Roger L. Simon

David Mamet's Progress

The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture

By David Mamet

Published by Sentinel (June 2, 2011)

Reviewed by Roger L. Simon

With all the talk of Hollywood liberalism — the endless leftist blather from Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, the cozying up to Castro and Chavez by Oliver Stone and Danny Glover, the jejune Iranian peace-making by Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, etc., etc — it’s fascinating that the two leading playwrights in the English language (the smart guys) — Tom Stoppard and David Mamet — identify as conservative/libertarians.

For Stoppard — born in Communist Czechoslovakia — this was natural, but for Mamet — a Chicago Jewish child of the sixties — it was a considerably longer slog. As he relates in his superb new book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, “I had never knowingly talked with nor read the works of a Conservative before moving to Los Angeles, some eight years ago.”

Mamet certainly made up for lost time. Barely ten pages into his book, you know this man has read, and thoroughly digested, the major conservative works of our and recent times, from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman and on to Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele. And he is able to explicate and elaborate on them as well as anybody.

Not that the playwright’s political transformation is such a surprise. In 2008, he wrote an op-ed for The Village Voice (of all confrontational places), “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead’ Liberal.” That article was somewhat more tentative than its title, which may have been added for dramatic effect by the newspaper’s editors.

Not so The Secret Knowledge. Mamet has come a ways in three years from a chrysalis bewildered and astonished by his new found views to an author writing in white heat. The new book is a full-throated intellectual attack on liberalism in almost all its aspects from someone who was there, a former leftwing intellectual of prominence, a Pulitzer Prize winner even (and one who deserved it, unlike the New York Times’ Walter Duranty).

Mamet clearly has a polemical intention here with a very specific target. The book says to his former friends on the left, the ones who might pay attention anyway, I woke up — what about you? That makes it different from your normal run of conservative books that largely preach to the choir. Ann Coulter writes of the left to mock them. David Mamet’s intention is to convert them, a far more ambitious enterprise.

He does this in a deliberately Talmudic style with footnotes at the bottom of many pages that are often as interesting as the text itself. Sometimes the various chapters turn in on themselves, repeating themes with variations. But all of them seem to echo the famous words attributed to the great rabbi Hillel: “If not now, when?”

If not now, when, indeed. It remains to be seen to the degree Mamet will be successful, but his work could not appear at a more pivotal moment. Western civilization is approaching bankruptcy, literally and spiritually. The welfare state has been revealed to be a self-destructive farce with no long-term benefit to anyone but a small group of quasi-totalitarian elites. Spain, Greece and Portugal are on the brink of economic catastrophe. Other countries are sure to follow. The optimism of the “Arab Spring” barely lasted longer than Warhol’s fifteen minutes. Israel, the proverbial canary in the coal mine, stands surrounded as never before. And America, in Mark Steyn’s epochal phrase, is definitely alone… and sinking.

How did this all come to pass? There are many reasons, obviously. But David Mamet places much of the blame squarely on my generation and his:

We were self-taught in the sixties to award ourselves merit for membership in a superior group–irrespective of our group’s accomplishments. We continue to do so, irrespective of accomplishments, individual or communal, having told each other we were special. We learned that all one need do is refrain from trusting anybody over thirty; that all people are alike, and to judge their behavior was “judgmental”; that property is theft. As we did not investigate these assertions or their implications, we could not act upon them and felt no need to do so. For we were the culmination of history, superior to all those misguided who had come before, which is to say all humanity.

The Secret Knowledge is a cry of “Basta!” Buy this book. But, more importantly, buy another copy for your liberal friends, the ones you may still have. They may even read it. And then… who knows?