David Mamet’s theater of freedom

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

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I want to defend, for the moment anyway, David Mamet. Not that this famous
American playwright, screenwriter, film director, author, and Pulitzer Prize
winner needs my defense; he doesn’t. I just read his latest book, Theatre
(2010). It has a cutting edge to it — smacks of Tom Paine (or maybe Christopher
Hitchens). That's why I was so drawn to Mamet’s work, even though I disagree
with some of his views. I like books that challenge me, that force me to
think. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me, shall we say, set
the stage first.

Free-speech principles
Starting point: “Under the First Amendment
there is no such thing as a false idea.” It is a brash claim, this point
championed by (of all people!) Justice Lewis Powell in his majority opinion in
v. Welch
(1974). Statements of fact may be false, but ideas, that's a
different matter altogether. So the argument goes — and I’m fine with it.

Think of it: What does it mean for an idea to be false? The root of
the word — from Latin via the Greek — is idein, meaning, “to see.” Hence,
an idea is a way of seeing. And what we see depends on our own personal,
political, psychological, familial, religious and cultural perspectives. When it
comes to ideas, then, there can be no official orthodoxy, at least not one
sanctioned by government. Or as Justice Robert Jackson put it so well in West
Virginia v. Barnette
(1943): “If there is any fixed star in our
constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can
prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other
matters of opinion.”

I would take the argument a step further: The more orthodox a culture is when
it comes to ideas, the more likely it is to be repressive, even if such
repression is not formally waged by the government. I don’t want to live in such
a society, however “correct” its orthodoxy may be. And I don’t want to get cozy
with the “politically correct” or the “culturally correct” or the “religiously
correct.” This is not to say that all ideas are created equal; they are not —
and I do not deny that some ideas are vile and perhaps even potentially
dangerous. That said, I still recoil at the thought of orthodoxy, which brings
me back to David Mamet, a kindred soul on that count.

The tyranny of 'correct' ideas
“The essence of democracy,” writes
Mamet, “is this: that the individual is free to embrace or reject, or praise or
abominate, any political position — that in this he is accountable to no one and
need never, in fact, articulate his reasons or defend his choice.” Then, also in
the chapter titled “Politically Correct,” he adds: “That any political act could
possibly be termed correct posits a universal, incontrovertible, superdemocratic
authority — that is, a dictatorship.”

Nat Hentoff, another talented and kindred soul, could not have cast it
better. Mamet hits the dictatorial nail right on its authoritarian head. He
reminds us, all of us, how familiar thinking all too easily leads to fixated
thinking, to the point where even certain ideas cannot be spoken openly. Perhaps
that explains Mamet’s controversial article in The Village Voice a few
years back, “Why
I am no Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’”
One need not defend every charge he
leveled in that article, or in Theatre, to appreciate the welcome breath
of fresh air he brings through the door when he rails against the kinds of
orthodoxies that too often rule our society, ranging from what can and cannot be
said in colleges to what can and cannot be said on the airwaves.

There is no place, Mamet argues, for orthodoxy in the theater. “In our free
society,” he states, “the theatre is free: to please, to displease, to affront,
to bore, to succeed, or to fail according to no rules or patterns whatsoever. It
is the province,” he continues, “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. This is, in a
democracy, as it should be.”

For this reason, Mamet has no patience for government-subsidized theater —
for him, that has an old Soviet whiff about it. “The self-anointed champions of
right thinking may function only in a state-controlled environment.” Such
“champions,” we are told, “whether feminist, Marxist, multiculturalist, or
other, in an attempt (supposedly) to cleanse expression of bias, are involved in
a postmodern rendition of book burning.”

There you have it — the nutshell case against political correctness,
especially in the arts. But Mamet does not end there. Painting with bold and
broad strokes, he suggests that “[t]he origins of today’s political correctness
may be found in plays and films of totalitarian regimes (notably Stalinist
Russia), which were created or endorsed by a state that needed to deny the
possibility of unfettered human interaction — which needed to excise meaning
from art.” I don’t know whether I would go that far, whether the logic of the
argument can be stretched so. Still, it is a point worth discussing: how art is
or can be beholden to those who subsidize it.

Marketplace freedom
Turn to the acknowledgements page at the end of
Theatre and you will see this: “I am very much indebted to the works of
Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson, Frederich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and to those
of Richard Wright and Eric Hoffer.” That’s it, all of it. Predictably, Mamet
favors a marketplace approach to theatrical freedom. In that marketplace, let
the people (aka theater audiences) decide what is true or not, worthy or not,
important or not.

Then, and only then, drama can do what drama does best, namely, expose lies
and reveal repression.  “Drama,” Mamet assures us, is “about finding
previously unsuspected meaning in chaos, about discovering the truth that had
previously been obscured by lies, and about our persistence in accepting

Well, yes — that is, ideally so. But theater is also about entertainment. And
when entertainment becomes the coin of the realm — as Aldous Huxley warned in
Brave New World (1932) and as Jules Henry echoed in Culture Against
(1963) — truth can quickly dissolve into popular pap. When dramatists
pitch to mass-appeal standards, they too have to censor themselves lest they
offend their paying patrons. Much the same holds true, as David Skover and I
argued in The Death of Discourse (1996), when commercial entities
subsidize the channels of communication.

But Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I suspect Mamet too, was willing to
take that chance. “It amused Holmes,” Alexander Bickel once quipped, “to pretend
that if his fellow citizens wanted to go to hell in a basket he would help
them.” It is not for the “enlightened few” to proclaim which orthodoxies must be
honored to save a democracy from itself. Then again, we have seen democratic
experiments fail, and miserably so.

Then am I siding now with the so-called “socialists”? Hardly. I think
capitalism is, at some important level, inextricably linked to freedom. Liberals
all too readily ignore that point. But libertarians all too frequently ignore
the risks inherent in their philosophy of life and government.

Let Nazis march in Skokie, Ill.; let racists speak on campuses; and let
hatemongers of all stripes perform on stage — and then let us all hope, against
whatever odds, that “more speech,” as Justice Louis Brandeis admonished in his
v. California
(1925) concurrence, will save us. That is asking a lot.
Then again, “[t]hose who won our independence by revolution,” wrote Brandeis,
“were not cowards.”

Now there is an idea for a play — how much unbridled liberty of expression
can a viable democracy tolerate … and survive? David Mamet, playwright
extraordinaire, is one man who could explore that question with dramatic

Consider, finally, Mamet’s take on theater: “In great drama we recognize that
freedom may lie beyond and is achieved by painful questioning of what was before
supposed unquestionable.” Indeed. Then he adds this Madisonian twist: “In a
great drama we follow a supposedly understood first principle to its astounding
and unexpected conclusion: We are pleased to find ourselves able to revise our

By that Mamet measure, drama is a vital component of our First Amendment

Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of
Washington Law School and a fellow at the First Amendment Center. His latest
book is
The Fundamental Holmes: A Free Speech Chronicle and Reader
(Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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