Thursday, August 25, 2011

Over The Volcano


"This suggests that market capitalism began as, and still remains, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and compelled to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system."  - David R. Loy The Buddhist History of the West
There is nothing wrong with ideologies, per se. It's the religious dedication to ideology that's the root of all modern evil. When we transfer our essentially religious need to believe in something that gives life meaning to a set of ideological principles, no matter what their value, we become dangerous to one another. When ideological warfare devolves into religious struggle a civilization no longer has the ability to advance, only to dissolve. 
Reading David Mamet's book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, I was in turn angered, saddened and horrified at the grotesque devolution it represented in one man's thinking. How could one of America's most accomplished playwrights make such a radical shift from one set of ideals to their extreme opposite? 
The explanation revealed in the text is that the shift that has the nature of a religious conversion. As such, although the book presents eloquent rational arguments (many of which I agree with) the explanation for such an extreme conversion is beyond rational exegesis.  As I read I had the vision of a man caught in Los Angeles traffic, stewing for useless hours over the injustices of life while listening to talk radio. He lives and works among the privileged elites of Hollywood, but is frustrated by the superficial herd mentality of upper class liberal politics. Someone, a friend, a rabbi, introduces him to a key to another way of looking at the world and suddenly a crack opens in the sky and beyond that sky a universe beckons offering an alternative explanation and solidarity with those who see the world anew. 
Like Paul on his way to Damascus the playwright is struck by the holy hand of a new God in the form of a new ideology. He becomes a newly minted fanatic, filled with feelings of both ecstasy and shame. On the one hand there is the feeling of belonging and of purpose as one shares and disseminates the "secret knowledge" with those who have seen through the veil and been revealed the truth. This is the fraternity of the conspiracy theorists who universally see the world in terms of Manichaean struggles between us and them, good and evil, darkness and light. 
Shame arises out of the knowledge that one has been duped and has been living a lie. For someone like Mamet, whose plays and films deal with various forms of con games and deception that permeate many of the interchanges between people in society this must have been a particularly profound blow. Along with the shame is a sense of guilt at having spent one's whole life abetting a way of thinking that one now finds entirely abhorrent. Out of the guilt and shame arise a sense of fury and with anger rationality goes out the window. 
I can agree with Mamet as he rephrases the lessons of F. A. Hayek's 1944 book, "The Road To Serfdom", that government tends to compound failure while the free market tends naturally to select against it. I agree that the money and power that coalesces around bureaucracy encourages only more bureaucracy. I agree that one of the main purposes of the impartial rule of law is to restrain the powers of government and to lead to a system based on equal justice, if not one based on subjective views of what is "fair." Here is where the fruitful arguments between so-called 'conservative' and 'liberal' ideologies are waged. One of my points of dispute is that where the 'free market' has evolved into global corporations and where government has become an enabler of corporate abuse, laws are needed to restrain business and to protect the interest of the citizenry against the unbounded imperatives of profit. To the statement that "government cannot correct itself" while the "free market" can, we must add the caveat that people can correct the government by overthrowing it in elections. 
But Mamet is not interested in constructive debate or compromise or "working it out." He is waging a crusade against the evil and ruthless forces that threaten our very way of life. His idols are the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Any act of government that goes beyond military defense is a manifestation of socialism, and even the smallest nod toward socialism is a step on the road to totalitarianism. Anything backed by liberals, ever, is suspect and invariably an act against freedom, whether it be universal health care, saving the auto industry or banning snowmobiles from Yellowstone. Between the 'rational' arguments Mamet repeats the disinformation that he hears on talk radio, without any attempt to back up his statements with references. (Che Guevara was a "mass murderer" [so was Harry Truman]; Scientists have "proven" that global warming is a hoax [what scientists?]; We were "winning" the Vietnam War before liberals made us surrender [says who?])
Later in the book Mamet recounts his own and his family's history of believing in "social justice" and he attacks that belief as the first step on the road to slavery. Such a belief implies a sense of fairness and the righting of previous wrongs, but who is to measure out what is "fair," and isn't it dangerous when we put this task in the hands of a government that is armed and dangerous? The strength of our democracy is the rule of law, and when the law is bent to favor one group over another the inevitable result is government abuse. This, in fact, is the book's central argument. It's actually the argument which underlies every decision made by a collective will, whether manifested through governments or on the street. The abolishment of slavery, the child labor laws, the right of women to vote, the 8 hour workday have all been the result of individual decisions enforced collectively. To condemn the very notion of a government acting to enforce the will of the collective is to selectively ignore the march of history and our evolving notions of human rights. 
In spite of his infrequent forays into programmed craziness. Mamet makes as eloquent an argument for embracing the position of the Tea Party movement as can be made. For this reason it's worth a read, if for no other reason than to see the world from an opposing viewpoint. I recommend the chapters, "The Street Sweeper and the Surgeon, or Marxism Examined" and "The Ashkenazis" for the clearest presentation of his central argument and its background. I recommend the book particularly to liberal friends, as they are as subject to the lure of unquestioned ideologies as anyone on the Right. It can be a rough read, but if you restrain yourself from throwing the book against a wall or converting to the Tea Party it could be a valuable exercise. 
I recently visited Yellowstone National Park for the first time in my life. When you walk on top of an active volcano it changes your perspective on many things, particularly your perspective on the passage of time. With all of our struggles and pathetic prejudices we are really very small in the shadow of what was and what is to come. Ongoing dangers are that we loose a sense of compassion for the 'other' or we oversimplify our view of the world in a quest for something that will explain everything. As I look around at the rising crescendo of what once was democracy but looks more and more like a religious battlefield I begin to realize that the most useful service I can perform in America is to maintain a sense of detachment from ideology and humor in the face of pretension. We must continually question those who "want to believe" while resisting the tides that sweep us this way and that in response to whatever pleases or displeases us in the moment.
I feel some regret that someone as talented as Mamet has allowed himself to be conned into throwing away his artistic detachment. I can surely understand the pull. Perhaps its a manifestation of the need for people of my generation to wage one more battle before we leave the scene. Perhaps once the initial exhilaration of conversion and acceptance has passed Mamet will return to us some form of useful coherency. Probably he'll continue for a while basking in the sensationalist perks of being a new poster boy on right wing talk shows. Hopefully he will stay out of politics, as we don't need anymore fanatics and true believers in the mix. When I read his book I can sense the rage and disappointment that underlies all of his arguments. My reply is that if the American culture that we dismantle is the culture of fear the whole world will be a better place for it.  

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