The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture by David Mamet (Sentinel, $32.50, 256 pages)

Even during an apparent renaissance of conservative book publishing, one book has been anticipated more than almost any other this season. Anyone who considers themselves religious will recognize The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet as a conversion story, albeit one told in brief, scattershot chapters, written quickly, like moments of late-night inspiration captured on a notebook next to his bed. In this case, however, the conversion isn’t from secularism to faith or from one religion to another, but from liberal to conservative.

Mamet is a Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and screenwriter whose principal contribution to popular culture is probably a line from his movie adaptation of his play Glengarry Glen Ross, which his fans use as shorthand for the wry cynicism of his worldview, and particularly the brutal relationships of men engaged in business: “Second prize is a set of steak knives.” He has also been honoured with that most modern badge of fame – a cameo on The Simpsons.

The book’s subtitle – On The Dismantling of American Culture – sets up Mamet’s goal: a catalogue of the ways that leftist ideology and liberal culture, organized roughly around the policies of the Democrat party, have betrayed and nearly ruined the Chicago-born writer’s homeland, and conspire to do the same anywhere else in the world where democracy has lapsed from an aggressive to a passive principle for ordering a society.

It began in the Village Voice, of all places – a house organ of east coast left-liberal journalism, where Mamet had contributed essays and columns over the years. A religious Jew, Mamet had seen his political sympathies rudely shifted rightward by liberal antipathy to the state of Israel, which had increased in tempo and fervour since 9/11. He tried to explain his ongoing journey in a 2008 essay he titled “Political Civility,” which the Voice – with pungent irony – changed to “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal.” It was received with shock and wonder by both sides of the political spectrum, and became the seed for his new book.

The Secret Knowledge has the feel of being written in haste, as if the writer is making connections on the fly, fuelled by his discovery of conservative writers like F. A. Hayek, Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson and Melanie Phillips. It’s not surprising that a few errors creep in: in a chapter on his religious heritage and what he sees as the survival-bred Jewish impulse to control their fate by getting close to political power, he mistakenly identifies New Brunswick-born Presbyterian Lord Beaverbrook as Jewish. In doing so, he erroneously follows the lead of anti-Semitic conspiracy nuts whose fevered online explications have also conferred Chosen People status on newspaper tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black.

Thankfully he gets a lot right, and even makes observations that ring with a skilled creative writer’s sense of poetry, like this aside, on the hard-wired differences between the sexes, which are obvious to any parent, schoolteacher or bus driver: “Boys are born to contest with the world, and if we are going to breed out of them that ability, the land is going to lie fallow.”

Our extension of adolescence well past our teens into our 20s and 30s, Mamet observes in a footnote, has eroded marriage and crippled the family. In an age of serial monogamy and “starter marriages,” a young man or woman might not have any idea of the responsibilities, legal and otherwise, implied in the marriage oath until that marriage ends, delivering the lesson with a rude shock. Divorce has, Mamet writes, “replaced marriage as the culturally determined ritual signifying ‘leaving home.’”

Interestingly, though he’s willing to take on the explosive issue of Israel and risk his critical reputation by embracing politics anathema to his fans and critics, Mamet only glancingly addresses abortion, though he correctly identifies it as the litmus test of correct thought for the Left in his generation – “its avatar, its prime issue … an assertion to the ultimate right of a post-religious Paganism.”

Even more conspicuous is the absence of any detailed discussion of how his political conversion has affected his work. It’s unlikely that Mamet’s outspoken disavowal of his own former beliefs will be considered outside any future work he produces, but aside from the inevitable critical backlash, it would have been worthwhile hearing how he now views his hugely influential plays.

A young writer with conservative leanings – rare as that creature might be – might be encouraged to hear how Mamet’s muse survived abandoning the tenets of liberalism, with its assumption of unearned virtue through sanctioned attitudes and preference for feeling over logic. Politics are a grimy bear pit, corrosive to dignity and honour, so it’s depressing to see Mamet expend his energy there when he could do so much to influence culture – an arena conservatives tragically abandoned long ago.