It’s a good rule of thumb for a magazine journalist that you should probably pass on the assignment if you have nothing unflattering to say about a profile subject. Nobody is flawless, and if you lack the guts (or the heart) to point out those flaws, then you’re not giving your reader a complete or even a fair picture of the individual in question. The wisdom of this rule is almost always found in the absence of its application, and one is hard pressed to imagine a more thorough illustration of this than the current Weekly Standard cover story on the playwright David Mamet, authored by Andrew Ferguson.
Mamet has become a Republican, and Ferguson can barely contain his admiration for the man’s courage, his wisdom, or even his glasses. Ferguson apparently flew out to Stanford to watch Mamet give a lecture there, and perhaps to justify the expense, he felt compelled to try to build the appearance into a “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” kind of melodrama.
Mamet apparently offered “a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible.”
He also apparently had some unflattering things to say about the current state of higher education, which led Ferguson to “[t]he implicit conclusion … that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a ‘shuck,’ as Mamet called it.”
Well, it’s hard to judge what an author insists was “implicit,” since by definition that means nobody said it. Ferguson’s imagination takes him even further when he describes dramatic-sounding “ripples of dissatisfaction issued from the older members of the crowd.”
Just what constituted these ripples? Here’s everything Ferguson’s got: “Two couples in front of me shot looks to one another as Mamet went on—first the tight little smiles, then quick shakes of the head, after a few more minutes the eye-rolls, and finally a hitchhiking gesture that was the signal to walk out. Several others followed, with grim faces.”
That’s it. No shouts from the crowd. No protest marches, chants, catcalls, or signs unfurled calling the speaker a fascist like the good old days when I was in school. Just a few eye rolls and a quick exit that was just as likely because their babysitter had a test the next day or they promised their children a game of Mario Kart on the family Wii as any alleged anger at the speaker.
Ferguson attempts to explain the sources of Mamet’s conversion from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. But, sadly, it’s almost impossible to make sense of the argument as presented.
The son of a labor lawyer, Mamet claims to be disgusted with the screenwriters’ strike of 2007-2008, which Ferguson terms “quickly forgotten, so abject was the ineptitude and ultimate failure of the writers’ union.”
They were risking not only their own jobs but the jobs of everyone who had nothing to gain from the strike—the drivers and scene painters and people who are on set 14 hours a day working their asses off. These working people were driven out of work by the writers—10,000 people losing their jobs at Christmastime. It was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw in my life. And for what? They didn’t know what they were striking for—just another inchoate liberal dream.
Well, actually, they did know what they were striking for. They saw that future revenue would be heavily dependent on digital distribution, and they did not think it was a good idea to allow themselves to be cut out of it by the multinational corporations who enjoyed the profits.
And if anyone else was out of work owing to the strike, well, that’s the way strikes work. Next time they can go on strike—or threaten to—and the writers will support them. That’s the nature of labor negotiation.
So when Mamet asks, “What do liberals do when their plans have failed? What did the writers do when their plans led to unemployment, their own and other people’s? One thing they can’t do is admit they failed,” he might wish to present at least the tiniest shred of evidence that the writers failed. And he might want to ask the same question of conservatives. Or does he think that Iraq, Katrina, and the mortgage bubble are examples of spectacular success? Because the apologies for those failures have been awfully slow in coming.
Mamet tells Ferguson he became a conservative around the time of the 2004 election because “I saw the liberals hated George Bush. It was vicious. And I thought about it, and I didn’t get it. He was no worse than the others, was he? And I’d ask my liberal friends, ‘Well, why do you hate him?’ They’d all say: ‘He lied about WMD.’ Okay. You love Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t write Profiles in Courage—he lied about that. ‘Bush is in bed with the Saudis!’ Okay, Kennedy was in bed with the mafia.”
This is so foolish so as to be funny. Liberals were not angry at George W. Bush because he lied. All presidents lie. Indeed, I spent 11 years writing a history of the topic. The problem was that President Bush lied about something so solemnly important as a war. And it was a war of choice. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions have been displaced from their homes, and trillions of dollars have been wasted. The United States lost track of Osama bin Laden and allowed Afghanistan to fester and Al Qaeda to regroup. It also found itself more hated around the world than at any other time in its history.
That’s what President Bush did. The idea that Mamet—or Ferguson—thinks it comparable to President Kennedy taking credit for his speechwriter’s book written in his twenties is literally laughable.
And as for the Saudi Arabia/mafia quote—that’s just nuts. Again, all presidents in the modern era have depended on the Saudis to one degree or another. I don’t know any liberals who, in 2004 or today, thought this was even among the top 100 possible objections to Bush’s presidency.
And John Kennedy “in bed with the mafia?” What does that mean? Yes, he shared a girlfriend with a Sam Giancana. And yes, the CIA made some overtures to some mafia folk about perhaps trying to assassinate Castro. This was probably an extremely bad idea, but involving the mafia was the least of it. (Lacing Castro’s drinks with LSD or trying to make his beard fall out were at least as dumb.)
How in the world do you compare this to this country’s ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia? It’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It’s comparing apples and orangutans.
Mamet adds: “I wondered, How did the system function so well? Because it does—the system functions beautifully. How did the happiest, freest, and most prosperous country in history sprout from the Hobbesian jungle?”
Well, I don’t doubt that it functions pretty well from the perspective of a Hollywood screenwriter who, according to Ferguson, pulls down $2 million a picture. But for, say, the 15 million American children born into poverty—21 percent of all children—all is not quite so hunky-dory.
Finally, Ferguson mentions Mamet’s 2006 “scorching book of essays, The Wicked Son, rebuking secular Jews for their (alleged) self-loathing and reluctance to defend Israel.” Oddly, he does not connect this hardline view to Mamet’s political conversion. More than a few Jews have turned from liberal to conservative simply because the latter have tended to be a great deal more sympathetic to the aggressive, Likudnik view that dominates the neoconservative worldview.
Ironically, in Ferguson’s hero-worship of the newly conservative playwright—one whose work I admire almost as much as Ferguson’s—he has made his subject appear ridiculous rather than relevant and unintentionally comical in his childish contrarianism.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.