Magazine article The American Conservative

Mamet's Fatal Conceit

Magazine article The American Conservative

Mamet's Fatal Conceit

Article excerpt

Mamet's Fatal Conceit The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, David Mamet, Sentinel, 241 pages

When David Mamet's "Why I Am No Longer a BrainDead Liberal" manifesto was published in the Village Voice in 2008, conservatives - this one, at least - were impressed.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker is, let's face it, a bigger deal than the actor Ron Silver (God rest his soul); than the crazy, washed-up coot Jon Voight; than TV's Kelsey Grammer; than virtually any entertainment figure who has outed himself as that most exotic of Hollywood critters, a conservative.

Coming as it did on the heels of playwright Tom Stoppard's denunciation of the British nanny state and selfidentification as a "timid libertarian," Mamet's piece signaled the possible emergence of a new class of sensitive literary artists who, having abandoned the shibboleths of the left, embraced a healthy skepticism of busybody government.

Alas, on the evidence of this fleshing-out of his manifesto, it's clear that Mamet has simply traded one state of mental compromise for another. He's now a Brain-Dead Conservative.

Turgid when it's not imperious, utterly lacking in fresh insight, full of breathtakingly stupid generalizations, The Secret Knowledge is, for a writer of Mamet's caliber, nothing short of embarrassing. What is this thing?

The book is structured haphazardly as a series of pensées: some political economy and polemics here, some anthropology there, "some personal history" off to the side. Done tightly and skillfully, such an omnivorous performance can be satisfying, as with, say, Robert Nisbet's Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary. But not The Secret Knowledge. It is, like Tom Skerritt's Calvinist minister said of human nature in "A River Runs Through It," "a damn mess."

The 63-year-old Mamet thinks he has a lot to say - there are stale-tasting gripes about feminism, affirmative action, abortion, and a jaded riff on the impracticality of liberal-arts education - but really he ends up saying the same thing over and over. In short: Capitalism, free markets, and families are part of the naturally evolved order of things, and liberals can't do anything except screw up that ecological balance.

Also, they hate Israel.

He self-seriously juices up the copy with lots of capitalization: "Right," "Left," "Liberal," "Conservative," "Statism," "Globalism," "Free Market," "Man." And when Mamet finds that he has exhausted mention of his favorite examples of intervention gone awry - affirmative action and forced busing - he resorts to the kind of catch-all category you might find in freshman poli sci: "Government Programs."

Speaking strictly of readability, the book is torture. Mamet writes like a pompous ass, beginning countless sentences with the rhetorically overloaded "For," and he can't seem to finish those sentences without some parenthetical aside or throat-clearing ("which is to say," "this being so"). There's a profusion of alternatively snarky and faux-scholarly footnotes, plus referential shorthands in the main body of the text - "see" this, "viz." that, and, if you've still got time, go and "cfT something else - that suggest Mamet himself became bored with the book's repetitiveness.

His characterization of liberals as outsize cartoon villains would impress even Ann Coulter. He snickers in one footnote: "What Conservative has not had the experience of concluding a discourse with a Liberal friend in which the Liberal acceded to all the Conservative's points but on being asked, 'Well, then why do you vote Democratic?' replied, Tm a Democrat'?" (Answering only for myself: I've never enjoyed that experience.)

At one point, the reader is invited to Observe that to propitiate an unknowable power, the Left, ignorant or dismissive of any society or history but its own, insists upon the primacy of Trees and Soil, Oceans and Animals - theirs is a return to the nature worship of the Savage. …

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