A 'Brain-Dead Liberal' Awakens
David Mamet's provocative new book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, explores in greater length and considerably greater depth the themes he announced in his 2008 op-ed for the Village Voice, "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal.'" It comes complete with a bibliography of 117 books listing virtually every work relating to his topic.
The bibliography -- and Mamet's explication of the issues involved in his turn to conservatism -- is particularly impressive since Mamet says he "never knowingly talked with nor read the works of a Conservative before moving to Los Angeles, some eight years ago." His friends introduced him to the works of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, and Shelby Steele, as well as Whittaker Chambers' Witness, which led to a self-education that became a "virtual monomania" and resulted in this book. The cover features blurbs by Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, and Melanie Phillips.
The book consists of 39 relatively short chapters, ranging from "Culture, School Shootings, the Audience, and the Elevator" ("one might ask not why mass shootings are happening, but why they are happening in schools"), to "The Street Sweeper and the Surgeon, or Marxism Examined" ("the money the Government strips from the surgeon to pay the street sweeper, far from ending in the sweeper's pocket, will most likely arrive somewhere else altogether"), to a concluding chapter entitled "The Secret Knowledge" (drawn from an Anna Simons quotation about the "terrible secret" initiates learn after receiving the "shared truths" -- that "beyond the knowledge the initiates have just been given there is no special knowledge").
Not every chapter works as well as the others, but it is a sustained argument about the necessity of choosing among imperfect alternatives in an imperfect world, avoiding the easy utopias and siren songs of government, respecting the centrality of human individuality, and testing theoretical arguments against life as actually lived -- all written in a style that personalizes and dramatizes (and sometimes overdramatizes) the issues in a way that should provoke thought even among those who disagree.
In a chapter entitled "The Intelligent Person's Guide to Socialism and Anti-Semitism," he first argues that "social justice" is a sort of Sunday religion that does not carry over to the pressures of the workweek, and he illustrates his thought as follows:
One may bemoan the plight of the Palestinians, who have elected a government of terrorists and daily bomb their neighbor to the West, but we realize that any support past the sentimental is elective: we do not want to live there, nor to go there, and we blink at the knowledge that monies spent in their support may be diverted to the support of terror, and of organizations pledged not only to kill all the Jews, but to kill Americans and Westerners of all faiths.
Where does sympathy stop, and where may it not become sanctimony and hypocrisy?
And then he answers his own question with a mini-drama:
Our American plane has been forced to land at some foreign airport, by the outbreak of World War III. It will not be allowed to depart. Two planes are leaving the airport; we must choose which we want to board. One plane is flying to Israel and one to Syria, and we must choose.
That's where the sympathy stops.
No one reading this book would get on the plane to Syria. Why? It is a despotism, opposed to the West, to women, to gays, to Jews, to free speech. ... And yet one may gain status or a feeling of solidarity by embracing the "Arab cause."
Mamet's mini-drama works even if you believe Israel is not a "laudable precious democracy" but "guilty of all the horrors" alleged against it:
I assert that you would still fight with every force and argument at your command to get on the Israeli plane, you and every hard Leftist and every head-shaking misinformed One Worlder and anti-Semite up to and including Jimmy Carter and Noam Chomsky, would, if the issue were his life, suspend his most cherished convictions of Israeli perfidy, and plead for the protection of that state you would then not only acknowledge but assert to be your ally ...
There is nothing any reader of this book would not say or do to get himself and his family on the Israeli plane.
The book chronicles Mamet's transformation from liberal to conservative, but it also reflects the transformation of liberalism itself, as liberals became "progressives" and shifted ever further to the left, with their "shared truths" increasingly hard to credit in light of lived experience. Many people became conservatives simply by standing still -- as liberalism moved away. And it was liberals, in the form of neo-cons, who reinvigorated conservatism and transformed it from what it used to be.
There is a liberal case -- a classical liberal case -- to be made for many of the principles that Mamet addresses in this book. And this is where I would add one more book to Mamet's bibliography, to put his forcefully-written book into a broader perspective: Nick Cohen's What's Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), by a writer who remains a man of the left, examining why apologists for militant Islam came from the left; why Palestine but not China or North Korea became its cause; and why it supported the war against Saddam Hussein and then deserted it. It is Cohen's attempt to return the left to liberal principles, including those that, as Mamet's book illustrates, are these days the intellectual terrain of the right.
Mamet's bibliography also omits -- but in my view should include -- one of his own prior books: The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, which was his extended letter to his fellow Jews, containing a Foreword ending with this powerful paragraph:
To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; ... whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi'Shvat; ... who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris - to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.
It is language intended to provoke, by a dramatist who knows that the worst sin of a playwright is to leave the audience relaxing in their seats, who wants rather to jolt them into engaging his ideas.
In that sense, this new book is an extended letter to his fellow citizens, challenging them in language that some will find intemperate and others urgent to go through the intellectual transformation he did over the last eight years. The following paragraph from The Secret Knowledge is a concise summary of one of the messages he is trying to address to a much broader audience in this book:
Why would any American Jew wish to become a "citizen of the world"? This fantasy is akin to one who believes in the benevolence of Nature. Anyone ever lost the wild knows that Nature wants you dead. Enjoy the benefits of liberty and defend them as an American, rather than posing as a "citizen of the world."
It is a message not only to American Jews, who in many cases made liberalism their religion and the New York Times their Torah, but to American citizens generally, from their brother.
Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues and is a regular contributor to Commentary's "Contentions" blog. His articles have appeared in American Thinker, Commentary, the Jewish Journal, the Jewish Press, Pajamas Media, and the New York Sun.