Saturday, July 31, 2010

Against the Wind

Two years ago we featured a post about David Mamet, the highly acclaimed playwright (American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), and Speed-the-Plow (1988)), who, leaning into the powerful ideological winds that dominate modern theater, abandoned his former liberalism and embraced a sort of libertarian conservatism.

Now Terry Teachout has an article in Commentary on Mamet that elaborates on his iconoclastic political thinking. Teachout begins with this:

American theater is a one-party town, a community of like-minded folk who are all but unanimous in their strict adherence to the left-liberal line. Though dissenters do exist, they are almost never heard from in public, and it is highly unusual for new plays that deviate from the social gospel of progressivism to reach the stage, whether in New York or anywhere else.

All this explains why David Mamet, America's most famous and successful playwright, caused widespread consternation two years ago when he published an essay in the Village Voice called "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'" in which he announced that he had "changed my mind" about the ideology to which he had previously subscribed. Having studied the works of "a host of conservative writers," among them Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, Thomas Sowell (whom he called "our greatest contemporary philosopher"), and Shelby Steele, Mamet came to the conclusion that "a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism."

For the most part, members of the American theater community responded to the publication of "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'" in one of two ways. Some declared that Mamet's shift in allegiance was irrelevant to the meaning of the plays on which his reputation is based. Others claimed to have suspected him of being a crypto-conservative all along, arguing that the essay merely proved their point.

Now Mamet has published a book of essays called Theatre (Faber and Faber, 157 pages) in which, among other things, he seeks to integrate his new way of thinking into his view of the art of drama. Although Theatre is not so much a political treatise as a professional apologia, it seems likely that those of his colleagues who write about it (to date, most have ignored it completely) will focus on its political aspect, in which they will doubtless find much to outrage them.

Teachout takes as an example of that which he expects will outrage Mamet's critics his definition of theater:

The theatre is a magnificent example of the workings of that particular bulwark of democracy, the free-market economy. It is the most democratic of arts, for if the play does not appeal in its immediate presentation to the imagination or understanding of a sufficient constituency, it is replaced. ... It is the province not of ideologues (whether in the pay of the state and called commissars, or tax subsidized through the university system and called intellectuals) but of show folk trying to make a living.

Anyone interested in plays or politics will find Teachout's column on Mamet an interesting read. Check it out.


Free Speech For Me, Not Thee

I was reminded recently of the book by civil libertarian Nat Hentoff titled Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee. The occasion for this recollection was an email from my friend Caleb who sent along an article on a discussion at CNN about how "anonymous" bloggers should be shut down by the government because they can say anything they want even if it's unfair and damaging to people as it ostensibly was to Shirley Sherrod.

I could hardly believe these words were coming from the mouths of journalists, the very people we trust to be most vigilant in defending our right to free speech. Whatever happened to those courageous sentiments frequently voiced a generation ago about despising what people say but defending to the death their right to say it? It seems that today the opinion of at least some on the left is that only some Americans enjoy the rights bestowed by our First Amendment, specifically those Americans who agree with them. Everyone else should be compelled to just shut up:

Anchors Kyra Phillips and John Roberts discussed the "mixed blessing of the internet," and agreed that there should be a crackdown on anonymous bloggers who disparage others on the internet.

"There has to be some point where there's some accountability. And companies, especially in the media have to stop giving these anonymous bloggers credit," she said.

Roberts responded that anonymous blogging might benefit from "checks and balances."

"If you're in a place like Iran or North Korea or something like that, anonymous blogging is the only way you could ever get your point of view out without being searched down and thrown in jail or worse," said Roberts. "But when it comes to a society like ours, an open society, do there have to be some checks and balances, not national, but maybe website to website on who comments on things?"

The irony in this, to which Mr. Roberts is apparently oblivious, is that restricting political speech is the usual first step in turning a country into a totalitarian state like North Korea. The best antidote to scurrilous speech, at least political speech, is not government control but a free and easy access to the truth. When political speech is controlled by government or media surrogates the scurrility won't disappear but free and easy access to the truth will.

It was bloggers who exposed the Dan Rather fraud. It was bloggers who exposed ACORN. It is bloggers, both left and right, who have largely set the terms of our national debates. Many journalists resent this usurpation of their cultural prerogatives, they know, too, that it's very difficult for them to compete with the blogosphere, and so they want the upstarts regulated, stifled and perhaps silenced altogether.

This is the equivalent of banning religious freedom and imposing a state church because of the perversities of groups like Westboro Baptist or the Branch Davidians. It's similar to trying to control the abuse of alcohol by prohibition, or rescinding the right of the people to protect themselves by owning firearms because firearms are often used by the people who do the harm.

One troubling aspect of the CNN discussion is that the individuals involved hold freedom of speech so lightly that they'd be happy to see it sacrificed for the "greater good" of facilitating a political order more amenable to their tastes.