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Designated Criminal Reason has been superseded by the need to obey

We are all heretics now (Getty)

December 28, 2021   9 mins

I look forward to being a grandparent. I watch my newly married daughter with her puppy and volunteer lessons with which she might eventually afflict her kids. My advice is scorned not because it is incorrect, but because she, rightly, finds it impertinent. What might I acceptably tell her of child rearing?

Two things. As these are not philosophies but tricks, they are less likely to affront; one can always say of a trick (and what are techniques but elaborated tricks?), “I just learned this last week…”

First: when the baby gets you up in the middle of the night, do not look at the clock. Anyone who’s had children will nod in understanding — you’re up anyway, why pay twice?

The second trick is The Designated Criminal.

My notion of hell is the cross-country road trip with the whole damn family. Here everything, of course, is always going wrong. Some kid is complaining, spouses are feuding about directions, and all is misery. Now this traveler and now that offends against reason and good order and everyone ends up blaming Father, who, as the sole voice of reason, will now turn belligerent. Hot, tired, weary, angry, thirsty and lost, the car rolls on.

How to get from Coast to Coast? Appeals for calm (from Mother), obedience (that’s right), fellow-feeling, and so on will not avail. But a technique (trick) may. It is The Designated Criminal.

On setting out the family must establish a rotation. Each car member, then, on his appointed day, will be The Designated Criminal. On his lucky day, everything that goes wrong in the car is his fault. The affronted family are happily then leagued against the diabolical offender in their midst.

It works like a charm.

But The Designated Criminal may also be practised as oppression. For there are families and other organisms which employ the technique not as a means of maintaining esprit-de-corps, but of exercising control. Here the criminal is designated once and for all time, and will live and die in his chains.

In the co-dependant family one child or parent is always in the wrong. We have all seen it and some have been taxed with participating in the loathsome farce: that Dad is a fool, Mom is a dunderhead, Little Bob is a lazy good-for-nothing, Little Suzy is a pre-pubescent whore and if she doesn’t wear more modest clothes she will end on the street, and so on.

And we know of the continual indictment of The Jews, the Witch Trials of Salem and McCarthy, the chattel slavery of Black Americans, and the continuation of that vile racism as the indictment of Whites.

The mechanism of the Designated Criminal can be used both for social equilibrium, in the car, or, politically, for disruption of the body politic. The first case, The Orderly Rotation of Blame, is the essential engine of democracy. The Game’s Rules (The Constitution) are designed to ensure the periodic exchange of power. The Ins and the Outs, and their adherents and dupes, may not understand the transfer of power as a game; but they are involved in one as much as the folks in the station wagon.

The motorists enjoy a process which elevates family unity over individual discomfort; the voters, the self-importance of saving the world from mindless fools. But it’s the same game.

If played according to the rules the rotation of power promotes the health and longevity of the organism. The Ins are allowed to tax the limits of legitimate incumbency, the Outs to misuse the permitted latitudes of opposition. And then, as in a football game, offense and defence shift.

But what if the game is not played according to Hoyle?

What if a player or contingent takes advantage of the rules themselves to achieve a goal other than balance? What if put-upon Dad, for example, says, “I know which Young Traveller is today’s Designated Criminal, but Samantha has just done something so egregious that I am going to suspend the rules and humiliate her”.

Readers will feel the affront of the interjection. As will not only young Samantha, but the whole family. For they had agreed to suspend their individual feelings in favour of group unity. And Dad has just proclaimed that they were fools to do so — that they had made a bargain which, it seems, the car’s driver reserved the right to abrogate, and, thus, that anyone may be the next-accused.

Now, the once-happy car, all occupants free to enjoy not only the trip but the game, are forced into co-dependence. The game is over, and the Ref (of whose existence the car was previously unaware) has ruled that actual indictment of the other is now the order of the day and those not supporting the new rule will suffer. The enjoyment of Free Speech has been superseded by the necessity of obedience to power. The car has just experienced Terror.

The occupants, now, do not know what the new rules are, but only that they, having been changed once, may continue to be changed at will, by those possessing or bidding for power. Now, rather than the joy of improvisation (of the communal comedy), the rule of silence, obedience and denunciation is in force.

This is the state of the sick, co-dependant family. Here it is not that some things may be false, but that all things must be false. For if the subordinate members do not know what is and what is not permitted, they must devote themselves, in preference to any productive activity, to protection from power.

Far worse than the frowns of the car which does not know The Designated Criminal we now have the false smiles and the sad head shakings of the sick family, which is to say, of the Left.

When we know that it’s our turn on the electoral ducking stool tomorrow, we, when in power, may moderate our behaviour. In a crumbling Democracy, the power-mad, like Dad taking the reins, have come to the Dictator’s realisation. That is, “Wait a second. All I have to do is rig it so I can hold my seat indefinitely”. This, of course, is the aperçu of most every politician from dogcatcher to President, down through time. (George III said of Washington that if he chose to relinquish the Presidency he would be the greatest man who ever lived.)


One cannot credit the Politicians of the Left with even the delusion that they are Doing Good. And, if they do, then what? They did not take an oath to do good, but to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

Must they come to bend and break the rules in favour of 1) their good ideas, 2) the necessity of staying in office, 3) theft? Of course. That’s why we have elections. To roll the dice. The co-dependant, terrified society comes to think that, having achieved the perfection of leadership, it’s a grand idea to call it quits, abolish the electoral college, mail ballots to everyone on earth, require no voter identification, import new voters, and so on.

Just as the inspired politicians see that perpetual hegemony might be had by mere suspension of their Oath; their dupes, the electorate, learn to suspend their reason, and substitute hatred of the indicted for their new-found fear of power — a fear so powerful it must be relegated to the unconscious.

Just like the children in the car.

When Dad trashes the rules he changes the whole point of the exercise. The building of family happiness and unity (which, we assume, was, after all, the whole purpose of the trip) becomes an indoctrination; and, the child sees, safety must now be his primary concern. He may keep silent, or join in the condemnation of Little Trevor, but should he object, “what about the Game?” he is, most certainly, now the new Criminal.

Our electorate is split into the affronted Right and the supine Left. Those who wish to preserve our Constitutional Republic, its rules, and the culture from which they spring, are indicted by those in momentary power (both political and asserted) ad-lib.

There is no merit in supporting various contemporary blasphemies (“Birthing Parent”, and so on). Unless they are untrue. The merit comes from the affiant’s vocal sacrifice of his reason, and, so, of his self-respect, in support of The Cause.

This is the contemporary terror. Not that we’re faced with the enormities, the crimes, delusions, and lies of a Politician (when were we not?), but that we are now frightened of whomever was screaming last.

From “New Business Item 39” posted on the National Education Association’s website on July 5, 2021: “The N.E.A. will provide an already-created, in-depth study that criticises empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeniety, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarcy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of oppression at the intersections of society.”

This is the country’s largest Teachers Union. What do these words mean? That the teachers will be put in charge of criticising. Whom? Whomever the N.E.A. designates.

And how might one, however convinced, ensure that he will not transgress the rules? There are no rules, for the categories are infinitely expansible. (Larry Elder, an African American running for Governor of California, and a lifelong champion of America and of his race, was called “the Black Face of White Supremacy,” L.A. Times, August 20, 2021.) And what in the world are “the intersections of society”?

In Woody Allen’s film Sleeper (1973) he is transported to the future. There he learns that the world he knew came to grief in 1989. He asks how and is told: “A man called Albert Shanker got his hands on a nuclear warhead.” Albert Shanker was the head of the United Foundation of Teachers, and then the American Federation of Teachers.

This may be the rock on which the Left comes to grief: the insistence on infecting one’s children with hatred. Young parents four generations away from The New Deal are insisting that they will not abandon their children to the blasphemies of the N.E.A. and its servitors, the Democratic Party. They are finding that there is a mechanism created to protect them from a despotic government, and that it is The Constitution and the organisations derived therefrom.

It is not incumbent on us Jews to prove we do not drink the blood of Christian Children, nor of white American citizens to apologise, nor of citizens to assert their loyalty to various confederations of thugs, and shriek heresies and treason or risk blacklisting as “of insufficient zeal”.

What does it mean to be “cancelled”?

It seems to mean that some group asserting power has mobilised its forces in social media and that their indictments have, in turn, been echoed and endorsed by multitudes. But we all know, or should know, that the controllers of the algorithms are constantly aware of and manipulate our prejudices through their presentation of that called information.

Fear of the heretic is spread through social media, but who knows, and how could one know, that the numbers and the tweets are real? One cannot. They are pixels on a screen which stampede the fearful into actual action against the indicted.

Would the controllers of the blogosphere stoop to such subterfuge as cooking the numbers? They limit access to their outlets ad lib, banning any person or idea they do not endorse. Why would they not also warp the number or content of the blogs to suit or, indeed, confect them? (I worked, for a year, as a Contributing Editor (utility man) at a very prominent national publication. One of my duties was Letters to the Editor. This involved not only answering but writing them. I assume the practice was universal and that it continues in the new media.)

I live in a liberal neighbourhood outside of Los Angeles. The residents here are miserable. Traditionally it was Not Done to acknowledge each other’s presence on the streets. A “good morning” uttered to a fellow dogwalker was considered as if one had exposed oneself. (This latter, in fact, now accepted as a permitted practice of the Homeless.)

Since Covid, the masked or the unmasked cross the street to avoid each other, glaring.  Signs on the homes proclaim that Love Is Love, but the residents hate and fear each other. Nancy Mitford wrote of the Liberals, “they are all so unhappy, and all of their plans fail so miserably.”

I was elected a non-person by the Left many years ago. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s costly and sad to see the happy fields in which I played all those decades — Broadway, book publishing, TV and film — fold up and Hail Caesar, but there it is.

The question for the young is: what kind of country do you want for your children? The question for the aged (myself) is: “what did you do in the War, Daddy?”

I’ve been involved for near 50 years in dealing with folks in the mass. It was not a social experiment for me, but a game: The Theatre. I learned very young that the correct study of the dramatist was neither his own feelings, nor those of the actors, but the attention of the audience. I understood that it was not my job to teach them anything, nor to induce a feeling in them, but to perform a sort of magic trick — to understand their behaviour in order to control their concentration. Why? In order to give them a treat. Just like a magician.

I sat with them night by night and year by year, and it was a joy to feel their conjoined attention, and to learn from it and its absence how to improve the play. As Billy Wilder said, “individually, they’re idiots, but together they’re a genius”.

The horror of the last year’s slide into despotism has showed me the reverse of the medal.

Watching the good play, the audience suspends its reason in order to be entertained — at Hamlet, as much and identically with watching a woman be sawed in half. The audience enjoys the trick while knowing, and because they know she is not going to be harmed. Just as they know Hamlet’s Dad is not coming back from the dead.

But just as the techniques of stage magic are identical with those of the confidence game, the understanding of the dramatist — that the mass can be suggested, and, so controlled —is the same as that of the Dictator. Here fear replaces happy anticipation; and, as we see, outrage at the indicted masks an unavowable fear.

The children in the car must immediately come to support the new regime or risk abandonment. The protection it offers is illusory (as who knows who will be next), but the illusion, to them, is preferable to knowledge of their powerlessness.

In the mass the alternative to submission is blacklisting, poverty, censure, et cetera. Finally, this is the same alternative offered to the children. They may court protection from fear only by remaining submissive. Just like the Electorate.

© David Mamet 2021

This piece was originally published in November.

David Mamet is an American playwright, film director, screenwriter and author. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross.

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William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

Excellent and insightful.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago

Thank you David M for writing this brilliant and provocative piece. Thank up UnHerd for making it available in these strange, strange times.

Bruce Dalcher
Bruce Dalcher
2 years ago

It’s difficult to see why there are so few comments on this brilliant article. Great job, Mr M!

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Sometimes difficult to read, with the occasional lack of punctuation, but well worth the effort.
The quote…..“what did you do in the war, daddy?” struck me like a 2×4. I often question myself as to when I will begin to march and protest for what I believe so strongly in vs. continuing to keep my head down and work towards a “comfortable” retirement. The dilemma causes palpable inner angst.

Barbara Manson
Barbara Manson
2 years ago

I’ll print this out and include it in my COVID time capsule. Brilliant.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

I’m just a Yank, but I would say that your quintessential British Mum would say of this piece: “who’s a naughty boy, then?”

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 years ago

A truly thoughtful and thought-provoking article by David Mamet. (May I say, David, that I absolutely loved your film The Spanish Prisoner.) Indeed, fear does make cowards of us all. A little light drives away the night.

Pascal Bercker
Pascal Bercker
2 years ago

At first I hesitated reading this … I know of his reputation … have seen and enjoyed his work … but still; not yet another comfortable playwright weighing in on … what exactly? I see a row of inmates … and my hackles are raised. I always fear I’m about to be lectured about something I know that I know more than he … me, having spent 5 long years in prison … and then deported … I’m seldom in the mood to be told about how that system works. And that wire fence … it’s kind of lame … where’s the roll of razor wire?
But like the magician that he is, he pulled the wool over my eyes, and the rug from under my feet as he kidnapped me and took me on a car ride that went straight to … just … where … exactly? What just happened there … in the middle … and at the end is hard to say … he made the car disappear … and the kids too … and then pulled out so many rabbits that I couldn’t keep up! I’m still rubbing my eyes trying to figure out what happened. That’s a hell of a magic trick he pulled off. But he gave me fair warning right at the beginning. Look, he said, nothing up my sleeve; I’m just talking about a family car ride. And some tricks to make the ride more pleasant. I’ve reread this thing a few times now, but I still don’t know how he pulled it off.

Last edited 2 years ago by Pascal Bercker