The Secret Knowledge

David Mamet’s political essays about the liberal community

The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, by David Mamet, Sentinel (Penguin Group), RRP£17.26, $27.95

How stimulating this book might have been. David Mamet is a writer of vast skill, his works among the highest achievements in contemporary drama. See his plays, from Sexual Perversity in Chicago through Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow to the ambitious Race. See his film scripts, from The Postman Always Rings Twice through Vanya on 42nd Street (his rendering of the Chekhov play) to the intriguing Redbelt.

His plays had been seen, for decades, as indictments of capitalism – Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote of the 2008 Old Vic production of Speed-the-Plow that “what you smell ... is the terror and fear that drives a ... world like Hollywood and, by implication, that of American capitalism at large”. Glengarry Glen Ross, particularly with Jack Lemmon as the desperate, ageing property salesman in the film version, is a darker vision of the fate of the poor bloody infantry of capitalism than Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: darker because unlike Willy Loman in the latter, Shelley Levene does not achieve the dignity of death or the invocation that “attention must finally be paid to such a person”. Mamet’s is the drama of attention-starved men and women: speech jerking this way and that, characters clawing at each other for sustenance and reassurance, always missing.

So here was one who, once he had turned conservative – as he recently has – could take to task the easy radicalism of his profession: such was my expectation on opening this collection of essays. He could do that the more, for having lived so long on the other, more politically conventional, side of the creative tracks. Here was one who would know whereof he would criticise: a master of dramatic language, greater than Harold Pinter – now with the will to tear into the late writer’s hyperbolic denunciations of the US, Israel and much else. Here was one who could give an account of the effect of the liberal dramatic and filmic dystopias that have poured out since the 1960s – his own among them. Here was one, above all, who – a big influence in the culture – could tell just how (as his title promised) US culture is being dismantled.

Very little of that.

In escaping from the liberal community, Mamet drags with him a hatred, an obsession with its alleged or real positions, which infests everything and ruins the promise of his essays. To be sure, Israel, whose actions are grossly overhyped in media coverage, is surrounded by states and movements that want to destroy it and whose enmity drives its need for security: but the left, despite instances of casual or deliberate anti-Semitism, has not descended en bloc, as Mamet repeatedly asserts, into that swamp’s depths. Certainly, Barack Obama’s rhetoric before his election was often vacuous, the media largely under his spell, the criticism of former president George W. Bush shallow: but has he governed in that spirit? The measures Mr Obama took to steady the economy saw a vast increase in state control: but is there any indication this was to further a secret, socialist agenda? Can Mamet believe that a president who has killed many more terrorists, or terrorist suspects, than his predecessor and who rejoiced (rightly) in the killing of Osama bin Laden is best described as “proclaim[ing] the benefits of appeasement around the world”?

Does embracing conservatism not demand providing the reader with an argument, not a series of caricatures? Does discrimination end when the lights go up?

Truly, “nothing is free. All human interactions are trade-offs”. But to go from that maxim to a (casual, unargued) dismissal of the extension of health insurance to poorer Americans, and, in a couple of sentences, to invoke Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist states against its introduction is – for a master of language – a terrible fall from grace. An essay on the reason why some kids get guns and kill their schoolmates asserts – no proofs, no names, no details – that a liberal arts education, which “trains one for nothing”, leaves adolescents so abandoned and terrified that a few will loose off at innocents. Another, titled “feminism”, limits itself to one quotation from Gloria Steinem about Marilyn Monroe – admittedly idiotic, to the effect that the great actress’s art was “an escape from her real self” – and then loses the thread, so avid is Mamet to get back to a jeremiad against socialism, which has little to do in this context with feminism, Steinem or Monroe.

I would rather watch a Mamet anything than read a Karl Marx anything. But between Marx’s political writings and Mamet’s? It wouldn’t be a close call: Marx, whatever horrors he helped unleash, is at least interesting.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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