David Mamet’s Unconvincing Conservatism

By Kevin Michael Grace
Dorchester Review
Autumn/Winter 2011

Kevin Michael Grace is Editor of ResourceClips.com. He was formerly Managing Editor of BC Report and a Senior Editor of Alberta Report. He has been published in Chronicles, National Review, The American Conservative, Taki’s Magazine, VDARE, the National Catholic Register and The Chesterton Review.

The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. David Mamet. Sentinel, 2011.

I once had a dream about David Mamet, the American playwright, filmmaker and belletrist. In this dream, I confessed to him my disappointment with the final season of “The Unit,” the TV drama about Delta Force he co-created. “In the first three seasons, you got the balance between men and women just right,” I told him. “But the fourth season was way too chicky.”

I mention this only to demonstrate my great regard for Mamet and his work, which survives “The Unit”’s descent into bathos and will survive my disappointment with The Secret Knowledge, an apologia of sorts for his conversion from liberalism to conservatism. I see that my reaction to Mamet’s book puts me in the same camp as Christopher Hitchens but not for the same reasons. Like him, I found it “irritating” but not nearly as irritating as the esteem accorded to Hitchens, a lifelong and unrepentant Trotskyite, by soi-disant conservatives from the National Post to the National Review. If Mamet had considered the astonishing development that is Hitchens’ apotheosis and what it says about the movement he has joined, he would have written a better book.

Which is not to say that Mamet hasn’t written a brave book. That Hollywood is liberal is a commonplace, but few outside the industry understand just how totalitarian its liberalism is. Actors foolish enough to vote Republican keep silent, lest they be blacklisted. As for directors and producers, there’s Joel Surnow (“24”) and John Milius (“Rome”), and that’s just about it. One suspects that Milius (a Goldwater supporter!) survived long enough to become a legend (he was immortalized in parody by John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski”) only because he is tolerated as an idiot savant. Mamet, Surnow and Milius are Jews, which makes their apostasy doubly sinful. In this regard, Milius relates that producer Lawrence Gordon, erstwhile president of 20th Century Fox, once told him, “You ain’t Jewish. You’re a Nazi!”

Mamet is famously pugnacious and trained in the martial arts, so it is unlikely that anyone would be rash enough to call this student of the Torah a Nazi to his face. But it is a safe bet that many doors once open to him have now been slammed shut and that many critics who hailed him as “coruscating” will now assail him as “reactionary.”

The Secret Knowledge enlarges on themes Mamet introduced in his 2008 Village Voice essay, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal.” But any Mamet student could tell you that he had not been a liberal for quite some time, if he ever was. From the beginning, he has been obsessed with the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” And he has regarded manhood as a positive attribute, not a risible atavism. He has consistently scorned legalism, theory and the cult of expertise and has consistently extolled loyalty, physical bravery and the code of honour.

Mamet’s first movie, “House of Games” (1987), introduces us to his genius with what literary critics call ostranenie — “making strange” — and his enduring fascination with confidence men, his vehicle for this technique. Mamet doesn’t celebrate conmen for their criminality but rather for their esprit de corps, their practical knowledge (the fruit of thousands of hours of labour) and their talent for demonstrating mankind’s insatiable appetite for illusion. The movie’s protagonist Margaret Ford is a psychiatrist who has written a bestseller on obsession. Arrogant and condescending, she persuades conman Mike to teach her the tricks of his trade. Which he does but not in the manner she expects. “What I’m talking about comes down to a more basic philosophical principle: Don’t trust nobody,” he tells her. As if that was not clear enough, he adds, “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” She thinks she’s assembling material for her next book; he knows she’s being made into an object lesson. She wises up but only after paying a considerable price.

In “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997), madcap, sexy, and suspiciously ingratiating secretary Susan Ricci tells engineer Joe Ross, “It shows to go you; you never know who anybody is.” He doesn’t listen either. Ross has developed “the process,” a classic MacGuffin which will earn his employers a fortune. Ross attempts to secure fair compensation and is continually fobbed off. His newfound, suave and suspiciously ingratiating friend, Jimmy Dell, gives him the lowdown:

Dell: I think you’ll find that if what you’ve done for them is as valuable as you say it is, if they are indebted to you morally but not legally, my experience is they will give you nothing, and they will begin to act cruelly toward you.
Ross: Why?
Dell: To suppress their guilt.

These are some of the truest words ever spoken, but Ross foolishly presumes them merely specific and not universal. Bursting with the righteous indignation that so often animates the mark, he accepts the confidence of those least deserving of him, and, like Dr. Ford, pays dearly for his foolishness.

In “Redbelt” (2008), the last Mamet movie before his Village Voice pronouncement (and his latest to date), we learn to beware of Angelenos bearing gifts. Impecunious martial arts teacher Mike Terry is subjected to a series of cons in an attempt to get him to help himself. Yet despite his superiority, he will not fight in competition. As he explains to would-be benefactor Chet Frank:

Terry: Competition is weakening.
Frank: Because it’s fixed. Two guys in a ring, people betting money …
Terry: It may be fixed. Any one fight may be fixed.
Frank: Ah, but you train people to fight.
Terry: No, I train people to prevail. In the street, in the alley, in combat: the bodyguard, the cop, the soldiers. One rule: put the other guy down. And you have to train in order to do that. Any staged contest must have rules. Frank: Everything has rules. The problem is sticking to them.

Yes, rules will be broken. More important, they are always crafted to the advantage of the legislator and his pals. Never look a gift horse in the mouth? Always look a gift horse in the mouth. Sure, selflessness exists but is exceedingly rare. Mamet is often accused of being a cynic, but he is better described as Machiavellian — as opposed to Dantean. That is to say, he always distinguishes between the formal meaning of words and their real meaning — which is what the conman does, and the mark doesn’t.

As James Burnham writes in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom,

By ‘real meaning,’ I refer to the meaning not in terms of the fictional world of religion, metaphysics, miracles and pseudo-history … but in terms of the actual world of space, time and events. To understand the real meaning, we cannot take the words at face value nor confine our attention to what they explicitly state.

In “Heist” (2001), after thief Joe Moore picks up his change from a coffee stand, he has this exchange with his partner, Bobby Blane:

Moore: Makes the world go round.
Blane: What’s that?
Moore: Gold.
Blane: Some people say love.
Moore: Well, they’re right, too. It is love. Love of gold.

From these examples, it should surprise no one that Mamet holds a dim view of big government and regards liberal schemes of improvement as illusory at best, confidence games at worst.

In “The Edge” (1998), Mamet personifies the liberal-conservative dichotomy. The conservative is billionaire Charles Morse, and the liberal is Bob Green, the fashion photographer friend of Morse’s wife. The script was originally called “The Bookworm” because that’s what Morse is, despite the derision this excites. Morse and Green are forced to fight for their lives after their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, and they are stalked by a bear. While Green dithers and whines, Morse thinks and plans. He claims to have no imagination, but his actions are based on his simple and elegant reduction of the transmission of civilization, “What one man can do, another can do.”

From this, it is easy to guess Mamet’s opinion of contemporary liberal arts education: “effectively a waste of money and time.”

And from “Spartan” (2004) and “The Unit” (2006-09), we learn what Mamet believes to be man’s highest calling: duty. The Delta Force operators here are among the world’s top 150 soldiers. Yet they earn only sergeants’ pay and do not enjoy the protections of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as their unit does not officially exist, and their missions are secret and extra-legal. They are sworn to serve the President of the United States, but the President’s men are all too eager to toss them to the wolves for political ends. Their attachment to their code is almost mystical in its nature, and they are no respecters of persons who would sully it. As one of the operators warns a progressive “military psychologist” (i.e., torture specialist) in season one, episode eight, “SERE”: “Do not mock the ways of the past; they were borne on the backs of the men and women who were there.”

If Mamet had read Burnham before he wrote The Secret Knowledge, he would know that it is not individuals that run the world, and it is certainly not ideas — it is elites. Mamet calls himself a “conservative,” but our modern conservatives, the ones who can’t get enough of perpetual revolutionary Christopher Hitchens, belong to the same elite as the liberals. They are liberals. Mamet writes, “Government destroys almost everything it touches.” His supposed teammates extol “national greatness conservatism,” that is, big government is just fine, so long as we are in charge of it.

Mamet extols the “Tragic View” of life; conservatives are Pelagians, almost to a man. Mamet does not hold with identity politics, the gay agenda, sex education and the ethnic and sexual spoils systems. Conservatives embrace them all.

Mamet writes, “Traditionally, women dealt with the home, and men dealt with the World. Men and women are both parents, but only one of them is created to be a mother. That there is no difference can be asserted only by those who have not raised children. Boys are born to contest with the world …” Any conservative who dared suggest such heresy publicly (and probably even privately) would find himself making a series of grovelling apologies but would find himself an ex-politician soon enough regardless.

Mamet defines “conservative reasoning” thus: “What actually is the desired result of any proposed course of action; what is the likelihood of its success; and at what cost?” Conservatives stopped thinking in these terms after the triumph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mamet detests FDR’s New Deal; he seemingly doesn’t know or has forgotten that no less than Ronald Reagan saluted FDR in an 1982 Smithsonian address as “an American giant, a leader who shaped, inspired and led our people through perilous times” and spoke reverently of “the awe and majesty of this office [Roosevelt displayed] when that familiar caped figure drove down the avenue in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936, the figure who proved to us all that ‘Happy Days’ could and would come again.”

Mamet concludes The Secret Knowledge with the question, “How does the Left draw and maintain its unthinking allegiance from people of intelligence, compassion and goodwill?” He answers with Whittaker Chambers on communism:

Its vision points the way to the future: its faith labours to turn the future into present reality. It says to every man who joins it: the vision is a practical problem of history; the way to achieve it is a practical problem in politics, which is the present tense of history.

And here’s “conservative” George W. Bush, from his Second Inaugural Address, 2005:

By our efforts we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

Note the similarity. By any reasonable standard, David Mamet is not a conservative; he is indeed a reactionary. More to the point, he is an artist. And, as the old saw has it, Ars longa, vita brevis.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Hollywood. Bookmark the permalink.