David Mamet has written some brilliant plays and films. He's inconsistent, but when he's good--House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, American Buffalo--he's all but peerless.
Much is being made at present of Mamet's very public conversion from an extreme brand of liberalism to an extreme brand of conservatism. He's about to publish The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. This conversion is supposed, apparently, to make those of us on the leftward end of the spectrum apoplectic, make us suddenly cease liking what before we adored. Which will be a lot of fun to watch if it pans out, but it seems like such "rage" will be limited.
No matter how conservative Mamet's politics, it won't change for a moment the beauty of his best work--most of us will still be saying "Coffee is for closers" when the moment calls for it. Judging an artist's work is no more dependent on said artist's politics than on his or her religion. Take for instance Gene Wolfe, crafter of extraordinary ideas and surprisingly well-hewn prose in science fiction. He's also a conservative Catholic, which doesn't diminish his work in the least. Hitching one's like of an artist to how closely his/her politics match your own would be quite silly.
I'm sure some critics may go a little green in the gills at Mamet's newfound conservatism, but it seems like a petty point.
Anyhow--the Weekly Standard, that bastion of the rightest right, has published a long look at Mamet's conversion. I point it out not because of the above points, which it seems to anticipate with some glee, but because the piece is a study in a remarkable, if transparent, brand of hagiography.
Mamet starts as a sort of bad boy of the left: "Three decades ago David Mamet became known among the culture-consuming public for writing plays with lots of dirty words ... Some critics said his plays were pointlessly brutal. As a consequence he became famous and wealthy. It didn’t hurt when it dawned on people that many of his plays, for all the profanity and brutality, were works of great power and beauty, and often very funny to boot."
By the end, he's got a burnished halo: "The two personal attributes that come through most notably in conversation, and in The Secret Knowledge, are gratitude and modesty, both regarded as conservative virtues. His modesty is of the epistemological kind, reinforced in politics and economics by his reading of Friedman and Hayek, the great critics of central planning. His gratitude is comprehensive. In our long afternoon talking about politics, he kept returning to how grateful he was for his general good fortune in life, but especially for being an American."
Especially in that second quotation, things go beyond hagiography to the piece's bald-faced secondary concern: vilifying a cartoon version of the left while assigning positive attributes to the right. The extremes of our political spectrum are full of caricatures of the opposite number, but this piece is so rife with it as to become comical. Gratitude and modesty, we are told are "regarded as conservative virtues." That's a remarkable thing to say, especially in a piece that goes on at length about Mamet's brave break with his liberal "herd." (Of ilks?)
Those of us on the left who do not fit with cartoonish views--who, for instance, despise Obama's maltreatment of American civil rights exactly as we despised Bush's, and who believe in the practicality of smartly regulated capitalism rather than dismissing it wholesale (a rare move in the U.S.)--are nowhere to be found in the Weekly Standard. I don't find this surprising, but I find the contours of the caricaturing as dramatic as those observable in the kneejerk prose of Internet trolls.
The piece covers a college audience to which Mamet spoke. How do you tell a professor? Easy: "The rest were aging faculty out on a cheap date with their wives or husbands. You could identify the male profs by the wispy beards and sandals-’n’-socks footwear. The wives were in wraparound skirts and had hair shorter than their husbands’."
I didn't know the Standard did comedy. Notice especially the little addition of "cheap date," just a precursor to the testosterone deficit of the men's "wispy beards" and the apparent butchness of their wives. Subtle material!
Here's how the writer, Standard editor Andrew Ferguson, imagines the thought process of Mamet's apparently liberal audience: "It was too much, really. It’s one thing to titillate progressive theatergoers with scenes of physical abuse and psychological torture and lines like “You’re f—ing f—ed.” But David Mamet had at last gone too far. He’d turned into a f—ing Republican."
Even Mamet himself gets in on the act: “But I saw the liberals hated George Bush. It was vicious. And I thought about it, and I didn’t get it. He was no worse than the others, was he? And I’d ask my liberal friends, ‘Well, why do you hate him?’ They’d all say: ‘He lied about WMD.’ Okay. You love Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t write Profiles in Courage—he lied about that. ‘Bush is in bed with the Saudis!’ Okay, Kennedy was in bed with the mafia.”
So yes, one of the most brilliant of contemporary playwrights just put an equal sign between lying to start a war and lying about authorship.
In the end, it all comes down to something Mamet says in the piece: “As an American, I don’t think that my politics are any better than anybody else’s politics,” Mamet told the TV interviewer Charlie Rose when November opened. “I’m a gag writer.”
And the gags are no less effective or praiseworthy because Mamet has gone from one political extreme to another. Maybe the critics will turn on him, which won't hurt sales. But I'd bet against such a wholesale witch hunt--the immutable herd of politically fueled arts critics exists primarily in the fantasies of this Weekly Standard editor.
The whole piece is a fascinating read, a shoring-up of conservative worldview through cartooning the left. Well worth checking out as a study in political writing, Mamet or no.