Monday, June 27, 2011

Work and labor

I In response to a recent post, Grim made the following comment:

Hannah Arendt has an interesting account of just this distinction in The Human Condition, where she calls the distinction (roughly) labor v. work. The laborer is doing tasks that must be endlessly repeated; the worker is crafting lasting features of the world that enrich and improve our life for the long term.

The problem she identifies -- rightly -- is that "work" in the current era has lost its linear quality for most people. The woman who goes to the corporation is probably engaged in just as circular a behavior as the woman who cares for the children: she is producing not a lasting feature of the world, but a good or a service that will be consumed as quickly as the food the caretaker creates for the babies.

In that case, the question becomes merely "which sort of labor do you prefer?" The opportunities for work are at this point limited -- she thought -- almost exclusively to artists. They alone still have the opportunity to produce work of lasting value; and there is therefore no reason to weight the labor of the corporate worker above the labor of the mother or caretaker.

I disagree with the substance of this argument. First of all, there was no golden age when most people did “work” in the linear sense as she describes it. For most of history “labor” was the reality for the vast majority of the population. (Actually “backbreaking toil” would be more accurate for many of them.) Farming, fishing, baking, shoeing horses, serfing, maiding: whatever people did, few of them were “crafting lasting features of the world that enrich and improve our life for the long term.” What most of them were doing was performing tasks that enabled them, their families, and their communities to stay alive. Avoiding a miserable life through, and a premature death from, malnutrition and deprivation can be considered “linear” in the most basic sense of the word but it is not a form of creation akin to that Arendt ascribes to the artist.

It has been fashionable for a while to think there is something particularly soulless about being the guy who tightens Bolt 16 on Line Q in a car plant but I find it hard to believe that’s any more soulless than being the third footman in a house with fifty servants. One of the big differences is that the guy on the assembly line makes enough money to get married, buy a decent house, take an occasional vacation, and - linearly - get his kids the kind of education that can make them line supervisors - or maybe even CEOs. (Or, to take an example from Atlas Shrugged, provides him with enough money to indulge his taste in music.) Thus the assembly line work, like the earlier work I discuss in the first paragraph, is a way to avoid a miserable life and premature death. Money - being paid for doing circular work - provides the linearity. The task may be circular but the worker’s life is more than the work and, therefore, can be linear.

If we take a look at this in terms of “women’s work”, we see that for a very long time the work women did was just as crucial to keeping themselves, their family, and their communities alive. Whether it was strictly “house” work - cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, weaving, and so on - or whether they worked alongside their relatives outside the house - sowing, reaping, baking, tending bar - their efforts were crucial to survival. Hence they experienced the same bedrock linearity that men did.

If we look at the era where the menfolk had moved into the factories, women’s work was still crucial. They were not bringing in a salary like their male relatives but there was still cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, and so on to do (weaving not so much). But the very items made in those factories made the domestic tasks easier and less time-consuming and so women’s work became less and less crucial for family survival. Could women make family life nicer and nicer? Of course. But humans know the difference between bedrock necessity and pleasant frills. And I believe most humans - men and women - want to feel essential. Even the women’s work we so admire, the craft that approaches art - embroidery, quilting, weaving, sewing, candle-making, canning - was originally done in order to survive. Once it became inessential it became a hobby, rather like hunting for food. It’s not that the results of hunting and the results of quilting aren’t useful; it’s that they aren’t essential to survival any longer. In contrast, the factory worker’s efforts are essential to survival, not directly but through the paycheck he receives.

In other words, the reason to weight the “labor” of the factory worker above the “labor” of the mother or caretaker is money. The factory worker is paid and so is essential to keeping himself, his family, and his community alive; the mother and caretaker are not, at least in the immediate sense. Yes, the mother performs a crucial role: it’s extremely difficult for a single working person to raise children. But it is not impossible: after all, if the mother dies or runs off with the milkman, the working father can hire child care. His children will almost certainly not be raised as well; his house will probably be a mess; and it’s not a desirable way to live. But it is possible.

Now let’s imagine it is the father, the factory worker who dies or runs off with the barmaid. The mother and children are left with no income which means no roof over their head, no food on their table, no clothes on their backs. What options did the mother have before the Feminist changes of the last forty years? Perhaps she could live with her relatives or her husband’s relatives but if she and her husband had moved to a city so he could work those relatives could well be far, far away. Perhaps she could rely on charity or some type of public relief. Or perhaps she could get a job. That would leave her children in the same position they would be in if their mother died - unsupervised while their only living parent worked. The difference is that the amount of money a single mother could make all those years ago was almost certainly less than the amount of money a single father could make. She would be lucky to keep a roof over her children’s head and food on the table; making enough to hire someone to watch them was extremely unlikely. So her children would be worse off if their father died than if their mother died.

That’s why the labor of the factory worker - of anyone who is allowed to take the most gainful employment he can find and is paid the prevailing wage for doing so - is weighted above the labor of a mother or caretaker. Work for which one is paid and paid as well as possible is work which is fungible. Fungibility means survival and opens up the possibility of linearity.

A more interesting question is why so many people besides Arendt are convinced there is something particularly distasteful about the kind of work we currently do to keep ourselves alive compared to the kind of work we used to do to keep ourselves alive. Why is working forty hours a week in a safe, clean environment considered much worse than working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week to make a living farming? Or worse than being on call twenty-four hours a day six days a week as a servant on a large estate?

I suspect this has to do with a number of things. First, we compare the guy screwing the bolt on the assembly line not with the third footman or the subsistence farmer but with the reasonably prosperous innkeeper and small artisan, forgetting that there were only so many innkeeper and small artisan positions open. That is, we compare the most boring of today with the most interesting of yesterday. Second, we think of yesterday’s toil as taking place in an atmosphere of community. There is some truth to this but not as much as we think. Again, the innkeeper and the artisan existed in communities; the subsistence farmer might or might not; the third footman did but was subject to dismissal which could mean literal starvation. Third, we may have lost the connection between our jobs and our survival. If we lose our jobs, we don’t starve, our families don’t starve, and our communities - at least immediately - don’t starve.

Fourth, we burden our jobs with a lot of expectations. In Robert Delderfield’s wonderful novel, To Serve Them All My Days, one of the characters talks about the difference between someone who is dedicated to his work and someone for whom a job is simply a way to earn some money and keep boredom at bay. The former is admirable but the latter is more common - and should be perfectly acceptable.

Similarly, many years ago I heard a radio interview with an author; unfortunately, I no longer remember the author’s name or the name of his book. His point, however, was that for most people a job is a job - their life is what happens during the 128 hours a week they aren’t working. He believed we’d be much happier if we could remember that, do our jobs, and enjoy our lives, rather than expect forty hours of work to provide us with meaning, enjoyment, and a sense of higher purpose.

This is the flip side of a job being what keeps us and our families and communities alive. When jobs were what we needed to survive, we didn’t expect more from them than survival. Now that we don’t need them to survive, we see them as optional and so demand more from them.

Expecting our jobs to provide meaning, enjoyment, and a sense of higher purpose may also be an example of a more general phenomenon: We all seem to expect to live exceptional lives. No one, it seems, is content with a quiet, decent life, lived honestly and as happily as possible and composed of honorable employment, family ties, religious, charitable, and/or civic obligations, and pleasant recreation. Instead, everyone wants to be rich, famous, notorious, and - most of all - spectacularly meaningful. Perhaps this is something new that has arisen as a result of radio, television, and subsequent media, all of which somehow make an exceptional life seem a possibility for each of us. Or perhaps the urge to be exceptional - and seen as exceptional - has always existed in human beings but in times past most of us were forced to face the impossibility of it whereas now it seems attainable enough to become a goal. And a goal, unfortunately, that takes time, energy, and contentment away from what is truly possible and truly rewarding.

Hmm. It sounds like I’m on the way to talking myself out of blogging again, doesn’t it?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the left, three paces behind

[Language warning for some quoted material]

Susannah Breslin writes about her female ghetto (via Deafening Silence):

I’ve grown to sort of cringe at the idea of this blog being lumped in with ForbesWoman. Working the woman angle is a double-edged sword. Would I have been hired to blog for if I weren’t a woman? I don’t know. Does being put in a female ghetto make my skin crawl? Sometimes.

Here’s the way I’ve been thinking of it lately. Yes, women bloggers at Forbes write about all kinds of things. Celebrities. Wealth. Work. Life. You name it, there’s a post on it. But there are also a lot of posts working the “being a woman” angle. What it’s like to be a CEO and a woman. What it’s like to work and be a woman. What it’s like to be an entrepreneur and a woman.

I looked but I did not find the section called ForbesMan in which men write a lot of blog posts about what it’s like to be a CEO and a man, what it’s like to work and be a man, what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and a man. Men take their CEO/work/entrepreneur status and write about that, not their genitals’ relationship to that.

I’m sort of over relating my crotch to my place in the world. Didn’t we do this already?

This type of female ghetto is akin to what Reclusive Leftist describes here:

In a patriarchal society, men are the default humans. Women are the sex class. They are defined in terms of their relationship to the default humans, the men: whether as daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, or potential mates. This definition is automatic and fundamental. A woman’s femaleness—and thus her sexual potential—is, in a patriarchy, always uppermost. A man can be a doctor, but a woman is a lady doctor. A man can be a lawyer, but a woman is a lady lawyer. A man can be a student, but a woman is a coed (which by definition means “a female student,” from the coeducation of the sexes). A man is addressed as Mr., regardless of his marital status, but a woman’s title is dependent on her relationship to a man: Miss if unmarried, Mrs. if married. No matter what else a woman might be, she is always first and foremost a member of the sex class.

This remains true to a large extent even in a late-stage transitional patriarchy like our own. But to get a fuller flavor of how it works, watch old 1960s TV shows. Watch Star Trek [snip] She can’t just be a human going about her business, because she’s a woman. The sex angle isn’t optional. Women are the vagina animals, and one way or another, their vaginas are always the story.

I do not buy this as totally as RL but I think there is more truth to it than I like. The above quote is from RL’s denunciation of Anthony Weiner in which she cites part of a post by Sherry Wolf (I’ve quoted slightly different parts of it here but do read the whole thing):

Weiner is a posterguy for misogyny in its postmodern form. What else can we call a man incapable of sustaining a serious political interaction with a woman without steering the relationship toward the sexual?


When men act like this toward women, it’s not flattering, it’s demeaning. Accounts of how he met the recipients of his lascivious tweets are telling. The women made political comments on his Facebook wall, often about health care policy or the dangers of the far right. After initially engaging them in political chatter, he’d degenerate suddenly, and from all accounts without solicitation, into sexual come-ons.

There are two interesting and related paths to pursue from here. The first is the unshakable conviction among most Left-leaning and, I think, Independent women that the Democrats are the party that supports women, the non-sexist party, the Feminist party. I believe that this conviction persists because the Democratic Party is a staunch supporter of unrestricted abortion. Somehow support for on-demand abortion has become both a necessary and a sufficient definition of Feminism. So necessary and so sufficient that nothing else matters. That’s the only explanation that makes sense to me because the evidence against giving the Democratic Party credit for being truly pro-woman or truly Feminist is piled to the rafters.

Read Reclusive Leftist on the misogyny of the Obama wing of the Democratic Party when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were fighting for the nomination in 2008 - and how that misogyny was redeployed against Sarah Palin. Read Anglachel on the Blogger Boyz and their behavior during the same contest. (She doesn’t have an overarching category I can direct you to, but try searching for “Palin” or “Hillary” or “blogger boyz”.). Enjoy Matt Taibbi expressing his glee at the great porn films that will result from a Michele Bachman Presidential run. And then read Little Miss Attila on American Sharia:

If you are giving women and girls the “gift” of not being badgered for being female, and threatened with misogyny and sexual assault, they are not truly free—only living in a state of grace, contingent upon performing the right tricks, spouting leftist verbiage like seals at Sea World, balancing balls on their noses in the hopes of getting fish thrown into their mouths.

And that quote brings us to the other path worth pursuing after reading Wolf on Weiner: the Left’s insistence that the women in its ranks must be Leftists first and Feminists second (or third or fourth or whenever it’s not too inconvenient for the Left’s agenda). Wolf’s post was a dead accurate analysis of Weiner’s behavior. But Wolf got some pushback and so she wrote a second post which hedged just a little but still maintained her central point:

Some of the women he sexted and engaged with in photo philandering were happy to flirt with him. Fine, whatever two (or six) adults engage in willingly among themselves is up to them.

Though I would remind readers, he didn’t meet these women we’ve read about via dating or other such sites, but through his professional cyber presence. My article simply elucidates a point of view regarding his inability to take women seriously as intelligent beings.

Yes, we are all sexual beings, just not with everyone we encounter 24/7 in person or online.

Then she got more pushback and wrote a third post (emphasis mine):

In sum, Weiner probably did act like a pig with some women, but the sources are suspect and the story has now blown out of all proportion. I do think there’s a reason why many leftists like myself still think Weiner’s behavior doesn’t pass the sniff test and are quick to respond so bitterly. A lifetime of experiences of dismissive and demeaning behavior from men in positions of power gets your hackles up. Nonetheless, I’ve no interest in undermining a fight for sexual liberation by feeding into this scandal, such as it is.

Wolf called this third post “Radicals Debating the Weiner Scandal”. She should have called it, “Lining up with the Left on sexuality is more important than Feminism”. Too bad she didn’t read the final two paragraphs of that post in which Reclusive Leftist approvingly cites Wolf’s first post on Weiner (emphasis in original):

I’m writing this because I’m sick of people pretending that sexual harassment isn’t any kind of offense at all. As a feminist, I want women to be able to walk through the world as something more than just fuck receptacles accompanied by a bluesy sax track. And I’m sick of alleged “progressives” dismissing that as prudery or fainting-couch hysteria.

It’s not. It’s feminism.



When I link to a post, I don’t normally recommend reading the comments to that post; in fact, I don’t usually read the comments myself. In the case of Sherry Wolf’s three posts, however, I highly recommend the comments.

Leftists Support Gay-Bashing Palestinians in Effort to Eradicate Gay-Friendly Israel - This is about subordinating gay rights rather than Feminism to a core Left issue but the idea is the same.

Green Consciousness on Reclusive Leftist - I just found this blog, pretty much by accident. I can’t really recommend it - it’s too off-the-wall for me - but I was floored by the blogger’s absolute support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the first blog I’ve encountered that is vociferously Feminist and quite Leftist yet matter of factly supports the wars because they’re being fought against those who oppress women. I reference it here because on reflection it’s surprising that I find that combination surprising.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On reading Mamet(2): Feminism and birth control

[This is an unsourced essay. That is, it is not based on research or larded with links. Rather it is written based on my (perhaps rather odd) view of what has happened in my lifetime. Not my usual style but not, I would argue, an approach wholly without merit.]

As I said in my previous post, I’m reading David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture and I have a serious quarrel with Mamet’s list of bad “Good Ideas”:

Our current societal (as opposed to cultural) development is burdened by the presence of "Good Ideas." These ideas are called Good not because their implementation has led to the betterment of life, but in homage to the supposed goodwill and and intellectual status of their instigators. Examples will come to mind based up the individual reader’s political or moral complexion, but, for the purposes of illustration in this essay, they may be said to include feminism, birth control, “diversity”, free love, and the profusion of “countercultural” innovations spawned in the 1960s.

As I said, I do not believe either feminism or birth control belong on this list (for very different reasons) and I wrote this post to explain why. After writing it, I had the bright idea to see if Mamet talks more about feminism later in his book (I’m only on page 50) and I found that he does, in fact, have an entire chapter on the topic. I decided to go ahead and post this now (I’ve waxed fairly wroth in it and I do hate to waste a shiny wroth). I’ll re-examine this issue once I’ve read his later chapter.

I’m not entirely sure what Mamet believes is a bad idea about feminism. The idea that women (and men) should be able to choose their vocation and avocation based on interest, ability, and circumstance rather than on genetic configuration? The idea that women and men should receive the same pay for the same work? The idea that a woman should be able to find work that lets her support herself if she chooses not to marry; or she marries and her husband dies - or runs off with his secretary?

Feminism didn’t spring full-blown from the mind of some crazy woman who wanted to upset the apple cart of Western civilization. Feminism was a reaction to a specific set of circumstances:

- Increasing numbers of women were becoming increasingly well-educated.
- In middle-class homes, their domestic efforts were no longer necessary to keep the family’s head above water - that is, tasks like feeding chickens and harvesting crops were not done at all and the amount of time needed to do essential home tasks like shopping, cooking, and cleaning had lessened.
- The divorce rate was climbing, resulting in more women who were left without husbands whether they wanted to be in that position or not. Jokes and movies about men impoverished by alimony aside, a woman could count on her standard of living falling precipitously when her husband left. And, since it was quite possible she would not be able to find reasonably paid employment, she was totally at his mercy financially.
- Women were surviving childbirth, having fewer children, and living longer lives. A woman who married at 22, had her first child at 23, and had three children 2 years apart would be 31 years old when her youngest child entered first grade. She could look forward to about 30 years of “free” time until her husband retired and joined her at home.*

In other words, there was a critical mass of well-educated women looking at decades of life with no essential role to play in keeping the family going. Or, to put it more positively, the desire on the part of women (like men) to be able to choose how they lived their lives intersected with a point in time when such choice appeared possible. Add to this the ideals espoused by the Black civil rights movement and you got the intersection not just of desire and possibility but also of moral imperative. The definition of “men” in “all men are created equal” was once again being rewritten.

In a charming example of unconscious irony, Mamet discusses the novel Lost Horizon as a parable for what is wrong with the Left yet finds no applicability to his dismissal of feminism. In summing up the novel, he says:

Here [on the Mountain] he discovers a perfect land - all its inhabitants are artists and philosophers, there is no disease, a parson can, indeed, live as long as he wishes to; there is no want, the people of the Valley have for millennia devoted themselves to the care, physical, material, and sexual, of the folks on the Mountain. (page 32)

The women who were talented enough to become doctors but were only allowed to become nurses and so spent their working lives supporting the men who were doctors; the women who were talented enough to become corporate executives but were only allowed to become secretaries and so spent their working lives supporting the men who were executives; the women who were talented enough to become lawyers but were only allowed to become paralegals and so spent their working lives supporting the men who were lawyers; the women who were talented enough to work outside the home but were only allowed to become wives and so spent their “working” lives supporting their husbands: how are these different from the people of the Valley?

There is nothing wrong with being a nurse or a secretary or a paralegal or a wife - so long as those positions are chosen rather than being filled by restricting other options. But the simple fact is that before the modern feminist movement, society underpaid and underutilized half of its population in order to prop up the other half. I am at a loss to understand how changing that was a bad idea.

Two very disparate writers have talked about this. Unfortunately, I don’t have either book in front of me so I’m writing from memory but here goes. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagney Taggart leaves her position at the railroad and goes off to live in a cabin. She spends some time doing little other than keeping the cabin clean and shopping for food and cooking it. Very soon, however, she realizes that all those activities are circular: you do them today and tomorrow there is no sign that you’ve done them - and you must repeat them again and again. She longs to return to linear action where what you accomplish today is done and need not be repeated and - most important - provides the foundation for what you will do tomorrow.

In one of her essays, Miss Manners writes of two women each of whom has a small child and both of whom want to work outside the home. One woman gets a job in a corporation and leaves her small child in the care of the second woman. The second woman is now taking care of two small children but she is being paid for it. The work she is doing may be largely circular but what she can do with her income is linear.**

So that’s why I think feminism doesn’t belong on Mamet’s list of “bad ‘Good Ideas’”. Why doesn’t birth control belong there? That’s pretty simple.

First, the idea of birth control is ancient so it can hardly be considered a recently instigated “Good Idea”. Second, effective birth control is not an idea; it’s a scientific fact. To oppose it either you must argue that development of effective birth control should have been strangled in its infancy - and explain who should have the power to do that - or you must argue that women (couples, really) should not be using it even though it exists. If you are going to do the latter then you need to explain why, in which case the idea you consider bad is not birth control but premarital sex, failure to have as many children as physically possible within marriage, sexual activity with no consequences, or something of that sort. It would be interesting to know which of these it is that Mamet considers a bad idea and why.



* I am well aware that a child does not stop needing a parent simply because he has entered first grade. The tricky thing about children in school is that they do not need a parent for most of the day on most weekdays but when they do need a parent they need one immediately. This means our mother whose youngest has entered first grade is in the same position as, say, firemen: sitting around waiting for a call. Although the call may be a matter of life and death, the waiting is insanely boring. And our mother isn’t even doing it in company with others while cooking chili, playing poker, and telling tall tales.

** I understand that raising children is a linear activity, arguably the most important linear activity there is. However, the day to day work of doing so is 99-44/100% circular.



Does the American Family Have a History? Family Images and Realities - An odd little piece from the Digital History site supported by the Department of History and the College of Education at the University of Houston. Distressingly without links for backup, it still provides an interesting look at the history of the family in the United States. I had to read parts of it twice - the events described as taking place in the 1800s sounded a lot like those that took place in the 1900s.

The Surprising Roots of Liberal Nostalgia - From The Wall Street Journal (This is behind the subscription wall. For reasons I don’t begin to understand, I find that if I do a Google search for the name of the article I am almost always presented with a link which enables me to read the whole thing - even when that same link, entered directly, gives me only partial access. Please don’t tell the WSJ about this trapdoor.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On reading Mamet (1): First impressions

I’m reading David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. I’m only up to page 49 and have been seized with an overwhelming desire to write about the book.

The Secret Knowledge is very dense; a lot of the sentences are too long; and there are way, way too many commas.* It’s also quite possibly a brilliant book.

Perhaps the reason I appreciate the book so much is that it expresses coherently things I knew (felt, understood) but could not state clearly enough to satisfy myself, much less communicate to others. It is, as I said, extremely dense so I could easily list a half-dozen major ideas from just the first 49 pages but there are two that stand out for me.

The first idea is this: Everything we want to do and have - as individuals and as a country - costs something. The corollary to this is that we can’t have everything: we must choose. Obviously this implies that at least one thing we must use to pay the cost - money, time, energy, focus - is limited.

... there are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs - money spent on more crossing guards cannot be spent on books. Both are necessary, a choice must be made, and ... this is the Tragic view of life. (page 3)

I imagine most of those who read this idea will think, “Everyone knows that.” Yet while everyone knows it, I’m not sure any of us have thought much about it recently. In the late 1960s the phrase “guns and butter” was used as a shorthand for the types of decisions necessary when setting national priorities; the implication was that in order to have more of one we had to accept less of the other. I have not heard the “guns and butter” phrase in years - decades, really - which leads me to suspect that somewhere along the line most of us decided to believe we could have all the guns we wanted and all the butter we wanted.

Even the recent unfortunate economic events don’t seem to have made the idea of costs really real to a lot of us. Rather than accept that we must choose (for ourselves and for future generations), we seem to still be trying to find a way to have all we want of everything. Thus we insist there must be some untapped source of money that will keep us from having to decide what to keep and what to forgo.

The second idea that stands out for me is: It is not possible for human beings to logically and reasonably and rationally decide how a culture should work and then implement those decisions. A working culture is created by centuries of experiment and experience:

The Culture, of a country, a family, a religion, a region, is a compendium of these unwritten laws worked out over time through the preconscious adaptations of its member - through trial and error. ... It is born of the necessity of humans getting along. It does not come into being because of the inspiration, nor because of the guidance, or any individual or group, but it evolves naturally: those things which work are adopted, those which do not, discarded. (page 11)

This point reminds me of a G. K. Chesterton illustration Megan McArdle uses from time to time, most notably in discussing gay marriage:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Neither of these two points is new or startling and for those who are lifelong conservatives or philosophically-grounded conservatives or perhaps even just well-read conservatives, they may seem obvious to the point of triviality. For someone like me, who has become a conservative rather instinctively (for lack of a better term), those idea bring clarity to some of my rather inchoate convictions.

My primary overarching problem with the book so far is that it is an explicit attack on the Left, on liberals, on progressives. I would very much like to have a couple of my liberal friends read Mamet’s book because I think the general points he makes about the nature of reality are worth considering for anyone of any political persuasion. Unfortunately, his relentless attack on the Left means my recommending the book to liberal friends without a serious warning would be so rude as to constitute a breach of friendship. Worse, even if my liberal friends read the book despite my warnings, Mamet’s attack on them would almost certainly engender so much defensiveness that it would be unlikely any of his worthwhile points would be able to penetrate those defenses. So I would find the book more useful if Mamet’s points were presented without being so inextricably embedded in a matrix of explicit Left-bashing.**

I also find that in turning from a wishful (Left) view of the world to a tragic (realistic, Right) view of the world, Mamet has overshot the mark. In his discussion of academia rewarding students for producing the desired answer, he says:

Thomas Jefferson was an adulterer; so was every President, most likely. That’s why men get into politics; it gives them power. Power brings sex, just as it was in the cave days.

This goes beyond realism and beyond tragedy to simple cynicism. Surely the adult and realistic view of such matters is not that all Presidents are adulterers and all politicians seek power in order to commit adultery but rather than all humans are flawed and that part of understanding both history and politics is to weigh the good people do against their inevitable human failings. Here Mamet strikes me as a disappointed worshipper who, having realized there are no perfect heroes, decides to eschew the difficult task of weighing a person’s accomplishments against his failures and is instead taking the easy way out: believing that “everyone does it, so what?” Thus he gives himself permission to completely ignore failings and falls into the same trap as those who see only such failings.

In terms of specifics, I have a serious quarrel with Mamet’s list of bad “Good Ideas”:

Our current societal (as opposed to cultural) development is burdened by the presence of "Good Ideas." These ideas are called Good not because their implementation has led to the betterment of life, but in homage to the supposed goodwill and and intellectual status of their instigators. Examples will come to mind based up the individual reader’s political or moral complexion, but, for the purposes of illustration in this essay, they may be said to include feminism, birth control, “diversity”, free love, and the profusion of “countercultural” innovations spawned in the 1960s.

I do not believe either feminism or birth control belong on this list (for very different reasons) and I’ll get into a longer discussion of that in a subsequent post. (As usual, I’ve created a new category to track related posts: "Reading Mamet" for this set.)

Similarly, Mamet’s denigration of the Baby Boomers is the usual incurious indictment that drives me mad (emphasis in original):

As my generation did not live through the Depression, World War II, and the agony of the immigrants who are our grandparents or great-grandparents; as we were raised in the greatest plenty the world has ever known and in the most just of societies, we have grown lazy and entitled (not unlike Marx, who lived as a parasite upon Engels, and never worked a day in this life). The baby boomer generation, my own, is content, if of the Left, to live out our remaining years upon the work and upon the entitlement created by our parents, and to entail the costs upon our children - to tax industry out of the country, to tax wealth away from its historical role and use as the funder of innovation. (page 43)

I will also address that in a subsequent post, one I’ve been contemplating writing for quite a while.

Those issues aside, this book is more than well worth reading and I am very much looking forward to continuing to do so. If I have focused in this post on the objections I have to Mamet’s writing it is simply because those are more fruitful areas for discussion than my basic agreement with him. A post consisting only of verbal nods is hardly worth writing.


* I am not trying to be funny here - I have a serious aversion to commas in general. Beyond that, I find that long sentences with many commas make it easy for the reader to get lost. They also make it easy for the writer to get lost, as witness this excerpt from page 41 (emphasis in original):

This is not to denigrate religions, merely to say that they are all based upon myth and symbol, which is to say that they proclaim at the outset their intention to approach toward the unknowable, and toward that over which we have no power. This is, however, necessary in religion, a rather unfortunate basis for a political philosophy.

Take a look at that second sentence and remove the word “however”:

This is necessary in religion, a rather unfortunate basis for a political philosophy.

Ugh. My guess is that the comma after the word “however” should not be there. Having strewn so many of them around in the previous sentence, however, it’s no surprise Mamet doesn’t notice an extra one lurking where it doesn’t belong.

** I am, as I said, not a particularly well-read conservative. It’s entirely possible that Mamet’s larger points exist in the canon without his anti-Left rhetoric. It’s still a shame they Mamet didn’t present them that way since my liberal friends would be far more likely to read something by David Mamet than something by, say, Thomas Sowell.

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I’m blogging again - I have no idea for how long or how frequently. I’ve enabled comments. My comment policy is here. Please read it before commenting.