Of Mamet And Chicago
Of Obamas And Elections
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
For someone who strongly disliked the place, and who wanted to and did leave it, I spend a lot of time writing about Chicago. (Even a little may be a lot, considering my dislike of it.) It is difficult to forget how it came about that I left that city for good.
After an undergraduate career that could charitably be described as checkered -- believe me, that is a charitable description -- I had been in the top ten of the class at the Michigan Law School, and had been looking for a job in a private law firm in Chicago, where I grew up. Looking for a job in Chicago, one supposes, was a triumph of inertia; I did not want to go to the behemoth New York, was not smart enough to understand in 1963, as some friends did, that the west coast would be where it’s at, and so just went with the flow in terms of interviewing with big firms in Chicago. But, as happened with most of the other Jewish guys who were in or very close to, say, the top five percent of Michigan’s class of 1963, the big firms interviewed us -- in New York, in Chicago, in other big cities -- but did not hire us, because anti-Semitism was alive and well in the legal profession. There were exceptions, one being a brilliant, blond Nordic looking Jewish guy who was hired by O’Melveny and Myers, a very prominent west coast firm which, perhaps ironically, had had, as one of its moving forces in earlier and mid century, the father of the great writer Paul Fussell. (If memory serves, the father was quite a conservative guy and the family lived in a very conservative area. The great writer, of course, whom I interviewed at his home in Philadelphia for two hours a few years ago for the TV program Books Of Our Time, became completely different politically as a result of his experiences in WWII and, subsequently, in higher education.)
Although there were exceptions, most of us Jews were getting nyets in profusion, while Christian guys whose academic records were nowhere near as good as ours were practically wallowing in offers from major firms. One woman -- a rara avis gender in law classes of 1963 -- who I suppose had an okay academic record and who I think was probably a nice enough person, but whom I never heard referred to as being anywhere near the top of the class, as were the Jews I speak of, even was hired by what I believe was then acknowledged to be one of New York City’s top two or three firms (and which still ranks very highly). While there, she was put in the era’s female ghetto of trusts and estates law, I gather, where she met a truly major New York City banker whose wife had passed away -- let him go unnamed here, but any halfway sophisticated person of perhaps 50 or older would know the name. She married him and has now served on boards for years and years. I always say, cynically but not exactly inaccurately, that of all the smart people in Michigan’s class of 1963 -- which, I’ve often been told, was considered by Michigan for years and years to be its best class ever – she nevertheless was the one who did by far the best after law school.
I’ve written in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam about what happened to the graduating Jews of Michigan’s law class of 1963, and of what I consider the law school’s culpability in telling us that, if we worked hard and did well academically, the law firms would be open to us because their prejudice against Jews was declining. For the firms to be open to us was at that time a version of the American Dream. We had worked hard. We had done well, even very well. But the law firms were not open to us. Michigan had simply misled us. For its own purposes it had inculcated one fictitious version of the American Dream. To be sure, in part its purposes were laudable: a belief in oncoming liberalization, a hope of declining prejudice. And ultimately, in later years, Michigan became right. Thus it was that, when asked by Attorney General Edward Levi in the early or mid 1970s to find out why the quality of leg al work in the Department of Justice had been declining, Bob Bork, after investigating, told Levi the reason was that the law firms were now taking Jews. It is also my understanding that Levi later jokingly said that the way to restore the quality of the Department’s legal work was to reestablish anti-Semitism.
To the comments of Bork and Levi, I would add that another factor affecting the quality of the DOJ’s legal work was that somewhat before they began taking Jews, the law firms began taking Catholics -- yes, Catholics, who were fellow Christians, not even supposedly Christ killing Jews -- were likewise kept out of major law firms for decades. When the firms began taking Catholics somewhat before they began taking Jews, the Department of Justice lost another source of extremely competent lawyers who had come to work for it because they were excluded from private firms.
All of this seeming digression is relevant to, and will come back in the context of, a point I will make later with regard to Barack and Michelle Obama. But, for now, let me return to the thread of how it was that I left Chicago. In addition to interviewing with Chicago firms, I also applied to the Department of Justice honors program in Washington. Whether this was done before, or because, things were looking dim at the firms, is a matter which escapes memory. But anyway, later in the game, when the handwriting on the wall was clear, the DOJ called me in Ann Arbor and offered me a job in D.C. When I hung up the phone, all the dislikes, resentments and rejections of a then young lifetime boiled up, boiled over. My fist slammed the table -- hard -- and I told my wife that I would never go back to that goddamn city (Chicago); I was going to accept the DOJ offer and go to Washington; and that was that. I did go to Washington -- which later began to have its own generalized problems, as the whole country has now known for decades -- and never went back to Chicago, not even when once offered a very unusual opportunity there in 1971 (which also is written of in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam).
As said, despite a dislike for the city which I’ve never gotten over and which continues to exist even though so many people have now told me for so many years about what a wonderful place it has become, I find myself writing about Chicago more often than one would have thought. It must be a case of you can take the boy off of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. Or maybe it’s that, for anybody, one’s youth is ever haunting, the more so when one learns that the customs, styles, language, habits, and ideas of his youth are not widely shared or even shared at all elsewhere, though life has taken him elsewhere. Thus it is, for example, that I sometimes find myself writing about a certain Chicago style of speech and writing that is not widely shared, or shared at all, elsewhere -- that is positively disliked elsewhere in real life, though so many people like it in the fictional (or fictionalized) work of Saul Bellow (whose work I ironically find unreadable). This is the style that mixes vast erudition with very bad language, like the word fuck (which is one of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, isn’t it?). This sort of mixing doesn’t go down in most places I’ve lived; the use of the bad words stamps one with the mark of Cain. But in my recollection it is par for the course in Chicago; no one looks askance. It also represents, to me, a kind of Hofferian dichotomy. I’ve always admired Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who was also a philosopher. To me this kind of dichotomy -- call it paradox, if you wish -- is often real life, and, when you’ve grown up, as I did, in an environment that is working class in mentality (albeit sometimes people had begun doing somewhat better financially), the intellectual side of the paradox is something to be sought. There is a reason, one tied to my own background, why our law school, at one and the same time, is aimed at providing rigorous, practically oriented legal education and consequent social mobility to people from the working class, minorities, immigrants and mid-life folks, while simultaneously producing very intellectual television programs that have won hundreds of awards, putting on high level conferences on crucial intellectual subjects (usually non-legal, but instead historical or political subjects), putting out a high level intellectual journal on the same kind of subjects, and so forth. The reason I speak of might be called the Hofferian imperative, or maybe, in less high flown words, the Chicago style. On the one hand be practical, help the small guys of the earth, be real, not elitist. On the other hand, be intellectual. That’s what it’s goddamn all about (if you get the joke).
My latest exposure to the dichotomy has come in reading part of a biography of, and a book of essays by, David Mamet, the famous playwright, who grew up in Chicago. (One of his most famous works, Glengarry Glen Ross, is set just a short distance from where I grew up on Chicago’s North Side. Joseph Epstein and Ira Berkow grew up in the same neighborhood at the same time, but have entirely or mainly managed to escape writing the bad words I use. Ah well, eff it.) Time and time again in the biography (by Ira Nadel), and occasionally in the book of essays, the dichotomous Chicago combination of high and low culture is discussed. I shall quote what is said fairly extensively: this is due to an insecurity born of fear of being said to mislead. The quotes allow you, the reader, to judge for yourself whether the description of views provided here is right or wrong (and so is, in regard to principle applicable in a different context, quite the opposite of the Harvardian and other plagiarism (and intellectual theft) so often decried in these postings because they inherently mislead as to authorship and are thus implicitly inaccurate). Sometimes the dichotomy is highly explicit in the quotations. Sometimes it is implicit but inescapable:
It [Chicago] was also the home of Harriet Monroe’s modernist journal, Poetry (Ezra Pound, foreign editor) and Playboy, edited by Hugh Hefner. Such incongruities appealed to Mamet, a man who is South Side street-smart and well-read.
Mamet presents himself as an average Joe and an intellectual. His favorite hat for years was a crumpled baseball cap with “Twelfth Night” written on the front. He will say “ain’t” in one sentence and quote Tolstoy in the next. Nadel, David Mamet, p.3.
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Later in his writings, the street tough style would mix with the bohemian. Nadel, p.4.
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Later work has alternately been vilified as foul and obscene and praised as profound and honest. Nadel, p.8.
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The hostility and profanity of his plays . . . . Nadel, p.18.
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Mamet embodies Sherwood Anderson’s remark that “for a long time I have believed that crudity is an inevitable quality in the production of a really significant present-day American literature.” Nadel, p.5.
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Chicago united the populist and the intellectual, a union that Mamet still praises. It is the citizen’s willingness to discuss Nietzsche or Kipling in any bar, and the knowledge that literature is an organic part of the people. Individuality defines its own culture, with the autodidact the ideal, especially when he absorbs the ideas of a “European freethinker” (CA 56). This liberalism, coupled with earlier celebrations of the city’s democratic roots -- see William Dean Howells or H.L. Mencken on its early life -- dominates its literary landscape. Nadel, p.17.
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The Chicago style is harsh because it does not tolerate evasion. Chicago audiences are, in turn, difficult to fool; they want things to be on the level, to hear things straight (Case 29). Nadel, p.5.
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The program was Chicago. It was the Chicago of the living culture of the mind. The Chicago of Hutchins, and the tradition of free thought: the Hyde Park tradition of Thorstein Veblen and Clarence Darrow, of Vachel Lindsay, of Dreiser.
The idea in the air was that culture was what we, the people, did. The idea was -- and is -- that we were surrounded by culture. It was not alien to us. It was what the people did and thought and sang and wrote about. The idea was the particularly Chicagoan admixture of the populist and the intellectual. The model, the Hutchins model, the Chicago model of the European free thinker, was an autodidact: a man or woman who so loved the world around him or her that he or she was moved to investigate it further -- either by creating works of art or by appreciating those works. Mamet, The Cabin, pp.55 and 56.
Now, when I grew up in Chicago, the cultural part of Mamet’s (far broader) experience was not part of my world. The more’s the pity for me. Perhaps my feelings about the city would be different if it had been. But what was part of my world was the dichotomy of gutter speech and serious subjects, what Sherwood Anderson called the ‘“crudity [that is] an inevitable quality in the production of a really significant present day American literature.’”
Mamet also had another experience in Chicago that was similar to mine, an experience that shapes views which, I have found, and have written in Alabaster, do not go down well in most of the circles of America in which I’ve lived as an adult (or, for that matter, in which I’ve lived from my junior year in high school onward). Let me quote from Nadel:
Mamet’s father, Bernard, was born “right off the boat” and raised during the Depression. Bernard’s family had little money and brought nothing from the shtetl except a soon-to- be-despised language, Yiddish. Bernard’s father, however, left his wife, Calara (Mamet would name his third daughter, Clara, after her), who then had to bring up the family by herself. The poverty transformed the son, Bernard (Bernie), into a driven man: he put himself through Wilson Junior College and “bluffed” his way into Northwestern Law School using a forged transcript. He ended up first in his class, edited the law review, and was inducted into their legal honor society. After graduation, he worked for the law firm then headed by Arthur Goldberg, who would become a Supreme Court Justice and then U.N. Ambassador. At the time, the firm represented the United Steel Workers Union and later the AFL-CIO. Nadel, p.12.
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Mamet’s sympathy for the underdog and working stiffs derives in part from his father’s identity with a world Mamet saw firsthand. Occasionally, when Bernie went to visit a union leader, the young Mamet would go along, observing the talk, attitudes, and mannerisms of these working men. The family was “comfortably middle class” but Bernie Mamet was conscious of “the fear of poverty,” which he shared with his family. Nadel, p.13.
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As a labor lawyer, Bernie Mamet was constantly aware of workers’ conditions and exploitation. He put in long hours at his law office at 327 S. LaSalle in downtown Chicago, working continuously to secure his situation, always feeling under pressure. The strong, upwardly mobile aspirations of the parents also meant demands on the children to succeed, Bernie Mamet never let them forget how the disadvantaged had to struggle and rely only on themselves to succeed. Nadel, pp.14-15.
Finally, there is the question of being an outsider -- but one with honest feelings -- and cynicism and sentimentality. Here is what Nadel says:
The Chicago style mixes a survivor’s cynicism and a streak of sentimentality without obliterating honest feelings. A writer in Chicago is not in the center of a national literary culture but is on its margins “not by absorbing the national tradition but by pretending to know nothing of it.” Mamet, as he repeatedly states, feels like an outsider, the result of being a Jew, a writer, and a Chicago author: “But the question,” he emphasizes, “is not how to get into the country club. The question is ‘what’s going on here?” Nadel, p.25.
I would suppose it needless to say, at least to those who read these posts with any regularity, or even now and again, that this writer is an outsider, partly stemming from being a Jew, with strong feelings honestly held, who is both cynical towards, but one fears unhappily accurate about, what goes on in this country, and is not untouched by sentimentality. Holmes said about his generation of Civil War veterans that they had had a piece of great good fortune: When they were young, their hearts had been touched by fire. Indeed. Indeed. It is just so for others too, though for different reasons.
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All of this, believe it or not, brings me to Barack and Michelle Obama.
I have described above what happened to Jews of the Michigan law class of 1963. This had been par for the course for decades before 1963. As well, for decades Jews couldn’t move into lots of residential areas, book into lots of hotels, join lots of country clubs, gain admission to lots of colleges, or make a career in engineering, in banking, or in big business. Then, after 1963, this country fought horrendous, useless wars, has killed people literally by the millions, has rewarded crooks with billions of dollars, has let the middle class go downhill (as they lo se jobs too), rarely punishes, and even more rarely punishes severely, the white collar and political criminals who do these things, although these horrors are unlikely ever to end until people like Lay, Ebbers, Kozlowski, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc., etc. go to the slammer or, in the case of the criminal warmongers and torture mongers, go to the gallows. No, not everything is bad. For yes, there has been some material progress -- we have the internet, better TV sets, better cars, cell phones, and iPods, although we probably eat far less healthily. Yes, many African Americans have a better chance in life than before, viz. the Obamas themselves. Women too have a better chance. Nonetheless, as a general matter, this country has an exceptional a mount to be ashamed of, an exceptional amount.
But when Michelle Obama -- who, as an African American, has even more to be angry about than even the Jews of my generation -- uttered this truth by saying that her husband’s candidacy and its reception were the first time she had ever been proud of America, she caught hell in the media and elsewhere. Giving her hell in the media, among the pols, in the right wing talk show/TV machine is another triumph of the effing Yahoos who are everywhere in this country.
Michelle Obama is a native Chicagoan. In the Chicago style remarked by Mamet’s biographer, she spoke in a way that “does not tolerate evasion,” in a way that is “on the level,” so the audience would “hear things straight.” And for that, for telling the truth straight, she caught her lunch.
Well, to put it in the traditional Chicago style, fuck that.
This is not and for decades has never been a country that, to repeat Nadel, wants “honest expression of the text,” that “does not tolerate evasion,” that “want(s) things to be on the level, to hear things straight.” Those traits are Chicagoisms. They are not Americanisms. Americanisms are the lie, the bull shit, the expression of falsehoods that sound good. Michelle Obama’s problem is that she told it straight, told it as she feels about it, as she feels about it with much justification. America’s problem is that it does not want to discuss whether there is truth in what someone says, but instead wants to hear only bullshit that makes people thoughtlessly think well of what we do. Well, I say good for Michelle Obama.
To be sure, it is perhaps unseemly for Obama to say her own husband’s candidacy and its reception is the first time she’s been proud of America. That is surely inconsistent with the modesty taught in the Chicago of my youth, a trait which apparently reflected, at least in part, the Swedish influence in the Midwest. (And a trait which, like all Washingtonian political, media and legal types, Bob Woodward, originally from the Chicago area, has managed to extensively overcome, shall we say, if he ever had it to begin with.) But even if it were unseemly for her to say it in the context where she did say it, Mrs. Obama had vast truth as justification, and by rights people ought to debate the truth of her remark, instead of crucifying it for merely being said.
I gather, moreover, that lots of African Americans hold feelings similar to hers, which they express privately among themselves. And so do a lot of whites have similar feelings, although we almost never express them, even among ourselves, because we live too much in the all pervasive white yahoo world or its offshoots.
As for her husband’s views on her view, one cannot really know for sure at this point. I gather he has made much of his career as a “bringer together” of people, perhaps even as far back as Harvard Law Review days, if memory serves. (I believe I first heard about him at that time of his life, when he was written up in some publication or other because his achievement of being a black President of the Harvard Law Review was so rare, unique in fact.) He is still presenting himself as a bringer together.
What is more, I have to say that, unlike the derision with which I regard most political speeches, even all other political speeches, I think his recent speech on race was tremendous. It was the best political speech of my adult lifetime. True, it was way too long. True, though on the one hand he defended Reverend Wright -- many, though not all, of whose views are, like Michelle Obama’s one gathers, widely shared in the black community and among lots of us whites -- on the other hand he threw Wright under the bus overmuch, threw him under the bus many more times than he had to in what I took to be pandering to widely prevalent yahooism, pandering to people whose votes he wants and who are determined to loathe Wright.
Wright’s style of speech and presentation by the way, for which the Yahoos hate him, certainly seems to be what one is reading about when one reads of the early days of new white Protestant religions in America, although his style and presentation is foreign to today’s white churches. Moreover, it is a style which, one reads, is common to the particular denomination, especially in South Side Chicago, and has much in common with Sherwood Anderson’s remark that ‘“crudity is an inevitable quality in the production of a really significant present day American literature’” (emphasis added), i.e., in the production of real truth. These are still more reasons why Obama was far too excessive in the number of times he threw Wright under the bus.
But as to what Obama really thinks despite his toing and froing on Wright, who knows? It is admittedly a little hard to believe that someone who has lived for years with a woman who holds the views his wife holds, does not share those views to some major extent. It is also hard to believe he does not share to a significant extent the views of a pastor whose church he went to for so long and to whom he apparently was close. In fact, in the circumstances it might be thought somewhat disgraceful and hypocritical for Obama to have thrown Wright under the bus at all, let alone as much as he did.
Maybe, however, people ought to focus on a different point. Assume, as I do, that Obama agrees extensively with his wife and his long time pastor. Then the significant point might be that he seems willing to rise above, to put aside, bitter if justified views, and to work for and seek common meeting grounds. I know that I can’t and wouldn’t rise above and put aside the justified bitter views about what this too yahoo country has been and done. As for other candidates, Hillary Clinton claims s he wants to change things, but can’t even admit she ever made a mistake, and is a known dissembler for advantage, if not an outright liar like her husband. Is that what you want for President? As for McCain, he not only has done bad things when he thought it would help him (viz. the Keating business, joining Bush’s war by beating its drums in the last year or two), but proclaims that he will do more of the same -- the 100 year war, for example. Is that what you want for President? Especially when, as Bill Maher said, and as is so common in McCain’s (and my) generation, he seems to believe in war as the natural state of things.
So maybe the crucial point is not what Obama believes in his heart of hearts, but the fact that he seems willing to rise above what he thinks there, in the interest of a greater good.
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There is one thing, however, that Obama has never shown any sign of believing, but which one thinks essential. It is not something any current candidate has ever given any sign of believing, although it is a lead pipe cinch America will never change in the long run without it. The failure of change without it is a lead pipe cinch because, over the long run, America never has changed without it since the days of Jackson -- it never has changed without it despite the crookedness of the gilded age, of the 1920s, of the Johnsonian, Nixonian, Kissingerian days, of the Reagan Administration’s Iran Contra mess, of Bush II’s criminality, etc. What I am speaking of is the necessity, alluded to earlier, that the people who lie, cheat, steal, rob the middle class, defy laws of war and American domestic law about war, be prosecuted, be put in the slammer, and go to the gallows, when and if found guilty of a crime. Unless and until this starts being done, and I stress the need for the gallows when the crime warrants it, we will never be without major crooks, without causers of major disasters, in big business, in government, in economics and in war. Indeed, people like this are preening now, are not so secretly delighted now, because they got rid of their nemesis Spitzer due to his own recklessness, stupidity, arrogance, unhappiness at home, or whatever it was that caused him to do things that were simply a disaster waiting to happen. Nor has there been much comment on what seems to be the somewhat unusual steps taken by the FBI to insure (ala Don Riegelman and others?) that this thorn in the side of big business and Republicans be removed from public life.
The fundamental point remains that unless and until we start putting those who effed over scores of millions of us in the slammer for years on end -- and not in one of those federal hotel type slammers either, but in real slammers -- and unless and until we start sending the even worse criminal warmongers and torture mongers to the gallows, we will in the long run keep getting more of the same. We will recoil from one disaster only to find ourselves facing a similar economic or warmongering disaster five or ten or twenty years from now. As to the economic and business side of it, by now nobody needs persuading that one disaster can and does follow another. As for the war mongering side, who, if he or she lived through Viet Nam, would have thunk it could happen again, yet Bush and Cheney and their fellow mental dwarfs saw to it that it did.
Obama gives no sign about accepting, let alone believing, any of this. Nor, being a practical politician, does he ever talk about it. Nor, one is sure, does he want to talk about it lest yahoos have a field day on behalf of Clinton and McCain. It is up to those who are willing to accept the Chicagoesque but non-American habit of truth and straight talk to keep pushing this, to push it so as to prepare the ground for it if and after Obama is elected, while hoping for such election because Obama does seem the only candidate likely to change much of the abhorrent in this country. But a permanent shift away from the abhorrent -- here no less than in countries which once were dire threats to a decent world but now seem at least as good democracies as we are, if not perhaps even better ones, Germany and Japan -- will require prosecution and maximum punishment of those responsible for the criminal disasters.
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