It's a good rule of thumb for a magazine journalist that you should probably pass on the assignment if you have nothing unflattering to say about a profile subject. Nobody is flawless, and if you lack the guts (or the heart) to point out those flaws, then you're not giving your reader a complete or even a fair picture of the individual in question. The wisdom of this rule is almost always found in the absence of its application, and one is hard pressed to imagine a more thorough illustration of this than the current Weekly Standard cover story on the playwright David Mamet, authored by Andrew Ferguson.
Mamet has become a Republican, and Ferguson can barely contain his admiration for the man's courage, his wisdom, or even his glasses. Ferguson apparently flew out to Stanford to watch Mamet give a lecture there, and perhaps to justify the expense, he felt compelled to try to build the appearance into a "Daniel in the Lion's Den" kind of melodrama.
Mamet apparently offered "a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible."
He also apparently had some unflattering things to say about the current state of higher education, which led Ferguson to "[t]he implicit conclusion ... that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle -- a 'shuck,' as Mamet called it."
Well, it's hard to judge what an author insists was "implicit," since by definition that means nobody said it. Ferguson's imagination takes him even further when he describes dramatic-sounding "ripples of dissatisfaction issued from the older members of the crowd."
Just what constituted these ripples? Here's everything Ferguson's got: "Two couples in front of me shot looks to one another as Mamet went on -- first the tight little smiles, then quick shakes of the head, after a few more minutes the eye-rolls, and finally a hitchhiking gesture that was the signal to walk out. Several others followed, with grim faces."
That's it. No shouts from the crowd. No protest marches, chants, catcalls, or signs unfurled calling the speaker a fascist like the good old days when I was in school. Just a few eye rolls and a quick exit that was just as likely because their babysitter had a test the next day or they promised their children a game of Mario Kart on the family Wii as any alleged anger at the speaker.
Ferguson attempts to explain the sources of Mamet's conversion from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. But, sadly, it's almost impossible to make sense of the argument as presented
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