David Mamet's Homecoming

By Alex Joffe
Monday, July 18, 2011

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. 

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