Enter Mamet, stage right
David Mamet’s public coming-out as a political conservative -- done in a 2,500-word essay in the Village Voice last week -- is wonderful news for the culture, far better, I fear, than many conservatives will appreciate. The left has monopolized the arts for so long that some on the right have lost the knack of them. We love to denounce Hollywood and indulge in paroxysms of rage about the latest artistic insults to patriotism and God. But when it comes actually to producing mature and complex works of art -- or supporting the people who produce them -- a good conservative can be very hard to find.
Mamet, on the other hand, is a pillar of the arts. I don’t know if he’s America’s greatest living playwright, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a better one. Many people know him for his movie work: “The Untouchables,” “The Edge,” “House of Games,” etc. But it’s plays such as “American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow” that represent his best writing by far, each searching for remnants of heroism in the rubble of modernity through a hilarious and poetic tough-guy vernacular.
The journey 60-year-old Mamet has made from being what he calls a “brain-dead liberal” to acknowledging the genius of philosophers such as Thomas Sowell and Milton Friedman is a difficult one for an artist. We in the creative world swim in liberalism like fish in water. It’s hard for us even to imagine that one might evolve and walk on dry land.
“Yes,” we might say to ourselves, “it certainly does seem that history has vindicated those warmongering right-wingers who opposed the Soviet Union. And really, in secret, one must admit that women and men are pretty fundamentally different. It does seem true, as well, that government programs manifestly worsen the problems they’re designed to solve, whereas freedom in markets and ideas always seems strangely to improve things. ... But that doesn’t mean I’m a conservative! Conservatives are mean, racist, sexist, greedy -- and they hate gay people, who are an artist’s colleagues and friends! I’m nothing like that.”
But creators at Mamet’s level of talent are consigned to truth-telling by their deepest nature. The arts-world imperative to mouth allegiance to a creed at conflict with their new political awareness creates in them a simmering dyspepsia. You could see that already in an angry play such as 1992’s “Oleanna,” in which a pompous but basically decent professor is ruined by the denunciation of a student who’s been body-snatched by the academic and feminist left.
So now Mamet has grasped the nettle. He will come to find out just how small-minded, exclusionary and intellectually corrupt many on the left can be. Colleagues may abandon him; theater critics will contrive to ignore and attack him; his dependable audience may turn away.
But he will also discover a right wing he never knew. He will discover thinkers who seek historical and moral truth as if it really mattered, and writers who defend liberty as if it were what in fact it is: the prerequisite of full humanity. Rather than the low and tiresome obsession of the left with the color of people’s skins, he will find people who embrace a philosophical colorblindness. He will meet women of intelligence and competence who -- mirabile dictu -- don’t despise men and manliness but openly admire them. Yes, he will find that a gathering of right-wingers is less welcoming to gay people than the left is, but he will also watch something astounding unfold. Unlike liberals, rightists, after a period of open discussion and thought, will actually admit when they’re wrong and change their minds. This anti-gay prejudice will fall -- it’s falling now.
The big question is whether the good men and women of the right will realize what a gift they have been given in Mamet. Will they turn out for his plays and embrace their excellence? His is a hard language of four-letter words and scorching insights. Will rightists, despite their commitment to good behavior and values, remember that art is an examination of the world as it is, not as we would have it be?
The right has gained an artist. We should celebrate that. The arts are the soul of a people. It will not profit conservatives to gain even the whole world if they lose the culture.