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The Secret Knowledge
On the Dismantling of American Culture
By David Mamet
HC, 256 pgs. US$27.95
ISBN: 1595230769

The playwright as polemicist

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 11, 2011

The Secret KnowledgeThose who are not politically engaged probably save themselves much grief. Ignorance does, in fact, deliver bliss. There is another kind of bliss, however, and that belongs to the politically converted. In the early 1990s, after decades as a centrist liberal, I was encouraged to watch Rush Limbaugh's short-lived television program and immediately felt the euphoria reserved for those who fall in love or have won the lottery. And like many of the newly converted, I ventured out for battle with the possession of knowledge that I felt was always available to me but kept just out of sight. It prompted a regular newspaper column which made me hero and villain and eventually a web site that allowed myself and other like-minded to evangelize.

With that experience I understand David Mamet's need to write The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, an occasionally messy yet always passionate declaration of conservative principles after decades of being a generally reliable – if often controversial – liberal playwright. His formal coming out came in 2008 with a Village Voice essay "Why I Am No Longer A 'Brain-Dead Liberal'" but with his first book-length critique of America's political, economic and cultural scene sees Mamet drop the equivalent of an atom bomb on his former allies, taking on their most cherished beliefs with a mixture of the fervour of a reformed Elmer Gantry and the linguistic skill of one of America's most talented writers.

French premier Georges Clemenceau, paraphrasing Francois Guisot, once stated that, "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head", explicitly arguing that liberalism is an adolescent philosophy. Indeed, The Secret Knowledge takes the same position with Mamet arguing that the Baby Boomers did and youth tend to fall victim for its amorphous demands of "social justice" and "equality", and belief in the perfectibility of man. Writes Mamet at one point:

For mine is a generation which never grew up. And we have, in our short lives, dismantled that necessarily imperfect system of industry and government for which our parents lived and died. We have awarded ourselves for realizing its imperfections – as if any human act or combination were perfect – and have created a culture of guilt and shame – corrosively and compulsively shaming where any human act of individuality may be indicted as wrong (which is to say, destructive of equality or equanimity.

That corrosive agenda, argues Mamet, has reached into every corner of American life. There is no aspect of that the skeletal hand of government, in support of the liberal agenda, has not intruded. The engine that drives the country – individual liberty employed in trade, free association and thought – has been attacked in order to "spread the wealth". The random scattering of talent has resulted in uneven results – economically, politically and socially – must be ironed out with the force of government. Karl Marx's declaration that  "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" – once an anathema to Americans of all political stripes is now accepted as the rationale for expansionist government.

Although the left has rejected religion, Mamet charges their political ideology is little more than one without the key ingredient of an ultimate truth. As an observant Jew, for Mamet that is necessarily God, but for liberalism it means the freedom from restraint. Shorn of the need to account for their failings, it allows liberals to never have to acknowledge that their agenda is a failure. Instead, as Mamet writes, they can laud the intent of their government programs while ascribing their constant failures to something as mundane as inadequate funding. Government programs originally meant to raise the living standards of the poor have instead devastated minority communities, created a culture of entitlement and destroyed the traditional pillars of self-sufficiency and individualism. The left's response? Mamet says the traditional leftist response is to create another government program to resolve the problems of the first. The end result? Hundreds of federal government programs all designed the address the same issue that the left promised would be resolved decades ago.

Mamet writes with the zeal of the recently converted and that means that The Secret Knowledge reads occasionally as unfocused, as if the author was attempting to bring every weapon to bear against his philosophical foe. That's typically a weakness for ideological efforts but Mamet is a playwright and writes like one. The Secret Knowledge is a political argument but it is also a conversation with both the converted and unconverted alike. It's difficult not to imagine Mamet sitting across the table, expounding his beliefs in the distinctive cadence of his plays and leading you from one conclusion to the next as if he were outlining the plot of a story rather than building a case documenting the decay of American culture.

The Secret Knowledge does mourn an America that has been hollowed out from within – a nation that most younger than Mamet only experienced an echo of or see in movies of decades ago. But Mamet's effort is also a joyous celebration of his conversion to and of a brand of conservatism that no less than Russell Kirk would have approved, one that guided generations of politicians who understood while change isn't necessarily bad, there is a reason why traditions and institutions existed in their form for so long. It is a conservatism that has been out of vogue for some time, overtaken by ostensibly more electable strains of the philosophy, but in David Mamet it may have a new champion – one whose skill with the written and spoken word may yet herald its eventual return. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.

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