The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture
By David Mamet
(Sentinel, 241 pages, $27.95)
“The struggle of the Left to rationalize its positions is an intolerable, Sisyphean burden. I speak as reformed Liberal.”
The initial impulse was to give this one a pass. An erstwhile left/liberal discovers he’s a conservative and writes about it. But except for academics, Bughouse Square regulars, or New York Times editors, that happens to most people as they grow older. Also, the writer is a playwright, and most playwrights since Shakespeare have tended to be certifiably loony. (And for all we know about Shakespeare, he may have been as batty as Edward Albee.)
Then there’s the sometimes quirky style–unexpected italics, unnecessary capitals, arcane spellings–and the format of the book itself–39 mini-chapters, some three to four pages long, aphoristically arranged around various topics, falling somewhere between Eric Hoffer and Pascal–The True Believer meets Pensées. Nor are the arguments and observations shaped in a conventional way, less like essays than soliloquies or extended monologues. But the man, after all, is a playwright.
Not just any playwright, however, nor just any defector from the left. As author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won a Pulitzer, as well as a screenwriter and director (The Untouchables, The Verdict, Wag the Dog), David Mamet is a charter member of show business/theater/Hollywood royalty, one of the last great pillars of our liberal/left establishment, providing political support to a variety of leftist causes and bankrolling the candidacies of politicians like our current president.
That, in part, explains the four-alarm reaction to the book by the liberal elite, those writers and talkers and reviewers who call themselves “public intellectuals”and feed on foundations and the liberal think tanks, funded and supported by the system they loathe. (In his ruminations, Mamet makes essentially the same point about Karl Marx feeding off Engels.) Could it be they feel their hegemony slipping away? Could it be, as Bob Tyrrell points out in a forthcoming book, that liberalism is finally dying?
Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt Mamet’s book has hit an exposed nerve, being dismissed as shallow and simplistic, beneath notice. Yet the ferocity of the response–odd combinations of ad hominem attacks (routinely allowed critics on the left, but never tolerated from the right), condescension, and dismissiveness — belies that. The New York Times Book Review, for instance, the flagship of literary liberalism, the editor of which not long ago puffed an extended magazine article into a small book proclaiming the Death of Conservatism, gave a full page to a negative and at times contemptuous review. Why waste that prized space, one wonders, on a book not worth reading?
Part of the problem is that Mamet, albeit at times quirkily, makes his points with logical force and unrehearsed sincerity. In other words, he hits them where it hurts. The “essence of Leftist thought,” he writes, “is a devolution from reason to ‘belief,’ in an effort to stave off a feeling of powerlessness. And if government is Good, it is a logical elaboration that more government power is Better. But the opposite is apparent to anyone who has ever had to deal with Government and, I think, to any dispassionate observer.”
IN 2008, MAMET WROTE an article for the Village Voice titled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,”in which he deconstructed some of the accepted beliefs underpinning contemporary liberalism–beliefs that he had in large measure accepted as true through much of his life. In this book he expands and deepens his personal analysis of the failure of liberalism and the reasons he has come to think of himself, like Whittaker Chambers, as a man of the right.
He discovered, he writes, that the difference between right and left is basically one of basic goals–“the goal of the Left is a Government-run country and that of the Right the freedom of the individual from Government. These goals are difficult to reconcile, as the left cannot be brought either to actually state its intentions, nor to honestly evaluate the results of its actions.”To the left, “poverty and all human ills [are] eradicable by new programs. But these revolutionary revisions destroy the human ability to interact, which, in its entirety, is known as Culture.”
Thus, the inevitable failure of “great society”programs, as well as the social and cultural burden we’re all forced to share from the imposition of what he calls “Good Ideas,”so-called not because their implementation has led to human betterment, “but in homage to the supposed goodwill or intellectual status of their instigators.”Among these “Good Ideas”are “feminism, birth control, ‘diversity,'”elements in “‘a new social vision.’”
“See also,”he tells us in a note, “the grand visions of Urban Planning, which destroyed the Black Neighborhood, Welfare, which destroyed the Black Family, and Affirmative Action, which is destroying the Black Youth.” Such programs, advanced by elitists of the liberal left, are “based upon the absurdity that there are two classes of people and they may be distinguished by the color of their skins.”
“Diversity (and ‘multicuturalism’) is a pat on the head from White members of my generation sufficiently inexperienced and self-absorbed to feel they are entitled to ‘bless their inferiors.'”
His comments on other “Good Ideas” and their proponents are similarly strong and pointed. He excoriates contemporary feminists for the elitism and condescension with which they treat non-liberal female politicians like Sarah Palin. “And where,” he asks, “was the Left, and where were the Feminists, during President Clinton’s savaging of Juanita Broaddrick, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Susan McDougal, and Monica Lewinsky….How, by the Left, can this be excused? It cannot. But it may be partially explained…by class. They were, to the Left, ‘trailer trash,’ and so, de-facto, undeserving of a hearing yet alone a defense.”
In other areas, his observations on global warming in particular and liberal hysteria in general have been singled out for criticism, although he is demonstrably at least as well informed as his critics, many of whom now talk only of “climate change,”having deep-sixed the “global warming”term because of lack of scientific proof.
As Mamet puts it, “Fear of Global Warming was, in the seventies, and as propounded by many of the same scientists, a fear of Global Cooling. See also Malthus’s…assurance that as population outstripped agricultural production, humanity must soon…starve. See also the Y2K scare, antinuclear hysteria, and the yearly assurance that some new influenza is going to devastate the population.”
“The Left,” he continues, “in addition to its embrace of the false (higher taxes means increased prosperity for all) and its acceptance of the moot as incontrovertible (Global Warming), must account for the incidental effect of the sum of these decisions. This effect is the destruction of our culture.”
MAMET IS PROUD of being an American, proud of being a Jew in America, and proud of Israel. He pities the Jewish liberal who denounces this country, attacks Israel, and denies “his heritage, and his co-religionaries in their distress.”He quotes the muddled linguist Noam Chomsky, who has strayed far from his field of expertise: “To summarize, contrary to the claim that is constantly reiterated, Israel has no right to use force to defend itself against rockets from Gaza, even if they are regarded as terrorist crimes.”
“Of course Mr. Chomsky feels that all is not right with the world,”Mamet writes. “His hobby is promoting the cause of people who want to kill him.”
Throughout his book, with these and other trenchant observations, he speaks of what in this age of approved euphemism is the unspeakable–tradition, absolute values, the primacy of the individual. And if conservatism is applied intelligence, informed by the best that’s been thought and said down through the ages, reinforced by acceptance of immutable truths and leavened with a healthy dose of common sense, then by any measure, David Mamet is a conservative.
According to the bibliography he appends, he has read seriously and widely–Tolstoy and Trollope, Melanie Phillips and Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson and Friedrich Hayek, Niall Ferguson and Milton Friedman, Whittaker Chambers, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, Mencken, Macaulay, Podhoretz, Sontag, Sowell and Veblen, to name a few. In short, an eclectic reading list tending toward the conservative, although no Burke, Buckley, Kirk. But that will no doubt come.
“I spoke with my first conservative at age sixty,”he writes, a Republican rabbi in Hollywood (“Where did he find one?”asks Suzanne Fields in one of her splendid columns) who steered him toward some of the more conservative writers.
But now that the ice has been broken, and broken with singular eloquence, one suspects the conversation will continue.