Book Review: The Secret Knowledge

secret knowledge2The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture by David Mamet (Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross)

“The struggle of the Left to rationalize its positions is an intolerable Sisyphean burden. I speak as a reformed Liberal.” ~ David Mamet

I liked this book a lot. It was a challenging, but fascinating unfolding of Mamet’s attempt to explain why Liberals think as they do. He was, himself, a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal from birth. A Jew, he followed his family’s – his race’s? – predilection for Liberalism. That is, because he was a Jew he was a Liberal. It was a given. All his family members were Liberal, and voted Democrat. Ditto all his friends.

His knowledge  about Conservatives and Conservative thinking came solely from his Liberal Democrat family, friends and Hollywood (which is to say Liberal) colleagues; or else from Liberal publications and broadcast news sources. Which is to say, he knew only the Liberal line regarding them.

He was 60 years old before he ever read anything written by a Conservative or actually talked to a real, live, in the flesh person with Conservative views.

The ground had already been prepared, however, by his dawning realization that though he believed ardently and fully in the Liberal views that were his birthright, the way he actually conducted his life more and more was not in accordance with those views, was in fact, more in accordance with the work hard/ free-market views of the Right. He did not know this last for some time, though,  blinded by the stereotype of Conservatives as mean, small-minded, stupid, vicious people whose sole goal in life is to mess things up for Liberals.

He is now a full-fledged Conservative, and this book contains his reflections on not only how that came to be, but how it was that he took so long to get there, as well as why so many of his friends, family and colleagues still can neither understand nor accept the change.

It’s a very personal reflection, incorporating details of his life that contributed to his changing, and contrasting the two views in terms of acknowledging reality versus ignoring it. He lays out the Conservative view (eg, stick with what works and makes sense given the situation) versus the Liberal (“Change was good in itself – a problem need not be dealt with mechanically by acts whose historical efficacy was demonstrable but could be addressed psychologically, by identifying ‘change itself’ as a solution.”)

I love the way he sets the two thought systems side by side and reveals a good deal of why Liberal views have always seemed so inscrutable to me – because, basically, they are divorced from reality.

The question arises, of course, that if Liberal views are truly divorced from reality, how in the world are they maintained? In one essay, he uses the metaphor of a group of random people who share not even the most basic culture in common, assembled and placed in a wilderness where they must survive together. No this is not Survivor (whose participants do share a common culture and goal, because these randomly gathered people not only have “never learned to respect or to reward industry,” they also lack the technology to exploit the land or defend themselves from enemies. As such they form themselves into

“a cult that produces neither sustenance, peace, defense, nor philosophy, (yet) does one service, which service unites the group, and to which all other operations of the group are subservient: it provides the reassurance that although the actions of the world may neither be understood nor exploited, fear may be shared out and the stranded group may take comfort in its replacement by denial.

“But for denial to replace fear it must be universal, and anyone suggesting notions to the contrary… must be silenced.”

And therein lies his primary explanation for how Liberals can think as they do: denial and the fanatical silencing of anyone in the group who dares to think otherwise, as well as the automatic demonization of all who stand outside the group.

There can be no attempt, then, to truly understand a Conservative’s point of view, it is by definition anathema and wrong because it’s not Liberal. Liberal points of view are by definition correct, regardless of any provable facts of environment, history, efficacy or reality.

But even beyond the way he demonstrates the Liberal viewpoint for the empty sack that it is, he does a masterful job of delineating Conservative principles, clarifying the differences and demonstrating that they are tried and true for a reason. They make sense, they are grounded in reality and, I think, they spring from a basic sense of humility that man is flawed, imperfect, but has the ability to make choices as to how he is going to live and should be given the freedom to do so.

I also learned a lot about Jewish thought and tradition. Why they value education so much, for one. And why they are so overwhelmingly Liberal. I wouldn’t call it a fast and easy read, but it makes you think and I feel enriched for having read it.

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