Culture: Why 'brain-dead liberals' are wrong about David Mamet

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Earlier this month, David Mamet wrote an article in The Village Voice entitled "Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal" that must rank as the most provocative essay of the year. It has caused consternation among the left-wing commentariat on both sides of the Atlantic who, until now, have regarded the author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross as one of their own. Indeed, the reaction has been so hysterical it makes the Muslim response to the Danish cartoonists begin to look reasonable.

"What worries me is the effect on his talent of locking himself into a rigid ideological position," wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian, ignoring the fact that it is precisely the knee-jerk inflexibility of the liberal intelligentsia that has led Mamet to renounce it.

A similar note was struck by David Lister in The Independent, who expressed concern that "so complex and profound and gifted a playwright should now seek to reduce his own work and his own politics to simple concepts". Clearly, in his eyes, those on the left possess a subtle, complicated world view, whereas those on the right are intolerant and close-minded. Could there be any clearer expression of "brain-dead" liberalism?

In fact, a careful reading of the Mamet essay reveals he hasn't renounced liberalism, only the belief in human perfectibility that is at the root of all dogmatic political ideologies, from Leninism to Nazism. He distinguishes between this "perfectionist" view and his own "tragic" position, which maintains that human beings are "greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt" and "inspired". He calls this viewpoint "conservative", but, in fact, it is at the root of contemporary liberalism. It is precisely the philosophy Sir Isaiah Berlin spent a lifetime espousing and can be summed up by Kant's stipulation that a good system of government has to be suitable for "a nation of devils".

Mamet points out that this sceptical view of mankind has always informed his own writing and he is now merely bringing his politics into line with his core beliefs; the left-wing critics who have championed his work for the past 40 years are unlikely to see it that way.

Mamet must have been aware of the negative impact this public declaration would have on his career, which makes it all the more courageous. Luckily, he has never set much store by the opinion of critics. Years ago he won a competition in New York Magazine by writing what he called the "Perfect Theatrical Review": "I never understood the theater until last night. Please forgive everything I've ever written. When you read this I'll be dead."