Discourse on politics in America is too often a pathetic affair, with partisan loyalties and manufactured controversies trumping anything related to reason. A wise writer, entertainingly and charismatically skewering the false premises and power-based alliances of modern politics, would certainly be welcome. At first glance, David Mamet, the profane, brilliant playwright and screenwriter behind Glengarry Glen Ross and dozens of other works, seems to fit the profile, as does his newest book, The Secret Knowledge: On The Dismantling Of American Culture. It’s been advertised as his split from the “brain-dead” liberal orthodoxy of his past, and Mamet is demonstrably an intelligent author. But this isn’t an intelligent book.
Mamet’s essential problem is definition: In his late-life conversion to conservatism, he has somehow come to consider everything bad to be left or liberal, and everything good to be right or conservative. Mamet personifies modern liberalism through Barack Obama, whom he treats as a Socialist demon who has come to destroy all that is good and right in America. Yet many of Mamet’s complaints could just as easily be applied to any recent Republican president, all of whom go unmentioned. This reaches a ludicrous extreme when Mamet complains about the Department Of Homeland Security as an overreach of governmental power, eliding over the fact that it was created and supported by a right-wing administration. This is neither an aberration nor the most bizarre claim in the book—“The Left insisted that we abandon, in 1973, a war we had just won in Vietnam…” may take that prize.
The best thing that can be said about The Secret Knowledge is that there’s a certain logic to its approach. In the introduction, Mamet declares that, as a dramatist, he found the epic conflict between left and right in the 2008 election appealing, and the book makes a kind of sense as a fairy tale about two titanic, irreconcilable entities, locked in immortal combat. Mamet depicts the drama by reducing the two concepts to what he believes is their core, apparently learned from half a semester of high-school political science and a week of talk radio: The right practices logic and believes in individual freedom; the left is a cult which believes in the power of the government.
The chief issue with this fairy-tale presentation of politics is that politics has a certain reality, a paper trail, a collection of evidence, that makes such a simplistic division nothing more than a straw-man argument on an epic scale. Mamet falls into that trap almost immediately, when he claims that in the 2008 elections, the left favored “detente” with terrorists—a statement that was demonstrably false at the time, with Obama promising to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, and has now been rendered utterly ridiculous, due to the assassination of bin Laden.
The Secret Knowledge is a strange, depressing journey into a political conversion that somehow gets everything wrong. Mamet is certain that he’s thinking clearly, but his resort to pathetic old canards (Nazism has socialism right in its name!) indicates the opposite. An intelligent man has somehow decided that switching sides in a false dichotomy is wisdom.