David Frum

05.09.12

David Mamet's Culture War

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David Mamet, June 21, 2010 (Photo: Charles Sykes / AP Photos)

As a man who earns his living from stage and screen, David Mamet aims much of his ideological ire against what might be called the cultural left. Socialism may be a vanishingly faint influence on American economic life, but multiculturalism and post-modernism loom a lot larger and more powerful in the arts.

Academic and artistic standards have been degraded. Bad work has been elevated; good work neglected. Scholarly inquiry has been hemmed; free expression constrained; lies taught as truth; unwelcome truths banished from discourse.

These cultural trends are not "liberal." Indeed, strictly speaking, these trends are illiberal and anti-liberal. It is however surely and sadly true that the liberal custodians of America's grand cultural institutions have often shown themselves shamefully weak and timid against these trends. (It is also true that some of the bravest and most tireless defenders of cultural standards have been liberal too.)

You could fill a book with horror stories. Many have. 

But I'm most interested here in the specific reaction to them by David Mamet.

Other conservative critics of these trends have opposed them in defense of the old idea of the arts as "the best that has been thought and said." Mamet, an artist himself, might have been expected to endorse this view. Curiously, he does not:

Gender studies, multiculturalism, semiotics, deconstruction, video art, and other such guff, while attractive to the child, as they seem to endorse his 'adulthood,' are in truth, terrifying as his clock ticks on toward the school's relaxation of its authority, that date on which it will spew the unschooled, confused, skill-less student into a world which, he must know, is uninterested in his capacity for bushwah, and wants to know what he can contribute to the common effort. 

Consider college education which, in the Liberal Arts, and in the social sciences, or whatever they may be called today, is effectively a waste of money and time, and useless save as that display of leisure and wealth Veblen called 'conspicuous consumption.' A Liberal Arts education is essentially a recognition symbol, which, as such might theoretically facilitate entrance into a higher class, were entrance awarded on the basis solely of that passport; but see the MAs in English bagging groceries. Higher Education is selling an illusion: that the child of the well-to-do need not matriculate into the workforce- that mastery of a fungible skill is unnecessary.

Four paragraphs later, Mamet then adds this arresting thought:

School shootings and the increased enrollment in postgraduate Liberal Arts studies may be seen as two unconscious attempts at adaptation of a culture evolving away from the exigencies of staffing a trained workforce. For though much has been made of the necessity of a college education, the extended study of the Liberal Arts actually trains one for nothing. And the terrified adolescent, abandoned by society, coddled by society, may, if unbalanced, turn to rage and (a) kill; or, if merely clueless, (b) hide in college, as he does not possess the strength to grow up and leave.

I won't add excess comment of my own to that final passage. It's incredible enough on its own. 

I'll scroll instead to the previous paragraphs—and to Mamet's fierce hostility to the study of art and literature.

—MORE TO COME—