Apostasy Now!

In his trenchent dissection of Christopher Hitchens’ conversion from Trotskyite leftist to neoconservative apologist for American imperialism, Norman Finkelstein notes that political apostasy always seems to turn in one direction–to the right, which happens to be where the power is: “The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power’s magnetic field, rarely away. However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to ‘see the light,’ the impetus behind political apostasy is–pardon my cynicism–a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly pleasures.” (Finkelstein, “Fraternally yours, Chris.”)

David Mamet’s recent announcement of his own apostasy (“Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal” Village Voice, Mar. 11, 2008) has little of the fanfare that surrounded Hitchens’ hitching of his caboose to the Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz train, just before it disappeared over the cliff and into the abyss of Iraq, but it does confirm Finkelstein’s observation, in his Hitchens’ piece, that political apostasy in American culture is less about a revolution in principle than about the absence of any principle at all. Mamet’s new conservatism revolves around the same center of gravity that shaped his former brain-dead liberalism–his ego–and thus represents less a change of heart than a repackaging of his vanity in a more attractive, if not more lucrative, get-up.

It’s hard to miss the real subject of Mamet’s latest advertisement for himself: after citing Norman Mailer’s critical about-face on Waiting for Godot, Mamet begins his article with two entirely gratuitous paragraphs about a prize he once won for writing “the world’s most perfect theatrical review” for New York Magazine. He then proceeds to write an entirely favorable, if not perfect review of his own very theatrical sense of self-congratulation, suggesting that the sham political stance that Mamet has now discarded was less an adherence to a certain set of principles, or even doctrine, than the calculated pose of an ambitious young careerist who pantomimed the opinions of his peers in the manner of a young trophy wife taking a superficial interest in her mogul husband’s hobbies and business ventures. “When in Rome. . .” could have been Mamet’s career-defining mantra while he was weighing his Hollywood options.

While never a keen observer of politics, young Mamet was undoubtedly shrewd enough to notice that his chosen vocation, with its poor at best prospects for financial success and its roots in revolutionary social movements, was hardly hospitable terrain for the conservative viewpoint. He might have bristled at its “fey” conventions, striking the occasional “maverick” pose by admitting to his misogyny and his “liberal” use of the F bomb, but he was content it seemed, to align himself with his left leaning peers, no doubt daunted by the critical fall out that would ensue had he pursued his long held dream of re-working Beckett into a vehicle for Jerry Bruckheimer.

That the author of a body of work best summed up as “Penis Monologues” is not only a dick head, but a paid shill for neo-con cause shouldn’t come as any real surprise for anyone who has seen “The Unit”, Mamet’s prime time wet kiss to US military interventions, and the highly trained grunts who commit its most egregious abuses, with the added twist of focusing in part on the wives holding down the fort as their menfolk battle evil-doers and the neglected household chores that await them after each mission.

Mamet’s rather unspectacular public denouement of his former political stance has all the controversy of Paris Hilton announcing that her next career move involves a stripper’s pole. His conversion to the “dark side’ should hardly elicit shock to anyone who doesn’t define a political ideology to a set of superficial lifestyle choices and the casually formed, inconsistent opinions one develops in the course of a lifetime devoted to non-thinking. Even low-rent turncoat David Horowitz could lay claim to an element of surprise in his public apostasy stunt, had his irrelevance not gotten in the way of an otherwise lucrative career “outing” academics and baiting Muslims.

In summary–and it’s very easy to summarize–Mamet’s transformation from “brain dead liberal” to mature, thoughtful conservative is based on the following clichés:

As a “child of the ’60s,” the “liberal” Mamet assumed that the government was corrupt, that big business exploits human beings in the name of profit, and that “people are generally good at heart.”

At some point, Mamet’s wife helped him (although it’s not at all clear how, or why), as they were riding in their car, to the realization that he was a “brain-dead liberal,” and that “NPR” (i.e., National Public Radio”) really stands for “National Palestinian Radio.” (Note: The reference to Palestinians, and the bizarre implication that the mass media is biased in favor of the Palestinians, and therefore, in the minds of the brain-dead, “anti-Semites,” is not pursued in Mamet’s essay; rather, it dangles awkwardly in the wind, like a smelly sock.) At that moment, Mamet understood the essence of the liberal position–“that everything is always wrong”–and it conflicted with his growing sense that everything is not wrong, indeed, lots of stuff is quite right as rain!

As if to demonstrate the profound truth of this life-transforming insight, Mamet proceeds with an enumeration of various matters that seem, from his perspective, good and righteous about America, but there is something unsettling about his list of things that aren’t totally fucked up–perhaps because the list might as well have been cribbed from a high-school freshman’s civics homework.

For example, Mamet helpfully observes, the Constitution establishes a separation of powers, and that’s a good, no, a “brilliant” thing (when it isn’t being subverted by our President with the rubber-stamp endorsement of both houses of Congress); similarly, the current President isn’t really all that bad, and not all that different from Presidents Mamet used to admire when he was still brain-dead; and, “the Corporations” (Mamet’s quotation marks–as if now, now that he’s grown up, any reference to corporate greed and exploitation is necessarily tongue-in-cheek) can’t really be so terrible because, after all, they satisfy Mamet’s “hunger for those goods and services they provide” (emphasis added).

The newly matured and brain-functional Mamet realizes that just as corporations are actually A-OK, so he was mistaken in believing that people are pretty good overall. Unlike corporations and the military, he now sees that people, in general, “behave like swine”–greedy, lustful, duplicitous, and corrupt.

Finally, Mamet, having outgrown his youthful brain-dead innocence and embraced a healthy, mature skepticism, describes how he began to “question” his youthful distrust of the “Big Bad Military” which is, after all, made up of soldiers “who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world”–such as, presumably, Iraq’s fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction–and concludes his list of feel-good juvenile clichés and slogans with the rather bizarre but no less juvenile, nonsensical and entirely empty observation that the government, the military and the corporations (this time, sans initial capitalization or quotation marks; this time, he really means it!) “are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will.” What? ­No, I won’t.

Mamet asks (rhetorically), and answers (rhetorically):

“Are these groups [What “groups”? The government working group and the corporation working group? Are we including the military focus group?] infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, but neither are you or I.”

Take that, you brain-dead liberals!

After gotten over the “Hey, nobody’s perfect!” intellectual hump, Mamet is ready to unleash the full force of his apostastic climax, the lynch pin of his transformation:

“things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.”

Ergo, you’d have to be “brain-dead” to think otherwise. (One wonders if Mamet was listening to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, By Happy” as he worked on his essay.)

One of the more disturbing aspects of Mamet’s mini-confession is that despite having evolved beyond his liberal brain-dead state, he still seems deeply confused about some pressing issues of political principle, such as how liberals and conservatives are supposed to think of government, i.e., whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

On page two of his essay, Mamet recalls that during his brain-dead phase, he “accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt” But on page three, he seems to remember the opposite:

“What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing”

This volte-face raises the question: Has the brain truly recovered?

In any event, and regardless how Mamet may or may not have thought of government during his early vegetable years, now he knows better: the government “should not intervene”! That is a sign-post of maturity, the mark of a man who isn’t brain-dead!

Mamet conceives of his life–and therefore, your life, all lives–as a kind of balance sheet, every event and idea falling either in the credit or the debit column, depending on how it affects David Mamet. Add up the respective totals in each column, and you can find out what you really think, about politics or anything else, for that matter:

“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 of where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.” (I’m sure the Iraqis, the Afghanis and the Palestinians would be the first to agree with the formerly brain-dead sage on this, but that doesn’t affect David Mamet, so it doesn’t count.)

But if the government doesn’t intervene, Good Lord!, how will us ordinary folks possibly survive or, like David Mamet, prosper?

Mamet’s answer is Zen-like in its simple-mindedness:

“I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to.”

To “work it all out,” that is. Get by. Deal with it. Do OK–for a while at least, until we’re dead. That’s it. I’m OK–You’re OK.

Mamet doesn’t identify the ideology (“Brain-Addled Conservatism”?) has replaced his brain-dead liberalism, and his essay provides no insight. He does say that at about the same time as his fateful car ride with his wife (the “National Palestinian Radio ride”), he began reading Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell, whom he absurdly refers to as “our greatest contemporary philosopher” (as if to announce to the world that he’s never read any philosophy and isn’t interested in the subject). These authors have led Mamet to what he calls “a free-market understanding of the world,” which he prefers to “that idealistic vision I called liberalism.”

One might expect the author to conclude with at least some explanation of why the free-market vision “meshes more perfectly with [Mamet’s] experience” than the idealistic vision, but one would be disappointed in that regard: the reference to “free markets,” like the reference to “National Palestinian Radio,” leads nowhere.

All of which leads to the conclusion that Mamet hasn’t really “changed his opinion,” as he announces at the outset. Rather, one has the sense that politics doesn’t really interest Mamet at all, and perhaps never has, at least as politics is generally understood, namely, as a rational conversation regarding what principles of political philosophy ought to govern our understanding of the world and how the world might be improved.

Perhaps during Mamet’s brain-dead phase, he was a “liberal” according to Rush Limbaugh’s caricature, that is, someone who resents the success of others, expresses that resentment as a phony appeal to the “common good,” and is all to happy to repudiate the notion of a “common good,” and thus “liberalism,” as soon as he or she achieves sufficient material success to replace resentment with self-satisfaction. This sort of thing happens often enough, but why take the next step of trying to justify to the world one’s decision to sell out, as if the world is to blame, always and inevitably in the form of an all too public announcement that one has finally “grown up”?

In David Mamet’s case, I don’t believe it for a minute.

Stella Dallas can be reached at lout1956@gmail.com

Jennifer Matsui can be reached at: jenmatsui@mac.com