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.


Cassandra said...

During my initial read, I found myself thinking several times, "Mamet appears to have been reading Sowell".

Have you ever read his Basic Economics or Intellectuals and Society? Both contain the same ideas with a slightly different emphasis. His treatment of the whole "We'd have Utopia is we just allowed the smart people to centralize planning" is particularly good!

So glad to see you back :) Will need to read this slowly again - my brain is a bit overworked these days.

Elise said...

I have not read any Sowell but I am waiting eagerly for my friendly mail carrier to deliver my just-ordered copy of "Conflict of Visions". My local library has the two you mention so I'll give those a try also.

Some enterprising bookselller should bundle a chunk of the books in Mamet's bibliography and sell them as a package deal.