David Mamet vs. Government: Theatre of the Absurd?

Playwright David Mamet recently set out to present his views on the issue of gun control, but ended up publishing a flailing screed, filled with wild potshots fired well wide of their intended targets. The ownership of firearms is not directly relevant to the issues covered by Politics of Equality. Some of Mamet’s claims about law, government, and political philosophy, however, do relate to the topics I deal with here and deserve a response.

Mamet opens his essay quoting Marx’s suggestion that a future communist society will follow the principle: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Quickly cuing a worn, scratchy soundtrack of sinister music, Mamet then reminds us that in practice, Marx’s ideal brought “those under its sway misery, poverty, rape, torture, slavery, and death.”

Mamet makes clear in his essay that he would rather we followed the political principles of the United States’ Founding Fathers than those of Marx. Let us, then, trade Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program for Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. In that document, Jefferson argued that “all men are created equal,” and were “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” In practice, of course, this admirable ideal brought many of those under its sway misery, poverty, rape, torture, slavery, and death. Marx, at least, has the benefit of several decades separating the end of his life from the rise to power of Joseph Stalin. Jefferson must be held personally responsible for the slaves he tortured, raped, and worked to death. If we are to weigh political philosophies by the bad things done in their name, Mamet has no reason to take comfort in the doctrines of the American Revolution.

After trotting out on stage a very poor actor hired to play Marx dressed as the Personification of Evil, Mamet turns his attention to institutions of government and the people who work for them. Government bureaucrats, Mamet tells us, receive their jobs and continue in their jobs by “complying with directions…They are paid to follow orders.” Given the general tone of his essay, this is certainly meant to be a devastating attack. We are surely supposed to see government workers as horrible, faceless automatons, grinding helpless citizens under the heels of their scuffed, black Rockports. I currently work for government (I teach at a public university) and it is true that I am paid to follow orders. When I received my job, an appointment letter spelled out the directions with which I would have to comply. I have been evaluated regularly, to ensure that I continue to comply with those directions. What I fail to see, however, is how this differs in any way from the status of workers in private industry. Every employee in a privately owned business receives his or her job, and continues in his or her job, by complying with directions. Every employee in a privately owned business is paid to follow orders. If complying with directions and being paid to follow orders are dreadful, menacing evils in government, they are no less evil in every privately owned company, large or small, including whatever production companies Mamet has ever been a part of.

Mamet charges that government operates by dictating “one-size-fits-all” rules for society. Here, at last, he has a reasonable point to make. The laws prohibiting murder, rape, and theft are, indeed, “one-size-fits-all.” Perhaps Mamet would prefer a world in which each individual could judge for him or herself whether, in any given situation, it was right to murder, rape, or steal. Sadly for him, the brutal constraints of government do not allow such flexibility. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act must seem very vexing to him, as they prohibit employers from paying women and men different wages for equivalent work and require handicap accessibility on all forms of public transportation. In the dastardly work of government, one size must fit all.

Like many voices on today’s populist Right-wing, Mamet seeks simultaneously to attack law and government in the sweeping tones of an anarchist, while claiming more conventionally legitimate high ground by identifying with the founders of the American republic. Attempting to square this circle, Mamet declares that, “The Founding Fathers, far from being ideologues, were not even politicians.” Alexander Hamilton, New York representative to the Congress of the Confederation, a key leader of the Federalist Party, and Secretary of the Treasury, was not a politician? James Madison, a state legislator, delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, Secretary of State, and President of the United States, was not a politician? John Adams, a diplomat, Vice President, and President of the United States, was not a politician? To whom can Mamet possibly be referring?

Mamet is in no way an intellectual lightweight. His plays reveal a skill with language and imagery achievable only by someone unusually observant, reflective, and well-read. This is what makes the fatuousness of his political writing so difficult to fathom. Is this, perhaps, his greatest performance piece yet? Is Mamet crafting before our eyes a caricature so ridiculous we can’t believe it isn’t real?

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