with this: Geraldine Ferraro is absolutely correct about Barack Obama. Her phrasing is crude, her broader logic sloppy, her behavior contemptuous and her motives both shady and disingenuous, but I can't see how she's not basically right at least in the raw text of it. Good guy, demonstrably great politician, but it's fundamentally undeniable that if a caucasian candidate ran the same lighter-than-air feel-good campaign with as little hard experience behind him as Obama has/is he'd never have caught on in the first place in order for us to see these winning political chops of his. This isn't a negative assessment of his character, nor is it even a condemnation of this essential hard truth - maybe the fact that "novelty" has such pull in American politics is ultimately a good thing because it allows guys like him to get noticed up front without having to "play the game" for too long - but it doesn't change the fact that her assesment is correct. Here's the thing, though... Who the hell is Geraldine Ferraro to accuse ANYONE of getting ahead unfairly via identity politics? Pot to kettle: You only conduct heat so well because you're black ;)

Now, then, to David Mamet. The prolific writer/director of theatre and film, a living legend of contemporary American drama if there ever was one, has always been relatively mum about his personal political beliefs. And trying to divine them from his body of work is no easy task given how his political-themed output runs the gamut from cynical government/military conspiracy yarns like "Wag the Dog" and "Spartan" to the corporate-culture tongue-lashing of "Glengarry, Glen Ross" to "Oleanna's" harsh criticism of the "sexual harassment" issue and even the gung-ho macho militarism of his TV series "The Unit." Well, Mamet opts to shed some light on the subject in a March 11th Village Voice essay published under the not-confrontational-at-all title "Why I Am No Longer A 'Brain-Dead Liberal.' "
Link: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0811,374064,374064,1.html

...Yeah. So, the title is basically the writerly equivalent of a character in a kung-fu movie (incidentally, up next from Mamet is the mixed martial-arts action/drama "Redbelt") taking stance and doing that one-handed "c'mere, let's do this!" gesture. But if you read the whole article (do so, it's a tremendously thoughtful peice) it's quickly clear that the important part of that phrase is the QUOTES around "Brain-Dead Liberal." He's most certainly NOT calling all political-liberals to be brain-dead and declaring himself a newly-converted 'conservative' - this is not, thankfully, the sequel to the tragic implosion of Dennis Miller - he's talking almost-exclusively about himself. The theme of the piece is that, in his own view, he had been holding on to certain political ideas as "truths" in a kind of quasi-religious way even though he'd long stopped practicing them or observing them in the world around him... in other words, he's not so much knocking "liberalism" as he is the non-questioning, "brain-dead" way in which he feels he had 'living it.'

This, I think, is something everyone goes through in some way many times in their life - and not always in terms of politics. You get thoroughly wedded to a certain view or opinion and the holding of it becomes something you define yourself by... often to the point that you find yourself still holding it as a kind of "totem" even though if you stop to actually think it out you DON'T really have that conviction anymore. For the longest time, I "hated" Woody Allen movies... basically because most people I knew also disliked them and I hadn't liked them when first exposed. So "I hate Woody Allen movies" was an ever-present part of my psyche, even as I started seeing and liking more of them. It eventually went away at the point when I found myself liking yet another one and saying "I usually hate Woody Allen movies, but..." and had to stop myself and realize "no, you don't. You thought you did, but it's no longer true." Now, doesn't mean I unequivocally LOVE all of his movies, I still dislike the ones I dislike. I'm simply no longer keeping "I hate Woody movies" as an article of faith.

This is being (over)played across the media and blogosphere as a kind of massive shift for the man, but reading the piece it's much less about a man "changing his mind" and more about a general lessening of vehemence that the intelligent usually find in maturity: The over-arching point being that his "brain-dead"-ness manifested itself in broad generalizations about the army ("bad") about the upper-class ("really bad") and about the government intervention ("good") which he is now more comfortable admitting to seeing in shades of gray. I'm not really sure what could be all that controversial about this. Shallow, one-sided, unquestioning zealotry - regardless of what "side" it's on - is mark of the weak-minded. Mamet obvious wants to touch of a discussion here, hence the "c'mere, let's do this thing!" title, but in the end what this comes down to is more of a plea for independent, unbiased thought in a political climate dominated by illusions of cheezy, good-versus-evil partisanship on all sides. If it's really become an "atom bomb" for a guy to declare that he no longer sees things in stark black-and-white or that there are exceptions to everything... we're in more trouble than we know.

As it happens, here's Jeffery Wells reacting with uncharacteristic sobreity over on Hollywood Elsewhere: http://hollywood-elsewhere.com/2008/03/tectonic_mamet.php

And here are the kids at Libertas, engaging in what I'd call a bit too much champagne-popping over the whole matter: http://www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas/?p=9156

What's fairly despicable, however, is what's going on in the "comments" section of the original Village Voice post. Yeah, fine, obviously when you put "Brain-Dead Liberal" in the headline of your essay angry college brats from Huffington Post and Kos with time on their hands are going to flame you - that's at least half the point of doing it. But an uncomfortable number of Mamet's newfound detractors have taken to dropping some geuinely ugly anti-semitism into the mix (Mamet is Jewish and a vocal support of Israel) and that's quite simply disgusting. There's been a small but noteworthy slow-creeping rise in repurposed anti-Jewish vitriol on the farther fringes of the American Left for a few years now, most of it born out of a naive gut-reaction to the Christian Right's cynical make-believe fondness for the Israelis and a well-meaning (but usually similarly naive) over-sympathy for Palestine; and it's one of the uglier parts of politics right now. Rational people should be outraged by this sort of thing, and rational Liberals ought to be ESPECIALLY so because THEY wind up tained-by-association.