I generally stay away from political manifestos – those on the far right and those on the far left. The main reasons being are that they are for the most part dull and uninteresting. These tomes don't engage the mind; they merely confirm one's deeply held beliefs. As they say in my neck of the woods, "You're preaching to the choir, sister". And in the last few years, most of these political screeds involve "taking America back" from whoever is in power at the time they wrote such diatribes. Occasionally, someone will write a thoughtful analysis of our broken political system and how to fix it. Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel wrote such a book in 2008 – America Our Next Chapter. Hagel, a Republican was known for his common sense approach and tendency to go against his party's entrenched orthodoxies. And yes, I tried my best to get through those pages, but alas, it bored me as well. Those interested can buy the book for a penny at Amazon. Yep, a penny for your thoughts Chuck.
So when one of my favorite playwrights and screenwriters offered up his own such political treatise, I was interested but reluctant to delve into it. Last year's publication of The Secret Knowledge was celebrated by those on the right as David Mamet's coming out as a conservative political thinker. The lifelong avowed liberal stunned many with his late life conversion. But the revelation didn't exactly happen overnight. A column Mamet had written in 2008, Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal for The Village Voice became the basis for The Secret Knowledge. Just like a lot of new converts to a faith or political doctrine, Mamet is zealous about his beliefs. And zealots like to convert others. Mamet is no exception. His scorched earth, take no prisoners approach to liberalism will turn off many.
So with all of this political baggage in mind, I decided to tread carefully through The Secret Knowledge. After all, Mamet's brilliant insights concerning the creative process, writers and writing, the theater, and other wonderful slice of life essays are contained in the 1986 book Writing In Restaurants. It's a book that's had me hooked on Mamet ever since, that and the play Glengary Glenross. So only because it was Mamet, I decided to give his highly charged political thesis consideration. And I must say after reading it…well I wasn't bored. Mamet does make persuasive political points with an intellectual heft that would make William F. Buckley proud. One compelling argument considers the effectiveness of government programs and initiatives. If a government program is deemed successful according to Mamet, more money is thrown at it to make it more successful. If it is deemed a failure, more money is thrown at it to make it a success. Money is always spent, regardless of perceived success or failure. He also takes on prominent liberal entertainment figures for living contrary to their stated beliefs. Just as Berthold Brecht lived contrary to East German communist doctrine, Mamet writes, Brecht was able to copyright his plays, amass wealth, and live in luxury in Switzerland in exchange for allowing himself to be labeled an ardent follower of communist dogma. But Brecht ended up not ratifying communism, but his success instead reaffirming the principles of free market capitalism. In fact, Mamet's faith in free markets permeates much of the book. If there is a problem, then unbridled capitalism is the solution.
But as persuasive as Mamet can be in detailing his conservative beliefs, there are some troubling things to consider. Regarding the hypocritical left, they will always be with us. Sure they scold us about our carbon footprints while they leave theirs all across the globe. And there's nothing like a so called "conservative" politician who will denigrate government largesse, but at the same time bring home the bacon to his state or district. Pork? The right loves it as much as the left. Mamet induces another head scratching moment by suggesting that part of liberals' hatred of Sarah Palin is due to the fact she is a "Worker". What?? Well according to Mamet, Palin used to be a commercial fisherman, and the intellectual elite (his words, not mine) view anyone who works with their hands as someone to be dismissed and mocked. Really? Mr. Mamet, there are liberals, moderates, and conservatives who had a strong aversion to Palin's intellectual lightheadedness. Her foreign policy consisted of her seeing Russia from her home in Alaska. When she stumbled over answers to basic questions posed by the media that anyone in her position would be asked, she attacked her inquisitors as "the lamestream" media. Her work now is not out on a fishing boat, but being a showboat on Fox News. If that's not enough, she posts her inane babblings on her Facebook page. And while I admire her advocacy of special needs children, she lacks the intellectual gravitas needed to be the leader of The Free World. And that's not only the intellectual elite coming to that conclusion, it's the consensus of a lot of working folk as well.
Getting back to Writing In Restaurants, Mamet relates a story of how he received a big break early in his career by getting a gig writing for a company affiliated with National Public Radio. Mamet describes the experience as instrumental in his development as a writer. At the time of his employ, his work had been rejected by numerous publications and movie studios. Mamet referred to radio as a "great training ground for dramatists". Unfortunately, you won't read this story in The Secret Knowledge. Why not? Because it doesn't fit the conservative narrative Mamet now espouses. You see National Public Radio back in those days depended almost completely on government funding for their operating budget. Nowadays there's almost nothing "public" about NPR or PBS. It's not your father's public broadcasting. Programs are supported by a who's who of American corporations and privately funded charitable foundations. One could forcefully argue that Mamet was a product of a government program. And if such a program can produce a great dramatist such as that, it's hard for me to argue against its public funding.
Pushing politics aside, and again it's hard to do with The Secret Knowledge, Mamet's wit and humor at times overshadow its political intent. Writing about one of his early plays, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, he relates how a critic at the Village Voiceaccused him of being a misogynist. But misogyny was "a subject of the play", writes Mamet. (I can picture him shaking his head in disbelief while writing that.) And it is Chicago and his life there that produces some of his best writing, whether that writing was done while he was a liberal or a conservative.
Mamet aims considerable venom at those on the left who would deny Israel its right to secure its borders and protect itself. Most notably his venom has been directed at noted leftist thinker and Palestinian advocate Noam Chomsky. (Now that would be a great debate: Mamet vs. Chomsky. I would pay good money to witness it.) Like his politics, Mamet's religion has evolved from what he describes as an essentially meaningless reformed Judaism into a purposeful Orthodox Judaism. Regarding Chomsky, he writes "Of course Mr. Chomsky feels that all is not right with the world- his hobby is promoting the cause of people who want to kill him".
But the absolute best passage in The Secret Knowledge is tucked away in a chapter on feminism that any writer regardless of political affiliation can relate: "A writer's life is lived, and, I think, must be lived, in solitude. For it is a dialogue with one's own thoughts, and often, a dialogue about one's own thoughts; and the corrosive nature of this struggle is often unpleasant, devouring one's time and weakening one's capacity for simple human interaction. This is a miniscule price to pay for the privilege of earning one's living as an artist; but the price, though small (if it is a price, and not, rather, an attribute), unfits the writer, or, at least, unfitted me, for participation in a wider society. I need to be alone…" Well said. I'll leave it to others to determine what the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the preamble to the Constitution. Does promoting the general welfare and insuring domestic tranquility require government intervention or lack thereof? That's an argument we as a nation have had for over 200 years. David Mamet has staked out his position.