June 7, 2011
David Mamet’s political manifesto explains the reformed liberal playwright
Let me say right away that I am an ardent and devoted fan of David Mamet. I have only a very small collection of movies on DVD, but two of them are “The
Spanish Prisoner” and “House of Games,” both of which I’ve watched repeatedly. My wife, Ann, and I were in the audience for Mamet’s production of “Boston Marriage” at the Geffen and again when he produced a magic-and-memoir show featuring Ricky Jay.
A few years ago, while serving as president of PEN Center USA West, I placed a call to Mamet’s office on a point of PEN business. When my secretary, Judy Woo, announced his return call, my heart raced — and I told him so. It was a high point of my literary life to speak with one of the Immortals on the phone.
But I fear that Mamet is no fan of people like me, whom he dismisses as “the Left” in the pages of “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture” (Sentinel: $27.95). “The Good Causes of the Left may generally be compared to NASCAR,” he announces. “[T]hey offer the diversion of watching things go excitingly around in a circle, getting nowhere.”
Put “House of Games” on pause — this is Mamet’s political manifesto, and he is ready to unburden himself on a long list of hot-button issues that are handled far more subtly, if at all, in his plays and movies.
Much of what is written in “The Secret Knowledge” will be off-putting to liberals — or, as Mamet puts it, “the Liberals” or “the Left.” (He capitalizes lots of words and phrases: “Family,” “the Black Neighborhood,” “Machine Politics,” “Old Rich Guys,” “Social Eugenicism” and much else, although I did not catch the reason why.) “The Liberal young are taught to shun work,” he insists. “The philosophy of the Left is not, in fact, a love of, but a rejection of wisdom. And it is contrary to common sense.” And, of course: “The State of Israel is, in itself, an incurable affront to the Left, for it is a demonstration of the possibility of choice.” He even comments on the dress code of the Left Coast.
“The young on the Westside of Los Angeles dress themselves in jeans worn, sanded, and razored to resemble something a six-month castaway might crawl ashore in,” observes Mamet, who hails from Chicago but now spends a lot of time among us. “Why? They are trying to purchase a charade of victimization, as the ethos of the Liberal West holds that these victims are the ones of worth.”
Although “The Secret Knowledge” is a book about secular politics and culture, it is deeply rooted in Mamet’s Jewish upbringing and lifelong study. Significantly, he acknowledges Rabbi Mordecai Finley and a couple of Jewish media celebrities on conservative talk radio — Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager and Michael Medved — as sources of inspiration. Sometimes, however, he is not entirely clear about how his Jewishness and his arch-conservatism fit together. “I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes of his early years, and I assume that “tribal” is a code word for “Jewish.” But he insists that he has put such childish things aside, and now he sees Judaism in a very different light.
“Why would any American Jew wish to become a ‘citizen of the world’?” he writes. “This fantasy is akin to one who believes in the benevolence of Nature. Anyone ever lost in the wild knows that Nature wants you dead.”
He speaks plainly about what he labels as the “first principles,” which he finds so compelling. “All people are venal by nature,” he declares. He quotes President Barack Obama for the proposition that “[t]he individual at some point, must be able to say, ‘I have enough money,’ ” and then asks: “But will Mr. Obama, out of office, say this of himself, and of the vast riches he will enjoy? One must doubt it.” He insists government cannot change human nature: “Those of us in show-business spend our lives trying to understand, subvert and predict the actions of the audience,” he writes. “It cannot be done.” Remarkably, he even argues that “[a] man the bulk of whose income is taxed has less incentive toward monogamy.”
Mamet’s conviction about the venality of human nature leads him to distrust all office-holders. “Thomas Jefferson was an adulterer; so was every President, most likely,” he insists. “That’s why men get into politics; it gives them power.” Rather than government, he looks to “community” for the survival of civilization: “Our task in life is not to guess which lever to pull, but to learn to determine, in the wild, as it were, how to support ourselves,” Mamet declares. “Is this not a return to savagery? Not at all. It is a return to community, for in the free market, success comes only from the ability to supply the needs of others.”
To his credit, Mamet is consistent. He opposes the bailout of what he calls “the hag-ridden” auto industry and is willing to take the consequences of tough love in the marketplace: “In a rational, which is to say free-market world, this situation would self-correct: the public would cease to buy a product which no one cared to make attractive, efficient, or affordable, and the business would change or go broke.”
My own take on the world according to David Mamet is that his earnest (and faintly survivalist) prescriptions simply do not scale up. As we saw in the economic meltdown of 2008, the richest and most powerful people and corporations in the world were happy to take taxpayer money to preserve their wealth and dominance, and I suspect that they are also perfectly happy to let the motley crew of Tea Party members, libertarians, Evangelical Christians and miscellaneous rightwing activists talk about “first principles” while doing what they can to put and keep a corporate-friendly Congress in power. If you don’t have a job and can’t afford health insurance, however, you are on your own.
Let me give one concrete example. At one point, Mamet trashes Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who was capable of reducing my Jewish immigrant grandparents to sentimental tears: “In an attempt to Do Good for All, he dismantled the free market, and so, the economy and saddled our country not only with ‘social programs,’ but with the deeper, unconscious legacy of belief in Social Programs, irrespective of their effectiveness.”
A few pages later, he complains that “[t]he State of California sentences the farmers of the Central Valley to drought, and their farms to destruction, because a small fish called the delta smelt has been declared endangered.” What he skips is the fact that dams and canals of the Central Valley Project began under FDR, and the megafarms wouldn’t exist at all if water hadn’t been provided by Big Government.
But this is not the place — and I am not the person — to debate Mamet on the merits of his political philosophy point by point. To judge “The Secret Knowledge” as a reading experience, I found it occasionally aggravating, but always provocative and impossible to put down, and I was fascinated to find out what one of my favorite directors and playwrights thinks about the world in which we all live.
For that reason, it will not surprise Mamet to learn that my favorite passages in “The Secret Knowledge” were the anecdotes about a Glenn Curtiss 1915 seaplane, not because of its intended lesson about how the economy should work, but because it gave me an insight into the iconography of “The Spanish Prisoner” and Mamet’s observation that the Nigerian Internet scam is a contemporary replay of the 2,000-year-old con game that is featured in his flawless movie.