I admit I’m a liberal and have been for most of my life. David Mamet is a well known and loved screen and play writer who I have admired for his creative work. In 2008 he wrote an essay in the Village Voice that gave the big kiss off to being a liberal. His essay was titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal'” where he explains how he changed from a liberal to libertarian. I feel sad that a smart and well-respected person can come to a conclusion based on wrong information. I want to explain how one can be a liberal and not be “brain-dead”.
As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart….
And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.
In this section Mamet comes to the conclusion that liberals think “people are generally good at heart”.
Liberals I know including myself never think that. In fact there are some people who are good at heart but there are many people who act like swine. If liberals thought people were generally good at heart then I doubt you would see hate crimes legislation or support for Affirmative action policies.
Next Mamet talks about government:
I found not only that I didn’t trust the current government (that, to me, was no surprise), but that an impartial review revealed that the faults of this president—whom I, a good liberal, considered a monster—were little different from those of a president whom I revered.
Bush got us into Iraq, JFK into Vietnam. Bush stole the election in Florida; Kennedy stole his in Chicago. Bush outed a CIA agent; Kennedy left hundreds of them to die in the surf at the Bay of Pigs. Bush lied about his military service; Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book written by Ted Sorenson. Bush was in bed with the Saudis, Kennedy with the Mafia. Oh.
This is basic false equivalence. Are there leaders who aren’t saints? Sure but on the other side of the coin there are hundreds if not millions of government officials who go about their jobs on a daily basis. The evil-doers like Bush and Kennedy get all the press because officials doing their jobs each day makes for boring press coverage – or so we’re told.
Do I trust my government? In general I do but that doesn’t mean I turn off my brain like Mamet seems to think.
As President Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address:
that from these honored dead we take increased devotion
to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . .
that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . .
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . .
and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . .
shall not perish from this earth.
Government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. I am not naive to ignore the work of the political and corporate elites who have tried to marginalize real people out of the loop. That’s why my activism is with progressive politics but it is based on my liberalism.
My constant weapon is my vote and support. I vote for and support the government that supports my political and world view. I don’t support any policy or laws that encroach on basic civil rights and those natural rights that we as humans are suppose to enjoy. That’s why I am pro-choice and against any laws that restrict same-sex marriage.
I also know that as part of the social contract, I have no inherent right to get my way all the time. What I want, what is best for me, may trip over the rights and wants of someone else. If my wants and desires could harm someone else then I need to yield. That’s why I strongly support the Bill of Rights.
The goal should be to maximize the benefits for all people as equally as possible. That could still mean some have less than others but I want a government that tries to minimize the gap between the haves and have nots. Nations that have not kept that in mind have not lasted long.
I don’t have time to personally govern so I hire people with my vote to do that job for me. I have to have some basic trust like an employer has with an employee unless and until there is reason to revoke that trust.
If your starting framework is to never trust government then you leave yourself out of the circle at your own peril.
The same can be said for people who get so disgusted they stay home and don’t vote. You get what you pay for – do nothing and you get nothing and really have no right to complain.
Mr. Mamet comes to what I see as a serious flaw in his argument. One I’ve seen on many occasions when debating libertarians. He has the false notion that if left alone people solve their own problems:
What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.
But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?
I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.
Strand unacquainted bus travelers in the middle of the night, and what do you get? A lot of bad drama, and a shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact. Each, instantly, adds what he or she can to the solution. Why? Each wants, and in fact needs, to contribute—to throw into the pot what gifts each has in order to achieve the overall goal, as well as status in the new-formed community. And so they work it out.
But why is David Mamet wrong? Because he contradicts his statement earlier that he doesn’t believe “people are generally good at heart”. If left alone he believes it all works out then he is assuming that people are generally good at heart. To have a strong and safe society there must be mutal co-operation and that requires one to be “good”.
Mamet mentions what happens when a group of strangers come together and what happens? “[A] shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact”.
The Mayflower was originally bound for the mouth of the Hudson River, in land granted in a patent from the Crown to the London Virginia Company. The decision was made instead to land farther north, in what is now Massachusetts. This inspired some of the “strangers” (colonists who were not members of the congregation of religious dissenters leading the expedition) to proclaim that since the settlement would not be made in the agreed-upon Virginia territory, they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them….” To prevent this, many of the other colonists decided to establish a government. The Mayflower Compact was based simultaneously upon a majoritarian model (even though the signers were not in the majority) and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the compact’s rules and regulations for the sake of survival.
Yes the Compact was their written social contract that formed the first government of Plymouth Colony. Why did they do that? For the sake of their survival. It is human nature. Those who co-operated survied and the lone wolves either died or faded away.
The other thing they had in Plymouth Colony was stocks – used to punish people who violated their laws. There have been laws or restrictions since the dawn of time.
The huge myth of libertarianism is the belief of rugged individuals governing themselves and how it will all work out. There is no evidence of any society based on the libertarian model because such a society either died off or evolved.
To get back to my take on being a liberal, here is a bit about the essay “On Liberty” by John Stewart Mill:
Mill’s On Liberty addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. One argument that Mill develops further than any previous philosopher is the harm principle. The harm principle holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. If the action is self-regarding, that is, if it only directly affects the person undertaking the action, then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. He does argue, however, that individuals are prevented from doing lasting, serious harm to themselves or their property by the harm principle. Because no-one exists in isolation, harm done to oneself also harms others, and destroying property deprives the community as well as oneself. Mill excuses those who are “incapable of self-government” from this principle, such as young children or those living in “backward states of society”.
The harm principle is a pretty good way to decide ethical dilemmas and helps in figuring out the best political policies.
What also led me to liberalism was my public school education. One of my first lessons when I was a wee lad was to share. No wonder conservatives and right wing nuts jobs either want to shut the schools down or rewrite the curriculum to pass on their looney ideas.
Another strong liberal influence was 1970’s family television shows like “The Brady Bunch”, “The Waltons”, “Little House on the Prairie” and even “All in the Family”. Wonder why kids are so apathetic and ignorant of civics and society today? Look at what they watch on TV. Ever since the conservatives took over the media in the 1980’s it has helped lead us to a nation of anti-intellectual selfish narcissists and our government reflects that.
I also give a tip of my hat to my study of Humanism for teaching me that all ideas are open to questioning even my own. My beliefs are tentative unless and until I get new information that may change my mind.
Do I think liberalism is perfect or should be perfect? No. Liberals are humans and humans are not perfect. There have been mistakes in the past like support for Eugenics. That turned out to be really wrong.
So I proudly state I am a liberal and I am not brain-dead. I am in no danger of turning into a cranky libertarian like David Mamet.