Magazine | July 4, 2011, Issue

A Hard Man’s Witness

The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, by David Mamet (Sentinel, 256 pp., $27.95)

It has been observed that there is no zealotry like the zealotry of the convert. But in the peculiar sub-universe of the political conversion story, there is an observable asymmetry here. Far from being a proselytizer of his new sect, the man who publicly leaves the Right will more often than not still cling to the appellation “conservative,” or else cast it off only begrudgingly and with great qualification. He’ll insist, as a matter of honor, that he did not leave the Right, but that the Right left him — that his break from the group marks both a personal tragedy and a crisis for the movement. Think Bruce Bartlett, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan.

By contrast, the story of conversion from leftism is often told in the language of escape, as if from an institution or a cult; or the language of awakening, as if from a dream, or the Matrix. Think Whittaker Chambers, David Horowitz — and now, playwright David Mamet, whose new book, The Secret Knowledge, tells of his emancipation, after 40 years, from the ranks of the “Brain-Dead Liberals” and into the light of conservatism.

Many of Mamet’s protagonists (in, e.g., Glengarry Glen Ross and House of Games) are silver-tongued double-dealers and carnival barkers who live and die by their ability to separate fools from their money. These skills, as it turns out, are also in great demand in the world of political punditry. So I admit that, when I first heard of Mamet’s change of heart and plans for a book on politics, part of me wondered whether it might be no more than a cunning play for a slice of what has become the profitable market niche of liberal apostasy. But if The Secret Knowledge is a con, it’s a magnificent one. Mamet’s conversion story scans sincere; his politics are well and widely read — and, what’s more, wise.

The book also quickly dispelled another worry I had: that Mamet’s would turn out to be a watered-down conservatism; that he had arrived at Andrew Sullivan’s muddled middle from, as it were, the other direction. This is the kind of conservatism abstracted from a set of firm principles first to a general outlook and then to a mere “disposition” before being reduced, finally, to an indisposition — a conservatism both vague and inert enough to command, if not the respect, than at least the well-intentioned condescension of polite liberals in search of a token. (“Oh, he’s one of the good ones.”) But the epic sham of “Diversity” for its own sake, and of Liberaldom’s byzantine articulation of political correctness as a means of stifling dissent, are among Mamet’s primary targets. And he holds a number of strident positions — on the inefficacy, on its own terms, of wealth redistribution; on the righteousness of Israel; on the exigency of the traditional family; and, perhaps most of all, on the silliness of global-warming alarmism — that rank as the highest treasons among the bicoastal elite that is Mamet’s milieu.

And make no mistake, Mamet is a member of the bicoastal elite. He is, after all, a working artist — a playwright, for goodness’ sake — and a millionaire, with a sentimental love for what he still refers to as “show business” that is elegiac even when it is at its most critical. He’s a man known to wear linen shirts open at the collar, a meticulously unkempt salt-and-pepper beard, and horn-rimmed spectacles that might have been left by a second-rate intellectual at a coffeehouse in Vienna circa 1927. His second wife — younger, attractive, British — is an actress who has sung plaintive indie-folk songs at the dark-lit bars of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And while he is able to evoke the Chicago of his youth as a rough-and-tumble place full of gangsters and fixers where one is either the confidence man or the mark, the majority of his references, his anecdotes and examples, are those of the haute bourgeois man-about-town: the first-class cabin, the charity fundraiser, the four-star hotel room, the university writing workshop.

#page#Perhaps the greatest rhetorical success of the book, then, is that despite all this, Mamet defuses any sense the middle-American conservative might have that he is “not one of us” by representing himself (or re-presenting himself) not as a celebrity but as an instance of that conservative heroic archetype: the self-made man. Mamet is a salesman, after all — a seller of scripts to producers and ultimately to audiences — who drove a cab, among other odd jobs, before years of toil at a typewriter produced first a living and then a fortune. He sets himself apart from so many Sean Penns and Tim Robbinses, then, by refusing to consecrate his creative work as anything more venerable than “entertainments,” and by refusing, not least via the very act of writing the book, to be a hypocrite. In what might be the most elegant statement of his conversion experience, Mamet speaks of the discovery, in “the waning days of my belief in ‘Social Justice,’” that

I was not living my life according to the principles I professed, that I disbelieved both in the probity and in the mechanical operations of those groups soliciting first my vote and then my money in the name of Justice, and that so did everyone I knew. Those of us untroubled by this disparity, I saw, called ourselves “Liberals.” The others were known as Conservatives.

Mamet’s politics are by and large those of the mainstream American conservative: a government of enumerated powers that enforces contracts and adjudicates disputes, provides for the common defense, and maintains national infrastructure, but steers clear of economic planning and ambitious redistributive schemes. He’s for tax cuts and sensible deregulation of commerce, against affirmative action, cap-and-trade, and Obamacare.

But the articulation of a policy platform is not really what The Secret Knowledge is about. The subtitle of the book refers to “The Dismantling of American Culture,” and that is its defining preoccupation. Mamet knows that a principal contribution of conservative thought to the conduct of politics is the understanding that culture predates law; that law presupposes a robust, ready-at-hand culture residing in the collective unconscious; that culture cannot be legislated and that legislation is indeed impossible once a culture has become debased. He understands that progressive liberalism’s great sin is the ignorance of these facts, its folly the attempt to control by bureaucracy that which was hitherto governed by unspoken, and indeed unspeakable, rules of human intercourse evolved and elaborated over countless generations. The result of the Left’s attempt to preempt culture with “multiculturalism” and the other elements of “social justice” is the bringing to an awkward consciousness of that which had been previously handled unconsciously. This makes liberalism, among other things, exhausting.

#page#By way of example, he cites the stress that comes with our clumsy and self-conscious attempts to maintain gender neutrality in our words — e.g., the ubiquity of the slash between gendered pronouns. But the object to be re-engineered by beneficent tinkerers is not merely our chit-chat but our entire socioeconomic order. In a clever variant of Friedrich Hayek’s Knowledge Problem, Mamet analogizes the dislocating effect of this grand-scale “joyous extemporizing” of a “new social vision” to the experience of a first night in a new house:

The myriad bits of information in our possession of which we were unaware: the location and operation of the light switch, the steps-to-the-couch, the meaning of a creak in the floor (is it the house settling, or is it the step of an intruder?), these countless accommodations, worked out over time, and without the individual’s conscious knowledge . . . demand energy, consideration, and response. The cultural cursor has been put back to zero, and the mind and spirit complain, “I can’t do all these things at once,” and indeed, we cannot. And the first nights in the new home are spent without sleep, and longing for peace.

The replacement of culture with the legislation of social justice, writes Mamet, brings about an effect not unlike this, exacting “a great cost in bringing to the conscious (unprepared and unskilled) mind those decisions worked out over time. . . . One cost is confusion: angry feminists . . . grieving children, and a growing disbelief not only in the possibility of domestic accord, but of the efficacy of the free market.” Quite.

Throughout, the didacticism in Mamet’s prose gives it an element of the Tao; its metaphysical muscularity and frequent (sometimes gratuitous) capitalizations — “Justice,” “Security,” “Government Control” — an element of the Hegelian. Like another assertive German — Nietzsche — Mamet has the gift for writing almost entirely in epigrams, maxims, and barbs, and for leaving a reader feeling, at times, as though he has been both enlightened and damned. A flavor: “The Good Causes of the Left may generally be compared to NASCAR; they offer the diversion of watching things go excitingly around in a circle, getting nowhere.” “It is not the absence of government, but the rejection of culture which leads to anarchy.”

At its best, The Secret Knowledge is the distillation of many important voices that preceded it. Though Thomas Sowell’s is a close second, the loudest voice in Mamet’s book is that of Hayek, whom Mamet credits with his “awakening,” as a sexagenarian, to the “Tragic View” of politics, which for Mamet is given its best transcendent expression in the Torah and the Talmud, and its best immanent expression in the United States Constitution, the latter “based not upon the philosophic assumption that people are basically good, but on the tragic confession of the opposite view.” But Mamet brings to Hayek a bit of the hard-knocks hustler, a touch of urine and of vinegar. We get Hayek via Glengarry Glen Ross, a master Chicago dialogician’s answer to the “Keynes versus Hayek” rap battles that have become unlikely YouTube sensations.

To a conservative, Mamet’s conversion story will no doubt offer confirmation and comfort, perhaps even an occasion to gloat. Mamet’s sudden realization, after decades of paying lip service to the ends of “social justice,” that mass exertions of the state and its bureaucracy often inflict a slow rot on the very groups that are their targets (and collateral damage on so many others) will no doubt elicit a tight nod and a “What took you so long?” from anybody who read Hayek in college, or City Journal in the years since.

#page#But is not the true measure of the conversion story its potential to bring others into the flock — does not Whittaker Chambers’s Witness evoke not just a juridical but an evangelical vocabulary (as the born-again at the religious revival is called upon to “testify”)? On this score, Mamet’s achievement is more uneven. Too often, Mamet breezes over the history of policy outcomes — conservative vs. liberal — in favor of generalization and even bald assertion, content to direct the reader, via footnote, to some other work rather than giving arguments about, say, the deleterious effects of welfare or foreign aid the full rehearsals they require. Such appeals to authority, while perhaps enough to inspire an earnest liberal or two to follow up, are more likely to be simply dismissed. Too much of his discussion of policy disputes in today’s America has this feel of the perfunctory, of the sort of thing that will satisfy the choir, but won’t do as persuasion, or proselytism — or even propaganda.

But in other areas Mamet’s insights are subtler and more edifying. His critique of the arrested development of the perpetual student, and of an American liberal-arts curriculum that produces graduates who are literally good for nothing, is a salutary revisiting, a generation later, of turf covered by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (though neither book nor author, curiously, appears in Mamet’s index). As with Bloom, in Mamet we have the aesthete and master critic applying his instrument not to an individual piece of culture but to the culture at large. But unlike Bloom, who understood that a truly liberal education consists in enlarging the youth’s understanding of his own tradition, and that a problem arises only when that tradition itself becomes unworthy of study, Mamet has little time for a formal education that goes beyond the Three Rs or instruction in a skilled trade. Rather than help youth matriculate into society, he says, “the privilege taught, learned, and imbibed” by liberal-arts students “drugged with self-indulgence . . . is the privilege to indict”: that is, to soberly inform their cohort when their behavior betrays a racial or gender insensitivity; to laugh at all the right parts of The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher; to wag their finger at the excessiveness of Wall Street pay.

Equally affecting is Mamet’s understanding, rippled throughout the text, of the connection between Judeo-Christian values and the success of the American experiment. The “irreducible understanding,” he says, that is the precondition of both Biblical and constitutional Law is the idea “that all human beings possess both a conscience” — understood here as our capacity to intuit our Divine, or at least unalienable, rights and duties — “and that free will necessary to allow them to either reject its dictates or to formulate them into habit.” In other words, though man is neither perfect nor perfectible, he is accountable, and that is enough for justice: not a “social justice” that attempts to level the unequal distribution of talent and fortune among men by the continued accretion of power to the state, but a rational, predictable system of laws that protects us from violence and graft and that holds us, with respect to one another, to our word. Such a system alone can give us the breathing room to maintain those norms of intercourse that we call a tradition, a civil society, a culture.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster has been news editor of National Review Online since 2009, and was a web site editor until 2012. His work has appeared in The American Spectator, The American ...

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