There are, God knows, few enough opportunities to feel the old thrill — Christopher Hitchens, punching his weight, on your side. So it’s worth checking out his New York Times review of the new book by playwright David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge: The Dismantling of American Culture, for t-ts and giggles, and a glimpse into the all-enswaddling narcissism of conservative political culture.

Mamet, the famous playwright, creator of Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna and other works, is one of those artists David Williamson tells us we should listen to on matters of public policy because of their natural sensitivity.

For much of his life he has held conventional artistic leftish sympathies — or was in his own words was “a brain-dead liberal” — for many years, and has recently had a conversion, apparently during the bitter Hollywood writers’ strike (only the second in three decades), which helped kill a TV series The Unit, on which he was executive producer (and writer of the first, excellent, series).

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A simple case of jobbing writer-turned-producer feeling the rough end of the pineapple, and suddenly aware of his own interests? Not at all, m’lud. It was a revelation of the way things really were. Mamet, by his own account, began reading conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, and the scales fell from his eyes.”I truly do not believe the state has ever done anything productive,” he noted, taking on the Ayn Randian anti-statism now de rigeur on the American Right.

That — and there’s lots more of it — is quite a conversion for Mamet, son of a Chicago labour lawyer, and writer/director of the film Hoffa, a paean of praise to the early, very violent, years of the famous Teamsters’ (i.e. truckies) union leader, who pulled together a national union after FDR’s New Deal made organising easier in 1938.

Mamet went from that milieu to New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company, which produced his first half-dozen mature plays, that outfit funded by numerous state funding bodies, from the National Endowment of the Arts on down, doing their unproductive best.

So in other words, he’s another wilful hypocrite, someone whose success has been made possible by collective support, now denying it to celebrate his own individuality. But being of the luvvie class, it isn’t enough for Mamet to decide that he was, perhaps, in error in signing up to a position he hadn’t really examined. The conversion must itself be a dramatic performance.

Thus, having had a free sample, he’s taken delivery of the whole shebang. The state is a vampire. Climate change is propaganda. Sarah Palin is a “fantastic gal” who the Left hates because she’s a “worker”. The US won the Vietnam War. FDR caused the Great Depression and destroyed the US economy (which took 40 years to notice). And so on. Affirmative action is the literal equivalent of slavery. By Hitchens’s account, there is much more and worse.

Such total commitment is characteristic of the followers of such movements, the Tea Party army, many at sea in a society with a collapsed education system and mediatised up the wazoo, but one usually expects a little more subtlety in people who have to think about things. Increasingly however, that is becoming harder to find. In the US, rational paleo-conservatives (and some noxious ones) gather at The American Conservative, but the mainstream journal National Review has suffered a decade of intellectual decline, one of its most prominent editors being Jonah Goldberg, whose book Liberal Fascism includes, as things that are “fascist”, the Whole Foods Market grocery chain (because the Nazis talked about “organic” life y’see). Then, of course, Fox news and Rush Limbaugh.

So y’can see the problem for a theatre type such as Mamet. How, in this bedlam, to make an entrance that’s genuinely dramatic? His answer, consciously or otherwise, is to take on every conceivable craziness — and then go further. It’s the going further that may have landed him in way deep.

He could easily get away with the charge that England is “pervasively anti-Semitic”, a charge made by ultra-Zionists since the Mandate days (when Zionist terrorists were killing British troops, while Brits were fighting Nazis, so a tad unfair). But in spruiking his latest project — a biopic of record producer Phil Spector — he’s wandered into a shitstorm.

Spector is currently serving life for murdering a young woman who had come back to his LA home after he picked her up at a nightclub. Spector, a famously disturbed man, did what he usually did (as several young women would testify at his trial) — got out a gun and started pointing it at her.

Eventually he shoved it in her mouth and blew the back of her head out. Spector’s expensive lawyers managed to hang one jury on the fantastical idea that the woman, Lana Clarkson, had committed suicide, even though Spector had shoved the gun in her mouth so hard several teeth were broken. A second jury convicted him. But for Mamet:

“I don’t think he’s guilty. I definitely think there is reasonable doubt … They should never have sent him away. Whether he did it or not, we’ll never know but if he’d just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him … He [the Spector character] talks a lot about [t.e. ] Lawrence. He loved Lawrence. Either he loved him or I do, I can’t remember. He says in the film Lawrence wanted the one thing that he couldn’t have, which was privacy. He simply wanted to be by himself. Did that make him a monster?”

No, murdering a young woman through psychopathic self-indulgence does. In part, Mamet is doing what any good dramatist should — getting inside the dilemma to such a degree that one way of telling it becomes clear, a story that is surprising, yet credible. But the indifference is also part of the Ayn Randian harshness he’s taken on, such as suggesting that the poor do not deserve health care, for their moral failings.

Thus, his conservatism is that rarely found thing, an act that’s real. Not something hanging in between the two, but both — in other words a form of hysteria. In hysteria, everything partial, ambivalent and mediated — the very mild social democracy of Barack Obama, slightly annoying left-liberalism, etc, becomes total, utter, other. It’s a desperate strategy to give meaning in the midst of effectless existence.

The bored Viennese patient frigs up the drama of s-x until she/he is literally paralysed by a stray glance in a cafe; the hysterical conservative can only find meaning in politics if a whole way of life is held to be in danger of imminent extinction, right now.

Thus Mamet joins other primo performers whose hysterical conservatism becomes a consumable good, a fassbinderiana of desperate fantasy.

Such hysterical conservatism — there is an entire subset of it, hysterical Zionism, of which more at a later date — serves to rally the troops, but it very quickly creates problems, at which point the Right has to deal with its Right. Glenn Beck and Fox News recently parted company, after his show began to touch the higher reaches of anti-Semitism and the lower depths of conspiracy theory.

The Spectator and star blogger/columnist “Mad” Melanie Phillips have gone their separate ways for example — Mel announcing that she was going to put more energy into developing her own website. A huge apology on the front of the Speccie website for some of Mel’s wilder accusations are probably the proximate cause, but calling the Palestinians “barbarian savages”, the 1967 Green line “the Auschwitz borders” of Israel, and supporting the mad “vaccine causes autism” theory didn’t help.

Australian conservatism is yet to deal with its mad fringe, chiefly because it is largely composed of it. But even they must recognise the problems it is starting to cause. Take the upcoming visit of “Lord” Christopher Monckton, inventor of the “unsolvable” millennium puzzle (solved in 18 months, costing him £1 million) and denialist-hysteric. During his last visit, even Planet Albrechtsen was moved to suggest he lay off the “Greens are Nazis” comparisons.

According to Graham Redfearn, Monckton now has a slide show that displays quotes from Ross Garnaut next to a swastika, so that went well. As noted here, Monckton is coming back to Oz to speak at a conference, featuring creationists among others, on the dollar of Gina Rinehart, progenitor of The Bolt Report — which suggests that the freakoid sideshow of the Australian Right is starting to take over the circus.

This is not good news for Tony Abbott, as he attempts to shift the debate away from climate change science — knowing full well that surveys showing a rise in scepticism mean very little — and onto the method of dealing with it. The adage of “nothing to the Right of me” isn’t working very well, because almost all of the campaigning Right is to the Right of him on this. Like Mamet, they put on a better show, and badass crowds out goodie two shoes.

One final and outlandish possibility must be mentioned, and that is the possibility that Mamet is engaged in the most enormous hoax. He has done this before, on a much smaller scale, to credulous interviewers, as a way of dealing with the boredom of publicity and getting an extra publicity jolt. Has he decided to conduct an enormous zen experiment in pursuit of an understanding of political difference. I raise the matter only for the usual reasons — to not look a mug in the very unlikely event that this is the case.

Should it prove genuine, however, the final and most particular joy in this whole adventure is that Mamet is being taken down by Hitchens, who obviously sees the irony, and either no longer cares, or is making a confession of sorts. Here’s the beginning of the review:

“This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”

That would be comrade Hitchens saying that — the man who walked out of a radio interview when the host criticised Trotsky. Funny old world, especially when the Right’s around.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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