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How David Mamet Predicted the War on Terror

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One of the good things about moving is that it shakes shit loose.

Yesterday, while unboxing books and putting them on shelves in my new apartment, I noticed an uncorrected proof of David Mamet's slim book of essays, Make-Believe Town, which was published in 1996 and which I hadn't read since. Always on the lookout for a break, I sat down and thumbed through it.

Among the essays there's one called "Demagoguery." To Mamet, our slavish attention to box office grosses ("Everyone else seems to like it, do you mean to dispute them?") is just one example of demagoguery, and one way the mass media corrupts culture and turns it into mere entertainment. "Demagoguery" is a short essay, but at the end there's the following passage, which, in 1996, I underlined:

The demagogue endorses the individual's greed and hatred, and calls the practice enlightenment. The demagogue arises in times of uncertainty and allays the uncertainty with a lie: It is not that the world is a difficult place, but rather that some group is conspiring against you -- destroy them and all will be well.

Obviously the quote reminds us of Pres. Bush and the aftermath of 9/11 (and obviously some group is conspiring against us; it's the following line, "destroy them and all will be well," that rings false), but I think I originally underlined it because Pres. Reagan and the Soviet Union came to mind. It's less a matter of Mamet predicting the future than presenting the universal.

You can find such preceding echoes about 9/11 everywhere; you don't even have to look for them. I just wrote a piece for MSNBC on movie lawyers, and half the films I watched, from the 1940s to the 1990s, reminded me of the aftermath of 9/11. In Judgment at Nuremberg, Richard Widmark, a U.S. prosecutor, says, "That's the thing about Americans: We're not cut out to be occupiers." 'Breaker' Morant, about the British fighting the Boers in South Africa, and not knowing which natives to trust and which to kill, might as well be the U.S. in Iraq (or the U.S. in Vietnam) -- right down to low-level soldiers being put on trial for institutional failures and politics.

Then there's The Ox-Bow Incident -- a 75-minute gem from 1943 in which Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan are witnesses to a publicly sanctioned lynching. A local rancher is murdered and his cattle rustled, and the town forms a posse to get the men who did it. One impatient member of the posse says, "Down in Texas, where I come from, we just go out and get a man and string him up," and that's basically what they do. In the mountains they capture three men -- innocent, it turns out -- one of whom says the following before being hanged:

Justice? What do you care about justice? You don't even care whether you've got the right men or not. All you know is you've lost something and somebody's got to be punished.

There's always a slight thrill when you come across one of these preceding echoes. For a moment you think, "Here it is! The answer! If only we'd been paying attention at the time, things wouldn't be the way they are now." A moment later the other shoe drops.

As administrations go, Bush 43 is a particularly insular and myopic one, and most of us are counting the days until it's history. "This, too, shall pass," we think. All of these preceding echoes suggest a sad corollary: "This, too, shall return."