Wednesday, March 12, 2008

David Mamet or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self-Organizing Behavior

Here we have an essay by David Mamet, filled with wonderful things, not the least of which this:
The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long.

Rather brilliant. For, in the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings in Washington doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.
Here we have the first element in the cognitive dissonance between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives automatically assume that all government programs will be conceived and managed incompetently, which is clearly false. Liberals assume that all government intervention can be designed intelligently and effectively, which is also false. The brilliance of a self-organizing system--political, economic, social, or otherwise--is that it doesn't care about this paradox. It simply optimizes what is available to optimize.

But the process of self-organization only works if tinkering is reduced to a bare minimum. In a way, our central debate about government can be reduced to the debate about evolution vs. intelligent design. Ironically, the liberals' and conservatives' roles are reversed from those of the educational debate.

Mamet continues:
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.

And I began to question my hatred for "the Corporations"—the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live.

And I began to question my distrust of the "Bad, Bad Military" of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world. Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not "Is everything perfect?" but "How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?" Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.
Everything is not perfect, but another fundamental difference between conservatives lies in how one responds to the imperfections. If you see your society as fundamentally flawed and unable to rise above its flaws without intelligent intervention, you're probably a liberal. If you see your society as a work in progress, with slow, imperfect, but ultimately steady improvement, you're probably a conservative.

I'm a moderate with conservative impulses. I believe that the mechanisms of self-organization, even though we can't quite wrap our little primate minds around why they work, mostly do work. Indeed, they usually work better than our best designed systems. But not always. There are well-known pathologies in self-organizing systems that can be identified and (sometimes) avoided. When you can identify these pathologies, intelligent intervention may be warranted.

Mamet sums it up:
At the same time, I was writing my play about a president, corrupt, venal, cunning, and vengeful (as I assume all of them are), and two turkeys. And I gave this fictional president a speechwriter who, in his view, is a "brain-dead liberal," much like my earlier self; and in the course of the play, they have to work it out. And they eventually do come to a human understanding of the political process. As I believe I am trying to do, and in which I believe I may be succeeding, and I will try to summarize it in the words of William Allen White.

White was for 40 years the editor of the Emporia Gazette in rural Kansas, and a prominent and powerful political commentator. He was a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt and wrote the best book I've ever read about the presidency. It's called Masks in a Pageant, and it profiles presidents from McKinley to Wilson, and I recommend it unreservedly.

White was a pretty clear-headed man, and he'd seen human nature as few can. (As Twain wrote, you want to understand men, run a country paper.) White knew that people need both to get ahead and to get along, and that they're always working at one or the other, and that government should most probably stay out of the way and let them get on with it. But, he added, there is such a thing as liberalism, and it may be reduced to these saddest of words: " . . . and yet . . . "

The right is mooing about faith, the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side—but, at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler. Happy election season.

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