- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

The entertainment industry is well-known as a hotbed of liberalism, particularly the more intellectual professions of author and playwright. So when playwright, screenwriter, director and author David Mamet published a piece provocatively titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” last week, pundits from both the left and right took notice.

Even observers abroad found the writer’s coming out as something of a conservative to be big news. Billed as an “election-season essay” and published in the dependably left-wing Village Voice, Mr. Mamet’s piece “appalled many of his liberal admirers,” the Independent newspaper of London declared, and left the intelligentsia “startled.”

Anybody who has closely followed the writer’s 30-year career, however, shouldn’t be surprised. Mr. Mamet, the chronicler of the con, the detailer of the dark side, has always understood that human nature is much more complicated than the naive meliorism of his old ideology could imagine.

The 60-year-old playwright contrasts “the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view” in his slightly rambling essay in the Voice.

“As a child of the ‘60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative and that people are generally good at heart,” he writes. Mr. Mamet still seems to accept — to varying degrees — those first two tenets, but perhaps he finally has realized that his own work is a refutation of the last one.

Anyone who has seen “Oleanna” knows it is not the work of a doctrinaire liberal. This searing indictment of political correctness was written in response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. In the 1994 film, William H. Macy plays a college professor accused of sexual harassment by a student; the charge ruins his career. It was exceedingly brave of Mr. Mamet to reserve most of his sympathy for the professor at a time when the country’s intellectuals were at their most fevered about power imbalances in sex relations.

“Oleanna” was hardly the only sign of Mr. Mamet’s lack of strict conformity to liberal orthodoxy. Who but a budding conservative could have made a throwback like “The Winslow Boy”? Mr. Mamet is best-known for his obscenity-laced looks at the contemporary world, but “Winslow” is set in a very proper Edwardian England. Mr. Mamet never challenges the society’s emphasis on reticence and honor.

“The Winslow Boy” is one of Mr. Mamet’s few films with a strong female character (who ends up interested in a man who doesn’t support a woman’s right to vote). There was another clue — liberals always have been interested in the plight of the female in a patriarchal society, whereas Mr. Mamet’s films wallow in a macho man’s world. “Winslow” was the exception that proved the rule.

Look at Mr. Mamet’s last few projects. “Spartan” is a political thriller starring Val Kilmer as a Special Forces operative who defies political handlers — who are covering up a sex scandal — to rescue a politician’s daughter. You never learn the politician’s party because it doesn’t matter. As libertarians understand, good government isn’t a matter of getting the “right people” in power — they’re all self-interested.

Mr. Mamet spends much time on the military’s code of honor in “Spartan.” The film led to his television project “The Unit,” in its third season on CBS. It also focuses on a Special Forces unit — its members are the heroes of the series. He conveys genuine respect for the military as an institution — officer corps included. His soldiers are self-aware and indispensable sentinels of freedom — not the brave but deluded cannon fodder in a futile cause to whose courage and sacrifice liberal politicians like to pay lip service.

Most important, though, much of Mr. Mamet’s career has been a study of the con — so how on earth could he ever have believed people are basically good?

“Glengarry Glen Ross” is a collection of real estate agents, apparently the most obscene, amoral men with a halfway respectable profession you’ll ever meet. The one possibly redeemable man comes off as the weakest.

In “House of Games,” his directorial debut, an optimistic psychiatrist slowly loses her belief in her own profession, which might be seen as a metaphor for intellectuals in general. “Do you think you’re exempt from experience?” a patient asks her. Once she finally gets some experience, she realizes she’s just as human as those to whom she formerly lectured. (It has a typical Mametian surprise ending, which may be his own argument against determinism.)

I haven’t even gotten into “Edmond,” the 2005 film Mr. Mamet wrote. It’s in the “Falling Down” genre of angry white men not willing to take it anymore — a conservative genre if there ever was one. The main character’s name is Edmond Burke — one vowel away from the British conservative thinker — and he’s pushed to the brink by his overbearing wife, black hoodlums and unwilling prostitutes and tarts.

A look at Mr. Mamet’s career suggests that what’s surprising isn’t that one of the most intellectual men in Hollywood — and writing for the stage — has declared a move to the right. It’s that it’s taken him this long to come out.

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