David Mamet is the University of Texas at Austin’s prize literary celebrity trophy case possession. His papers are in the Harry Ransome Center, and he makes biannual or thereabouts visits to Austin and UT. UT’s president, William Powers, to his credit, periodically teaches a Freshman general studies course and uses Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, book and movie, as a text. Mamet’s big UT event this year was an on-stage conversation with UT’s president, with a Q&A session afterwards, held at the Student Union Theater, followed by a showing of The Spanish Prisoner.
The 350 seat theater was 100% full for this event. About one third of the audience were UT students, but as is usually the case with serious literary/political events anywhere in Austin, the majority of the audience was silverhaired non-UT types, west Austin members of the socioeconomic upper strata and solid members of Austin’s dominant political class. Probably a fairly high percentage of the regional over-50 intelligentsia was represented there. As to where the 25-50 year old intelligentsia was, no telling–they never show up at anti war rallies and other political events, either. Mamet was right entertaining on his end of the conversation–quick-witted, amusing, and quite open and unafraid of his opinionatedness. Powers was fairly dull, and didn’t have anything to say original or interesting, like most professors I had at UT.
In his youth Mamet worked in some sort of fraudulent real estate sales office, and he said that a big part of what he picked up from that experience was an appreciation of human greed as a motivating factor for human behavior and action. That and an interest in exploring the gradiations between unsavory to unethical to criminal business behavior. Where are the lines drawn? Discussing that led inevitably enough to two questions about the current economic crisis. Both of these questions were answered by a statement that the current economic problems can be traced to the US government’s manipulations in the banking industry that for political reasons put too many people, the “wrong people” in houses because the government forced banks to give up redlining. Seem to recall hearing “minorities” somewhere in his answer, too. Both times a fair chunk, a third to half, of the audience gave him a good vigorous round of applause–only answer of his that got any big applause.
Probably we don’t have any more reason to expect a playwright to know more than movie stars do about political-economic issues. I didn’t expect an audience as educated and well read as this one not to buy into Mamet’s reiteration of the Rush Limbaugh financial crisis explanation of “The Government made the banks lend money to ‘minorities'” as much and as enthusiastically as they did. Buying into it as enthusiastically as they did bothers me a lot. First, that they know so little about the workings of the financial system and its problems to believe something this economically and financially ignorant. Second is that they, the Austin Texas white reasonably liberal intelligentsia baby boomers, have internalized so deeply the idiot Republicanoid propaganda of “Government is the Problem”, which has been the steady relentless deep propaganda of the right-wing and monied interests for the past several decades. Third that the audience isn’t hip to the covert racism of all the talk about “the wrong people” (or “minorities”) buying homes because redlining was abolished. You just can’t be so tone-deaf not to hear “Niggers!” shouted out when right-wingers say “the wrong people”. Maybe the audience was worried and wasn’t paying attention to what Mamet was saying, and were just responding to the fact that he said something forthright on their biggest worry. I don’t know if that makes me feel better, that such a large percentage of this country’s over-50 intelligentsia is deaf, instead of being stupid and bigoted.
UT is Texas’ flagship university, one with pretensions to being in the top league of American universities. Somehow it didn’t seem fitting to me that UT’s president was there on stage, and there by implication endorsing, Mamet’s ignorant racist nonsense. After the necessary pro-forma call of complaint to Powers’ office, and to the daily newspaper monopoly, I decided to play the ace in the hole that every citizen has who lives in a state capitol has, namely going to the Capitol building and personally bitching to the legislators. Or at least their office staffs.* I went off to the members of the Black Legislative Caucus with an account of Mamet’s performance, and talked to their front office staff.
First thing I noticed is that most of the staffers didn’t have the reading skills I’d like to see them have; slow readers all. Well, hell, they all are products of Texas public schools since No Child Left Behind was passed. Staffers who were from older, more established legislators were more professionally distant and weren’t inclined to comment any on the article I’d written I was showing them. Younger staffers, ones too broke for upscale clothing, were more open and hip and were much more willing to talk about things, and as far as any Black American is willing to discuss race issues with a white stranger, they were willing to, and their displeasure with Mamet’s idiocy was obvious. Running a piece with the N word by black people you don’t know requires skating on thin ice; I broke through once, dammit. I stressed to all of them the importance of this lie of Rush’s not being allowed to spread any further, and how wrong it was for UT’s flagship university to be endorsing it. I asked all of them to have their bosses to phone out to UT and put Powers’ feet to the fire on this issue. They all promised to make sure the boss saw the article, and I’m sure they all did.
Nothing happened from: A) Powers’ office B) The newsmedia, who’d I’d spoonfed this story, (particularly the Daily Texan, the student newspaper) and C) the Legislature. The conclusion is obvious. Things are therefore working just fine here in Austin, Texas, USA, and my concerns about institutional and personal racism in UT’s senior administration, in the University of Texas itself, and in the Austin over-50 intelligentsia, are quite unfounded. The Texas Legislature’s Black Caucus agrees as well. The only question this leaves is whether or not the appropriate policy to take regarding the current economic crisis is to take actions against the “wrong people” who got us in the current predicament, or should we instead take actions against the Government that was their partner in this crime. Perhaps both? I await an answer from both the local intelligentsia and the local professorsiat, and no doubt will shortly read about it in the hardworking and industrious local newspaper.
Just how big an insult to Black America can you get away with these days, anyway?
*At least in Texas ordinary people can wander around the Capitol and walk into legislators’ offices. Things might well be different in other parts of the country, particularly after 9-11, which event has, as anyone not in a coma knows, given anyone with any pretensions of importance an excuse to put a rent-a-cop between themselves and the general public, and keep those pests from bothering you. Like US Congressman Lloyd Doggett has.