THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE
On the Dismantling of American Culture
By David Mamet
241 pp. Sentinel. $27.95
This is 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. In order to be persuaded by it, you would have to be open to propositions like this:
“Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker.”
“America is a Christian country. Its Constitution is the distillation of the wisdom and experience of Christian men, in a tradition whose codification is the Bible.”
Some of David Mamet’s unqualified declarations are made even more tersely. On one page affirmative action is described as being “as injust as chattel slavery”; on another as being comparable to the Japanese internment and the Dred Scott decision. We learn that 1973 was the year the United States “won” the Vietnam War, and that Karl Marx — who on the evidence was somewhat more industrious than Sarah Palin — “never worked a day in his life.” Slackness or confusion might explain his reference to the Scottish-Canadian newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook as a Jewish courtier in the tradition of Disraeli and Kissinger, but it is more than ignorant to say of Bertrand Russell — author of one of the first reports from Moscow to analyze and excoriate Lenin — that he was a fellow-traveling dupe and tourist of the Jane Fonda style.
Propagandistic writing of this kind can be even more boring than it is irritating. For example, Mamet writes in “The Secret Knowledge” that “the Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all.” Whatever one’s opinion of that conflict may be, this (twice-made) claim of his abolishes any need to analyze or even discuss it. It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic. By now, perhaps, you will not be surprised to know that Mamet regards global warming as a false alarm, and demands to be told “by what magical process” bumper stickers can “save whales, and free Tibet.” This again is not uncharacteristic of his pointlessly aggressive style: who on earth maintains that they can? If I were as prone to sloganizing as Mamet, I’d keep clear of bumper-sticker comparisons altogether.
On the epigraph page, and again on the closing one, Mamet purports to explain the title of his book. He cites the anthropologist Anna Simons on rites of initiation, to the effect that the big secret is very often that there is no big secret. In his own voice, he states: “There is no secret knowledge. The federal government is merely the zoning board writ large.” Again, it is hard to know with whom he is contending. Believers in arcane or esoteric or occult power are distributed all across the spectrum and would, I think, include Glenn Beck. Mr. Beck is among those thanked in Mamet’s acknowledgments for helping free him from “the bemused and sad paternalism” of the liberal airwaves. Would that this were the only sign of the deep confusion that is all that alleviates Mamet’s commitment to the one-dimensional or the flat-out partisan.
I am writing this review in the same week as I am conducting a rather exhausting exchange with Noam Chomsky in the pages of a small magazine. I have no difficulty in understanding why it is that former liberals and radicals become exasperated with the pieties of the left. I have taught at Berkeley and the New School, and I know what Mamet is on about when he evokes the dull atmosphere of campus correctness. Once or twice, as when he attacks feminists for their silence on Bill Clinton’s sleazy sex life, or points out how sinister it is that we use the word “czar” as a positive term for a political problem-solver, he is unquestionably right, or at least making a solid case. But then he writes: “The BP gulf oil leak . . . was bad. The leak of thousands of classified military documents by Julian Assange on WikiLeaks was good. Why?” This is merely lame, fails to compare like with like, appears unintentionally to be unsure why the gulf leak was “bad” and attempts an irony where none exists.
Irony is one of the elements of tragedy, a subject with which Mamet is much occupied. He has read — perhaps before Glenn Beck’s promotion of it on the air — Friedrich von Hayek’s classic defense of the market, “The Road to Serfdom.” (I would guess he has not read Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”) Briefly, Hayek identified what he called “the Tragic View” of the free market: the necessity of making difficult choices between competing goods. Classical economics had already defined this as “opportunity cost,” which is just as accurate but less tear-jerking. We have long known it under other maxims — “to govern is to choose” — or even under folkloric proverbs about having cakes and consuming them. But to Mamet, Hayek is the brilliant corrective to the evil of Franklin Roosevelt, who “dismantled the free market, and, so, the economy,” and shares this dismal record with Nazis, Stalinists and other “Socialists.” More recent collapses and crimes in the private capital sector, and the Bush-Obama rescue that followed, strike him as large steps in the same direction.
Mamet began the book more promisingly, by undertaking to review political disagreements between conservatives and liberals in the light of his own craft: “This opposition appealed to me as a dramatist. For a good drama aspires to be and a tragedy must be a depiction of a human interaction in which both antagonists are, arguably, in the right.”
That was certainly Hegel’s definition of what constituted a tragedy. From a playwright, however, one might also have expected some discussion of what the Attic tragedians thought: namely, that tragedy arises from the fatal flaw in some noble person or enterprise. This would have allowed Mamet to make excursions into the fields of irony and unintended consequences, which is precisely where many of the best critiques of utopianism have originated. Unfortunately, though, he shows himself tone-deaf to irony and unable to render a fair picture of what his opponents (and, sometimes, his preferred authorities, like Hayek) really believe. Quoting Deepak Chopra, of all people, as saying, “Our thinking and our behavior are always in anticipation of a response. It [sic] is therefore fear-based,” he seizes the chance to ask, “Is it too much to suggest that this quote contains the most basic prescription of liberalism, ‘Stop Thinking’?” On that evidence, yes, it would be a bit much.
Eschewing irony, Mamet prefers his precepts to be literal and traditional. In case by any chance we haven’t read it before, he twice offers Rabbi Hillel’s definition of the golden rule and the essence of Torah: “What is hateful to thee, do not do to thy neighbor.” As with Hayek’s imperative of choice, the apparent obviousness of this does not entirely redeem it from contradiction. To Colonel Qaddafi and Charles Manson and Bernard Madoff, I want things to happen that would be hateful to me. Of what use is a principle that is only as good as the person uttering it? About as much use as the (unnamed) “doyenne” of the American left who, according to Mamet, recommends always finding out what MoveOn.org thinks and does, and then thinking and doing it. That, I suspect, was a straw antagonist — with no chance at all of being, “arguably, in the right” — and this is a straw book, which looks for tragedy in all the wrong places