By Louise Rubacky
“The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture”
A book by David Mamet
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”?
A taste of Mamet: Go to the end of this review to see a short excerpt from “The Secret Knowledge.”
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.
The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture
By David Mamet
Sentinel HC, 256 pages
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.
Mamet occasionally poses thought experiments too, like his musing about potential moral implications of the interplay between the id, ego and superego, which starts off OK, but becomes almost surreal as he connects and equates becoming a Nazi with swallowing whole the political messages of MoveOn.org. Some people are followers and don’t think for themselves. What’s more, identification politics is easier than carving out your own opinions based on the facts. That’s laziness, not Nazism. Speaking of laziness, resorting to Nazis in moral argument is just that, and pretty much lacking in punch at this point since it’s been connected to every group in America.
Mamet bombs his book with so many gross generalizations about the left that it’s laughable, but not in a good way. It’s hard to take a guy seriously who is dead serious that cumbersome politically correct behavior, like giving equal space in books to pronouns for both genders, is ruining our culture. Silly yes, but ruinous? (There are very few recognizable Mamet laughs here. The footnote in which he defended himself against woman-hating accusations after describing a reviewer who went after him was amusing: “I do not hate women. I do not like that woman.”) And his recent us/them view of life, while loving the free market insistently and often, is so relentless it’s as if he believes all readers have short-term memory loss, and that the market is actually free. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is fond of saying, “Show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy.”
Mamet has come to the conclusion that liberals are the true believers who behave with the fervor of fanatics, but his accusation of lock step thought and behavior is nowhere more destructively played out than in the House and Senate, where a moderate Republican is tough to find at voting time and ultraconservative pledges are used as blackmail. Despite his contention that taxes change nothing for the better, the American economy has historically been more productive under higher tax rates and Democratic administrations since the Depression. Further, a strong infrastructure is essential to the smooth running of business and the creation of wealth. Without sufficient tax revenue, infrastructure deteriorates, hurting everyone. (The tax rate is also meaningless when there are so many ways for corporate lawyers to help their bosses avoid paying taxes.) And yes, FDR did bring the country back from economic implosion. Maybe Mamet has been smoking the pages of some Texas textbooks.
The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture
By David Mamet
Sentinel HC, 256 pages
Or perhaps he has determined that a clumped view of the world is easier to write about. If this or that person is a liberal and Mamet disagrees with him, he gets clumped with all the rest. Yes, some liberals are guilty of doing just that regarding conservatives, but it is not useful. The fact that most of the liberals I know are skeptical of politicians and pure socialism, would like to see a just and prosperous America and are very hardworking is inconsequential because no one can know all liberals or conservatives. Political positions, however, are knowable, and there aren’t many liberal positions even holding ground in the freak carnival known as Congress today. And to label Barack Obama as a socialist is not just a stretch, it’s unsupportable. On most critical issues since he was elected, President Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps, and no one would call W a liberal.
So, even with all the dunderheaded moves by conservatives that chained us to war and eroded our wealth, liberalism is stupid to Mamet, just not how the real world works. If the penchant for making stuff up and exaggerating to the point of absurdity is the way it does work, how does that fit with Mamet’s moral codes? His fallback position on corruption and disruptions of market capitalism is that such problems are inevitable because people are flawed. Even though many at the top of financial institutions produce nothing concrete, rarely invest to grow new business any longer and caused the Ponzi economy to tank, let’s go with the freewheeling market? (He notes in passing isolation that the economic meltdown was predictable.) To see where unbridled markets inevitably head, one has to look at only the lawless and violent worlds of illegal drugs and prostitution. There may be fewer bloodied bodies in the realms of unregulated corporate capitalism, but actions taken to maximize profits at any cost are consistently inhumane and harmful to the general public.
Still, we are left with the glib catchall that there will always be abuses, though those abuses have exceeded almost everyone’s wildest dreams of how much can be gotten away with in a country supposedly defined by the rule of law. Mamet is scornful of the opportunists who took advantage of low interest rates during the housing bubble, but unrattled by the mostly conservative white-collar criminals, who, under the cloaks of financial innovation and impenetrable contracts, skated away scot-free after creating a fraud that detonated trillions of dollars of wealth into permanent oblivion. These are not a few flawed fellas; they worked hard to keep this con going.
Of all people, Mamet should recognize a con when he sees one, having dramatized them so effectively in works such as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “House of Games.” But he claims that the most intelligent people are the most susceptible to cons. Maybe so. When someone as perceptive and gifted as Mamet flips so thoroughly to embrace hypocritical politics and easily refutable propaganda, one is left to figure that the con is on him.
Louise Rubacky is an editor, filmmaker and writer. She has edited for directors Jean-Jacques Annaud, Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Nicolas Roeg, among others, and made short documentaries. She is also a fellow of the Climate Prosperity Project, which focuses on building public interest in a green economic paradigm, and is part of the international nonprofit organization Global Urban Development.
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A TASTE OF MAMET
Editor’s note: Below is a sample of “The Secret Knowledge,” David Mamet’s newly published diatribe against liberalism. To see longer excerpts at Google Books, click here.
There is a curious disconnection between the Left’s worship of the tribal and its religious belief in the power of Government. It may be that its mythology runs like this: The Noble Savage acts in a manner more in tune with Nature. He is uncorrupted, save by the advent of the Whites, who took his land (Israel, the American West, the British Empire). Prior to their coming, he dwelt in peace, tilling the soil according to immemorial principles, and ruled chiefly by his love of the plants and seasons and their influence upon all things. If he had a religion it was that of God as Nature. And we, Westerners, killed and kill him, through greed for his possessions (natural resources). But the so-believing, the adorers of Third World music, native crafts, and the disheveled dress of their notional American Native Tribe (the poor, the homeless), these, nonetheless, continue to enshrine Big Government as the only tool capable of returning Man from Hell to Eden. The same Democracy, then, which, in its nonelected quality (civilization) inexorably populated the world, ever widening the polity, and obliterating the Tribe and its supposed blessings, is held by the Left to be that tool capable of reversing the process and restoring us to the Tribe, its campfire, its wise elders, its superabundance of untouched wilderness and game. We’re going to vote on it, and when we have enough votes, we’re going to return to the campfire. There will be no more pollution, for we will vote to stop our polluting ways; there will be no more war, as all sovereign States will be subsumed into a large tribe of the mutually understanding (cf. the United Nations), there will be no more Poverty, because the Earth Holds Enough for All, and lacks only that Wise Leadership which will see to its Just Distribution (a dictator). And all that stands between this utopia and our present state of stupid error are the Conservatives, who believe only in Greed. … [T]o the Left, Government is the water in which they swim, the underlying belief of their lives: Government is not merely one of the ways in which humanity may be convened to order its various affairs (the others being Religion and the Free Market), but the only way. …
This is the vision of FDR, who elaborated a bad economic downturn into the worst depression in history. 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. Roosevelt’s great domestic bequest was this syllogism: If anything called a Social Program fails, expand it. This is the meaning of Social Justice. It means actions by the State in the name of Justice, which is to say under complete protection and immunity from review. Its end is dictatorship. …
Excerpted from “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture” by David Mamet by arrangement with Sentinel, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) David Mamet, 2011.