David Mamet’s Fatal Conceit
The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, David Mamet, Sentinel, 241 pages
When David Mamet’s “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal” manifesto was published in the Village Voice in 2008, conservatives—this one, at least —were impressed.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker is, let’s face it, a bigger deal than the actor Ron Silver (God rest his soul); than the crazy, washed-up coot Jon Voight; than TV’s Kelsey Grammer; than virtually any entertainment figure who has outed himself as that most exotic of Hollywood critters, a conservative.
Coming as it did on the heels of playwright Tom Stoppard’s denunciation of the British nanny state and self-identification as a “timid libertarian,” Mamet’s piece signaled the possible emergence of a new class of sensitive literary artists who, having abandoned the shibboleths of the left, embraced a healthy skepticism of busybody government.
Alas, on the evidence of this fleshing-out of his manifesto, it’s clear that Mamet has simply traded one state of mental compromise for another. He’s now a Brain-Dead Conservative.
Turgid when it’s not imperious, utterly lacking in fresh insight, full of breathtakingly stupid generalizations, The Secret Knowledge is, for a writer of Mamet’s caliber, nothing short of embarrassing. What is this thing?
The book is structured haphazardly as a series of pensées: some political economy and polemics here, some anthropology there, “some personal history” off to the side. Done tightly and skillfully, such an omnivorous performance can be satisfying, as with, say, Robert Nisbet’s Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary. But not The Secret Knowledge. It is, like Tom Skerritt’s Calvinist minister said of human nature in “A River Runs Through It,” “a damn mess.”
The 63-year-old Mamet thinks he has a lot to say—there are stale-tasting gripes about feminism, affirmative action, abortion, and a jaded riff on the impracticality of liberal-arts education—but really he ends up saying the same thing over and over. In short: Capitalism, free markets, and families are part of the naturally evolved order of things, and liberals can’t do anything except screw up that ecological balance.
Also, they hate Israel.
He self-seriously juices up the copy with lots of capitalization: “Right,” “Left,” “Liberal,” “Conservative,” “Statism,” “Globalism,” “Free Market,” “Man.” And when Mamet finds that he has exhausted mention of his favorite examples of intervention gone awry—affirmative action and forced busing—he resorts to the kind of catch-all category you might find in freshman poli sci: “Government Programs.”
Speaking strictly of readability, the book is torture. Mamet writes like a pompous ass, beginning countless sentences with the rhetorically overloaded “For,” and he can’t seem to finish those sentences without some parenthetical aside or throat-clearing (“which is to say,” “this being so”). There’s a profusion of alternatively snarky and faux-scholarly footnotes, plus referential shorthands in the main body of the text—“see” this, “viz.” that, and, if you’ve still got time, go and “cf.” something else—that suggest Mamet himself became bored with the book’s repetitiveness.
His characterization of liberals as outsize cartoon villains would impress even Ann Coulter. He snickers in one footnote: “What Conservative has not had the experience of concluding a discourse with a Liberal friend in which the Liberal acceded to all the Conservative’s points but on being asked, ‘Well, then why do you vote Democratic?’ replied, ‘I’m a Democrat’?” (Answering only for myself: I’ve never enjoyed that experience.)
At one point, the reader is invited to “Observe that to propitiate an unknowable power, the Left, ignorant or dismissive of any society or history but its own, insists upon the primacy of Trees and Soil, Oceans and Animals—theirs is a return to the nature worship of the Savage.”
I imagine the late liberal historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Hofstadter would be tickled to learn they’d been lumped in with the disciples of Gaia.
Substantively, Mamet’s book will annoy longtime conservatives the way teachers’ pets annoy their classmates. The kid simply tries too hard. He’s ingratiating. “I speak as a reformed Liberal,” he announces as if in front of the parole board.
Perhaps a better comparison is to the door-to-door cultic propagandist. There’s something unsettling about the intensity, the totality, of his post-Damascene convictions.
The literary critic James Wood once described a certain kind of freshly adopted religious commitment this way: “It is like entering prison: you must turn out your spiritual pockets and hand over all your inner belongings, even your shoelaces.” Well, Mamet has handed over his shoelaces, voluntarily stripped, and appears eager for a cavity search.
He isn’t just a rich man who has soured on paying taxes, as some liberal detractors have charged. He’s not just a professional dramatist who cares deeply about the English language, wincing every time he sees and hears it mangled by the enforcers of political correctness.
No, Mamet ventures far out of his comfort zone in this book. With startling self-assurance, he informs us that “polar bears are not, in fact, decreasing but increasing in population; the earth is not, in fact, warming.” And: “Carbon dioxide is not harmful to the atmosphere. There have, in the past, been periods, much colder than today, when the CO2 in the atmosphere was twenty-five times what it is today. Carbon emissions offer no threat whatever to the planet.”
How can Mamet possibly know this with such certainty? How much has this “reformed Liberal” thought about climate science at all? Whatever one’s opinion of global warming, and of the environmental movement more broadly, is it not obvious that Mamet is clutching a new holy book and believing everything in it as a matter of course?
Elsewhere Mamet declares that “Most legislation aimed at eliminating unhappiness and discontent has resulted in misery.”
“Most”? Really? A fair-minded liberal reader could be forgiven for wondering if Mamet would include, say, Social Security and Medicare. Sure, the old-age pension and healthcare programs have serious long-term financing problems that may come to bankrupt us. But have they resulted in “misery”? If so, why are they so darn popular?
Stepping, for a moment, out of the weeds, it’s worth asking why Mamet has written this book. Was it a Sept. 11 mugging by reality, as in the case of the actor Ron Silver and comic writer-director David Zucker? This is probably the case on some level: Mamet clucks a few times about “Islamo-fascism,” by now a hackneyed ideological term of art, and he seems earnestly to be coming to grips with the historical continuity of the Jewish people as it relates to himself and his family.
But there are also ways that The Secret Knowledge isn’t so much a clean break from his misguided liberal youth as it is a new twist on it.
Young Mamet believed that the human pageant is an unsentimental Darwinian struggle.
“My early plays, American Buffalo, The Water Engine, Glengarry Glen Ross, concerned Capitalism and business,” he writes. “This subject consumed me as I was trying to support myself, and like many another young man or woman, had come up against the blunt fact of a world which did not care.” He adds that he “enjoyed—indeed, like most of my contemporaries, revered—the agitprop plays of Brecht and his indictments of capitalism.”
The famous opening scene of the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992), adapted by Mamet from his play, features seven of the most riveting minutes of onscreen dialogue anywhere. “The rich get richer; that’s the law of the land,” laments a schlubby salesman played by Ed Harris, who’s being berated by Alec Baldwin’s slick downtown emissary. (Incidentally, actor Liev Schreiber, who performed in a 2005 revival of the play, informed me that Baldwin’s iconic character was original to the screenplay, which evidently had lacked the full payload of Mametian bleakness.)
“Nice guy? … Good father?” Baldwin taunts. “Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.”
Yet Mamet, even in his early anti-capitalist phase, never singled out men of fortune; a line in “Glengarry” slags “clockwatchers, bureaucrats, officeholders.” His peers in Tinseltown have come under the knife, too. Bridging both coasts, the movie “Wag the Dog” (1997), for which Mamet co-adapted an Academy Award-nominated screenplay, famously anticipated the Lewinsky imbroglio with a plot about a U.S. president who fakes a war—with Hollywood’s abetment—to divert attention from a sex scandal.
Old Mamet still believes the human pageant is an unsentimental Darwinian struggle. His contempt for the clockwatchers, bureaucrats, and officeholders has only increased.
The difference now is that Mamet has become a Friedrich von Hayek buff. Mamet presumably used to associate “Darwinian struggle” with “strong conquering weak” or “rich getting richer.” But Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit has replaced those associations with notions of “spontaneous order”—of culture and trade evolving well in advance of the state.
Oh, it’s still a struggle, still unsentimental. After all, “we are a bunch of crazy monkeys,” says Mamet. It’s just that any rational effort to alter this complex and mysterious dance of interactions will end in ruin at best, serfdom and slaughter at worst.
In one of The Secret Knowledge’s better chapters, Mamet recalls with a nostalgic glint the rough and tumble of his Chicago hometown and extrapolates from there to a universal theory of cultural evolution:
We conceive the world not through indoctrination, but through osmosis: ‘This is how we do things here.’ And I believe that, in Chicago, I had a very interesting youth. This is how we did things here: one spiffed the mechanic at the cab garage if one wanted to get a working cab to drive; one paid off the cop who pulled you over, as it was much cheaper than going down to 11th and State and paying the fine; the politicians were corrupt—why else would they be politicians? (the absence of this understanding in the minds of the young baffles me); the Governors, regularly, went to jail, how about that?
How about that, indeed?
Sadly, there isn’t nearly enough of this—of Mamet writing like a dramatist—to sustain this book.
He says his intellectual journey began with Whittaker Chambers’s epic Witness. Too bad it ended in the same welter of pseudo-sophistication and invective that his newfound heroes of the talk-radio right prefer to wade in.
What is the “secret knowledge”? It’s this: if you haven’t already, you should just go read the original Hayek.
Scott Galupo is a writer and musician living in Virginia.