Among the most pernicious effects of the culture of political correctness, wokeness, and groupthink has been to encourage unanimity among the group of people who should by rights be freest to think for themselves: writers, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, and the like. We expect our artists to tell us what they think, not to repeat what everyone else thinks, right? We value free-thinking, dissent, and the open exchange of ideas, don’t we?
In other words, in theory, artists would be among the least likely to express fealty to the mobs on Twitter and most likely to follow their own road. But in practice, it would be hard to find a group that more eagerly, wantonly, or desperately follows the marching orders of the far Left than the American creative class. That one can scarcely conceive of, say, a Trump rally-attending novelist or filmmaker is a sign of spiritual rot in the arts. In the past, great artists were always to be found on the right — John O’Hara supported Barry Goldwater, and John Ford once said, “God bless Richard Nixon” — but nowadays, conservatives with an appreciation for the arts have to make do with Kirstie Alley and Jon Voight.
Sometimes, all the big talent seems to be on the other side — all the talent, that is, except for David Mamet, the 74-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Glengarry Glen Ross, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Verdict, filmmaker, and pioneer in the writing of clipped, cynical dialogue — since at least the last days of the Bush administration, when he announced his current political orientation in a Village Voice essay that seemed designed to “own the libs” before the term had entered the general parlance: “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’”
Mamet proved to be no mere provocateur or dabbler, but a serious, committed, and unusually unafraid conservative convert. In 2011, he set down his extended thoughts on the issues of the hour in The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, and since the pandemic began, he has been found regularly in the pages of National Review, one of that great magazine’s most notable and, if you knew nothing of his political transformation, unlikely correspondents since Joan Didion. Those essays, brilliantly brittle and piercingly perceptive in the expected Mamet mode, form the spine of his latest collection, Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch.
True to form, in these pieces Mamet presents himself as something of a brawler, a man eager for drama, debate, and dust-ups. Perhaps it’s because he knows he could emerge victorious. “My professional life has been dedicated to the depiction of conflict,” Mamet writes in the introduction, but he sees the modern Left as an army that seeks total victory without being bothered to do battle. “But how may a debate (a discussion, a trial, an election) take place in which one side rejects not its opponent’s position but his right to exist?” Mamet asks. Worse, he sees the Left demanding not merely the adoption of its positions but the adoption of evermore extreme versions thereof.
The essays that follow use language, reason, and wit to challenge the Left — the author of House of Games toppling contemporary liberalism’s house of cards. In one piece, Mamet takes issue with the comprehensive model of education advanced by John Dewey, one in which schools swallow up the other institutions that have traditionally helped form a child, including one's own family. “How could a school be a complete community?” writes Mamet, who is fond of the rhetorical question. “The church or synagogue was not, neither was the shop or business. Each was understood to be a part of a community.” Later, Mamet offers an answer for those bewildered by people who demand to be referred to by various titles (including, by inference, pronouns of their choice): After toying with the idea of insisting on being called “Dr. Mamet” on the strength of his honorary degrees, Mamet decides that he will henceforth demand being called “His Majesty-Your Majesty.”
Yet for this silly bombast, there is something majestic about Mamet, who, as a dramatist, harbors no illusions about human depravity. He is, after all, the man who wrote American Buffalo and the screenwriter who, in Bob Rafelson’s brilliant 1981 film adaptation, transformed James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice from noir thriller to grand tragedy. On the basis of the essays here, Mamet is a big law-and-order guy — how could he not be, having written so many flawed characters? “What is more delightful to the weak human soul than the prospect of criminal indulgence not only allowed but endorsed?” he writes. Mamet also offers a rousing defense of art for art’s sake, arguing that the form of both tragedies and jokes “free us from rational consideration. In listening, we are transported into another world.” That’s why he objects so vociferously to the trends in contemporary theater of “‘outreach,’ ‘social consciousness,’ and other means of destroying the possibility of attracting actual, ardent audiences,” he writes.
Naturally, Mamet is very strong on the pandemic and its attendant miseries. He objects to a bookstore open for “curbside service only,” writing, “Well, what’s the good of that? The whole point of a bookstore is browsing, or, if you will, ‘speed-dating’ literature.” He sees the public’s acquiescence to mask-wearing as an invitation to learn to “stand in line and do only those things and in that manner which the government allows.” By contrast, Mamet is grounded by things that no government can confer or deny. He sees, in the “terror” running through society, the fruits of three generations of people who were taught that “it is unnecessary to work, to pray, to study, to marry.” Naturally, former President Donald Trump, who sometimes can seem like a character out of a Mamet play, absolutely fascinates the writer, who arguably understands the 45th president better, as a personality, than any number of disgruntled administration members, or one aggrieved niece, who have written whole books about him. “He looked at the Left and informed us that he knew them of old: they were the same thugs, thieves, cheats, and whores with whom he’d been doing business all his life,” Mamet writes of Trump. “He was formed by the construction industry.”
It’s always a joy witnessing Mamet land punches in print, but it's a particular joy when his fists are put to use in support of ideas anathema in the world of showbiz. Even his liberal peers might admit this is what an artist ought to do: argue, annoy, play opposite, and, finally, say what he thinks, no matter what.
By Mamet’s lights, the 74 million voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2020 have gained, in their favored candidate losing, the “blessed antidote to dejection, anger, and fear: it is clarity.” In other words, the last year and a half of Democratic rule in Washington has opened some eyes. But some of those 74 million already knew what they were in store for — and first, and loudest, among them is David Mamet.
Peter Tonguette is a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.