David Mamet and the Irrelevance of the Actual Meanings of Words

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Andrew Sullivan goes in pretty well on David Mamet's deplorable article which finds him arguing for a world of maximum guns. But like Scott Lemeiux, I was absolutely stunned by this paragraph:


The Founding Fathers, far from being ideologues, were not even politicians. They were an assortment of businessmen, writers, teachers, planters; men, in short, who knew something of the world, which is to say, of Human Nature. Their struggle to draft a set of rules acceptable to each other was based on the assumption that we human beings, in the mass, are no damned good -- that we are biddable, easily confused, and that we may easily be motivated by a Politician, which is to say, a huckster, mounting a soapbox and inflaming our passions.
Which is also to say the Founding Fathers were also slaves, and by slaves I mean white guys who wore wigs. All jest aside, I find the process that produces this sort of work to be utterly amoral. I've said this before, but this is the kind of writing that would get you bounced out of any decent essay writing class at a credible university. Words have meanings. You cannot change the fact that Thomas Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses because it's unfortunate for your argument. Unless you have a name like David Mamet.

The message one derives from this is that power gives you the privilege of lying. If you are big enough, if your name rings out far enough, you may make words mean whatever you want them to mean. I experience this as a kind of violence against language. If we can't agree on the meaning of "is," then we have no ability to talk. And if we have no ability to talk, we really are that much closer to guns.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that Newsweek printed this piece. But I will not retreat into cynicism. I will not allow myself to be unsurprised by the amoral use of words. It must be said that this use is wrong. And if saying so requires me to be old (or young) and naive, I will take it. When those of us who write start expecting that other writers will lie, we are that much closer to lying ourselves.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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