Why Playwrights Aren't Political Analysts
During last year's presidential campaign, journalist Buzz Bissinger got some attention for writing an opinion piece explaining that he was voting for Mitt Romney because Barack Obama hasn't done enough to end poverty, which is kind of like saying you're switching from salad to Big Macs for lunch because you're trying to lose weight and salad has calories. For people familiar with Bissinger's extraordinary reportage, including books like Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City (one of the best books about big-city politics ever written), it was a shock. How could such a great reporter produce something so infantile and bereft of the simplest familiarity with logic? Then people took a look at Bissinger's Twitter feed and discovered that he spews out a puzzling combination of incomprehensibility and general assholishness. (sample tweet: "Romney lost was a suck candidate as it turned out. But every fucking liberal who whines about pro football should be forced to play it." Um, okaaay.) It was so puzzling because the traits that make one a good reporter—curiosity, hard work, a willingness to see things from as many perspectives as possible—seemed to have deserted Bissinger in his non-reporting endeavors. Which brings us to the strange case of David Mamet, one of the most celebrated American playwrights of the last forty years.
Newsweek has just published an article in which Mamet, who became a hard-core conservative some years ago, goes after Barack Obama for wanting to take away his guns. While there may be an intelligent, cogently argued case to make for Mamet's position, this piece certainly isn't it. From the opening cliché about Karl Marx, you know you're not in for something that will change anyone's mind, but it only gets worse. He moves on to insane assertions about government ("'One-size-fits-all,' and that size determined by the State has a name, and that name is 'slavery.'"), moves through a comparison of Barack Obama to King George, and then hits you with the kind of "logic" with which any parent of an eight-year-old is familiar. "The Left loves a phantom statistic that a firearm in the hands of a citizen is X times more likely to cause accidental damage than to be used in the prevention of crime, but what is there about criminals that ensures that their gun use is accident-free?" Mamet asks. "If, indeed, a firearm were more dangerous to its possessors than to potential aggressors, would it not make sense for the government to arm all criminals, and let them accidentally shoot themselves?" You really got us there, Sparky. By the time he repeats the NRA's argument that Barack Obama is hypocritical for having the Secret Service protect his children and at the same time wanting some modest measures to limit gun proliferation— measures which, by the way, will restrict David Mamet's ability to buy as many guns as he wants not one whit—you're left shaking your head.
Michael Tomasky offers his own response, but if your crazy uncle Murray had penned this screed, you wouldn't be surprised. But Newsweek also wouldn't publish it. So why are they publishing this?
To be clear, the point isn't that Mamet is conservative, even though it's true that the overwhelming majority of artists are liberal, so that makes him unusual. The point is that he brings to his political analysis none of the things that make him a good playwright. It would be one thing if Mamet was, let's say, a widely admired painter or photographer who turned out to have simplistic political views. Visual artists sometimes disappoint their fans by not being particularly eloquent when they're called upon to discuss their work, but words are not their tools. A playwright, on the other hand, spends his time studying and manipulating language, ideas, and characters. That someone who has produced insightful art about corners of American life and the human condition more broadly would then turn around and offer political analysis with all the sophistication of the twelfth caller to Sean Hannity's radio show this afternoon is profoundly puzzling.
But it's a good reminder of something: Political writing is a craft, just like writing plays. Pretty much everyone who has ever read a newspaper thinks they could do it as well or better than those who do it for a living, but most of the time they can't. David Mamet spent a lot of time and energy working on his craft, but the fact that he got famous doing it doesn't mean he has any opinions about or analysis of politics that anyone would gain anything from hearing. I'd never say to anyone, "You should just shut up and do nothing but the thing that got you famous." Everybody has a right to speak about anything they want. If Joe Biden wants to try his hand at recording an album of Guns 'n Roses covers, he should have at it, and if anyone thinks it's any good they can buy it. If Paul Ryan wants to write a play, more power to him, and if it makes it to Broadway then he deserves whatever praise he gets. But a theater producer who says, "I know this play is going to be great—after all, it was written by Paul Ryan, who is a skilled politician" would be someone who didn't know his job. Just the same, an editor who says, "I know this essay on gun control is going to be great—after all, it was written by David Mamet, and he wrote Glengarry Glen Ross," is being just as foolish.
So why didn't the editors at Newsweek say, "Yeah, David Mamet wrote this, but it's execrable tripe"? Maybe it's all part of the elitist anti-gun conspiracy, and they published it precisely because it's tripe in order to discredit gun advocates. Who knows.
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