Monday, June 20th, 2011
54

Was David Mamet Ever Really A Liberal Anyway?

After David Mamet trumpeted his switch to Republican Party politics in 2008, there were some who claimed that he'd been a conservative all along. Shelby Steele, an author of right-wing books on race and a fellow at the Hoover Institution who talked with the playwright frequently during his "conversion," said he detected early conservative leanings in Mamet's previous works. “I think he has the same values today that he did before,” Steele told a reporter. “He’s said to me he thinks he might have always been conservative without knowing it. All that happened was, he finally found a politics that suited his values.”

Steele doesn't appear to have looked at Mamet’s plays and scripts. Reading them inspires just the opposite conclusion: Mamet’s writing has generally been strongly characterized by its hostility to capitalism, skepticism about traditional American institutions such as the court system and the presidency, and its general countercultural ideas. Mamet’s career doesn't suggest a traditional conservative mindset devoted to business, patriotism and the family, but it doesn’t suggest a liberal worldview oriented towards social justice, either. Rather, looking at the many plays and screenplays that comprise the Mamet catalog points to a perspective that is merely anti-establishment, categorized by an individual-against-the-system viewpoint reflective of the '60s New Left.

***

Mamet abandoned the left for one reason above all—its increasing disenchantment with Israel. But in his writings about his political conversion, which culminate with his new book The Secret Knowledge, he makes clear that he never really embraced or even understood mainstream American liberalism. Indeed, he mistakes ideas and themes common to the New Left as politics central to the Democratic Party, a conflation that is dead wrong. This conflation is familiar, however. For Mamet follows in a long line of individuals who departed from the far-left camp for the right-wing without having spent any time at all in what the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called “The Vital Center.”

Start with Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s best play and film script. The story of four distressed real estate agents, it's among the most cynical, anti-capitalist popular works of art in 20th-century America. The film's chief character, Shelley Levene, is a hard-working but desperate man forced by a greedy employer to attempt a robbery or be fired (in the film, unlike in the play, Levene has a sick daughter who presumably needs financial care). Even worse, the ploy goes badly, with Levene having sold his soul for a scheme that still did not save him. The entire system genuinely is rigged against him; given impossible “leads,” he nonetheless must pursue them to maintain his job. For all the sympathy Levene’s sad circumstances elicit, he himself is so deeply compromised he's hardly a man worth rooting for. Robbery aside, Levene brags of snookering two clients into buying real estate like a teenaged boy fresh from his first sexual conquest. His berating of his superior, Williamson, suggests that were he in the position of power, he'd be treating his employees no better than do his faceless employers. And, of course, the very act of selling real estate is profoundly distasteful—few transactions can demonstrate the amorality of capitalism more than profiting from the sale of land. Not for nothing did the actors refer to it as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman” during filming.

Even Mamet’s more heartwarming stories tell of the brutal consequences of greed. 1987’s The Untouchables exposes the evils of Al Capone’s liquor-fueled gangsters, even as it points to the pointlessness of America’s prohibition ban. In The Verdict, Paul Newman plays an anti-hero who nevertheless exposes the corruption of hospital and religious officials conspiring to cover up their wrong doings. Whatever this is, it is not an affirmation of conservative family values and respect for traditional institutions.

1997’s Wag the Dog, also written by Mamet, contains the same cynical charge against the American system, only this time it's not politics but economics that stands indicted. Released just after President Bill Clinton launched strikes against Iraq after (but in fact unrelated to) the revelations that he had relations with intern Monica Lewinsky, the film (the screenplay for which Mamet won an Oscar) tells the story of a president who launches a pointless war against Albania to distract attention from his sexual indiscretions, the fictional skirmishes all choreographed by a Hollywood producer. The president is successfully reelected, and the producer is murdered after he threatens to reveal the phoniness behind the war.

***

Mamet's early associations and inspirations were wildly left-wing. “As a youth I enjoyed—indeed, like most of my contemporaries, revered—the agitprop plays of Brecht, and his indictments of Capitalism,” he writes in The Secret Knowledge. Bertolt Brecht, of course, was a lifelong Marxist who even initially supported the East German’s suppression of the 1953 Uprising, the first anti-Communist revolt in the Soviet sphere. Glengarry Glen Ross is dedicated to the late Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who compared the United States to Nazi Germany and was patron of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic. These men spent their entire lives railing and writing against the American right wing.

None of this is to say that Mamet doesn't also draw on themes popular in American art. He does, but they're hardly the ones associated with contemporary conservatism. His indictments of capitalism can be seen as rooted in the ideas of the Populists and Progressives who were powerful from the 1890s to the 1920s, with leaders like William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt, who were deeply distrustful of economic laissez-faire ideas. What observers like Shelby Steele seem to be identifying as conservative in Mamet’s work are notions of the value of the individual fighting against a corrupt system, whether the lawyer in The Verdict or Eliot Ness in The Untouchables. In Mamet’s world, Levene's efforts to redeem the world (or even just his life) are futile. Mamet characters seem to live the life sung by Leonard Cohen’s valentine to cynicism, “Everybody Knows,” where “Everybody Knows the War is Over/Everybody Knows the Good Guys Lost.” There is a sort of populist rage-against-the-machine mentality that permeates Mamet’s work, not to mention the dim view of human nature. But to label these themes as conservative is to ignore conservatism’s intellectual and political traditions, which are deeply hostile to the nihilism that pervades in Mametworld.

But to read Mamet's work for its politics suggests a level of ideological sophistication that isn't really there. “I never questioned my tribal assumption was bad,” he now writes of his early anti-business plays, such as American Buffalo and The Water Engine. While there was a strong hostility to American ideals in them, the hostility didn't stem from any real study. In The Secret Knowledge, Mamet shows little awareness of the long history of American liberalism and left-wing thought, from Herbert Croly through Paul Krugman. The first left-wing figures mentioned in Mamet’s new book besides Brecht are Marx and Engels, who are only relevant figures to Barack Obama and The New York Times if you're Glenn Beck.

Perhaps as a result of his superficiality, Mamet was able to experience a “revelation” when he read the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom. A libertarian case against the central planning, Mamet writes that, after ingesting the book’s ideas, “I began to see it everywhere.” Another major influence was the work of Thomas Sowell, also a conservative economist. Sowell’s work maintains that liberals hold a more optimistic view of human nature than do conservatives, for whom life is a tragic series of trade-offs.

***

There seems to be at least one more source of Mamet’s conversion. “[A[nyone familiar with his earlier writings about Israel, Judaism, and the Middle East is likely to detect a chain of causality,” Commentary writes. Indeed, in February 2002, Mamet wrote an essay for the prominent New York-based Jewish publication, The Forward, that marked his first entrance into overt political debate. “Much contemporary opinion in the West is anti-Semitic,” Mamet declared flatly. For Mamet, the criticism (far more pronounced in Western Europe than in the United States) of Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians in the wake of the 2000 intifada was nothing short of Jew-hatred. He visited Israel and fell in love with the country, experiencing deep guilt for not joining the Jewish state in its battles. “Here, in Israel, are actual Jews, fighting for their country, against both terror and misthought public opinion, as well as disgracefully biased and, indeed, fraudulent reporting,” Mamet wrote. “Why has the Western press embraced antisemitism as the new black?”

It was Israel, not economics, which inspired his political migration. Mamet had tackled themes of Jewishness in his 1991 film Homicide, but his most sustained meditation was 2006’s The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Jewish Self-Hatred and the Jews, a book that, as its title suggests, castigates Jews who are at all critical of Israeli conduct, charging them with “race treason.” Around the same time the book was released, Mamet began writing cartoons for Huffington Post, many of which dealt with anti-Semitism. “The world hates the Jews,” Mamet writes in The Wicked Son. “The world always has and will continue to do so.” Though bracing and direct, Mamet’s passion overwhelmed his analysis. As an otherwise favorable review in the New York Times put it, “Not all Jewish criticism of Israel is self-hatred, and not all gentile criticism is anti-Semitic.” The New Republic declared the book “thuggish.”

***

And so, within a few years, Mamet publicly announced he had abandoned the left. First step was that Village Voice essay entitled "Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal": "As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart." Next was a play that extolled the virtues of the free market. And now Mamet emerges with The Secret Knowledge, a book that rails against academia (which Mamet says brainwashes youth into liberalism), feminism and the breakdown of the family, and denies global warming.

In short, Mamet is the latest neoconservative. The term refers not just to those who embrace right-wing politics late in life, but to a specific set of Jewish writers who were not liberals but radicals—and who embraced right-wing politics late in life often because of the left’s post-1967 criticisms of Israel. Writes Jacob Heilbrunn, in his book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons: “[N]eoconservatism isn’t about ideology. It isn’t about the left. It is about a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the twentieth-century struggle against totalitarianism.” Mamet is very much in this tradition, and his brash prose and attacks on liberal Jews recall nobody so much as Norman Podhoretz, longtime editor of Commentary.

Just as Podhoretz and peers like Irving Kristol never in fact were liberals, but instead stood on the far Left of the political spectrum before their evolution, so too did Mamet’s politics have its roots in the New Left of the '60s, a movement that emerged in opposition to contemporary American liberalism. Indeed, such political leapfrogging has a rich heritage, beginning, perhaps, with Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness, the mid-century autobiography of an ex-Communist.

A few years ago, a number of conservatives joined up and released an essay collection on their conversion stories, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journey. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic observed, “Of the essays that do describe genuine left-to-right conversions, the striking thing about them is that encounters with actual liberalism are virtually absent.” The essayists rarely were motivated by the failings of genuine liberalism—rather, they disliked radicals or were disgusted at some extremist politics, and mistook them for the ideas of the Democratic Party. Mamet seldom mentions liberal programs or Democratic ideas he opposes; for him, the general mentality of “The Left” has prompted his conversion. He declares the evident failings of “feminism, birth control, ‘diversity,’ free love, and the profusion of ‘counter-cultural innovations spawned in the 1960s.’” But modern American liberalism traces to long before the '60s, and whatever their power, it's fair to say that notions of ‘free love’ never found their way onto a platform of the Democrats. Like his predecessors, Mamet has confused radicalism with liberalism. The two are not just slightly different but hostile; just ask any campus Marxist about his thoughts on Democratic icon Lyndon Johnson, who defined his foreign policy by killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Communists.

But should Mamet’s work suffer, should his writing edge be blunted in some form, it will not be possible to blame the devolution on liberals. Mamet was never one to begin with. Perhaps that's what made him such a great artist.



Jordan Michael Smith, a writer in Washington, D.C., has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Slate, Salon and The Atlantic.

54 Comments / Post A Comment

Mamet's dickishness is very Ted Nugent-y

keisertroll (#1,117)

@RonMwangaguhunga Glengarry Glen Ross is his Wango Tango.

@keisertroll ALWAYS BE SCREAM DREAMING.

davidwatts (#72)

The Road to Serfdom is, in spite of its fans, a fantastic and thought-provoking book, if you can get past Hayek's ham-fisted attempts at attention-grabbing and sloganeering in its first few pages. As Hitch pointed out in that great essay in the Times, Hayek also famously wrote an essay called "I am Not a Conservative." Which he was not. I wish Mamet had left him out of this fable, which more or less amounts to being bitter and feeling disenchanted with the world. That, I'd argue, has more to do with age than ideology.

Sean Lai (#14,158)

@davidwatts

The Road to Serfdom is definitely worth reading if you're into political philosophy, but I'd say it is important to read it in context.

First, Hayek was writing at a time when prominent and powerful people were advocating for the total takeover of all aspects of the economy by central planning. There were literally discussions about "socialist accounting" and how we could go about planning everything from central committees. A lot of right-wingers today try to deploy his arguments in favor of 'spontaneous order' against the kinds of timid government interventions we use in modern developed economies, but it just doesn't really apply.

Secondly, he argues that these kinds of timid government interventions – like, say, national healthcare – will eventually evolve into total central planning of the economy. This has clearly been shown to be false (so far, anyway). That doesn't mean his writing is worthless: like Marx, who's theory of history has been shown to be false (so far, anyway) he is still quite interesting.

Just throwin' a little history into the mix, is all.

davidwatts (#72)

@Sean Lai
Definitely! Context is king, etc! It's easy to forget and a little mind boggling that when Hayek started writing his book, Hitler and Stalin were not weird cultural signifiers, but actual living rulers of countries who were having a very real impact on millions and millions of lives (even beyond the millions and millions they were killing). They represented and oversaw two alternate worldviews that were actually incredibly popular, which makes Hayek's focus on capitalism and the market and fear of socialism a little more reasonable. It was actually happening everywhere!

And, still, Hayek was for national health care and welfare. Just sayin.

Chris_H (#11,455)

"the New Left of the '60s, a movement that emerged in opposition to contemporary American liberalism"

And we're once again at a time that's perfect for such incoherent, anti-establishment leanings. Instead of Dems leading Vietnam, they're (seemingly) leading bailouts of banks and other businesses. The Tea Party derives its strength from this confusion.

I mean, it's easy to see now that bank bailouts/record business profits + predictable GOP hatred of Obama + general feelings of powerlessness would mean conservative "populist" politics that feel good but offer few solutions. It's just tough to see smart people like Mamet eat that stuff up. I guess in an electoral system with only one viable liberal party, it's sort of expected.

davetar (#1,114)

The US has one viable liberal party? Dammit! Why didn't anybody tell me? I could've been voting for them this whole time instead of Democrats.

Chris_H (#11,455)

@davetar Hah… I wish we had IRV or somesuch. Not as many people would be sucked into the void of crazy politics and the Dems would feel *actual* pressure to be lefty rather than try real hard to get Geithner and the other cool rich kids to like them.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Chris_H Mamet was interviewed in the Financial Times last week. Asked about Sarah Palin, he said: "I am crazy about her. Would she make a good president? I don't know but she seems to have succeeded at everything she put her hand to". Gives some idea of the quality of his intellect.

Chris_H (#11,455)

@scrooge "Smart" is broad. How about "good at what he does." (the plays, not the Tea Partying)

scrooge (#2,697)

@Chris_H I suppose so. If you like having sharp sticks poked in your eyes. I generally prefer something more cheerful, like Tom Stoppard.

keisertroll (#1,117)

Dammit, Mamet.

Matt (#26)

No way. I *just* made this joke on the brochannel what do you know and when did you know it.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Dave. Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

Oh noes, where will I go for stilted unrealistic dialogue?!

Art Yucko (#1,321)

"………….YOU FUCKING CHILD."

hockeymom (#143)

@Ham_Snadwich My mother-in-law's house, Thanksgiving?

RobertLanham (#7,586)

I love Hitchens' first line in his review of Mamet's new book: "This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason."

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@RobertLanham Yeah, regardless of your feelings about Hitchens, dude can turn a phrase.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Super piece. Fun, well-reasoned. YAY.

Rollo (#3,202)

Jesus, Mamet is a seriously shitty cartoonist.

saythatscool (#101)

I"m more surprised that you people are surprised.

@saythatscool typical

johnb78@twitter (#11,834)

Dude, Oleanna? The play about how some dude had his life ruined because some bitch objected to him molesting her?

I mean, I'm not saying your view is entirely wrong, just, if you're going to try and claim Mamet was never a liberal despite being hailed as one, then the fact that he wrote a (misogynist / 'anti PC') play in 1992, which is probably his best-known play, maybe ought to be mentioned and explained or contextualised, just a little bit?

johnb78@twitter (#11,834)

@John Band@twitter I've got shit already for putting this comment on Twitter. Was Oleanna only A Thing in the UK? Or was there a big debate in the US about how writing a play where a professor fucks a student and it turns out it's all because she's an evil bitch might not be the most perfectly left-liberal thing anyone's ever done?

@John Band@twitter Oleanna was a thing here, too, at least among theater majors and Willliam H. Macy fans, though I'm not sure it's his best-known play in this country. In any event, I'm glad you brought it up because, if anything, it bolsters Jordan's point that Mamet was never truly liberal (as Abe points out below).

johnb78@twitter (#11,834)

@The Defeatery It does support Jordan, I agree completely – I was just perplexed he didn't mention it in the piece. For some reason (presumably because of those gosh-darn feminists), Oleanna was front-page-of-liberal-newspapers news in the UK when I was about 14, and it was one of the first "but, this man is liberal, and this thing is really misogynist, how will we deal with this problem" fights I ever encountered. Genuinely, if I'm being weird in my focus, it's because Oleanna was the first time I've ever seen liberalism vs feminism debated on the front page.

I'm delighted to realise that there's no conflict at all, and Mamet's just a bastard.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@John Band@twitter: Um? I know it's been a while since I've seen it, but I sure don't remember W. H. Macy doing any sex to Oleanna or anyone else. The worst thing he does (before smacking her around at the very end) is grab her by the arms or something in a fit of pique, which leads her to accuse him of attempted rape. While it's definitely anti-PC, I don't think it's fair to call it misogynist.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

@John Band@twitter Oleanna was the first thing that came to mind upon reading the "Oh no, Mamet's gone Conservative!" reviews of his book. He ain't gone nowheres. He was always there.

Keith Kisser (#9,714)

It's a fool who judges an artist by their politics. Picasso was a Socialist (an actual Socialist, not a "socialist"). Edgar Allen Poe thought the US should be a monarchy, and not one of those squishy soft constitutional monarchies, no sir. Poe was a Divine Rightist. Frieda Khalo was a Trot.

It hardly matters, so long as their art continues to speak to human needs. All bets are off once their craft becomes propaganda for their pet beliefs, however.

What is best about this essay is that it succinctly teased out the problem with our political discourse and the Right's attacks on Liberalism. They make no distinction between the middle way's progressive policies and the demands of Lefty radicals. It's absurd. Like if you were to demonstrate against macho stereotypes in Hollywood and burned an effigy of Woody Allen.

What's worse, is after making such huge longstanding categorical errors, the Neocons then demand we take them seriously, elect them to office, and shut up about Israel, you hippies.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Mamet's work left? Really. Wow. It seems exactly the opposite to me (his film work anyway).

Wag the Dog was a direct indictment of Clinton's Paula Jones-era scandal (which everyone forgot about when Lewisnky came along). Then there's Spartan, a not-much-seen Kilmer flick which is a combination of "Taken" and "24" and reinforces all the neo-can Jon Yo-memo sentiments of the last decade.

Mamet's Oleanna is all about the white male persecution of Rush Limbaugh's "Femi Nazis." A man just being a man caught up in the ridiculous PCisms of the modern (liberal) age.

Other stuff like The Verdict and Untouchables are masculinity tales that may seem left b/c of their subject matter (emotions!) but are really the old Hollywood conservative story of the power of the individual (a conservative ideal embraced in theory, if not practice) against "the system." Perfect Tea Party values.

Meanwhile, The Edge is basically survival nut porn in the superior individual and self-reliance genre.

jfruh (#713)

@Abe Sauer I was also going to bring up "Spartan." The story of the president whose daughter is kidnapped and sold into sex slavery in Dubai (!!) because he pulled her secret service detail to protect him while he's off having a sex affair looks nonideological/"politicians are all corrupt bastards" only when taken completely out of historical context; obviously we see "president having affair" and are menant to think "Bill Clinton" and/or "liberal".

(I think the president's daughter is also already a call girl voluntarily before she's kidnapped? Do I have that right? This dovetails nicely with Mamet's "women are all ballbusting feminazis and/or whores" philosophy.)

Nicholas Jahr (#5,267)

@Abe Sauer. Ah, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, and a black guy walk into the woods. Who dies first? Hysterical.

Matt (#26)

@Abe Sauer I know dude, I was listening to anti-Clinton conspiracy theories/sex scandals on the first EP, too. On cassette.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Nicholas Jahr Heh. Not "the man who owns a plane" that's for sure (because he built that plane himself from the skin and bones of the t-rex he killed with a giant spear he carved out with a knife he fashioned out of a rock, etc.). For a lefty, Mamet has sure put in his share of work at defending the plight of the poor (sorry) rich white men! Good flick though. I mean if you gonna kill the black guy, might as well knock yourself out. Christ.

oldtaku (#9,009)

This is a fun exercise, but the flawed insistence that someone is either 'a conservative' or 'a liberal' is a strawman, though one we love. The use of 'neoconservative' is an tacit admission of this, but then avoids the problem by lumping them back in with conservatives. Using this kind of binary categorization, it'd be pretty easy to make a case for almost anyone – in either category. The 'Hitler was a Liberal' argument is probably the most obvious example – and I'm including this only to show how silly all this either/or crap is.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@oldtaku The kicker for me is when "the political commentators" and the media take everyone who doesn't easily fit in into one of the two categories=parties (for the widest variety of reasons) and lump them into one big third one – independent, and even worse Independent (I) (as if inventing an imaginary category is not brazen enough, they invent an imaginary party too!)

I know this is like punching a dead horse in the fucking mouth, but can I just say that I have always thought Mamet the most over-rated American artist ever?

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@SweetnessIWasOnlyJoking Hear, hear. He's had some bright spots, but I mostly want to shoot myself in the head when I have to listen to his dialogue.

@Ham_Snadwich Or shoot him?

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@SweetnessIWasOnlyJoking A little from Column A, a little from Column B.

MaryHaines (#3,666)

David Mamet has always been a provocateur, and when he's writing something other than a screenplay he's a disingenuous provocateur. I'm not sure he ever actually means what he says. He just thinks it's fun to say it. Sometimes that contrary-for-the-fun-of-it impulse makes for very good drama. But even in his plays/scripts certain "controversial" elements, like the misogyny, feel like a put-on. Oleanna — it's not like he didn't know "Bitches always be using their so-called vulnerability to destroy men, amirite?" was going to sit kind of funny with audiences. This latest spate of nonsense from him feels like more of the same to me.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Liberalism's for closers.

(I was going to say something along the lines of liberal =/= left, duh, but I realized no one had yet done the obvious.)

caw_caw (#5,641)

David Mamet is so incredibly overrated. For me his films are practically unwatchable. The Verdict is, yes, a great script. Wag the Dog has merit. Glengarry Glen Ross is beloved by many but I'm afraid I'm not a fan. Don't even get me going on Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

But the last 10+ years of his career are the equivalent of a man taking a long walk off a plank, so slowly that by the time he hits the water, no one cares anymore.

Heist? Spartan? Hannibal? State and Main? Ronin? The Spanish Prisoner? The Edge?

Ugh no thank you. I don't really care about his politics. It's his stories that bother me.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I don't think David Mamet is overrated. I think he's just-about-right rated. Nobody is going around saying give the boy a Nobel Prize, or maybe I'm mistaken? A Pulitzer prize and some Oscar nominations are just about his speed. And he does certain things with dialogue that nobody else can do, and that's worth a lot. And I could give a shit about what his politics are or were (I think Jordan Michael Smith's diagnosis is convincing), but how could anybody ever have doubted that he has the misogyny pretty bad? The robotically intense way he gets his various wives to deliver their lines in his movies makes it clear he's sick puppetmaster with a deep mistrust of the whole vagina thing.

caw_caw (#5,641)

In this article he is referred to as a "great artist." It is that to which I was referring as well as the general hullabaloo his book has sparked. While some of his plays have merit, some are exercises in tedium. As for an Oscar or a Pulitzer – the list of hacks who have received those awards is far too long to list here.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

"Perhaps that's what made him such a great artist." I'd never given the matter any thought before, but now that you mention it, I don't consider David Mamet a great artist. I've never gotten any sense of a coherent worldview behind his plays, as I do behind, say, Samuel Beckett's. And about Glengarry Glen Ross, "Mamet's best play and film script": sure, it's powerful theater in a scenery-chewing sense, but just why are these men in this mess? They're not just real estate salesmen but a peculiarly obnoxious kind of real estate salesmen whose business is duping people into buying land they don't need and won't want once they've bought it. I'd find the play much more interesting if it offered any insight into why these guys chose to get into and stay in such a shitty business, which certainly doesn't seem to be making them rich. For Ricky Roma, it's a kind of game, maybe, but the others are pretty much ciphers, as far as I recall. If Mamet really is a big believer in the primacy of individual choice, it's all the more remarkable how little sense his real estate salesmen really make.

By the way, I find it highly amusing that Mamet imagines preferences for liberal public policies are founded on some faith "that people are generally good at heart." My policy preferences would make me tolerably comfortable in the Swedish Social Democratic Party (I've lived in Sweden as well as the United States), but as an evolutionary biologist and a long-time observer of human behavior, I have little faith in human goodness.

Jim@twitter (#14,226)

So David Mamet wrote a bunch of good plays. Now he changed his political beliefs? I don't see why I should give a shit what this self-important prick thinks.

Opposition to capitalism has never been limited to the left. Both clerical fascism and Nazism had strong anti-capitalist elements. this is sometimes obscured because of the legacy of Soviet propaganda which identified Hitler as "pro capitalist" during the periods when they opposed his regime.

The same is true for the meme of the solitary individual confronting the system. Randians have their John Galt. A reading of the speeches of the Ibsen character Stockmann in An Enemy of the People will illustrate the manner by which the heroic individual becomes detached from and then contemptuous of, the unheroic masses.

Jeff Cook@facebook (#14,387)

You write "…a book that rails against academia (which Mamet says brainwashes youth into liberalism), feminism and the breakdown of the family, and denies global warming. In short, Mamet is the latest neoconservative."

Although you've placed a paragraph break before the last sentence here, you seem to suggest that neoconservatives are climate change deniers. This is misleading, isn't it?

(I'm a liberal and non-denier myself, also a supporter of Israel but not the Netanyahu govt.)

GregM91436 (#14,389)

I'm glad John Band brought up "Oleanna," because it's a definite tip-off that Mamet had some conservative leanings as early as '89, when the play came out in the U.S. The most important thing to note about Oleanna is that it's completely made up. So many people have misread it as being some sort of deep statement on feminism, when the entire plot of the story–a deeply disturbed student makes a false accusation of rape and tries to leverage that by teaming up with a "feminist" group that's really into censorship, with them attempting to get a professor to ban his own book–has never, ever happened on an American University. It's a two-dimensional, melodramatic monster movie, and a well-constructed one, where, by the end, we hate the monster. Unfortunately, most people fail to see that.

I'm not a fan of Mamet's new politics, but it has to be said–as a fellow playwright & a liberal–I'd pull out three or four of my own teeth out without anaesthetic to have written something as funny as "State & Main" or "Romance," which are, respectively, one of the best comedies of 2000, and one of the funniest plays of the past decade. His newish work: "Boston Marriage," "The Cryptogram," and "Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources" holds a good deal of interest.

His *essays,* though, which this book falls into, are terrible (with the possible exception of "True and False," and even that one's condescending, which seems to be his modus operandi.) "Bambi vs. Godzilla" was a disappointment, and in "On Directing Film," he acts like he's the only person on the planet to discover editing.

So, yeah. Good playwright, bad essayist, secretly been a conservative for a lot longer than he admits, but wanted to sell books.

@GregM91436 Your account of Mamet the artist versus Mamet the cultural figure would probably fit snugly, mutatis mutandis, on Richard Wagner 130 years ago. An artist who inspired dozens of imitators, made great art and became immensely wealthy in the process, consumed by self-regard and a desire to throw bombs, and who's politics and writings were batshit crazy, paranoid, culturally conservative, subject to fashionable upper-class politics, married twice, consumed with racial pride…

Greg Wall@facebook (#16,914)

This gives Mamet WAY to much credit to say the least. It also ignores the little story of his book and film "Oleanna" a response to the Clarence Thomas hearings that suggests any feminist bigmouth needs a sharp smack in the mouth. In the book Mamet refers to "Glengarry Glen Ross" as an "early play", but by then he was already a very famous and wealthy man. True, he had just worked through an expensive divorce and turned in wife # 1 for a younger model, but that's a trait he shares with many of the most vicious critics of Bill Clinton's marriage. Some years back Mamet was asked by Playboy in "Glengarry" was a critique of capitalism and he acted like he didn't know what they were talking about.
The conversion is frequently a sort of holy rite of the supposedly born again conservative (generally a rich guy who hates his new taxes), but "The Secret Knowledge takes this to new (and rather hilarious) extremes of fraud. Most of Mamet's good stuff is foul mouthed Pinter copy anyway.

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