Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A response to "David Mamet on Anti-Semitism, Self Hatred and the Jews"

This evening I went to a lecture at the JCCSF where legendary playwright David Mamet was in conversation with renowned scholar and Professor of Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.

David Mamet has written some amazing screenplays over many years, including Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog. Tonight, David Mamet commented on several ideas and themes he discusses in a recent non-fiction book of his, entitled "The Wicked Son", which is a commentary on Anti-Semitism, and Self Hatred within modern Jewish culture.

It was a very interesting discussion and very thought-provoking, but I found that I enjoyed the responses from David Mamet much less than some of the speakers at other lectures I have been to at the JCCSF recently. This had nothing to do with the serious nature of the conversation or the topic at hand - for instance, I thoroughly enjoyed a lecture by Daniel Goldhagen last year which focused primarily on the general lack of response from ordinary German citizens during the Holocaust - clearly not a lightweight subject, nor lacking in intensity or the potential to offend and provoke the audience.

What I took issue with was that David Mamet seems to approach issues (and perhaps the world in general) as "black or white", "yes or no" - a phrase he used repeatedly was "you're in or you're out". He took an incredibly one-sided viewpoint to some serious issues (the current war in Gaza) and even the idea of going to Synagogue or even being a serious Jew. "You're in or you're out, it's as simple as that", he said several times.

The other issue I had was that Rabbi Kusher's questions were vastly different in tone (and what I see as thoughtfulness) than David Mamet's responses. Rabbi Kushner clearly described his question in a very deep and what you might call "Professorial" way: the history of the situation, the reasons for asking a question, how one might answer such a question... this being a particularly common way for a Rabbi to ask a question. :) For example: "Let me pose you this question, but considering the comments from Rashi on this matter... and the nature of the human spirit... and the current economic climate... and the election of the first African-American President... so, what do you think about the original question and how it relates to modern American 20-somethings?" :)

Anyhow, I found the breadth of Rabbi Kushner's questions, and the questions from the audience were met with a very terse, very quick, sometimes even 1-word answer from David Mamet. A shrug of the shoulders, a "I don't know", or a quick "Well, I know it must be this way"-style answer without much verbosity, explanation or follow-up. I found that he spoke so much of the importance of Jewish culture and thought, though he failed to elaborate on many of the issues on which he spoke with so much passion. This was a bit unfortunate. I found I enjoyed Rabbi Kushner's questions more often than I appreciated David Mamet's response. Sometimes his response was very interesting, but there were too many times where it was almost forced upon the audience without much follow-up. I'd say for a JCC in San Francisco, and to an audience of sophisticated, educated professionals, you'd err on the side of verbosity rather than the opposite.

David Mamet's responses were very strong, and (almost by necessity) this made his opinions very one-sided. I think this was very interesting, and it is obviously quite amazing to get to hear directly the opinions of such an acclaimed writer and screenwriter. I think, rather than these responses being necessarily negative, I found they made me uncomfortable rather than necessarily keen to disagree with the actual topic. Since I'm from Canada and am living in America as a sort of "outsider", I think I see things with a different flavour... in Canada I'd say it's a golden rule that it's better to agree (or at least quietly and politely listen to someone else's opinion) than to be disagreeable. In the USA, I've run into many occasions where this lack of "unwavering stance" on topics is viewed as weakness, rather than an intentional aim for consensus. I think these kinds of strong-willed ideals - "pick a side" or "you must have a strong opinion on this issue" - are quintessentially American. This kind of attitude is often viewed as strength of character, and a testament of the will and energy and courage of a people. Those traits are certainly admirable, that is for certain. But what I think David Mamet fails to realize, is something that America should be wary of as well - the world is not always that simple. It's not always black and white, and there are more thorough and deep discussions needed to uncover the kernel of an idea. In terms of discussing war, it's not so black and white - small idiosyncrasies of culture need to be taken into account when discussing such an issue. I think he realized that, but I was concerned that on some of the issues he discussed, he seemed to paint a very black-and-white portrait of the situation. In reality, I don't expect that portrait would hold up.

I suppose it makes a lot of sense that in America you have strong-willed personalities like David Mamet. In a way, he is in good company with the polarized nature of the American public. George Bush said it himself in his quote, "You're either with us or you're against us." Election maps in general (although less this year, thanks to the inspirational and passionate efforts of Barack Obama) show a stark difference in opinion in this country - You're a Red state or a Blue state. You're for the Texas Longhorns or you're for the Aggies. You're a Republican or a Democrat. As Sarah Palin so casually blathered, You're either from the REAL America, the "Pro-America parts of the country" or you're from one of those Anti-American parts. To this Obama responded that ALL of America is (obviously) Pro-America. These rivalries are fun for college football, but when taken to the stage of the whole country (or worse, to the world stage), I find these arguments break down. When you look at the electoral map, you see it covered in red and blue states. What you don't get shown very often is that really, nearly every single state is some shade of purple... it takes only 1% extra votes to "turn" a state red or blue. When you think about this, in true reality, nearly all of the country, and all of the states are split right down the middle, republican or democrat. Within states, within regions, within households, even within 1 single person, you have different counterbalanced opinions. I don't believe that the world can be so black-and-white. Humanity is much more complex than that.

I think we reduce ourselves to a lower plane of thought when we view the world through such a polarized lens. To achieve co-operation, to achieve such mighty goals as peace in the Middle East... it comes down to mutual respect, and the willingness of both sides to reach a meaningful and honourable consensus. America the fierce and America the mighty is already showing signs of this kind of thought - Barack Obama today staged a truly valiant effort to reach out to the Muslim and Arabic communities through an interview on an Arabic TV network. His discussion of the need for diplomacy is amazing, mentioning how Iran will find that "America has an extended hand if they are willing to unclench their fist." I think Obama's approach will ultimately be much more human than the approach of the Bush administration, and ultimately I hope (and think) that this will be much more successful. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-French author and director of the film "Persepolis" told the audience at the JCC last year that if you look at your enemy as pure evil, if you demonize an entire people, then you will never find the common ground or common decencies that are bound to exist. I believe, and I think Barack Obama feels the same way, that this common ground is our best bet on an aim for world peace.

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