They’re both gun lovers who look good in heels? Well, yes, but less obviously, they’ve both found a passionate and eloquent defender in playwright David Mamet. Not only has Mamet written an exculpatory drama on the music producer for HBO, he’s also hawking Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, an account of his own rejection of “mindless” liberalism in favor of conservatism. Among the reasons he offers interviewer John Gapper: the Left’s betrayal of Israel and the corrosive effects of unions and big government:
I ask whether anything in particular prompted his change of heart and he cites the 2007-08 film and television writers’ strike and The Unit, a TV show that Mamet created and produced. “All of a sudden, the show was off the air and everyone was thrown out of work—the stagehands, the grips, the costume designers, all the people who worked 16 hours a day … I realized I had been screwed by unions as much as I’d been helped by them.”
The experience led him to start reading the work of free-market economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Adam Smith and philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hobbes. He also talked to Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, two conservative writers at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “My dad was a labor lawyer and the ideas that I grew up with—bad management, bad capitalism, robber barons—when I applied this to my own life, I saw that we are all on both sides of the coin.”
Mamet’s book, with its dismissal of global warming, objections to state-supported spending programs and scathing hostility to liberals, often reads like someone who is grappling with these well-worn topics for the first time. Later in our conversation, I ask whether he had read any economics before and he says not—he typically gets absorbed in a collection of books relating to his current play for two years at a time before moving on. I wonder what might have happened if he had picked up John Maynard Keynes instead of Friedman.
And Sarah Palin? Mamet’s “crazy” about her:
Mamet compares Palin to a late friend in Cabot, Vt., where he owns a “little cabin in the woods … I like to hunt. I like to fish. Cross-country ski. It’s in the middle of absolute nowhere. A dirt-track road, a 200-year-old post-and-beam house. Gorgeous.” His friend, he continues, was “a hardworking guy, a man of honor who was looking out for the town’s interests. I thought of him when I saw Sarah Palin. She started with the PTA and then became the mayor and then governor [of Alaska]. I thought, well, OK. That’s someone who knows how to work.”
Why, if he so loves small-town America and its values, does he live in the liberal enclave of Los Angeles? “There is a lot of work. My wife works there,” he says and then he mentions his daughters. “They are very, very beautiful. It once occurred to me: being able to write is like being the pretty girl at the party. You can’t be diffident about it because that’s a lie but it’s nothing to be arrogant about.”
Mamet’s volte-face must have been pretty recent. In 2003, he published an essay, titled “Secret Names,” in which he analyzes the reality-bending power of nicknames and other deliberately constructed monikers. Mamet writes: “..the very mechanism of awe of the secret name is employed in the service of oppression…This may occur, as we see, in neurosis, through advertising, or, in a mixture, in political discourse.” According to Mamet, these neo-magical names include “threat level,” “homeland security,” and “weapons of mass destruction”:
I instance the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” This formulation is overlong, clunky, and obviously confected. This is not to say that this or that dictator, or indeed well-meaning soul, may or does not possess such tools. But the formulation itself is unwieldy and, to the American ear, unfortunate. It is the cadence of “I’m not going to tell you again.” Rhyth-mically, it is a scold. And its constant enforced repetition by the newscasters (you will note that the people in the street do not use it often, and then with little ease), its very awkwardness, ensures that the phrase, and thus its reference, pass beyond the borders of consideration. Like The WB.
“Secret Names” does not read like a liberal screed, by any means, a fact that must have made it a rare and refreshing commodity back in 2003. At no point does Mamet suggest that the government is coining these strange terms in order to lie to citizens with special facility. But just as obviously, it’s not the work of a neoconservative.
Rowan Kaiser writes that, though “Mamet is an intelligent author,” Secret Knowledge “isn’t an intelligent book”
Mamet’s essential problem is definition: In his late-life conversion to conservatism, he has somehow come to consider everything bad to be left or liberal, and everything good to be right or conservative. Mamet personifies modern liberalism through Barack Obama, whom he treats as a Socialist demon who has come to destroy all that is good and right in America. Yet many of Mamet’s complaints could just as easily be applied to any recent Republican president, all of whom go unmentioned. This reaches a ludicrous extreme when Mamet complains about the Department Of Homeland Security as an overreach of governmental power, eliding over the fact that it was created and supported by a right-wing administration. This is neither an aberration nor the most bizarre claim in the book—“The Left insisted that we abandon, in 1973, a war we had just won in Vietnam…” may take that prize.
I‘ve yet to tread the book — though I look forward to it — but one thing that makes Kaiser‘s review credible, to my mind, is his use of the word conversion. Conversion stories normally involve the swapping of one extreme point of view for another. The first has to be completely bad; the second, completely good. The statement “I once was lost” would lose its resonance if not followed by “but now am found,” ditto blindness and seeing.
Toward the end of the movie Platoon, Charlie Sheen’s character admits that he was wrong ever to have admired the demented Staff Sergeant Barnes. One of his friends explodes, “Wrong? You ain’t never been right!” That’s a bucket of water over the head of anyone looking to dramatize a spiritual or intellectual journey: sure, you might have been lost, but are you absolutely positive you’re found? You might still be lost — just in a completely different direction. As I write the story of my own incomplete conversion, I have no choice but to hope that enduring wrongness, if faithfully rendered, can make interesting reading.
Kaiser goes on to write that Secret Knowledge “makes a kind of sense as a fairy tale about two titanic, irreconcilable entities, locked in immortal combat.” That also rings true. In his interview with Rapper, he seems to have exchanged one set of romantic constructs for another: he started out life denouncing greedy, capitalistic robber barons; now, he exalts heroic Real Americans “of honor.” Rapper writes that Mamet attends a synagogue every Saturday, but with his Alpha-Omega mind, he’d make a great Catholic. “Rome” is the root of “romance.”