"If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all." ~ Virginia Woolf
Dear Mr. Mamet...
Exclusive to STR
To: David Mamet
New York , NY
From: Robert Kaercher
Chicago , IL
Part-Time Writer, Part-Time Actor, Full-Time Working Schmo
Dear Mr. Mamet:
You don't know me, and you probably never will. Back when I was a younger man and a theater student, many of your plays were part and parcel of my education in the dramatic arts. Your Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glenn Ross, as well as American Buffalo, Edmond, Lakeboat . . . I probably saw more scenes from your plays hashed out in my acting and directing classes than your average theatergoer has seen in a lifetime.
But I digress.
The occasion for my writing this little epistle is that I only recently came across your essay, 'Why I Am No Longer A 'Brain-Dead Liberal'', published by The Village Voice on March 11th. The headline captivated me immediately, as that title somewhat describes a shift in my own political ideology that I made several years ago. Following the momentous events of 9/11/01, hungry for some answers, I finally poked my head out of my own little world and came to the realization that we are beset on all sides by political parties who are in the process of expropriating many aspects of our lives'not just here in our own country but around the globe'to satisfy their boundless lust for power. I had come to understand that those neoliberal Democrats, contrary to the belief of many of their disciples, are not so much the defenders of the powerless as they are the intellectual court apologists for the statist system that keeps the powerless in a permanently subordinate position for most of their lives.
But again, I digress.
As I was saying, your essay, e-mailed to me by a good friend, immediately intrigued me by way of its title. I could even appreciate the reference to the economist John Maynard Keynes in the opening paragraphs, though I feel compelled to point out that Keynes was 'twitted' for a lot more than merely 'changing his mind.' His entire economic system was completely discredited by the crisis of inflationary recession, or 'stagflation', in the 1970s, which was brought on by decades of the very policies he recommended. But by then he had met his 'long run' and had been spared the bitter fruits of his own misguided economic philosophy.
But enough idle chit-chat.
Upon reading your essay, I felt a genuine twinge of excitement to discover that you, like me, also had come to affirm the virtues of the free market. As you wrote, '[A] free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with [your] experience than that idealistic vision [you] called liberalism.' And to that, all I can do is tip my hat.
I have to say, however, that my initial enthusiasm for your conversion was ultimately tempered by confusion.
Please allow me to elaborate.
Here is what you described as your previously 'brain-dead liberal' view:
'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 . . . . This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.'
After changing your mind and adopting the 'free market' view that you describe as holding that 'people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way,' you say you reached this conclusion:
'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.'
Well, no, things are not always wrong in our country. There is much peaceful, voluntary exchange and cooperation between people in pursuit of their own ends, such as you perhaps observe in your local community. To the extent that this nearly anarchistic, fruitful spontaneous order goes on each and every day is most definitely what is right about this country. But coming from an artist who has previously had much to say about the human condition and now embraces the idea of a free market, I find it rather odd that upon your switch you, a dramatist, feel compelled to declare that everything is 'not always wrong.'
There is something you should probably be aware of:
WE DO NOT HAVE A FREE MARKET.
You see, you should really give your formerly liberal 'brain-dead' self more credit: Government often is corrupt, and in our very unfree state-capitalist system, many businesses are exploitative, specifically Big Business, which has always maintained a cozy and privileged relationship with the state, and yes, people are generally good at heart in their daily dealings with one another, but they're having a hell of a time staying good and doing the right things when those with a lust for power are stomping the boot of the corporate-state complex on their faces.
I daresay that it is not immediately apparent that you grasp this.
In your essay, you praise that quaint piece of parchment the United States Constitution, which very few government officials have ever taken seriously. Yes, the separation of powers and the strict limitations on government would be quite nice, sir, except for one little chink in that scheme: The 'swine''that is, the politically powerful'can just simply ignore it, even as they sing its praises. That's the thing about a so-called 'social contract', even if we stretch our imaginations far enough to grant it any legitimacy: those with the monopoly power to enforce it will always have the upper hand and nothing can stop them from exploiting that power for their own ends at the expense of others not so privileged. You're right, 'greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money' these days, but those qualities so common to the parasitic ruling elite can never be reigned in by any government's 'compact' with its subjects. Contrary to the constraints you believe the Constitution is able to place on government, the chief executive does 'work to be king,' the Congress is 'sell[ing] off the silverware,' and the judiciary is behaving like 'Olympian' gods.
But I should say the following is what confused me the most.
You ask yourself, in your piece, how then can people work out their interpersonal affairs without government intervention? This is a very good and complex question, and one that some learned scholars have grappled with extensively, scholars who have dedicated their lives to reasoning out how a society without any government at all would function. Your own answer to your question is quite a simple one, but it is one that quite misses the mark.
For your answer is that 'we just seem to.' How do 'we just seem to'? By reaching 'a solution acceptable to the community'a solution the community can live with.'
With all due respect, sir, if you are truly interested in promoting the ideas of free markets'which I hope you are, considering that we do not have free markets in this country at present and not many high profile scribes such as yourself to defend the free market ideal'you'll need something a bit sturdier on which to hang your free market hat than 'a solution the community can live with.'
Consider: What if the community decides that the 'acceptable' solution is a very large, cumbersome, costly bureaucratic monopoly that regulates and polices all economic transactions? What protest could you offer to this very palpable threat to the free market you claim to uphold? I submit that you could not protest at all, for to do so would be to abrogate your own principle of finding 'a solution the community can live with.' If they can 'live with' a totalitarian regime, who are you to say otherwise based on the standard you yourself profess?
I see in your essay that you have been reading Thomas Sowell and the late Milton Friedman. These gentlemen have had a lot of good things to say, but I would suggest that you acquaint yourself with the writings of the late Murray Rothbard, perhaps the most consistently free market of all free market intellectuals. His counsel to those who desired laissez-faire was that they develop a 'passion for justice.'
A passion for justice. Now, if your community is willing to recognize the objective principles of justice, I should say you then have in place a considerable amount of the ethical foundation necessary for the free market to flourish in said community. If, however, your community does not find justice 'acceptable,' or if they decide justice is something they cannot 'live with,' then it may be time to 'vote with your feet,' as they say, before you find that your freedom has been completely usurped. This may strike you as hyperbole, but history has shown on many occasions that the road to hell is paved with the margin between objective principles of justice and that which is 'acceptable' to the community.
But I believe I know why I find so much of your essay somewhat confusing.
In it, you say you began contemplating such matters while composing your latest play, November, which you say is about a fictional U.S. president who is quite corrupt and venal (not much of a dramatic stretch there), and his 'leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.' It is ultimately a 'disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view.' It is this dualistic paradigm and your conception of what constitutes 'conservative' and 'liberal,' I think, that has led you a bit astray. It also appears to have emasculated your worldview, and accordingly your art, if I may be so blunt.
You appear to have conflated being pro-free market with being 'conservative.' Now it's true that there are many free market types who have a kind of 'conservative' streak running through them in that they are social traditionalists to some degree or other, but it doesn't necessarily follow that all self-described conservatives support the free market. Oh, sure, their rhetoric will strike many of the right laissez-faire chords, but when you go looking for the proof, you often find that the pudding is lacking all the necessary ingredients. Just look at the record of the current U.S. president, himself a self-described conservative who has enjoyed the support of many other conservatives: Bigger government, more socialized medicine, and now a massive takeover of virtually the entire financial services sector by the government-chartered central bank, the Federal Reserve System.
There is nothing 'free market' about such policies.
And wars, Mr. Mamet. This conservative president has given us wars. At least one of which was instigated for no good reason, now costing us trillions, not to mention the immeasurable, unquantifiable costs in loss of human life. Contrary to the view of some who purport to favor the free market, there is absolutely nothing 'free market' about war at all. Nor has any government's war ever comported with those principles of justice I had raised earlier.
So rather than simply shrugging your shoulders and merely stating that government and corporations can't be perfect because, after all, nobody's perfect, and merely resigning yourself to them as 'different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups,' concluding that as far as you're concerned, things are 'unfolding pretty well,' perhaps you will be able to find it in yourself to write something of this very real and, it seems to me, fairly obvious lack of liberty.
After all, as an artist with a newfound zeal for free markets, you are first and foremost concerned with liberty and freedom, aren't you? I would hope so. You can't have markets that are 'free' if individuals are not. I implore you to think long and hard about that, if you have not already. Frankly, it's not immediately clear that you have.
Well, this little missive of mine has gone on much longer than I anticipated. Such verbosity is often my weakness. But please understand that I write this as someone who has previously admired your work, and is somewhat concerned with this tendency of yours to confuse 'free markets' with the status quo and conclude that everything's working out okay. Things most definitely are not 'unfolding pretty well.' Rather than writing a banal drawing room comedy set in the White House involving a corrupt president and his walking stereotype of a utopian socialist speechwriter coming to a 'human understanding of the political process' while doing battle with some noxious 'turkey lobby,' you should be writing something along the lines of a Thomas Paine or a Lord Acton. You should seek to be the American theater's equivalent of a modern day Benjamin Tucker, with a fire in your belly and a passion for proclaiming the truth. For justice.
Think about it this way: What plays would Shakespeare have written if he had adopted the view in his own time that things were 'unfolding pretty well'? Do you honestly think we would still remember him as we do, nearly four centuries after his death?
In this day and age, the non-existent free market needs all the friends it can get. It's important that we try our utmost to get the ideas right if we ever want to see them become a reality.