There’s a fun game for long car rides called “Mametspeak.” It involves a nerdy group of friends talking without communicating — stumping every sentence, repeating words with random variations in emphasis, stuffing utterances with modifiers and starving them of syntax — in the style of David Mamet’s dialogue in plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross, whose characters can make nothing but their anxiety understood. Done well, it’s an absurdist riot.
The way Mamet speaks in real life is nothing like Mametspeak, but it does say a lot about him. His raced syllables retain the hard, sharp vowels of a boyhood in Chicago. His soft, almost therapeutic tone suggests the progressive schools and hippie circles of the 1960s. His unpretentious diction — he drops his gs, and talks about what “we gotta” do — conjures a busboy or cab driver (Mamet was both). And, unsurprising for a playwright, he brings fresh metaphors — even to discussions of politics.
But the most peculiar, and novel, thing about what Mamet says is the content: Lately it’s become conservative
, and assertively so, especially in his latest book, The Secret Knowledge.
It wasn’t always this way, as Mamet told me while he was in New York last Sunday (“shootin’ a movie,” he explained). Up until eight years ago, he was innocent of conservative ideas. By default, he held a liberalism that was “inchoate.” It was a matter of “being in a group, and reflexively nodding and nodding at each communal evisceration of the Right — compulsively.” He was no left-wing polemicist, just a typical member of the culture industry, observing its rituals as he moved through its ranks.
When Mamet moved to Los Angeles in 2002, a rabbi gave him a book by Shelby Steele and recommended some others from the conservative canon — those of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, etc. So he read them. Jarred out of a dogmatic slumber, he even started listening to conservative talk radio. Two years ago, he had a coming-out party on the pages of the liberal Village Voice, explaining to the arts world “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” It caused a small sensation. So he wrote a book, his first extended political work, elaborating, defending, and even intensifying his ideas.
What’s the book all about? Toward the end, he hints at the meaning of his title. “There is no secret knowledge. The Federal Government is really the zoning board writ large,” he writes. What does that mean? He explains to me: “Mark Twain famously said, ‘God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.’ The zoning board is like that — they’re just a bunch of people with power. Some are good, some are bad. But they gotta be watched like hawks, because power corrupts.” So “secret knowledge” is a Hayekian insight wrapped up like a Talmudic paradox. The secret is there is no secret — no special caste has the knowledge or goodness, inaccessible to the rest of us, to order society. Hence Mamet’s skepticism of technocracy and his preference for order created from the democratic and disaggregated processes of the marketplace.
What kind of conservative is Mamet now? Friedrich Hayek, both directly and indirectly via Thomas Sowell, is the major influence on his political thought. Mamet repeatedly returns to Hayek’s “tragic vision” — the acceptance that humans are incapable of inventing a perfect society, and required to choose among evils. But the most unusual thing about Mamet’s conservatism might be how, well, ordinary it is. Conservatism carries a stigma in Mamet’s circles. So when the rare littérateur dissents from liberalism, we might expect him to be snobbish or effete, distancing himself from the déclassé elements of the Right.
Not Mamet. He is aggressive — even rude. He calls multiculturalism “garbage, pure nonsense.” He says “many liberals” have a “preverbal mind,” which, “when confronted with arguments it can’t refute, just sees red.” He says “the Obama administration is the perfect example of the Europeanization of America in the nanny state.” He celebrates America as a “Christian country,” and feels no need to dissociate from the dreaded “Christian Right.” He condemns “elites” repeatedly. He says “the State of Israel wants peace within its borders, and its enemies want to kill all the Jews — both parties are clear about that.” He approvingly acknowledges “Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, and Glenn Beck.” He exalts Sarah Palin. In a phrase: He eats conservative red meat.
So, the natural follow-up is: Has he made any ex-friends? “I probably have. But if they’re ex-friends, they weren’t really friends to begin with.” His close, decades-long companions have received his politics with disagreement, and respect.