David Mamet's Homecoming
A new book by the playwright, director, and author David Mamet is by definition a significant literary event—but to judge from its critical reception, The Secret Knowledge is not only a bad book but possibly an evil one.
Christopher Hitchens led the charge in the New York Times, assaulting Mamet for having produced "an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason." Ultimately, Hitchens concluded, The Secret Knowledge is nothing but propaganda, a species of writing that—and here was the ultimate cut at America's most exciting playwright—"can be even more boring than it is irritating."
In the Los Angeles Times, David Ulin struck a similarly dismissive note, sniffing that both Mamet's latest effort and its predecessor The Wicked Son (2006) marked a precipitous comedown from the greatness of his dramas—Ulim named especially American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. By contrast, The Secret Knowledge, in a "shift" into the "purely political realm," gives us nothing but shrill, strident polemics wholly lacking in "a spirit of dialogue and debate."
Why such heat? Could it be that the problem is not Mamet's "shift" into the political—his plays are nothing if not soaked in politics—but the specific political position into which he himself has shifted? For that is indeed the not so hidden spring of this particular drama: David Mamet, formerly a Left-liberal in good standing, has in recent years undergone a painful re-examination of his entire outlook on life and now publicly declares himself a conservative. To add insult to injury, a Jewish conservative—that is, one for whom Judaism is not peripheral or irrelevant to either his politics or his art but congruent with and even a source of inspiration for both.
Mamet first announced his political conversion in a 2008 Village Voice piece entitled (by that paper's editors) "Why I am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal." Tellingly, this trailed by two years the appearance of The Wicked Son, his expression of his revised feelings on the Jewish question, and especially on the subject of the new anti-Semitism. In The Secret Knowledge (subtitled "On the Dismantling of American Culture"), the two threads come together—a crucial point that seems to have escaped reviewers otherwise focused single-mindedly on the scandal of his apostasy from political leftism.
What prompted Mamet to re-examine his beliefs, heretofore a standard-issue version of present-day liberalism? The origin, as he describes it, lay in the realization that certain conditions—namely, "American reality," as opposed to the bad, capitalist, exploitative America of liberal myth—were what had permitted him, David Mamet, to pursue his career and, as it happened, to succeed. Having joined a synagogue, he talked over his intellectual quandary with his rabbi, who (remarkably enough) provided him with books by, among other conservatives, the economist Thomas Sowell and the literary scholar and columnist Shelby Steele. His mind enriched by these and, especially, a transformative reading of economist-philosopher Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, he began to see larger patterns.
Those patterns—the unquestioned templates of modern liberalism—form a large part of The Secret Knowledge, a book that admittedly bears all the signs of composition by an autodidact, if an estimable and prodigious one. It is not an easy work to summarize, being very far from a systematic analysis of either theory or behavior. Political labels of some complexity—Left, Right, Liberal, Conservative—are invoked by Mamet in sweeping and often acerbic generality. Topics whirl by: in the space of a few lines or pages, he swings from Malthus to wind power to the Tawana Brawley scandal to global warming. For a reader, it can become impossible to follow the structure, sometimes even the argument.
But Mamet does not pretend to be a political theorist, and it may be that the book's short chapters are intended to be read not silently or necessarily in sequence but aloud as if they were speeches in a play, with rising and falling emphasis and inflection. Proper allowances being made, this immensely gifted dramatist and "unfrocked psychoanalyst," as he calls himself, offers insights into society, politics, and their underlying belief systems that compel credence at least as often as skepticism.
Whatever may be said about Mamet's critique of liberalism, on which he lurches between startling acuity and something close to caricature, it is his newfound conservatism and its relation to Judaism that most concern us here. At the root, for Mamet, is freedom, and his root metaphor is the Exodus from Egypt.
In a piece of biblical exegesis that he attributes to his son, Mamet invokes the figure of Moses, who "demonstrated that freedom lay in the ability to see distinctions; that is, that life could be divisible into good and evil; moral and immoral; sacred and profane; permitted and forbidden." What follows from seeing distinctions is the "necessity of making distinctions"—and therein lies "the essence of freedom, where one not only can but must choose." Freedom is never a given but always and everywhere a choice. Not choosing, for us today as much as for the ancient Israelites, is to return to slavery, the "herd."
In particular, choosing to trust the Law, which for Mamet as an American Jew comes down to the Torah and the genius of the U.S. Constitution, is the only true path to freedom. Moreover, that path must be traversed without mediation. As he observes, having led the Jews from slavery into freedom, Moses set them free from his authority as well: "With Moses gone, the Jews had nothing between themselves and the word of God, and were free to obey or disobey at will, reap the rewards, or suffer the consequences." Such are the choices and perils of the free, set against those—here enter Mamet's utopia-seeking liberals—who wish to relieve us of the responsibility to choose.
If Exodus is Mamet's root metaphor, covenant, another core Jewish concept, is his political framework. The family and American society function only to the extent that they constitute relationships with agreed-upon roles and responsibilities. Such covenantal relationships are fundamentally conservative; their maintenance depends less on the exercise of sovereign and arbitrary reason than on the "generationally bequeathed experience of previous families."
Mamet skewers his own generation for having discarded that experience and those relationships in favor of arrangements that, in the name of reason, "can only be . . . a conveniently self-excusatory name for [one's] desires." With the tools of reason, and under the banner of a false freedom, chaos is unleashed, which then needs a "grand new scheme to put things right." Inevitably such schemes demand "the surrender of reason and liberty" and entail the creation of "ever new state Utopias" by politicians who, "whether crooks or fools, set out to bankrupt and restrict not themselves, but others."
Israel plays a central role in Mamet's philosophy. In the "Left's love of the Palestinians," he writes with devastating psychological insight, "there is something of the sadomasochistic," with safe and sound onlookers momentarily pretending to be victims even while cognizant that the weak "must be [kept] available in their intrinsic state of powerlessness for the next go-'round." He also implicates socialism, whose essence "is for Party A to get party B to give something to Party C." Thus, in their compulsion to deny the reality of Arab aggression, leftists become complicit in anti-Semitism. "The liberal West," he writes, "would like the citizens of Israel to take the only course which would bring about the end of the disturbing 'cycle of violence'. . . . That course is abandoning their homes and country, leaving, with their lives, if possible, but leaving in any case. Is this desire anti-Semitism? You bet your life it is."
Mamet is particularly scathing on the unreconstructed liberalism of his fellow Jews. But he is also, finally, at home with them. "Being among my people is a delight," he announces, generously conceding that all their "carping about Israel, or mooing about the Palestinians, or about the emptiness of religion, is a constant in Jewish life, and is, in fact, the descant of the Torah." He also concedes that in America Jews are, still, in some sense, strangers in a strange land—if one, he insists, "less strange than any in which we have dwelt." How, he asks, to make it even less strange? His answer: "To cease pretending and enjoy the benefits of liberty, security, and success, and to defend them as American[s] rather than posing as 'citizen[s] of the world.'"
Thus, as a conservative and as a Jew, has David Mamet dared to proclaim that he has come home. No wonder everybody is mad at him.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
2. In his emphasis upon the written Torah as opposed to the oral one (Talmud), Mamet demonstrates that he is - like his fellow conservative Dennis Prager- a Karaite at heart, not a rabbinic Jew.
3. And even in the written Torah Mamet focuses upon the Pentateuch, neglecting the Prophets and the Writings. His "home" is in Judaism as elitist, priestly cult, not a full-blown religious civilization. How more 'conversative' can one get?
Thank you, David Mamet, your work at this time, especially, is highly appreciated.
Or, in short, cf. Pirkei Avot 3:14 as a brief answer to why, halachically, f-m capitalism is KEFIRA.
We need to get beyond the insult phase and move towards discussing the real issues. That is why I find Mamet's sudden "conversion" to the conservative side both puzzling and sad. Okay fine, he can believe what he wants, but he is too intelligent to traffic in crude stereotypes. I do not hate Israel. I do not hate tradition (in fact, I keep a kosher home). Most Jewish Democrats that I know are big supporters of Israel, although some of us find the current government a bit too right-wing and hawkish for our liking.
I'd feel a lot better about the book and the comments being made on this page if they addressed whether Jews have the right to criticize Israel or whether Jews who do not follow every Orthodox tradition can still be respected (for example, my Orthodox friends do not recognize my husband's conversion, because we are Conservative Jews rather than Orthodox).
I understand it's easy to toss insults around. But please don't accuse people like me of being extremists or of being the enemy. That has never been helpful, and it skates perilously close to loshon hora. Whatever Mamet's agenda, he is making assertions that are driving a wedge between Jews who consider themselves moderate and/or liberal and Jews who consider themselves as conservative and/or traditional. In times like these, we don't need to be fighting amongst ourselves, do we?
You can say what you will, but free market capitalism is what gave American Jews the exceptional status they have, derived from success in All facets of the marketplace, not just moneylending. The freedoms our parents and grandparents gained in coming to America were parlayed no where better than through the mechanism of FMC.
Several points: One can be a fifth columnist without being aware of it. Diaspora Jews who openly criticize Israel,even those who do so out of "love," are spitting in the wind. Their complaints will have no influence whatsoever on the actions of any Israeli government and will inevitably be used to Israel's detriment by its many true enemies. There is an unbridgeable divide between Israelis (including those on the left)who criticize their country and those living, say, on the Upper West Side who do so. The former live in the maelstrom,their children put their lives on the line for the country. The latter...live on the Upper West Side,where the greatest tragedy in recent years was the closing of H&H Bagels.
You love your son,you have every right to criticize his behavior if you believe it to be inappropriate. But you don't do so in the presence of classmates who have often openly expressed their desire to get rid of him.
a "Marxist" argument?!!
And what kind of "Jewish conservative" such as you claim to be, rejects the authoritative voice of Halacha?
Moreover, alas, your understanding of Torah (Oral and Written) simply does not fit the historical facts. Samuel's critique was of privilege and potential abuse of power, not "big govt."
Secondly, if by "big govt" you mean a regime consisting of laws and regulations: then is there a 'bigger govt' than Halacha, with its 613 Biblical commandments, plus loads more of rabbinic origin? These legislate the specifics of conduct down to such things as which shoe you first put on in the morning upon arising, the left or the right one!
Next time, before opining on the subject, do read up on the Talmud in the scholarly works of Jacob Neusner (a Republican, btw).
Unreconstructed and continually reinforced. Just yesterday, for example, I received a robo-call from the Republican Jewish Coalition asking for my opinion of Obama's Middle East peace plan based on Israel's "indefensible" '67 borders. But, speaking of indefensible, there was no mention of land swaps. The right's misrepresentations of Obama's position is particularly odious to me when it comes from my fellow Jews.
Of course liberals are mad at him - they can't stand to have their beliefs seriously challenged. On the other hand, I'm sure there are a good number of liberals who can - at least I hope there are, even if it's a minority of liberals.
So cross out the word "everybody" and insert "some liberals" instead.
Thus Mamet's turn to conservatism, which is currently best championed by economic elite such as the Koch Brothers and the think-tank elite at the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundations and the Manhattan Institute.
Where do the ends justify the means in my reply to Marc? Surely you don't think that FMC is a "means" rather than an "end" in itself...a way of life where you can be the best you can be in all ways.
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This is the ultimate consequence of the brain-dead liberalism of the variety that Mr. Mamet wrote about in his famous Village Voice piece several years ago. The conflict between liberalism and Judaism (or Zionism) eventually will force Jews to choose between these two options. Those Jews who choose to remain affiliated will be those who have chosen Judaism or Zionism above liberalism, where the two conflict, and the disaffiliated will be those who have made the opposite choice.
In the NY area, I am very active in Jewish life and, believe me, it is rarer and rarer to meet an affiliated, active Jew who is still the caricature of the 1960's Jewish liberal, even though, this is still the very tired stereotype lazy journalists rely on to describe the "Jewish community."