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The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture Paperback – August 28, 2012
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About the Author
David Mamet 's Glengarry Glen Ross won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984. He is also the author of Writing in Restaurants and On Directing Film, both available from Penguin.
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"The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of America's Culture" is Mamet's provocative assessment of the damage Liberalism is doing to America, as well as Mamet's account of his conversion from Liberalism to Conservatism.
The details of Mamet's conversion - in some ways it was more of a realization than a conversion - are scattered across the book. Mamet was in his 60s when he began to look closely more closely at his beliefs. He read Friedrich Hayak's "The Road to Serfdom: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition." He came to realize that he lived as a conservative to survive, supporting his family without relying on anyone else. Two friends from his synagogue introduced him to works by other notable Conservative writers, including Milton Friedman, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell. Jon Voight gave him "Witness" by Whitaker Chambers. Mamet was thus exposed to political and cultural ideas he had never encountered before, and the ideas made sense to him.
Many of the chapters are essentially essays on Mamet's views on feminism, global warming, Israel, school shootings, multiculturalism, higher education, and life lessons from growing up in Chicago.
As a former Leftist, Mamet is well-suited to describe the Left's insecurities and dysfunctions. In Chapter 21 he points out Liberals can't afford to notice their policies hurt the country. If they voice any doubt about Liberalism they risk getting expelled from the herd. Further, Liberals have contempt for anyone who doesn't accept Liberal dogma. Mamet experienced scorn from Leftists after his conversion. Their common reaction to him was, don't you care? Reasonable people might have different opinions on the best ways to address social problems, but the Liberal impulse is to call into question the character of non-liberals. "Selfish!" "Greedy!" "Racist!" So how do they cope with the obvious failures of the Obama presidency (high unemployment, high deficits, acrimonious race relations, millions more on government aid than under Bush, etc., etc.)? The herd supplies the explanation: it's the Opposition's fault.
A recurring theme is Mamet's conviction that Liberals don't recognize basic realities of life, like where wealth comes from. Mamet makes that case brilliantly. "The great fault of my generation is not ingratitude but incomprehension," Mamet writes in chapter 35. He tells the story of his young daughter who had an heiress as a schoolmate. The two friends were talking about bedtimes when the heiress said before bed every night she opened the small refrigerator in her room and took out her usual snack: berries and yoghurt dipped in honey. When asked who put the snack in the refrigerator, the heiress paused for awhile, and then said, "I don't know."
So it is with Liberals. It never occurs to them someone puts the snack in the refrigerator, someone takes a risk on the schemes which become the automobile, the airplane, the new medicine, the business that hires workers. So instead of supporting exploration and exploiting resources, Liberals restrict oil drilling, demand banks make loans to people who can't repay them, and lay extra burdens on wealth creators.
Mamet pulls no punches. His writing is bold, even strident on occasion. I found it a wonderful book, very much worth reading.
First, he has always struck me as one America's finest modern playwrights, writing intellectually challenging comedies and dramas in a way that indeed captures the (desired) repartee of our culture in an often politically-incorrect way.
Second, I was shocked to find out he was (now) a conservative. Admittedly, I assumed that his being a well-educated, successful artist (and union member) of Jewish ancestry would, by social upbringing and community, make him not just a liberal, but an unwavering elitist to boot.
However, it was NOT this book that informed me of his conservative "awakening". Rather it was his 2008 article in "The Village Voice" (Mar 11, 2008 - "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal': An election-season essay"). Just Google it, you will find it. It is only three pages for those unwilling to read the 200+ in the book.
This book grew out of that article and the response he received to it.
After you have read the article (which is written in the same sort of "distracted" manner as this book), normally, I would not encourage anyone to "read the end of a book" first. But, with this particular tome, I would encourage my liberal friends (especially them, but actually anyone) to start with the last two (short) chapters before they start again from the beginning. Liberals will not like this book and will not be inclined to finish it, but I truly hope many will take the time to read it and honestly (honestly!) try to refute the arguments Mr. Mamet makes regarding throwing money (the government doesn't have) at problems to "help" (yet not actually help) others. I believe spoiling the ending by reading the last couple chapters first may give readers a sense of where the book is headed. (By the way, I did not do this myself, the idea only struck me after I finished the book).
However, while I enjoyed the book, I will warn readers that it is NOT an easy or fun read. Mr. Mamet has clearly been reading a lot of other works and his writing does not shy away from the complex, nor does it try to convert everything down to an eighth grade reading level. This book has a very almost "stream-of-consciousness" feel to it. Successive chapters do not necessarily follow a specific throughline, often diverting regularly in a sense of "oh, and while I am thinking about it" kind of topics.
If I could have asked for one change in the book, I would have loved to have seen Mr. Mamet present this as a dramatic debate between his prior liberal views and his newfound conservative views. Admittedly, as a master of dialogue, I would have truly enjoyed reading this as a battle of wits between the liberal and conservative. As with all Mamet scripts, I read this book wishing it was a play.
In reading the 1-star reviews to date, most seem to focus on how the book is written, which as previously stated, admittedly is not easy. And, true, he does not spend a lot of time on specifics. Instead, he cites other's work for in depth discussions of the facts he has chosen to support his arguments (the bibliography at the end is long!). This makes it easy to take potshots at the details in this book. Other reviewers seem to focus their negativity on the pages Mr. Mamet spends in several places throughout the book reflecting on his Jewish upbringing, being Jewish in America, and the state of the Jewish people throughout history around the world (including Israel and WWII). I believe these diversions were an acknowledgement or expectation by the author that he may be perceived as somehow betraying Jewish political values and his attempt to more thoroughly explain why and how he came to question them and ultimately espouse a conservative view of the role of government.
Again, this is not an easy book to read. And, I am not at all surprised by the number of reviewers admitting they stopped after only (some number) of pages. The good news for those quitters is that they will (most likely) someday be able to rent the dramatized movie version from Netflix, albeit dumbed down for their continued irritation.
I read the whole thing and it challenged me to not only consider Mr. Mamet's logic, but also research several topics separately.
I found it to be a compelling way to argue the conservative perspective for the limited role/value of government (excluding social/moral litmus test issues) in contrast to the liberal perspective.
Well done, Mr. Mamet.
The book is well written, but the reader should be advised that its prose is not always linear. In fact, it's often circular like poetry, no doubt because Mamet is a playwright who works with the spoken word.
The only negative about the book is that Mamet was, at least when he wrote the book, extremely disparaging about his past beliefs as is often the case with recent "converts." I understand having been one myself.
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