Conservatives—for all their protests to the contrary—aren’t unheard of in Hollywood and never have been, from D.W. Griffith and Louis B. Mayer, to Mel Gibson and John Milius. Even so, for whatever reason, conservatives tend not to be the A-listers of film and the small screen—there are no Sean Penns or Brad Pitts among them, but instead the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Stephen Baldwin, Chuck Norris and Bo Derek.
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When an A-lister declares himself or herself to be a fellow traveler of the right wing, it comes as news in The Industry. David Mamet, a self-confessed “reformed Liberal” who saw the light, denounced his leftist past, and, as he recounts in The Secret Knowledge “was embraced by the Right.”
There’s no road-to-Damascus moment in Mamet’s book, a combination pop-political diatribe and memoir, though he does recount a punking of the Village Voice, that icon of leftism. The Voice is part of the New Times chain, which fired longtime columnists Nat Hentoff and Robert Christgau, the lefties in the house. Even the National Review objected to Hentoff’s firing, but no matter, the Voice wasn’t Mamet’s target. Another paper that had criticized a recent Mamet play for being “politically incorrect” was—and there, Mamet writes, the critic was “astonishingly, acute”—and Mamet got his revenge by gleefully writing an op-ed piece for the Voice that the paper, not he, titled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal.”
Red flag waved, check. Bull enraged, check. Renewed anti-Mamet vitriol from lefty paper, check. Mamet, conservative enlistee, check.
It’s a politics of the grudge in other words. But neither was Mamet’s a sudden conversion. Indeed, anyone who has kept track of his writing—to say nothing of the TV series he created, The Unit, which reveled in military incursions in whatever country happened to be harboring enemies of America that week—in the last decade will have seen this coming from a long way off. Take Bambi vs. Godzilla, a classic case of dog and hand, in which Mamet dismantles liberal Hollywood as a place in which “manners…stink on ice” and where no one, absolutely no one, is to be trusted for a moment, a place run by those who value money over art, those who do not sufficiently love films to be admitted to the temple of filmmaking, and those who rely more on focus groups than their own judgment—as if there were really a science to figuring out what will work and what will not.
Thus it ever was, but longing for a golden age better than our own is a hallmark of the modern conservative movement. That golden age tends to center on the Eisenhower 1950s or the pre-Roosevelt 1920s, if not a month or two in the Reagan years. That golden age was also a time when everyone knew his or her place, even unruly actors, for whom Mamet has had choice words in books such as True and False, laying down a great chain of being that would send Jacques Derrida spinning in the grave: “The ‘work’ you do ‘on the script’ will make no difference. That work has already been done by a person with a different job title than yours. That person is the author.”
In other words, mind the authorities—so long as the authorities aren’t liberal.
This is Mamet, of course, and Mamet is a master of whip-smart, stinging dialogue. He despises liberals, the welfare state, Obamacare, all the other whipping boys of talk radio. That much is clear, page after page. The writing here is better than that of, say, Michael Savage, though the special pleading is of a piece (“a Jew is aware of anti-Semitism of which the non-Jew is not”).
Yet the arguments will seem familiar: Mamet’s attacks on higher education sound very much like those mounted by Rush Limbaugh, while his list of bad guys is made up of just about the same cast of characters Glenn Beck rails against. One wishes that Mamet’s objections were as original as are his plays and films, but it’s the same old stuff.
In Mamet’s Manichean world—like Beck’s, a world controlled by liberals who hate America and free enterprise—we are all pigeons pecking at pushbuttons for pellets, rewarded when we peck the one “repeating that capitalism is bad” and the one that encourages us to trust the government, “which destroys most everything it touches.” It is our fault, of course, for being pigeons in the first place—or, perhaps better, for pecking at buttons of which Mamet does not approve. Indeed, The Secret Knowledge can be summarized in only a few words, and they are Mamet’s: “The Left thinks the Right (America) is ruining the world. The Right thinks the Left is ruining the country. I endorse the latter view.”
Meet the new-old Mamet then. Because he has paid his dues and because his House of Games, that closely observed portrait of free enterprise in action, was among the best things to come from the Reagan years, he is worth reading, watching, listening to, paying attention to. He is also worth arguing with, and puzzling over, as his new mantle of champion of freebooting capitalism requires that we do. Who, after all, would ever have thought that John Williamson, the greed-is-good character Kevin Spacey played in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, was the one we were supposed to admire?