Of Mamet and Madoka
Bear with me, this is going to be a strange one.
For the last few months, I’ve been following a Japanese TV show, an anime, called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, sometimes refered to as Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Aside from some of the junkiest of junk science, which I can forgive given that this is a fantasy series, the show is excellent. This fan-made trailer gives a good overall impression of the tone and direction of the show without spoiling the plot:
Update: Video removed by YouTube at request of Sony. Most unfortunate, as it was quite awesome.
To me, the theme is about the struggle against despair. The mahou shoujo, or magical girls, always start out with a lofty set of ideals that eventually break down in the face of reality. They face a tragic downward spiral of disenchantment, bitterness, and ultimately become consumed by despair. The world doesn’t live up to their expectations so they turn against it. Their idealism turns destructive.
So what, you may ask, does this have to do with David Mamet?
Several years ago Mamet published an article titled, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” which I just recently came across.
As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.
This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.
And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years.
As Ace observed at the time, “it’s the stance of the disappointed utopian who, emotionally upset that not everything is perfect, begins claiming that everyhing is terrible.”
This is the same conceit that leads to the downfall of the mahou shoujo. They start out fighting for the sake of protecting people, but when others don’t meet their expectations, they begin to ask themselves if they were wrong to try and save people at all.
Another interesting parallel is the contract that is the basis of the mahou shoujo, much like the social contract that forms the basis of a society. In both cases, the outcome stems directly from what forms the foundation of the contract. In Madoka, the girls Sayaka and Kyouko made contracts that ultimately wanted people to behave a certain way, and when they didn’t, they turned against them. The contract became its own reason for being, rather than the people they were meant to help.
In the case of Socialism, the idea is that if you structure society on the premise that everyone is naturally kind and generous, that people will respond by being kind and generous. The assumption is that people are inherently good. Communism, as Lenin conceived it, conceded that people will not simply abandon their own interests of their own free will, but assumed that you could structure in such a way as to force them to do so. The assumption is that people are not perfect, but you can make them be perfect. Both are variations on what Mamet referred to as the liberal (or perfectionist) view, that of intrinsic human perfection. History has shown over and over that building on such unsound foundations results in collapse. As with the mahou shoujo contract, the liberal social contract ends up only trying to maintain itself, rather than those it was ostensibly meant to benefit.
In contrast we have the conservative (or tragic) view as represented by Capitalism. The basis is that people are what they are, self-interested stemming from their animal nature, and that they cannot be corrected or perfected. Instead of trying to shoehorn people into a social structure based on liberal ideals, the society is engineered around human nature. The result has been a nation of unprecedented prosperity where even our poor enjoy a quality of life that the vast majority of the planet’s population only dreams of.