David Mamet and the intellectual right-hand turn


David Mamet was never a doctrinaire lefty -- despite his recent, infamous Village Voice self-description as a "brain-dead liberal" who has come to reject the mentally moribund party line. He has been absolutely hawkish in his support of Israel, for example. His drama Oleanna was attacked by many feminists as a spurious cry of "male victimhood," and he has been a long-time member of the National Rifle Association. It's not that he was some sort of phony liberal; he simply has had a strong moral system that sometimes coincided with Democratic Party principles, and sometimes did not -- as, needless to say, many leftists do. In the '70s and '80s, he wrote brilliant, explosive dramas and film scripts, powered by masculine betrayal and a conviction that American politics and business amounted to a con job or outright theft (Glengarry Glenn Ross, Speed-the-Plow, American Buffalo, Wag the Dog). This made him, at least in his art, more or less liberal: He certainly wasn't pro-business. 

But for some time, he has gravitated toward more traditional paeans to integrity and justice and even macho effectiveness -- in the understated classicism of The Winslow Boy and The Voysey Inheritance, for example, or the duty-and-honor militarism of his TV series, The Unit. Essentially, Mamet began by writing bitter moral satires (sometimes still does, given the evidence of Romance and November). But increasingly, he has turned toward expressions of the ideals that he feels are vanishing, if not already absent, from contemporary life. Pointedly, they're the qualities his previous characters lacked or despised.

The typical, Delta Force-style mission in The Unit, it should be noted, is, in effect, a con job or heist -- actions that had once been signs of cynical callousness or desperation in a business office have a moral justification, even a determined enthusiasm, in a war on terror. At the same time, The Winslow Boy and The Voysey Inheritance are actually Victorian tales of stiff-upper-lip, British family honor -- a far cry, it would seem, from his down-and-dirty hoods, near-hoods or soulless yobs. But then, Mamet has always admired professionalism of whatever ilk, even among the salesmen hustlers of Glengarry. Why else did he give Alec Baldwin's bully-boy motivational speaker one of the most memorable monologues in American cinema? These guys have to be good at what they do -- the better to display their moral failings.

Not surprisingly, conservative pundits who crowed over Mamet's party defection generally betrayed their unfamiliarity with anything of Mamet's more recent than the film version of Glengarry Glenn Ross, drawn from a play he penned nearly 25 years ago. Certainly, they don't seem to have read any of his essays.

For years in his essays, Mamet has been elaborating on his distrust of psychiatry (especially as woozily applied in the Method school of acting), his scorn for conventional Hollywood and its anti-ethics, his pleasure in traditional, Hemingwayesque male habits (cigar smoking, hunting, poker playing, manly craftsmanship) -- and any number of other stands supposedly dear to conservatives' hearts and anathema to liberals.

Particularly touching -- when it came to the pundits' wish-fulfillment -- was Daniel Henninger's column in the Wall Street Journal. Henninger sincerely believes that the playwright's public confession is a sign that the current, swelling consensus against many Republican stands on the war, the economy, the health care system, the environment, the bailouts of lending firms but not homeowners and so forth, is starting to break in favor of the right -- however much the right's laissez faire absolutism and anti-tax faith might embody Mamet's feisty libertarianism ("Unless the Democrats figure out a way to back down big brother, the years ahead likely will bring more Mamet drop-outs.")

One thing that can be said about the liberals who have trashed Mamet for his defection: At least they're familiar with what he's written. But as has been plain for years, Mamet, like many thoughtful, forcefully articulate artists, is really an idiosyncratic party of one. A more revealing and longer-term context than any proposed by our hurray-for-my-team, election-year politics is offered by fellow playwright David Edgar who examines the past century's history of ideological side-changes among British and American intellectuals and artists -- from W. H. Auden and Arthur Koestler through Irving Kristol to Christopher Hitchens. book/daddy once read that the popular impression that we all start as starry-eyed young liberals and turn into crotchety old conservatives is inaccurate: Actually, we more often harden in our values, however inconsistent they may be. it seems that is true, but Edgar provides a more nuanced and troubling perspective on what that entails, particularly when it concerns Islam, poverty and both the left and the right's relationship with them:

There is something quite particular about spending the second half of your life taking revenge on the first. Inevitably, however complete the conversion, what defectors think and do now is coloured by what they thought and did before....

The directness and lack of apology in neoconservative polemic is a result of the fact that its authors had discharged the same ordnance in the opposite direction, and knew the likely weight and calibre of the returning fire. Most political defectors leave the left because its authoritarian practices stand in such stark contrast to its emancipatory ideals. For many, however, there is a double paradox: on opening their suitcase at the end of the journey, they find not just that the libertarian ideals they left the left to preserve have gone missing, but that the only thing remaining is the very cynicism and ruthlessness which they left the left to escape.

April 20, 2008 10:57 AM | | Comments (4)



We do see a side of Mamet many of us haven't seen before. I believe he's a very complex person, which to me radiates from his works. Personally, I'd like to see him devote further to filmmaking, which some do regard to be on a higher plane that simply writing. Certainly, it is more complex and there's a synergy of various arts all working towards a particular goal. But, who am I to lecture the masters about how they should do their work?

Your humble guide to Toronto movie madness,

Martin Amis, certainly no stranger to these kinds of musings or accusations, actually found his father's main fault to be one of Ideology, capital I, instead of any one ideology. He has written -- I think, I'm not in front of my books -- that he came to see Kingsley's problem not as Communist vs. Tory, but rather the need to have an Ideological outlook to begin with. The particular nature of the ideology didn't matter so much.

Ideologues, if you switch a couple of key terms, do kind of sound alike in their intolerance and stringency, whichever side they're on.

I never quite understand why we pay so much attention to artists' political views to begin with. Perhaps we have a secret belief that someone smart enough to write that brilliant play or brilliant book must be equally brilliant in his or her political ideas. But I see no evidence of this.

The absolutism that your friend noted is actually one of Edgar's points -- it's a cast of mind that the "movement defector" tends to take with him. Whichever side he's on, left or right, the other side must be evil:

"So, as on the far left, there is a tendency to see the world in stark, binary terms. Kingsley Amis once admitted that "it's all pretty black and white to me now. If you decide, as I have, that there are only two sides to the argument, then it's all quite simple." Kristol insists that environmentalists aren't really interested in clean air or clean water; what they're really after is authoritarian political power."

As for your question: Actually, you're thinking in simple either/or, binary terms, too. Many liberal intellectuals/artists originally turned left while young. Their first "political enlightenment" came as a turning away from whatever conservative/conventional/often restrictively religious upbringing they'd had. So rather than a simple chart that would show them starting as liberals and then turning right, it should show them starting as obedient believers who struggle and eventually throw off that mindset for Marxist-Leninism, the New Left, deconstructionism, sexual liberation, black nationalism, drug mysticism, what have you. It's only when that God fails that they turn to an even more belligerent (or boring) version of the mind cramp they started with.

As director John Waters once put it in an interview with book/daddy: "I don't care if you're a raging drag queen, you'll have the same values as your mother."

A depressing bit of determinism, it would seem. Coleridge is a classic example: The son of a vicar, he undergoes a radical change, becomes one of the intellectual and artistic forces behind English romanticism - a political revolutionary (at least a drawing-room revolutionary), a dreamy idealist (who wanted to found a utopian community in America) and an opium addict. Disillusioned with the French Revolution, his own marriage and his estrangement from his children, his break with Wordsworth, his complete writer's block as a poet, Coleridge inevitably winds up ... lecturing on theology for the rest of his life, just like dad.

But if you want a couple of names of people who did indeed -- as settled adults -- drift leftward instead of right, the first ones that popped into book/daddy's empty head were Garry Wills, Joan Didion (and her husband John Gregory Dunne), John Leonard and Hillary Clinton. book/daddy is certain there are plenty more; but his comfy bed is calling out to him to turn thataway and go night-night.

A friend of mine once described the Paul Johnson/David Horowitz types as people who once believed that if you didn't worship Che, you were a fascist, and now believe that if you don't worship Reagan, you're a Communist. Neither extremism is particularly palatable.

The following question is suggested by your post: are their any intellectuals/artists who started off as right-wingers and turned left over the course of their life?


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on April 20, 2008 10:57 AM.

Not about books, but hey, it's about the Bard was the previous entry in this blog.

Rounding upward is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.