Sunday, July 28, 2019

David Mamet's "The Secret Knowledge"

Bernie Sanders has been fun to watch the last few weeks, as he struggles to run a campaign under the principles he claims to believe. Either you're a hypocrite (as Sanders has often been on socialism) or you try to live out its principles and it costs you a ton (as Sanders is running into now). Hilarious!
Will the reality check make a difference to him and his followers-- or to similar candidates in the Democrat primary field? Sadly, probably not: they're more likely to stick to their magical thinking, greed, and other forms of idolatry.
About a decade ago, David Mamet reached a similar fork in the road—and took the road less traveled. The resulting book created a firestorm when it was published in 2011. I noticed the hubbub (and was intrigued), but didn't read it. But by its nature, The Secret Knowledge (SM) is the sort of book that gets mentioned now and again. And as with many books, I read on the basis of reviews and other mentions. That's how it got on my list and eventually reached the top of my pile.

Mamet is a playwright and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross. (The movie is famous for perhaps the most powerful [albeit VERY colorful/crass] movie diatribe on sales in business.) He also wrote screenplays for other notable movies including The Postman Always Rings TwiceThe Untouchables, and Wag the Dog. (The latter is supposed to be excellent movie and an early, pre-SM example of Mamet's cynicism toward politics. Of local interest, Mamet had nine plays at Actors Theater in Louisville from 1976-2008.) 

What makes Mamet's book particularly interesting is that he's a political convert in Hollywood. As an adult convert, he's a true believer. As a convert from a largely alien culture, he's a fervent believer. You're not going to tiptoe away from the Left, especially if you're writing a book about it. Since he's inundated in that culture, he knows "them" well. So, his thoughts are helpful in understanding the Left in general and the Hollywood Left in particular. And as a "creative sort", his approach to describing these things is an unusual and interesting mix of analytical and creative. (If you're looking for a careful treatise, this is not the book for you.) In a word, the book doesn't read like the usual sort of thing you see in politics, political philosophy, and public policy. (One might compare Mamet to a Hollywood version of David Horowitz.)

Three years before the book, Mamet published a coming-out essay in The Village Voice. (It's worth a read in its own right-- and as an intro to the book.) In SM, he provides more testimony on his political journey, starting from the cognitive dissonance between how he acted and what he claimed to believe. "I never questioned my tribal assumptions that Capitalism was bad, although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings. I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the free market." (2) 

From there, he began to read, starting with Hayek's Road to Serfdom (learning that "there are no solutions; only trade-offs" [3]) before consuming mass quantities of Sowell, Steele, Friedman-- while benefiting from a mentorship with Jon Voight.

Mamet is particularly in tune with the views of actors, writers and directors-- and connects their work and politics. Directors need to make projects work, dealing with a range of obvious constraints (99, 219-220). So, they tend toward a realistic view of life and politics. In contrast, "Actors, thriving on publicity, have historically [looked to] champion 'causes'." Moreover, the actor will typically "see himself as the Hero...his professional indulgence in fantasy is a boon to the community; its elaboration into do-gooderism is, perhaps, inevitable." 

Writers are likewise prone to fantasy-- in particular, frequently envisioning things as Good vs. Evil. In sum, "writers have traditionally been the dupes of totalitarian propaganda" and actors "are easily manipulated". The result: "No wonder, then, that these two subgroups of my particular racket, show business, have been trotting the globe for 100 years, petted by and championing the causes of Tyrants." (98-99)

On "Conservatives" and "Liberals"

Mamet talks at great length about "conservatives" and "liberals". His use of both terms is more social and cultural than political-- although his use of the terms certainly has political implications. As I've grown fond of noting, there aren't that many liberals or conservatives in politics-- at least in office. If we had many such creatures, we'd see different policies under serious discussion, if not actually enshrined into law. Most notably, we'd see fiscal conservatism from the GOP. And from Democrats, we'd hear advocacy on civil liberties and non-interventionism in military affairs, eschewing crony capitalism, and refraining from pounding the working poor with taxes.

Conservatives are interested in "strict rule of law"; Liberals want an "increase in the granting of Rights." (2) The conservative says we're often wrong and wonders whether the Market or the Government can correct itself more effectively. Hint: it's usually the former (59-60, 120, 143). The liberal imagines that "we" are usually right-- well, at least the elites (59). 

Conservatives hold to a "Tragic View" (as per Hayek) or the "Constrained View" (as per Sowell)
, focused on budget constraints and the limits of human nature. In contrast, the Liberal holds fantastic, utopian views with little attention to constraints-- other than the "evil" conservatives, deficient people, insufficient time, and underfunding that supposedly (and always) prevent their plans from being successful (48, 91-94). As a recent example, think of how the Left treated Obama's abysmal record on the economy and his lack of policy accomplishments. 

The Liberal rejects science and history in public policy. Policy failures can be illustrated by "the impartial verdicts of history" (107). But since his tenets are not falsifiable, blame-shifting is the preferred and obvious approach to the inevitable problems. Unfortunately, the results are immune to review, so they conclude that failed programs should be expanded or tweaked rather than ended (93).

Those on the Left are often too "smart" for their own good (and ours), as they succumb to "magical thinking": "How can a country grow rich through 'redistributing' the wealth, by driving production overseas through taxation, by a refusal to exploit natural resources? This could be imagined only by those willing to suspend their understanding of the laws of cause and effect—the audience at a magic show. Curiously, as magicians know, the more intelligent the viewer, the more easily he may be fooled..." (102) 

Mamet has fun with Lefties laughing at religious fundamentalists who believe in a Young Earth: "this supposed far less detrimental to the health of the body politic than the Left's love affair with Marxism, Socialism, Radicalism, and the Command Economy, which...leads only to shortages, despotism, and murder." In contrast, "the honest man might observe...that no one gets something for nothing; that politicians go in poor and come out rich; that the Government screws up everything it touches; and that the Will to Believe is best confined to the Religious Venue, as, to practice it elsewhere is just too damned expensive." (195)

Applications to society and politics

Questioning any of the above will likely lead to "excommunication" (107-108). One implication of this irony is that the "liberal" is afraid to talk with anyone outside his group. Instead of their reputation for tolerance and open-mindedness, the result is blinkered and judgmental thinking. (See: some great remarks about the insidiousness of Progressive doublespeak from George Packer.) 

Mamet pokes at the sheltered elites and worries about their children who often major in liberal arts in college. This mostly reduces to "indoctrination in aggressive Identity Politics" (124) with little "true diversity...of thought" (8). (See: this terrific piece by Lionel Shriver on obsessions with 50:50 gender diversity.) They often refrain from work and so, they're unlikely to "encounter a Conservative Idea, let alone a Conservative." (31) 

This reminds me of Murray's work on "bubbles", where isolation and insularity can emerge from liberal elitism as easily as rural conservatism. The funny thing is that the former imagines itself to be more sophisticated in ways that the latter would never pridefully embrace for themselves.

Mamet describes "distressed clothing" as "trying to purchase a charade of victimization" and status (63). And his thoughts on victimhood and movies were provocative. He notes that "the woman's victory over the ax murderer is not a portent of her change from victim to nonvictim, but merely a chance, momentary suspension of that state...though the woman prevails, we know that she is exploitable in the next film." (84)

Mamet also makes some interesting observations about Sarah Palin and Marilyn Monroe (137-141)-- identifying why the Left despised Palin and relaying their scathing critiques of Monroe that I hadn't heard before. He also rips the strange views on race and justice enunciated by Justice Sotomayor and applauded on the Left-- when she claimed that Hispanic women are more compassionate than White men (191-192).

Mamet also speaks to a range of miscellaneous policy issues, skewering foreign aid (34-35), criticizing congressional abdication of responsibility on declaring war (72), and noting allergies to nuclear power (41). He has considerable venom for folks who are pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel. Not that Israel is perfect-- far from it (51). But the vehement opposition to Israel and the lowering of standards for Palestinians can only be described as a muddle-headed embrace of "victims" or simple racism (68-69, 80-82). A particularly rich example is France accusing Israel of "colonialism" (200). 

As an insider to the Jewish community, he also explains the evolution of opposition to Israel by some American Jews (146-150). And following the exemplar of Joseph to Pharaoh, Mamet notes the contemporary prevalence of Jews in powerful positions (157). 

Mamet does not discuss Reagan at all-- a strange and notable omission. I don't know if he has personal baggage with aspects of his presidency or maybe he's worried about allergies among those who might be converted by his book. 

In any case, I couldn't help but think of Reagan-- as well as Trump and especially Obama-- when Mamet wrote about politics in Chicago (chapter 9). For all of the things that Mamet fingers about politics in Chicago-- all of which would have been predictably problematic for an Obama presidency-- Reagan did not have any of those. This may explain how Reagan understood American life and politics so well, why he was so successful, and why he was perceived so well. Reagan was from a lower-middle class family in the Midwest. His training was in economics not law. He had a remarkable life before politics. And he had executive experience in both life and governance. 

Other great quotes on Economics and Political Economy

-Money is "just an efficient way of keeping track of the production of individuals." (4)
-" we cannot live without government, how must we deal with those who will be inclined to abuse it-- the politicians and their manipulators?" (9)
-on Hayek's "fatal conceit", he notes the "misconception that the human mind can a.) conceive, and b.) implement a better way..." (13)
-He provides a wonderful example of trade-offs, opportunity costs, and the bane of good intentions-- the story of a Tibetan monk who walks 1000 miles and realizes that he's carried an ant within him in his robe. He walks all the way back home to replace the ant, "to avoid doing it violence. But how many ants did he step on on the way?" (24)
-"Capitalism is bad? Not the capitalism that founded and supported Stanford or Harvard or Penn..." (25)
-"Government, to eradicate 'hate speech', will become the arbiter on all speech-- that same Government whose very return address on the envelope awakens fear." (26)
-About those on the Left, "you will note that when they write, they copyright their books, and buy goods with the proceeds." (27)
-"The serious gambler learns young, and painfully, that he must control his impulses...Our politicians, left and right...are free to spend, to chase fantasies, and to squander resources, for the resources are not theirs, and there is no penalty for their misuse or loss." (52)
-He cites the experiment between the market and government in developing a zeppelin (75).
-"What institution is more greedy than Government? What individual more ravenous than the Perpetual Candidate who is every politician?" (118)
-Prophetically, he notes that bad politics combines with worrisome entertainment: "The ascription to leaders of supernatural powers is a recurring aberration which entertains is perhaps no accident that the election cycle (formerly "elections") is growing and will continue to grow to be continuous." (162-163)
-"To fix the game for money is called corruption; to fix the game from sentiment is called Liberalism." (168)
-"Giving the money to the Government, even that Government which proclaims an agenda with which the Liberal agrees, is folly. For a simple perusal of history will reveal that the money...will most likely arrive somewhere else altogether." (182)
-"Successful politicians look forward to their retirement plan...the most flagrant Socialist then becoming, magically, a fan of capital." (189)
-"The human mind may be worshipped, but it cannot be trusted. This is why we have laws." (192)


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