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The Con’s on David Mamet
Posted on Aug 18, 2011
“The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture”
David Mamet’s most recent book, “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture,” is a mind-blower, especially to one like myself who has read and watched and appreciated his work for years.
It’s also repetitive, tedious and illogically inconsistent, a cranky collection of essays from a grumpy guy. This diatribe about What’s Wrong With Liberals reveals—partially through its overuse of Capital Letters—that he has become irrational and reactionary. Humorless, too. Talk about a loss for America.
Mamet’s plays, films and essays, memorable as dissections of human character and dramatic process, were for many years among my favorites. He has long been impatient with the silliness of various cultural beliefs and behaviors, and a good deal of his work has a blunt-force quality. Macho at times, always provocative, this writer of amazing fictional dialogue peeled back the layers of venality common to personal relationships and placed high value on hard work, discipline and precision. He was also ardent about his crafts, which relied on observation, common sense and wonderful doses of humor and heresy. How can one not appreciate a guy who also loves the hilariously smart movie “My Cousin Vinny”?
But reading the 39 essays constituting this book is a bit like visiting a smart, powerful teacher or parent who has devolved over time into a font of recurring and inaccurate pronouncements. Mamet—the man with the vast imagination, sharp ear and iron-tough work ethic—has degenerated into a barker of absurd generalizations. What the hell happened?
Hard to know for sure, but Mamet rages more times than I could count about liberalism as a substitute for religion, the road to slavery and tyranny, the end of wisdom, and a bastion of work haters and victims—basically the biggest loser idea ever known to sentient beings, even though it’s been only a few years since he was part of the liberal tribe. Subjects that drive Mamet crazy—taxes, social justice, Israel, to name a few—are revisited so often that at times I thought I’d lost my place and was rereading a section. He reminds us of better times when the genders knew their places, tracks back to Jane Fonda’s big blunder in North Vietnam and informs us that we won in Vietnam. It was a long slog through thin pickings.
Mamet is serious about economic reality, and refers to economist Friedrich Hayek and his book “The Road to Serfdom.” He uses Hayek’s authority to legitimize such major new thoughts as: There is a price and trade-off for everything. Well now, no kidding? That concept can be heard daily in such worn-out phrases as “there’s no free lunch” and “something’s gotta give.” One needn’t follow Hayek or advocate unbridled capitalism to understand this. If your parents did not burn this into your brain, life experience probably did.
One of the book’s organizing principles, which relates to the title, is that cultures evolve unconsciously, without benefit of reason. And, as cultures are understood best by their own members, they mirror and address their needs naturally and, well, at their own pace. Not new ideas, but Mamet also scolds the liberal that it is useless to try to change or advance cultures through reason or with the assistance of government. (Also, that diversity, like liberalism, is idiotic and gives false comfort to its advocates by allowing a congratulatory self-view of being caring and compassionate.)
Moreover, while repeatedly holding up our nation’s laws as plentiful and adequate to any task, he acknowledges that cultures get it wrong about things like, say, slavery and racism. (This just in: There is no more racism in America. And we are reminded by Mamet that all societies had slavery. He’s just saying. …) It took a lot of fights on the street and in Congress to get to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but culture alone is unacceptably slow and complacent, and does not police itself well. Government was essential to move the culture forward from its stuck “traditions” that allowed discrimination for a hundred years after slavery ended.
Similarly, though involving less violence, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts were passed, and the Environmental Protection Agency was established during the Nixon administration after activists pushed to stop industry from continuing to dirty the air and water. The market has never regulated itself so that air and water are kept clean, and now many conservatives would like to remove those protections, conserving money over essentials for a functioning society. Like those who insist that the market is a good self-regulator, Mamet closes his eyes to the huge tax, served up by various industries, that the public pays and that stays completely off the books: destruction of the commons.
But the author crows that the exploitation of natural resources is central to our national prosperity, and we must live with trade-offs. Unsurprisingly, he also has contempt for the very idea of global warming, with the certainty of one who knows. Never mind the 98 percent of peer-reviewed climate scientists who chart the relationship between carbon emissions and climate change. For a guy who harps about reason and rationality, it’s odd that he stands with the 2 percent who disagree, and those in the news business who repeat false data that secure public belief.
Among other fights that he incomprehensibly takes on, Mamet thrashes away at college as being hopelessly useless, a network of left-wing clubhouses for the work-allergic and reality-immune. There are reasonable arguments and discussions to be had about the merits of college, but they are not found here. Also absent is any evidence that could support his case. A June 2011 New York Times article covered a Georgetown University study, and the findings are contrary to his beliefs. It showed that those with a college education are paid 37 to 45 percent better than those without, even at the low-skill end of the job scale. That’s a lot of money over an adult’s life.
And in a review for The New Yorker of two recent books with differing views about college and its value, Louis Menand notes the results from a test called the College Learning Assessment (CLA) involving 2,000 students from 2005 to 2007: The students who showed the most improvement two years into college were the liberal arts students; the ones who showed the worst improvements were business majors. In addition, 60 percent of college students are not liberal arts majors, and business is the top college major today. Mamet’s contention that college is a refuge of the liberal class where a student can hide for four years without ever being exposed to a conservative thought seems very unlikely if there is any validity to the CLA results.
It’s not that Mamet says nothing that rings true (I related to and enjoyed his comments about working on movies), but it’s where he veers from a starting notion that often jump-starts the nonsense meter. For instance, Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” was indeed well done and captivating. Then Mamet rails that Al Sharpton rails about Asians exploiting African-Americans by setting up businesses that cater to them exclusively. Sharpton has acted like he’s off his rocker for decades. So what? He is not the voice of liberal or black America. He is one guy with a lot of passion and opinions—kind of like Mamet, without the writing talent. Rock’s film is interesting and entertaining, but Mamet uses it as a comparison of immigrant entrepreneurship versus liberal craziness. A more worthy thought set forth in Rock’s doc is this: Maybe it is not a great idea to regularly pour toxic chemicals on your or your developing kid’s head to obtain “good” hair.
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