David Mamet is the accomplished playwright, screenwriter, novelist, author, essayist, and filmmaker. In 1984 Mamet was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, his utterly harrowing update of Death of a Salesman. The new issue of the Weekly Standard carries Andrew Ferguson’s moving cover story on Mamet’s turn to conservatism. It is an intensely interesting and thought-provoking piece.
As Ferguson recalls, in 2008 the Village Voice published Mamet’s quirky “goodbye to all that” essay “Why I am no longer a brain-dead liberal.” Mamet described himself in the essay as a decades-long liberal. He recounted a moment of illumination listening to National Public Radio: “I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the **** up.” Mamet explained:
I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been — rather charmingly, I thought — referring to myself for years as “a brain-dead liberal,” and to NPR as “National Palestinian Radio.”
Mamet didn’t situate this moment in time. Anyone who has followed his career, however, might have deduced that Mamet was guilty of heterodox thoughts at least as far back as 1992’s Oleanna, in which he confronted the phenomenon of political correctness. Mamet himself traced his heterodox thoughts to the Year Zero of the boomer generation (1968).
In his essay Mamet described his liberalism as an ingrained mental habit intimately bound up with his self-understanding. Leaving it behind must have been wrenching. Thus the anger inspired by the suffocating voice of NPR.
Daniel Henninger devoted a good Wall Street Journal column to Mamet’s 2008 essay. Henninger took Mamet’s public abandonment of liberalism as a leading indicator, foreseeing that “the years ahead likely will bring more Mamet drop-outs.” I thought at the time that this was a misreading. Mamet’s rejection of “brain-dead liberalism” represented the rebellion of the thinking man against “the herd of independent minds.” As such, it was less the precursor of a movement than the epiphany of an artist.
Ferguson goes behind Mamet’s epiphany to reveal some surprising details. Who would have guessed that a politically conservative rabbi held the key to the story? The odds were strongly against it. Less surprising, perhaps, is the cameo appearance of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, given to Mamet by the rabbi. One other book takes a star turn:
[F]or anyone who admires Mamet and his work–and who agrees with most of his newly discovered political views–there’s something thrilling about seeing a man so accomplished in an unforgiving art subject his ideas to pitiless examination and, as he put it, “take it all the way down to the paint.” When Mamet recognized himself as a conservative, Shelby Steele told me, “it made him happy.”
He doesn’t freely talk about what it cost him psychologically, however, and he says he hasn’t thought about what it might cost him professionally.
When I pushed him on the subject, he started talking about Jon Voight, another show business Republican.
One day Voight handed him Witness, the Cold War memoir by the Communist-turned-anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers.
“This book will change your life,” Voight told Mamet.
“And he was right,” Mamet said. “It had a huge effect on me. Forcing yourself into a new way of thinking about things is a wrenching experience. But first you have to look back and atone. You think, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? What was I thinking?’ You realize you’ve been a co-dependent with the herd. And then, when you decide to say what you’ve discovered, out loud, you take the risk that everyone you know will look on you as a fool.”
A lot of us will identify with the feeling, as well as with Mamet’s take on his family history:
His gratitude is comprehensive. In our long afternoon talking about politics, he kept returning to how grateful he was for his general good fortune in life, but especially for being an American.
“My grandmother came to this country and she and her two boys were abandoned by her husband,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. No education. And during the Great Depression she was able to work hard and save and she put them both through law school.” His voice had a tone of wonder to it, as though still awed by a fresh discovery. “I mean, what a country. That’s a hell of a country.”
Please read it all.