RedEye

Here's David Mamet's Whole Foods problem

When John Mackey, the maverick co-chief executive of Whole Foods, first criticized President Barack Obama's proposed health care law in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, there was an immediate blowback — boycott! boycott! — from the grocery chain's heavy coterie of politically liberal customers.

To the chagrin of many of his staffers and investors, Mackey (not unlike Steve Wynn during the recent presidential election) had violated one of the widely accepted rules of running a public company with a fiduciary duty to shareholders: stay out of politics, lest you offend your customers. That truism applies more to Mackey than Wynn. Desert gamblers are more likely to be anti-government libertarians; urban fans of tofu, not so much. Yet last month the irrepressible Mackey stepped into the fray again, comparing Obamacare with fascism.

Predictably, a sheepish Mackey soon was apologizing for his choice of words on "CBS This Morning" and in other media outlets. After the debacle in 2009, Mackey cooperated with an extensive profile in The New Yorker, published in January 2010, which offered some damage control by painting him not as a right-wing ideologue but as an arty and eclectic individualist intellectual, someone to whom the typical Whole Foods customer could relate. Mackey probably just wants to be himself.

Which brings us to David Mamet, who now would seem to be in a similar pickle, since the worlds of art-house film, high-brow literature and upmarket theater attract a customer (and employee) base that has a good deal in common with the kind of folks you can see trolling the organic carrots at your local Whole Foods. So does Mamet have a Mackey problem?

Well, one of Chicago's most illustrious and important literary sons wrote an incendiary cover story for the online publication Newsweek last week, attacking the Obama administration's proposals in the intensely emotional arena of gun control.

Granted, the rightward shift in Mamet's line of political thinking has been apparent for some time; indeed, Mamet has acknowledged so, quite explicitly. In both his plays and recent prose works, he has attacked various liberal policy positions, both domestic and, especially, in regard to the state of Israel. His most recent play, "The Anarchist," drips with authorial contempt for the ability of the former members of The Weathermen to gain absolution from the mainstream American public despite their earlier violent acts, just as "Race" poked at some of the scared tenants of polite conversation in an America still rattled, subtextually, at least, by racial differences.

Nevertheless, a lot of liberals (some on the quiet) have continued to admire Mamet, respecting both his intellectual rigor and, given the hold political correctness enjoys over the politically homogenous arts community, his independence.

But last week's article, which appeared to borrow talking points from the National Rifle Association, still came as a shock to many. Not least because it seemed to imply in places that Mamet himself was packing heat.

"We need more armed citizens in the schools," Mamet argued, attacking (as did the NRA) Obama's signing a bill authorizing armed protection for his own family but (by implication) denying it to others. "He, evidently, feels that he is best qualified to determine his needs, and, of course, he is," Mamet wrote of the president, "as I am best qualified to determine mine."

Elsewhere, Mamet savaged the reasoning behind affirmative action (implying its underpinnings were rooted in Marxist ideology) and suggested that gun violence in Chicago "runs riot" because "law-abiding citizens" have been disarmed.

The article, which seemed far more explicitly partisan than anything Mamet had written before and seemed timed to impact policy, has been widely criticized from the left, and artistic figures took to social media offering various variations of the lament, "what has happened to our Mamet?" After all, you could argue that Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," penned in 1983, was one of the best takedowns of the brutal amorality of American business ever written.

Many of Mamet's early fans wish he'd remained on the left of the aisle, given his proven ability to cut through intellectual hypocrisy and take on politically loaded topics. Pervasive liberal fantasies this past decade have Mamet savaging everything from tea party politicians to Mitt Romney's about-faces to Abu Ghraib to the apparent lack of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

They are merely fantasies. Artists are not obliged to be reliable political allies. Nor are they corporate executives with associated responsibilities. There are advantages to not having boards of directors worrying about a company's bottom line or thousands of vulnerable employees. The freedom to write what you think in a given moment are the privileges of individual artistry or punditry.

That said, we all have economic masters. Writers need publishers and producers. In Mamet's case, there is some evidence that his political views are not playing well on Broadway: "The Anarchist," which was chock-full of interesting ideas, closed in a matter of days this past fall. You could argue that its failings were mostly aesthetic or production-related. Sure. But the speed of the play's exit still seems to imply that Mamet has picked a harder path for himself in the artistic mainstream, a path made yet rougher by his writings in Newsweek.

Countless demographic studies, from the Theatre Communications Group and others, have shown that those who might agree with Mamet's pro-gun positions are less likely to be consumers of the serious, nonmusical arts. And those people also are much less likely to be arts leaders.

Will fewer theaters produce Mamet's plays? Will his publishers run scared from the new, pro-gun Mamet? Will Hollywood studios? Only time will tell. But the apparent Oscar-related troubles faced by the Kathryn Bigelow movie "Zero Dark Thirty," which some liberal members of the Academy see as validating torture in military prisons, might be a precursor of what is to come for Mamet. He will have to suck it up.

For let us hope, actually, that Mamet sticks to his guns. It would surely be entertaining to see Mamet on network TV walking back his positions, Mackey-style, making his aisles safe and comfortable again for progressives who need their quinoa. But that would be sad. Tragic. Un-American, even.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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