Mamet’s book on how he became a conservative
I’m reading David Mamet’s new book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. It’s vastly entertaining, as might have been expected. Not brilliantly or beautifully written; the adjectives that come to mind are, rather, “arresting” or “striking” or “trenchant.” Mamet has been conservative for only a few years, and that shows, a bit, despite all the reading he has apparently done since his conversion. His book has however two great things going for it.
First, he has a profound grasp of theater, drama, and show business, so that he understands how artifice and pretense operate in us, to enable us on the one hand to enjoy a movie, and on the other to believe that liberalism is coherent. Second, he understands the human heart, and is deeply committed to discovering and telling the truth about human beings. This, I believe, is what convinced him of the conservative vision of life—the Tragic (or, one could as easily say, Traditional Pagan, Jewish and Christian) view of life. that all men are flawed, that even the best choices entail suffering, that life is an ineluctable Fall, that all worldly life is doomed, and that no mere humans can fix this situation.
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Interestingly for VFR readers, what began Mamet’s conversion was the realization that in living his life he was making hundreds of exceptions to his liberal principles, and that all the liberals he knew were doing the same thing. He was talking like a liberal, thinking like a liberal, but not living like a liberal. On the contrary, he was living like a capitalist—copyrighting his plays, working for their success, and so forth. Thanks to his unwavering intention to seek the truth, he was honest with himself about the existence of this contradiction between theory and practice, and began to wonder about it. Soon he realized that one can’t live like a liberal. He learned that liberalism is incompatible with reality, and is therefore more or less lethal when carried into practice. [LA replies: That is precisely the truth at the core of the Unprincipled Exception, that consistent liberalism is incompatible with a successful personal life and even with life itself, and also incompatible political realities—such as power and authority—without which there can be no polity.]
Mamet has a wonderful gift for insightful aphorisms, although he might be more comfortable calling them one-liners. They appear every page or so. For example:
- “The rejection of property can work only in subvention or in slavery.”
- “A man the bulk of whose income is taxed has less incentive toward monogamy.”
- “A rhetorical question is essentially an attack.”
Mamet has discovered the connection between the liberal rejection of reality with its intolerable choices and disappointments, the liberal flight from uncertainty, and the failure of rites of passage (his send up of Liberal Education is both amusing and painful). He has discovered something else: that the flight from reality, from uncertainty and mature responsibility, is always in the end a flight toward slavery. He finds in the liberal retreat from reality an analogue to the expressed desire of the Israelites to return to the safety of slavery in Egypt.
All of which put me in mind of the Golden Calf. The Golden Calf was the next best thing to just heading back to Egypt. It was a turn from reality, enabled by a refusal to think. The Israelites made an artifact, and then worshipped it, as if their own inert creation could have created them.
Which is what naïve reductionism does; it is a form of idolatry, in which the idolater takes comfort from the thought that all of reality—all the threatening, dangerous things that might happen to him, and that he cannot control—are really “nothing but X.” The reductionist takes the map he has himself drawn and interposes it between his own eyes and the territory it represents, and then pretends that the map is the territory.
I do not question Kristor’s point that Mamet has become a conservative intellectually, at least in some respects, and that this is a positive development. But, based on the cover of his book, in which Mamet is seen wearing a big baseball-type cap, the very symbol of today’s universal low-brow culture, he’s still culturally a liberal, living within the liberal culture as the fish live in the sea . That’s not meant particularly as a criticism of Mamet, since the same is true of most conservatives.
Also, as I’ve said before, I am somewhat doubtful that Mamet has been a conservative for years. Just three ago his play November, which I saw on Broadway, featured the single most common trope of the liberal culture: the virtuous homosexual. I wrote at the time:
Its only virtuous character is a hideous lesbian who is the chief speech writer for a staggeringly corrupt and bigoted U.S. president who redeems himself at the end of the play by consenting to marry the lesbian to her partner on national television. There was nothing non-liberal about this play. Completely apart from the lesbian marriage theme, it was the most disgusting, degraded, stupid, unfunny, unenjoyable, and worthless stage play I’ve ever seen.
And just one year ago, in his play, Race, after pressing conservatives’ buttons by seeming to reverse the usual PC ideas on race, he ended up re-affirming them. See discussion here, in which Harry Stein’s review of the play is quoted:
But then something even more surprising happens. Mamet takes it all back. It turns out the young black associate didn’t leak the strategy after all. In fact, she’s actually deeply principled. And oh, by the way, the white guy they’re defending isn’t innocent, as we’ve been led to believe, but an elitist scum who thought he could buy his way around justice. What?!
So, when Mamet stops wearing baseball caps, presenting homosexuals as the symbols of virtue, and portraying elite white men as arrogant pigs who think they can get away with raping black women, I’ll be less skeptical about the idea of him as a conservative.
Dan R. writes:
At least he’s wearing the cap with the brim in front, and he’s outdoors.
Wearing such a cap, on the cover of a book about one’s conversion to conservatism, is not as bad as Ann Coulter posing in an absurdly skimpy outfit on the cover of a book attacking irreligion, but it’s in the same category. It shows how for today’s conservatives, conservatism is just in their heads, it’s just ideas, it’s not about what we are as human beings and how we present ourselves in society, it’s not about the quality of our culture.
As long as conservatives unreflectingly accept the styles, mores, and cultural messages of the prevailing liberal culture, they will remain merely the “conservative” wing of liberalism. They will not be able to challenge liberalism in any way that really counts.
I do not mean to be suggesting that conservatives must reject every aspect of our present culture, which would be impossible. We live in the world we live in. But if conservatives are to resist liberalism, they must resist the liberal culture as well as liberal policies and ideas.
I don’t really disagree with your follow-on comments regarding David Mamet. Now that I’ve finished the book, my impression is that his intellectual journey from liberalism to conservatism is still relatively young. It apparently began in 2007 or so, with the writing of the play you refer to, November. He discusses it in the preface of the book. November was, apparently, an attempt to show how just exactly how repulsive liberalism is—it was an exercise in dramatic, in your face reductio ad absurdam. And liberals saw it that way. The play was excoriated in the New York liberal press, and then in 2008 the Village Voice offered Mamet an opportunity to explain himself, and “take it back.” He upped the ante and came out as a conservative in his now famous essay, “Why I am No Longer a Brain-dead Liberal.”
Mamet is indeed still PC on race. If my own experience is any indication, moving away from PC on race is the single most difficult step in the conversion from liberalism to a consistent conservatism. It may take him many years, as it did for me.
As a thinker, Mamet is, not careful, but deep; as a writer, he is, not careful, but original. For example, again and again he repeats the most common error in the rhetoric of logic, of saying “All x are not y,” when what he really means is “Not all x are y.” And he has a nasty habit of splitting the infinitive, which by the end of the book was really beginning to grind my gears. He seems to have written in great haste. Indeed, he seems to be thinking in great haste, learning in great big chunks and leaps. My guess is that he is still reading voraciously, experiencing wonderful epiphanies as he discovers, or works out for himself, the farther implications of conservative presuppositions. [LA replies: He sounds like Glenn Beck, inflicting on the world his very latest thoughts, instead of letting the thoughts mature before he writes about them.] I look for him to become more and more traditionalist as he goes, for he is alive to all that has been lost. His chapter on the Ashkenazi in America is wonderfully sad, and insightful; it is about the loss of tradition, the loss of Orthodoxy and the custom of legal exegesis, so that the only thing left to American Reform Jews from their glorious tradition of mysticism and philosophy is a vague dedication to “social justice,” without any grounding in a consistent philosophical notion of justice as such.
As to baseball caps, I would say only that I often wear them myself when working or traveling out of doors. They are very practical garments, as I learned when I was a professional outdoorsman. In the rain, one really wants a good billed cap under the hood of one’s rain jacket. Wearing them on a ferry in New York City, as Mamet seems to be doing in the photo, is merely practical. The photo itself, however, is not befitting the cover of a serious book. It is ambivalent, vague, and antinomial. Perhaps that’s an accurate reflection of Mamet’s own inner state these days, with one foot still in his old liberal life, and another in his new and startling conservative life. The same would go for his beard: neither here nor there. These modern “beards” that are nothing more than the growth of a few days are really a way of expressing irony with your face.
Steve W. writes:
I have not yet read David Mamet’s new book. But whether or not he fully subscribes to “conservatism,” he clearly is moving—enthusiastically and publicly—away from contemporary liberalism. This is a very positive development for him personally and, given his cultural prominence, for the country as a whole. In my opinion, this is something that deserves approval and encouragement, not belittlement. Perhaps cheer him on for the important conservative perspectives he has discovered, while gently pushing him to confront deeper and more troubling issues.
What I am about to say is not meant as a personal response to Steve but as a general observation.
Conservatives remind me of what George Gurdjieff once said about Europeans in comparison with Asians: that they are emotionally incomplete and needy, and therefore react too eagerly to any sign of approval or agreement. They are like neglected dogs wanting to be petted. The notion that conservatives must start celebrating because a certain writer of liberal provenance (a writer, moreover, who has not been particularly known for his political views previously) has started (started, not completed) a journey toward conservatism strikes me as a sign of insecurity and lack of real belief in ourselves.
Getting overly excited about a brand new “convert” to conservatism is like America getting overly excited about the fact that everyone in the world wants to come to America—as though the value of America is only shown by other people wanting to come here.
Of course we want people to be converted from liberalism to conservatism. That is what it’s all about, after all. But in a world filled with incomplete or phony conservatives, as in an America filled with unassimilated immigrants who want to change America into their image, there’s nothing wrong with being a bit cooler and more skeptical about the process. If someone really becomes a conservative, we will know it. And his becoming a conservative won’t be dependent on how eagerly we greet him; it will come from something within himself.
E. Hunter writes:
I am sorry, but I cannot believe Mamet’s “conversion” to conservatism is anything more substantial the characters in his plays.
Everything with Mamet is some bizarre form of faux reality. His plays aren’t about felt experience. His plots are the overlay of some received set of ideas on a set of talking puppets positioned on stage. It’s all a sort of liberal Morality Play. His dialogues don’t have a scrap of poetry, he doesn’t even know what poetry is. Rather his characters utter the usual leftist talking points about “society” or “understanding” or “forgiveness” there is the usual situation, complications, and easy resolutions. It is exactly the same formula of the sitcom. Truly Mamet is a movie writer and should have never left Hollywood, where he was so comfortable for so many years.
It is precisely this bizarre unreality of Mamet’s entire being that makes it impossible to take anything he says or says he “believes” seriously. One of New York City’s few true literary figures, Gilbert Sorrentino was discussing David Mamet’s direction of Samuel Beckett’s “Catastrophe.” Two playwrights face to face, but Mamet simply could not fathom what Beckett was about. He kept trying to fit “Catastrophe” into some sort of liberal formula and nothing would fit. In the end Mamet smashed it to pieces and stuffed in a box and walked away smiling. “Of course that’s what he had to do” said Sorrentino, “Mamet doesn’t even breathe the same air as Beckett.”
Mark Jaws writes (before Kristor’s second comment was posted):
I must disagree with Kristor who buys the premise that Mamet has converted. Like you, I weigh the evidence and don’t believe it. Knowing that the conversion from long-time, entrenched liberal entertainment / literary type to conservative is quite rare and very gradual, and that the strange turn in his very recent play, Race, sprang from the quintessential liberal mindset, I would not be surprised if this Mamet character is either pulling our leg or going “underground” in similiar fashion to the author of “Black Like Me” 50 years ago. This might be a charade simply to convince conservatives that he is one of us, so as Mamet believes, to draw us out of our protective cocoon and expose our innate bigotry. Given what liberals such as Mamet have done over the past 50 years, there is no longer anything they can do that is beyond the pale.
That doesn’t look like a baseball cap he is wearing. It looks weird to me, I wouldn’t wear that to a baseball game.
I said it was a large “baseball-style hat,” not a baseball hat.
OK, and doesn’t it look weird? If he were wearing a baseball hat, say a Yankees hat, it wouldn’t look so strange. This is a baseball hat for a fop. This isn’t just pizza, but pizza with arugula on it.
Karl D. writes:
Just to throw my two cents into the “Hatgate” issue. That seems to me to be a particular kind of hat I see many fly fishermen wear. It is like a ballcap but not really. The brim is extra long I assume for spending long hours in hip waders with the sun beating down.
James R. writes:
What you say about seeking approval from converts is true. But there is something that shouldn’t be confused with that: welcoming converts who are on the path, and encouraging them. Few if any people understand conservatism in a flash of light. Especially in a society where we’re all taught liberalism as truth, and a twisted caricature of conservatism as the “ignorance, hatred and intolerance” liberalism fights in the modern morality play. To his credit Mamet saw that as the sham and untruth that it is.
I wouldn’t say yet that I fully understand traditional conservatism. I still seek out and learn from whatever sources I can. But people only find those if the way is pointed for them, and they will only pursue it if this is done in an encouraging way. I also hold forth on my views, as incomplete and partial as they are. The point isn’t to make this about me but there are times when even such people can have valuable insights. Mamet might as well. [LA replies: Nothing said here can get in the way of people benefiting from whatever valuable insights Mamet might have.]
Also, I cannot guess what is in his head or heart. But I will say that if “converts” are met with skepticism and suspicion, rather than welcome and encouragement, they aren’t likely to stay for long or have the incentive to learn more. The “conservatism” Mamet has no doubt encountered most has been the popular version. Who knows if his voracious reading will lead him to learn that there is more to conservatism than that. But if what you’d like to see happen is ever going to happen, it will start with such steps. Thus we should see it in a hopeful light. [LA replies: even if it were true that converts who were met with suspicion will not stay long, it is irrelevant to this discussion. Mamet doesn’t read VFR and you can be sure that he doesn’t know anything about VFR type conservatism. It’s not relevant to his particular journey. So we’re free here to call things as we see them.]
To those readers who may think it’s silly to say that Mamet’s cap contradicts his conservative message, here is my reply.
Let’s say a famous writer wrote a book on his journey from liberalism to conservatism, and on the cover of this book there was a photo of him with a four day growth of beard, and he’s wearing a baseball cap, a sweatshirt, and sweat pants. Would you feel that there was something inappropriate about the photo, given the theme of his book? If your answer is no, then you and I are simply too far apart to come to any common understanding on this issue. But if your answer is yes, then you are acknowledging that some kinds of clothing and grooming may contradict a conservative message. You may disagree with me on where you would draw the line, but you are agreeing with me on the basic principle.
Daniel R. writes:
Have to disagree strongly with James R. on the treatment of converts. I think casting the issue as treating them with either “skepticism and suspicion” vs. “welcome and encouragement” is a mistake. A better way of looking at it is: do we praise their first step or demand a second one?
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 06, 2011 01:21 PM | Send
I trained karate for many years with a very traditional, old-fashioned instructor. Like other traditional instructors, he’s very sparing with praise. When you manage to get one thing sort of right, his usual response is to point out three things you’re still doing wrong. The way you know you did the first thing right is that he isn’t burying his face in his hands and exclaiming “What did I just tell you?”
I was recently practicing with another instructor, younger and less traditional. He was showing me a few things, and he kept telling me that I was doing them correctly and getting them right. It felt completely wrong. I thought: “There’s no way I can trust this guy. I can’t possibly be that good.”
The old instructor’s demanding attitude demonstrated how seriously he took his subject. You knew you were getting something worthwhile training under him. He had no interest in promoting “increased interest in Karate” at the expense of the quality of the students. He took great pride in the fact that, having been given the privilege of promoting students to black belt and beyond in the association, his promotions were above suspicion. Nobody looked askance at his student’s ranks, or suggested they were not merited. This is no mean feat; unmerited rank is the order of the day in Karate.
It goes without saying that my old teacher’s students became world champions, prizefighters, special forces operators, and instructors in their own right, whereas the new teacher’s students are a pretty shabby lot.