The Secret Knowledge

05.10.12

Hollywood Conservatism vs. Hollywood Liberalism

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.