Voices
Krieg Barrie/WORLD

Right decision

What led to David Mamet's denunciation of liberalism?

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

It was treated as a coup for the right: a cultural icon renouncing the creed of his liberal comrades-in-art. If not a household name, David Mamet's work is common knowledge, as prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and/or director of Speed-the-Plow, Wag the Dog, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner, Ronin, and more. He has published fiction, essays, and children's stories, drawn cartoons for the Huffington Post, created a TV series and Ford commercials. Made a dent, in other words. That's why his coming-out sent shock waves through the arts and letters community.

Conservatives cheered his intellectual honesty and welcomed him to the ranks. "The right has gained an artist," exulted novelist Andrew Klavan. Left-leaning commentators rolled their eyes. "David Mamet is a little sissy," according to one blogger. "Let's stop with the fake conversions. You just don't like paying your taxes."

The vortex of all this comment was Mamet's essay in the Village Voice, March 11: "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal.'" Its subtitle could be, "What was I thinking?"

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Three basic tenets of liberal thought, which he embraced for most of his life, are "that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative and that people were really good at heart." The overall message he received from mainstream media outlets (such as NPR) and prevailing arts culture (such as almost all his friends and colleagues) was that "everything is always wrong." But how could that be, if people were basically good? Besides, his life's work was dedicated to the proposition that people were not basically good; otherwise there would be no drama, only propaganda. Conservatism seemed a paradox: that citizens out for themselves were generally better left alone. But liberalism was a complete logical disconnect.

He'd been holding two opposing views of America simultaneously: "One was of a state where everything was magically wrong and must be immediately corrected at any cost, and the other-the world in which I actually functioned day to day-was made of people, most of whom were reasonably trying to maximize their comfort by getting along with each other." The Village Voice article was his way of coming clean.

For those who wonder how he came to travel this road, a little book called Five Cities of Refuge, co-written with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, offers clues. It's a collection of brief meditations culled over several years of studying the weekly lection (Torah reading), with each man offering his thoughts on a particular passage. In the Introduction they write, "Our premise was that the biblical text always knew more than we did"; thus they tried to still their modernist objections and listen to what the text was saying.

It seems to have been a humbling experience. Reflecting on Jacob's experience of the Holy at Bethel (Genesis 28:16-19) forces Mamet to confront human inadequacy: "[L]ittle is in our control . . . we are fallible . . . we are prone to sin, and will sin, even in the service of the divine."

Or, on Deuteronomy 13:7-10: "[The apostates] have sacrificed serenity for intellectuality, and integrity for a supposed 'power to choose,' which demagoguery we see used to oppress many an individual, populace, or electorate in the name of 'freedom.'"

Or, regarding Moses, whom "I never liked": "It occurred to me that my reaction identified me absolutely as a Jew-as an opponent of authority, as headstrong, rebellious, arrogant, as everything Moses asserts against our people."

Mamet's conversion is more philosophical than political; he has not embraced a cause or the Republican Party. Its meaning may not be what he brings to conservatism, but what he says about the times. "If David Mamet says he can't take it anymore," wonders Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal, "can others be far behind?"

Probably not many. Mamet came this way through a stillness in his soul, a willingness to listen and observe. Stillness and willingness seem increasingly rare in public discourse. But knowing what conversion takes, we at least know what to pray for.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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