David Mamet's Right Turn

05.09.12 9:00 AM ET

I'm reading David Mamet's The Secret Knowledge, his account of his conversion experience from liberalism to conservatism. Mamet's journey is particularly fascinating to me, because the features that have most attracted him to modern ideological conservatism are precisely those that I have found increasingly off-putting.

As a boy, I'd sometimes come across books in the library published in 1933 or 1934, and I'd think: what was it like to be a writer in a time of national and international calamity like that? The book might be about a subject wholly unrelated to politics and economics: travel in Patagonia, the wars of Byzantium. Yet I'd find my imagination drifting to the world outside the writer's window. What was it like to write about Patagonia or Byzantium as men lined up at soup kitchens and war veterans sold apples on street corners?

The Secret Knowledge was published in 2011, a year not anything like as bad as those Depression vintages, but certainly with some strong points of family resemblance. Mamet is a literary artist, a person whose claim to our attention is based on the acuity of his perceptions and the subtlety of his observations.

And yet the catastrophe outside his window seems not to have penetrated his study at all. Yes, perhaps a clever deconstruction of his writing might reveal some allusive acknowledgement: "the presence of absence," as the critics call it. To the less patient reader, however, the absent is awfully damn absent. The man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross actually and unironically references "the current economic jollity."

How can such a fine artist be so deaf and blind? Here's how:

The Secret Knowledge is a work of almost hermetic abstraction. Of all the difficult political questions of his time, Mamet engages exactly none. Instead, he engages a series of questions that nobody is debating:

* Should we have a free market or a centrally planned economy?

* Should terrorists be punished or applauded?

* Should young people work or should they loll about indefinitely supported by society?

Do I exaggerate?


Now we see the Liberal Young [caps in originals - a weakness of his] not flocking but stampeding into film schools. Why the stampede? The movie industry is bust, television has gone to the dogs (reality programming), and no one has yet figured out the transition to Internet distribution. There are, in short, no jobs at the end of this exhaustive four-year course of watching movies.

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There is, however, protection. The film school student is protected, by his community, in his election, not to work.

Mamet again:

Our current societal (as opposed to cultural) development is burdened by the presence of 'Good Ideas.' These ideas are called Good not because their implementation has led to the betterment of life, but in homage to the supposed goodwill or intellectual status of their instigators. Examples will come to mind based upon the individual reader's political or moral complexion, but for the purposes of illustration in this essay, they may be said to include feminism, birth control, 'diversity,' free love, and the profusion of 'counter-cultural' innovations spawned in the 1960s.

Mamet once more:

'Capitalism is bad'? Not the capitalism that founded and supported Stanford or Harvard or Penn; not that which makes our clothes, and cars and guitars, and brings the food and so on, and not that which employs and supports us, or that has supported parents which supported us; and not those businesses we, in our dreams, would like to create ....

Again and again through the book, I find myself wondering: "Who is on the other side of this argument in David Mamet's head?" It's a big country. Out of 300 million people, there must hundreds—possibly thousands!—who still believe in a centrally planned economy, condone terrorism, and urge ungrateful kids to spend years lounging about at parental expense. If encountered, such people must surely be very annoying.

Meanwhile, in the real world of government and politics, the United States is contending with the problems and choices actually facing advanced capitalist democracies in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis.

Part 2:

Unfortunately, it's not a unique personal quirk of David Mamet's to answer questions that nobody is asking.

Through the crisis that erupted in 2007, much of the conservative intellectual world has done the same. It's as if our policy debate has been an extended version of those Keynes-Hayek raps that went viral in 2010 and 2011. There's the John Maynard Keynes character arguing for fiscal stimulus to jolt the economy out of a liquidity trap. And countering him is a Friedrich Hayek character arguing against central planning—as if that had any relevance to anything anybody is saying today.

Contemporary conservative spokespersons delight in arguing against socialism at the highest level of abstraction. The queue forms around the block for people who want to advance a "moral case for capitalism." Yet capitalism vs. non-capitalism is not the debate, not in America anyway. The debate here ranges over subjects like:

* How do we avoid a lost decade of slow growth and high unemployment?

* What can be done to improve middle-class incomes after long years of stagnation?

* How do we prevent rising health care costs from impoverishing families and wrecking government finances?

* How do we improve the life chances of the young people coming of age in this time of economic difficulty?

All these questions are raised within the context of an almost universal national commitment to market economics. If we didn't live in a market economy, these questions wouldn't arise in the first place. To answer them by invoking the superior merits of capitalism over socialism is like an auto mechanic answering questions about a malfunctioning car by launching into a speech about the superiority of the automobile over the horse as a means of conveyance.

And yet that is the discussion that so many on the right insist on having, not only by playwrights, but from economists, politicians, and think-tank presidents as well.

Part 3:

I was moved to read Mamet's self-account by a reader of Patriots who suggested that I was undergoing a similar transformation, only in the opposite direction.

Not quite. Mamet really does seem to have had a conversion experience. He has embraced ideological conservatism as a total intellectual system, as a new life creed:

I look back on 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.

Such an experience is alien to me.

I was drawn to conservative politics as a young person because I wanted to understand how the world really worked. Why were there oil shortages? Why did prices rise and rise? Why had American cities turned so dangerous and violent? Why was American power in the world ebbing before challengers and enemies?

I was repelled from liberalism because I disliked sentimentality in politics. Politics is the business of collective solutions to collective problems, not an arena for the display of good intentions. And such sentimentality seemed to me the special province of liberalism as I knew it in the 1970s and 1980s.

Those remain my likes and dislikes to this day. I have had no conversion experience. But I have had a series of what might be called de-conversion experiences, as projects that I wished to work one by one failed to deliver the promised results—culminating of course in the grand disaster that struck in 2008.

Part 4:

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.

Part 5:

In the acknowledgements of The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet writes: "I had never knowingly talked with nor read the works of a Conservative before moving to Los Angeles, some eight years ago."

It shows. Mamet is very much the product of the Hollywood conservative subculture—embattled, militant, and defiant. All politics is local, the saying goes, and this seems especially true of the politics of the entertainment world. What Mamet appears to be reacting to, in his born-again anti-liberalism, is the liberalism of his immediate environment.

For sure, that immediate environment must be irritating in all kinds of ways. Hollywood is notorious for its environmentalists who only fly in private jets; for its egalitarians who truckle to superiors and brutalize underlings; for its brave dissenters who abjectly conform to peer-group norms. You can see how life in the film colony would drive an independent-minded person to seek alternative views.

But alternative to what?

Hollywood deals in representations of things, not in things themselves. Except in the very rarest cases (and such cases do exist), Hollywood politics is image politics. In reaction, Hollywood's conservatives have developed their own politics of counter-images, of counter-representation.

Have you ever noticed how a certain kind of conservative uses the phrase, "the culture"?

Think for a moment how curious that phrase is.

It's common to speak of "a culture" or else "the culture of (fill in name of relevant population group here)"—thereby recognizing the many different folkways of a big country on a bigger planet.

It's common, if less common than it used to be, to speak of "culture" without any article at all, meaning roughly "the arts."

But "the culture"? What does that mean? One thing for certain: it does not mean very many of the things that anthropologists mean when they talk about culture. The spread of hand sanitizers beyond hospitals is a cultural practice, but it's not part of "the culture." "The culture" refers to the output of the entertainment industries. If you live and work in those industries, "the culture" is all the culture there is.

David Mamet is a man in revolt against "the culture," and it is that revolt that drove him from left to right.

The trouble is, however, that "the culture" is only a very small portion of all that constitutes America. Mamet's (often understandable and appropriate) reaction against the way Hollywood represents business, or represents American history, or represents designated heroes and villains offers an inadequate substitute for a politics that deals with things as they are, before they are represented.

Conservatism has always contained a good measure of cultural critique, oftentimes a very sophisticated cultural critique in the work of thinkers like Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Allan Bloom.

But the conservatism celebrated in The Secret Knowledge claims a larger mission for itself than criticism only. This conservatism is a method of governance. To the reader who invited me to compare my own political evolution to Mamet's, I'd answer that in my opinion, governance is evaluated by results—and it has been my experience with those results that have moved me.

Update, May 11 2012: This post has been updated to include all parts of the interview.