People of the statist left—and to some extent the statist right—will find much to decry in David Mamet’s new book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, a token of his late-life conversion to conservative political views. In fact, the sound of heads exploding is already being heard throughout the Liberal Village.
Libertarians, on the other hand, may find the book to be an unexceptional checklist of familiar positions—curious, perhaps, in its shout-outs to Glenn Beck and Jon Voight, but admirable in its championing of Friedrich Hayek. Personally, I found the book’s most shocking passage to be its characterization of Marilyn Monroe as “the greatest comedienne in the history of the screen.” But that’s just me. Or, more pertinently, it’s just Mamet, a man of famously pugnacious rhetorical postures.
The Secret Knowledge grew out of a bridge-burning 2008 essay that Mamet wrote for the left-wing Village Voice. In it, the Pulitzer-winning playwright boldly walked back his own life-long leftism and described the clinching moment in his political journey as having occurred while he was driving in a car with his wife: “We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up.”
Now, his migration complete, Mamet says, “I look back upon my Liberal political beliefs with a sort of wonder—as another exercise in self-involvement—rewarding myself for some superiority I could not logically describe.”
The author’s full-throated conservatism will give some readers pause. He is sometimes overweening, as in his discussion of such academic phenomena as existentialism, deconstruction, and all-purpose “theory”: “Those incapable of recognizing bushwa may assume that someone else surely knows what these things mean. But, sadly, this is not the case.” Actually, I have heard people explain these things, and, bullshit or not, their baleful effects in the precincts of higher learning have been (as Mamet knows) substantial. Similarly, we can sympathize with the “shame” the author now feels about his exemption from military service during the Vietnam War; but might he not also have observed that many of the thousands of young soldiers who died in that misbegotten conflict might still be with us if that exemption had been universal?
The Secret Knowledge is clearly the result of much reading and extensive contemplation. Mamet’s references range from Tolstoy and Trollope to Friedman and Sowell to Marx and Brecht and the immortally entertaining Susan Sontag. He celebrates his Ashkenazi heritage and, centrally, the Torah, which he sees as a keystone of this country’s Judeo-Christian foundation—a font of true justice, as opposed to the fashionable “social justice” he so witheringly reviles. (On hate-crime laws: “[A]s if getting beaten to death were more pleasant if one was not additionally called a greaser.”) He adheres to the “tragic view” of human nature—we are all irredeemably flawed, prone to corruption, and incapable of perfect understanding—and is thus deeply skeptical of any attempt at root-and-branch social transformation, however slickly retailed. He is especially eloquent in noting the latest instance of this evergreen political scam: “[S]hould we all simply mass behind a leader so charismatic and well-spoken as to induce in the electorate that state of bliss which, though it may momentarily be indistinguishable from madness or satori, necessitates eventual return to a world made more complicated by our surrender[?].”
Readers on both sides of Mamet’s current political stance can take issue with his social conservatism. He is, among other things, an unbending proponent of traditional gender arrangements; and yet who even on the left can deny the miseries that have attended the decline of the two-parent family? Nevertheless, it is exhilarating to hear so much common sense expressed with such forceful eloquence: “The honest man might observe…that no one gets something for nothing; that politicians go in poor and go out rich; that the Government screws up everything it touches; and that the Will to Believe is best confined to the Religious Venue, as to practice it elsewhere is just too damned expensive.”
Mamet is not a man with a plan. Neither the right nor the left is to be entirely trusted, and a complete national salvation may remain forever beyond our grasp. “We are a democracy,” he writes, “and as such do not generally elect our best people to office. How could we? They weren’t running.”
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin’s Press. This column first appeared at Reason.com.