Human nature and ideology

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We so often think of conservatism and liberalism in terms of a collection of disconnected policies, or we mistake the two competing ideologies for the two political parties that are respectively identified with them, that we forget the heart of the matter. What truly distinguishes conservatism from liberalism is the way each understands human nature. An ideology will succeed -- produce liberty and peace and prosperity -- to the degree that it correctly understands and accounts for human nature.

Like ideology, drama will succeed to the degree that it correctly understands and accounts for human nature. The better a playwright is at observing the way people respond to challenges and frustrations, the abler he is at drawing the audience into his play.

So there's this playwright, David Mamet. His job is to be an observer of the human condition. The more accurate an observer he is, the more his plays strike a chord with his audience. What he learned as an observer of humanity is that conservatism's core assumptions about human nature are right, and liberalism's assumptions are all wrong. In an essay in the Village Voice (of all places), Mamet goes back to first principles and works outward from those to come to some very conservative conclusions.

Here is an excerpt (slightly expurgated), but you really must read the whole thing:

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.

I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances--that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired--in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

To that end, the Constitution separates the power of the state into those three branches which are for most of us (I include myself) the only thing we remember from 12 years of schooling.

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 bulls**t and go straight to firearms....

Whatever you think about his broader point, you must admit the man understands zoning.

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3 Comments

meeciteewurkor said:

wow, that's pretty good stuff:


For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

and 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.

As much as I hate to say it, this article could also have been written from the polar opposite side of thinking, ie from a natural-born conservative who suddenly sees some virtue in liberal thought.

who'd a thunk a director of plays could come up with such cool philosophizing?

Paul said:

I've admired Mamet's screenplays for years. Recently I've been researching American theaters as a building type, and I travel to see auditorium arrangements and live performances when I can. Last March, a friend and I were very fortunate to be able to catch a live performance of Speed-the-Plow at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. In fact, the house manager was so impressed that we had traveled all the way from Tulsa that she comped us a pair of cushy seats right down by the stage!

The cast consisted of profession TV and film actors, and we were absolutely exhausted by the final curtain. One actor's performance was so energetic -- he wore us to a frazzle (plus completely deadened any sensibilites we may have had going in about the f word and an assortment of various other profanities). Although Speed-the-Plow is an Over-the-Top satire of the film industry (or at least I hope that's not what goes on in Hollywood), I must admit that Mamet is a keen observer of human nature.

Personally, I have no problem with seeing the proposed Neighborhood Conservation District draft ordinance being discussed by the Planning Commission. However, having been involved with the re-zoning of my own property against my wishes to a low density which does not meet my personal goals in terms of building a sustainable Tulsa, I can certainly understand some of the fears, uncertainties, and doubts of the opposition. I've sat through a number of Planning Commission and City Council meetings. It's difficult for me to attend afternoon sessions. I'd love to be more involved with public discussions, but if I must choose either sitting through a Councilor's "We the People" City Charter lecture or a Mamet play, then I'll opt for that cushy seat at the Geffen Playhouse before enduring a long session in the stifling Francis Campbell Meeting Room -- especially when I know that any substantive and important decision which is finally made has a fairly good likelihood of being trumped by a scrivener's error!

While it can be argued that our Zoning Code would be better completely re-written than amended, I really want to see the PUBLIC involved in either effort. Putting a pdf version of the draft NCD ordinance on the internet is a good first step in the right direction. Even better would be for the Planning Commission to post a Word file on the web. That way, those of us who wanted to participate in drafting the ordinance could do so. I've written the TMAPC many times over the years with suggestions for improvements in our Zoning Code, planning policy, etc. Most of my letters have gone unacknowledged. Email has made the process much more accessible, and now I get some sort of feedback to nearly everything I submit for consideration.

Here's a bit of advice for anyone who's requesting any type of revision to zoning which will affect other people: Consider what the opposition might be feeling or thinking or fearing. Think about how you might feel if the tables were turned. Think about human nature. Try to think like David Mamet would.

Michael: Thanks so much for adding this wonderful Mamet quote to your blog!

Paul said:

Mamet understands human nature and zoning.

Thanks for posting this interesting quote.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 15, 2008 11:17 PM.

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