David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: My New Favorite Political Book

Though I’m a very political person, I usually don’t like political books.  I tend to find them lazy, filled with unfounded assumptions, and generally just preaching to the choir. 

My biggest complaint about political discourse in our society is that it is characterized by talking past each other; we turn each other into straw men and pat ourselves on the back when we knock the other side down.  What we desperately need are discussions that elucidate the basic priorities of political positions and attempt to explain them to those who may not connect with them easily. 

In The Secret Knowledge, Mamet offers what is by far the best introduction to the conservative worldview that I have ever read.  His collection of three dozen wide-ranging little essays on political topics brilliantly shows the reader not only what conservatives believe, but why we believe it.  Perhaps his excellent writing here is based on the fact that he has spent his life as a liberal, but only in the last several years has he examined things seriously enough to reform his beliefs.  (Read Mamet’s original essay that generated this new book here.) 

David Mamet is a born teacher.  I suppose all great writers are: his career has succeeded by not only shining lights into the obscure corners of life, but by doing so in a way that a variety of people will quickly relate to.  He puts that talent for observing the way people and life naturally work to great use here. 

Mamet is gifted with a fluency for analogy, illustration, anecdote, and rhetorical questions, the natural tools of the teacher.  The Secret Knowledge is not a campaign tract—it does not rely on current events to stir the reader.  Rather, it defines principles, and then makes occasional, brief references to issues only as examples of the larger points.  Sometimes I wished that Mamet would have included more current issues, as he discusses them so well, but doing so probably would have slowed the book down.  As it is, this is that rarest of political works: one that will still be relevant in ten years, or ten weeks. 

Just as good, Mamet also eschews any rote drum pounding.  For the most part, he succeeds at analyzing liberalism in a very critical vein without necessarily insulting those who hold to it (something that bothered me and ultimately turned me off to the otherwise useful Liberty and Tyranny, by Mark Levin).  It is natural that anyone writing about a philosophy with which they disagree is bound to say negative things about it, but I think the fair reader could take The Secret Knowledge at face value without offense. 

Mamet’s frequent focus on how the intellectual problems in American politics affect the quality of culture, and vice verse, is profound; it’s a worthy angle for consideration and should help to interest more people in the subject than might have otherwise picked up this book. 

By the time I got to page five, I knew that I was reading something special.  By the time I got to page twenty-five, I knew that I’d have to buy a copy eventually, so I could go through it, highlighting and writing notes.  If I were to ever recommend a single, contemporary book on politics to anyone—conservative, liberal, or in between—this would be it.  It may or may not change anyone’s views, but we’ll certainly understand each other better.  And that is a very good, very important thing.

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4 comments on “David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: My New Favorite Political Book

  1. I’ve read Mamet in a very different context before… and I don’t mean as identifying with party politics or liberal/conservative axis at all. He’s written some excellent plays, and some of them have been seen on the Big Screen, too. And I love most of them.

    OTOH, would you have taken as seriously the essays of someone, who spent most of his adult life as a Conservative, who becomes a Liberal in later years? And a redistributionist lefty at that, because of the unfair practises of businesses that are not only tolerated, but upheld by the laws of Western world.

  2. Ken, I’ve only glanced at the links from that material, but I’ll give them more thought. Velska, you make a very good point. Skepticism is always a virtue, and so is judging material on its content over the apparent credibility of the source.

    I suppose it’s almost impossible to fairly judge things when we have strong biases for or against, but as I said, it’s rare for me to realy like politica books of any stripe. This one impressed me, though.

  3. May I be so bold to suggest a political book I suspect you’ll like Huston. Its called What It Takes written by Richard Ben Cramer of the Washington Post. Cramer biographies George H. W. Bush, Robert Dole, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Joseph Biden, and Michael Dukakis from birth and weaves their stories together as the 6 men fight for the presidency in 1988. The final scene in the book is a never to be forgotten behind the scenes look into American Politics. Available in paperback from Amazon.

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