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Unimpressed by a cynic's 'conversion'

"I speak as a reformed liberal" is David Mamet's claim in the blurb on the cover of his conversion memoir "The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture" (Sentinel, 241 pages, $27.95).

You'd think, from the scandalized reception in some quarters for Mamet's new open declaration of late-life conservatism that he were the equivalent of a congressman who liked to tweet photos of himself in his underpants. But then there is a sense in which all brazen biographical opinioneering might fall into the same general area of endeavor as a congressjerk's underwear strut.

The subjects are almost equally enjoyable to make rude jokes about -- not to mention being such outrageous, self-selected targets. How many Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights are there who publicly admire Sarah Palin for her manual laboring skills and who, in a book's acknowledgment, thank the radio wisdom of L.A.'s Michael Medved and, yes (wait for it) Glenn Beck?

It may surprise Mamet himself in his seventh decade on Earth that, by God, he's a conservative after all, but it doesn't surprise me in the slightest.

As brilliant a writer as he's always been -- and is likely always to remain -- I've been happy to call Mamet all manner of unpleasant names in the past, largely because it is part of Mamet's own genius to get down and dirty where well-kept audiences might prefer uplift and moral hygiene. It has been Mamet's duty to sneer at self-deception and phony decorum -- occasionally in thuggish terms -- so it never caused me a second's remorse in the past to throw around terms like "unconscionable hack" (hey, I've seen his TV show "The Unit" and reviewed the film of his script for "We're No Angels.")

I don't care what Mamet has been saying at dinner parties or poker games, the idea that the man who wrote "Wag the Dog" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" still considered himself a comfy member of the liberal classes has to be one of the truly idiot bits of self-delusion in American intellectual life. (What manner of liberal, after all, would have given the world "American Buffalo" or "Speed the Plow" or, for that matter, the script for the movie "The Untouchables"?)

But that's the story he's telling in "The Secret Knowledge," a book that is both supremely obnoxious and supremely readable. For every juicy inside takedown of absurdities in academe, he'll blast away at, say, the science of global warming, and you begin to have thoughts that are the "good" twins to his own evil twin thoughts -- as in, you know, just how much Kool-Aid is in HIS refrigerator?

So help me, though, this particular strut in full conservative robes on the political runway is welcome news. The conservative voices we're used to are so strident and dismissable that it's about bloody time they were joined by a genuinely great living writer who isn't as instantly dispensable as Rush, Glenn, Bill and the rest of the Babbling Brotherhood of Bloviators.

The secret of "The Secret Knowledge" is that there's an awful lot of good stuff in it -- aggressive common sense, frank and even daring autobiography and an intellectual's insistence on placing ideas in context, however wrong the context is.

But then, the Mamet worldview has been cynical from the beginning -- cynicism, in fact, was his major gift to the American dramatic profession and seems the core of his pride in his "Chicago-ness" (as if the essence of his home city were being hog butcher to the world and not imagining wonderful things that might be done with ham and bacon).

The usual Mamet way of making a point is to declare as law something almost impossible to believe. For instance, "the Liberal Young are taught to shun work." And then go on to build, atop every false law, a sizable edifice of thought doomed to disbelief. He is, in fact, such a neurotic practitioner of the logical fallacy that university level logic courses couldn't do better than assigning Mamet's screed as an illustration of every last one of them.

What I'm hoping -- against hope, I'm afraid -- is that Mamet takes the next step after this book and becomes a vulgar public intellectual, a highly visible and respectable mouthpiece in the marketplace of the right the likes of which we haven't seen since William F. Buckley Jr.

But then I fear some very basic things may hold him back.

What? Well take a look at the picture on the book's cover. It shows Mamet wearing a cap he's often photographed in -- one with a ridiculously oversized bill resting on his large glass frames.

I have no doubt that bill keeps the sun out of his eyes wonderfully.

Obviously, Mamet thinks the cap makes him look cool. He's been photographed in it enough. And here it is on a front cover.

In truth, it's probably the wrong hat for the guy. It makes him look like a jerk.

Which he may actually be.

No small drawback, however brilliant he is.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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