Sentinel, 2011, 256 pages
For the past 30 years, David Mamet has been a controversial and defining force in theater and film, championing the most cherished liberal values along the way. In some of the great movies and plays of our time, his characters have explored the ethics of the business world, embodied the struggles of the oppressed, and faced the flaws of the capitalist system. But in recent years Mamet has had a change of heart. He realized that the so-called mainstream media outlets he relied on were irredeemably biased, peddling a hypocritical and deeply flawed worldview. In 2008 he wrote a hugely controversial op-ed for the Village Voice, "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal,'" in which he methodically eviscerated liberal beliefs. Now he goes much deeper, employing his trademark intellectual force and vigor to take on all the key political and cultural issues of our times, from religion to political correctness to global warming. Mamet pulls no punches in his art or in his politics. And as a former liberal who woke up, he will win over an entirely new audience of others who have grown irate over America's current direction.
I read David Mamet's screed (that's mostly what this book is, a screed) with interest. While I have not gone fully over to the conservative side, I am, like Mamet, a former liberal who has left the leftist camp. So I was hoping to get some insight as to what caused Mamet, a big-name Hollywood director and playwright who used to be very much a fellow traveler in Hollywood, to abandon his leftism and join the Dark Side.
But he doesn't have much insight to offer — he goes into no more depth than he did in his famous Village Voice column, Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'. He merely speaks of becoming gradually disillusioned, of seeing the world in a more "realistic" light, and mostly attributes it to being a director, who unlike actors and other Hollywood types, actually has to deal with working people and thus sees how the world really works. (Right, Hollywood directors are so much more in touch with the working man and less removed from reality... tell me another story, David.) From all his griping about the media and the left's treatment of Israel, though, it's pretty clear that that was the single biggest factor.
Israel tends to be a fault-line in leftist politics: all good liberals sympathize with Palestine and despise Israel... except for, uh, liberal Jews. Methinks the tribalism here should be obvious, and an obvious counterpoint to Mamet's confident assertion that liberal politics is entirely driven by emotion while conservatives come to their positions by cold, hard reason, but one thing this book makes clear is that his shift did not make him any more objective than he was before.
I don't disagree with him about Israel and the Palestinians, mind — I just don't see how he can claim that his beliefs are nobler and truer just because he's seen the light and abandoned "brain-dead leftism."
Where I agree with Mamet is where he goes after the easy targets: dumb college students, dumber Hollywood celebrities, and smug hipster leftists in general. The derogatory term "SJW" (Social Justice Warrior) was not yet in vogue in 2011 when Mamet wrote this, but these are the people he's talking about, and the people who have driven me away from mainstream liberalism in disgust.
That said, his Secret Knowledge, as he admits himself, is not secret. Neither is it really knowledge. It's just a book-length assertion of conservative talking points as fact. Much of it is laughable because he barely even tries to argue his points: global warming is obviously a hoax because liberals. Obama is obviously a terrible president because liberals. The government is obviously bad at everything because liberals. And so on and so on. At times it's almost charming how he covers the Golden Oldies of yesteryear's culture wars — railing against FDR, the worst president ever; the evils of socialism (which, like most conservatives, he uses interchangeably with the words "communist" and "liberal"); he even dips into the well for yet another salvo against Jane Fonda. Sometimes you just want to sigh and say "Yes, Grandpa."
Sure, there are legitimate points here, but if you are trying to sell conservatism in the 21st century, can't you do better than ranting about Hanoi Jane?
One of Mamet's targets throughout the book is the government, and he repeatedly asserts that government agencies are terrible at everything, and government workers are lazy and unmotivated by definition, because they have no incentive to actually get anything done, let alone do it well. This is of course an article of faith among many conservatives, who see even the slightest touch of socialism (for example, believing in some social welfare) as indistinguishable from advocating hardcore Marxism, and who assume that all government workplaces are essentially Soviet-style bureaucracies as described by Kafka.
Now, I may be revealing my own tribalism here, but I can assert from personal experience that Mamet is flat-out wrong. His characterization of civil servants reads as if the only government employees he's ever encountered were during a bad day at the DMV.
There is an entire field of study on workplace management and how to motivate people, but the bottom line is that it's simply not true that working for the government intrinsically robs you of motivation or work ethic. Most people want to do meaningful, useful, and interesting work. If allowed to do so, in conditions that are not too unpleasant, this has proven in many studies to be a stronger motivation than money. Yeah, there are people who will always go for the higher paycheck, but the average person is really only motivated by money up to a certain point. After basic needs and wants are met, all but the most ambitious or cut-throat workers just want to feel useful and not too bored.
This is definitely my experience in a fairly large and bureaucratic organization. While we may make jokes about those employees who have "retired in place" (meaning they have essentially stopped doing any work and are just occupying a desk while waiting to retire), they are actually pretty rare. Most people, even in the government, want to work, and contra Mamet, they want to do their work well, and they want to improve things, and they want their projects and their organization to be successful. They do not want to just come to work every day and go through the motions while filling out a timesheet because they work for the government and can't be fired.
I don't think Mamet is being dishonest, I think he just reveals the limits of his own understanding and experience, while berating liberals for their own inability to comprehend conservatives because so few of them actually interact with conservatives.
So, in summary, The Secret Knowledge will probably fire up those who are already converts to the cause and regular readers of National Review. Its short chapters are just bullet points of conservative ideology. David Mamet is a far better writer than the likes of Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly. He makes his points with literary style rather than bombast and vitriol. (Well, there is some vitriol.) But it's pretty much the same message. So this book is unlikely to win over your liberal friends and make them question their beliefs.
My complete list of book reviews.