The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture

  • David Mamet
  • Sentinel/Penguin
  • 241 pp.
  • June 29, 2011

A noted playwright explains his “road to Damascus” moment of renouncing Liberalism and embracing the Right.

Reviewed by Brian Odom

In 2008, an op-ed piece appeared in The Village Voice under the provocative title “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’ ” In this scathing renunciation of dearly held prior beliefs, Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet commented on how, after absorbing the works of conservative writers from Thomas Sowell to Milton Friedman, he retreated from his earlier stances on the Bush Administration, corporations, the military establishment and the utility of social programs and began his embrace of the Right.

Dramatic,  exquisitely emotional testimonies of profound, sudden conversion experiences are deeply ingrained in American thought and culture. From the Great Awakening movements of the 18th and 19th centuries to modernity’s own evangelical experiences, our literary and cultural traditions are filled with these “road to Damascus” moments. The Secret Knowledge is an elegant expansion on Mamet’s own dramatic conversion.

Like all good conservatives, the celebrated director, screenwriter and author of Glengarry Glen Ross experienced his transformation upon his reading of Frederich Hayek’s cornerstone work, The Road to Serfdom (1944). In this canonical text of the Right, Hayek argued that a government that sought to do more than Adam Smith’s formula of administering justice,  delivering public works and providing for the common defense was either deluding itself or, worse, willfully misleading its citizens. Hayek’s notion of the “Tragic View,” as understood by Mamet, was that “we are incapable even of knowing, let alone implementing, engines to alleviate the true causes of … many of the problems besetting us.” For the rehabilitated Mamet, Hayek’s elucidation of the workings of the free market and the proper relationship of government to the economy provided a more nuanced understanding of the mysterious nature of the “Free Market.”

The brand of conservatism embraced by Mamet draws heavily on the reactionary model set forth by the 18th-century English politico Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Much like Burke’s 1791 critique in his Reflections on the Revolution in France,  Mamet’s exposes the seeds of our own “reign of terror” resulting from the tyranny of “Good Ideas” that fall under the Left’s buzzwords of hope, change and social justice. Like Burke, Mamet understands culture as grounded in an “organic” nature and defined as an “unwritten” code of laws, which have evolved over time through “preconscious adaptations of its members.”

Underlining Mamet’s cultural argument is his fundamental belief that America is a country representing the “triumph of Judaeo-Christian values,” which recognizes the significance of human individuality. According to Mamet,  while the Left rejects religion as superstition, they find they cannot live without it and have replaced it with a “new religion” that goes by the names “Multiculturalism, Diversity, Social Justice,  Environmentalism, Humanitarianism, and so on,” all of which, according to Mamet, foretells a “reversion to savagery.”

The targets of Mamet’s ire include all the usual suspects of feminism,  global warming, the Obama administration, affirmative action and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. However, much of Mamet’s vitriol falls on the system of liberal arts education in both secondary schools and institutions of higher learning, which, he argues, have eschewed teaching America’s youth tangible job skills and instead advertise a “curriculum of choice.” For Mamet, aside from being a useless waste of time and money, this system produces young adults who either lash out against the system’s failures or retreat into an endless dominion of graduate study, staving off entry into a world they are ill-equipped to comprehend.

Ultimately for Mamet, the Left’s “love affair with Marxism, Socialism, Racialism,  and the Command Economy” has left Americans holding the bag, and, while awaiting a return to “Eden,” injecting an increasing amount of “confiscated” wealth (read taxes) into social programs that lead nowhere. From Mamet’s perspective, liberals are trapped by the very ideology they extol in a “herd” mentality, the rejection of which would cause them to “undergo the shame and humiliation” of their peers. The resulting culture of political correctness, Mamet argues, has not only weakened America economically but also paved the road to Fascism and a Totalitarian brand of Statism.

For this reviewer, Mamet’s conclusions on human nature are at the same time disheartening, conflicting, duplicitous, intriguing and appalling.  Mamet has regrettably succeeded in his efforts to “wrench himself free”  from his belief in the possibility of social reform. But while the solutions (if any, in fact, do exist) to society’s problems may be complex and riddled with unsettling trade-offs, to give up completely and simply allow the market to run its course is to return to a Hobbesian state of nature in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”  This is the very condition Thomas Jefferson rejected in his belief that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them.” Readers on both sides of this debate are sure to have strong reactions to Mamet’s both artistic and intellectually forceful account. For the Right, it will serve as a manifesto for many dearly held beliefs, while those on the Left now have a new target to assail.

Brian Odom is a graduate of the University of Alabama, with master’s degrees in history and library science. He currently teaches history at Jefferson State Community College outside of Birmingham, Ala., and is a reference librarian at Pelham Public Library.

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