Woolly Mamet

With a great deal more self-importance than St Paul ever showed about his transition, David Mamet recently announced his conversion to conservatism, in the downmarket pages of the Village Voice.

After hearing this earthshaking news, I went and rummaged on my shelves for the copy that a waggish friend recently gave me of Mamet’s little book, The Wicked Son, which appeared a couple of years ago. It’s a very remarkable piece of work and really should have received more notice than it did. Actually-existing Jewry hasn’t gotten such a con-brio drubbing since the late Meir Kahane went up into the bosom of Abraham.

Mamet’s starting point is the good old axiom of radical, innate, ineluctable goyish depravity: “The world hates the Jews. The world always [has] and will continue to do so.”

This notion of an ineluctable antipathy between Jews and Gentiles was an important element in the case for Zionism in its early days. The argument was grounded then in the theory of race. In more recent years the notion of “race” has become less respectable, and talk about unbridgeable racial differences is frowned upon in good society –especially after that unfortunate Third Reich thing. So for a good chunk of the twentieth century, the axiom of ineluctable antipathy got shelved.

But we started to hear about it again, if memory serves, sometime in the 1980s. At the time it looked like a waggon-circling response to the rising tide of intermarriage–a phenomenon which might have suggested, to the unenlightened imagination, the reverse of antipathy. Since the racial theorizing that originally sustained the notion was still unacceptable, and no new explanation for it was suggested, it hung rather awkwardly in the air, a postulate motivated neither by immediate evidence nor by a larger theory about human society.

Still, unmotivated and implausible as it is, the postulate has proven useful. The relentless campaign to legitimize the state of Israel has lately leaned on it very heavily–the point being that no matter how comfortable, and prosperous, and at-home Jews may seem to be in New York, or Miami, or Los Angeles, nevertheless there beats in every Gentile breast the heart of a Cossack. And so the homeland away from home may someday come in handy. Not that you would ever want to go there unless you had to–but you might have to. These shgutzim, you never know.

Re-making–yet again–the relentlessly-made “case for Israel” is part of Mamet’s purpose. He’s very keen on Israel, though I don’t believe things have quite gotten so bad for him, what with the Pulitzer Prize and all, that he’s had to go there, or even ever entertained the idea. Still, he strongly approves, and thinks anybody who doesn’t must hate the Jews:

“The Jewish State has offered the Arab world peace since 1948; it has received war, and slaughter, and the rhetoric of annihilation. After fifty-six years of war this tiny fingernail of a country, the size of Vermont, continues to exist and to practice democracy in spite of the proclaimed implacable hatred of an Arab world rich, vast, and populous.”

Of course, we’ve heard all this a million times before; reading it in Mamet’s energetic words is altogether too much like reading Alan Dershowitz would be, if some malicious genie had gifted Alan with a lively prose style. “The size of Vermont!” Sheer genius. West Bank settlers in Uzis and Birkenstocks, tending their spotted cattle and maple-sugaring in the Levantine spring–it’s enough to bring Norman Rockwell back from the dead.

The prose is so entertaining that one feels pedantic in asking questions like: what does it mean to say “the Arab world?” Assuming arguendo that this phrase means something, and that there’s someone somewhere who can speak for “the Arab world”, or negotiate on its behalf — in what sense, exactly, has anything been offered to it? “Peace”, Mamet says–but peace on what terms? And what does this gaseous notion of an “Arab world” have to do with the highly local politics of Mamet’s lovable little Vermont-sized democracy? Would it not be more to the point to ask what has been offered the unmentionable Palestinians–the people of whom Golda Meir famously said “there’s no such thing?”

Of course it’s unfair to Mamet to ask such questions of him. He’s not a politician, or a historian. He’s a guy in show business.

Like a lot of guys in show business–Woody Allen and Mel Brooks come to mind — Mamet is funnier when he talks about Jews than Gentiles. Consider such passages as this (Mamet has a bee in his bonnet about the fact that Jews, for reasons surely not far to seek, tend to favor gun control):

“[T]his absurd notion of the effectiveness of surrender is most often in the mouths of Jews… a hailing sign of membership in the group of right-thinking urban liberals.

“How odd that these same middle-aged, intellectual Jews, who asked their parents of the Shoah, ‘Why didn’t they fight back?’ have adopted, in their maturity, that same passivity….

“I have never heard this ‘keeping a gun is more likely [to injure its owner than an intruder]’ statistic from anyone but a Jew…. The authority, here, of the statistic and the authority of the burglar are one: They are that which one is powerless to oppose…. the Irresistible Other, the liberal, Jewish voice of The New York Times, of National Public Radio, … which seeks the illusory solidarity of identification with the illusory, inert, supposedly moral, wider world–which is to say (in their view) the non-Jewish world.”

Whew! I don’t think the guy will be getting any more Pulies. Attacking the Times–and NPR! It’s like that scene in Dr Strangelove where Bat Guano warns Lionel Mandrake, “Fella, you’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”

But mad as he is at the Times, and NPR, Mamet is mostly mad at the Jews. All around him, his landsmen, being intelligent people, are marrying the girls and guys they like, without regard to race or religion. And more and more often, they are declining to buy literal or figurative Israel bonds. They are coming to be Jews in much the same way their neighbors are Unitarians or yogis or yachtsmen. That is to say, their Jewishness belongs to the personal sphere. It is not a sign of radical demarcation from the world around them. They have for the most part no interest in being Hebrew-speaking Amish. And this drives Mamet crazy.

The Jews Mamet depicts in his book are downright anti-Semites, full of self-hate and slavishly eager to please Gentiles. But unless Mamet knows a very different class of Jews from those I know, this is sheer fantasy. Why is Mamet indulging in it?

If David Mamet were an institution, it would be easier to understand. Shtetl institutions wouldn’t exist without the shtetl, and so those institutions, and the people who staff them, have an interest in keeping the shtetl walls high and strong.

This effect is particularly noticeable when it comes to the Israel lobby, where in recent years a strange reversal of purpose has taken place. There was a time when the Israel lobby existed for the sake of Israel, but it wouldn’t be altogether wrong to say that now, Israel exists for the sake of the lobby.

The lobby has become uniquely powerful and successful. It has catapulted its leading figures into the role of kingmakers — and king-breakers–in American politics. But then, increase of appetite will grow by what it feeds on, as another well-known playwright once observed. It is in the nature of such power to be a wasting asset; new victories must be continually won–and therefore, new battles continually sought.

This is one of the reasons why the lobby has come to be identified with the most chauvinist and maximalist elements in the Israeli political spectrum: the lobby must keep making ever more, and more extravagant, demands, in order to keep its own wheels turning. Moderate goals offer little scope for further self-aggrandizement, but totally insane goals–hey, if you can sell those, then you’re a force to be reckoned with.

As the sociologist Chaim Waxman has noted, “Many … organizations now need Israel to legitimate their existence. Although these organizations may have been established for the purpose of enhancing and strengthening Israel, today Israel is vital for their continued viability.”

The same holds for the Bloody Shirt of anti-Semitism; Jonathan Woocher of the Jewish Education Service of North America writes, “We have seen the emergence of a whole new industry in America … monitoring and purporting to fight anti-Semitism …. It is (sadly) not uncommon to see organizations jockeying for position to determine who among them is ‘toughest’ in fighting anti-Semitism.” Even Thomas Friedman observed, “It’s as if these organizations can only thrive if they have an enemy, someone to fight.” (All these references come from John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s indispensable book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.)

So if our friend David Mamet were the executive director of the American Jewish Committee–a position roughly comparable to Mayor of what’s left of the American shtetl–his anxiety would be understandable. But he’s not. He’s a guy in show business. Whence this chip on his shoulder?

Of course Mamet has done very well in life by mining a certain vein of interesting and vivid material, dating from times and places when landsman-hood mattered a lot. But surely that’s not his worry. He can’t possibly imagine this vanished, or at any rate fast-vanishing, world of hermetic tribes and clans has lost its power to fascinate. Just look at how people followed The Sopranos.

No, let’s give Mamet his due. He’s not worried about his livelihood. It’s hard to convey the carpet-chewing emotional intensity of this strange little book, but Mamet seems really committed, on a deep personal level, to his topic. It’s not, as they say in The Godfather, “just business.”

Are we seeing here an instance of the deep, perverse love that Americans have for a grievance? Do other cultures feel so strongly as we do that if you’re not owed an apology–by somebody or other– you hardly exist? Perhaps Mamet is not being ultra-Jewish but ultra-American, indulging in our canting, whiny way of shoving to the head of the line: me first, I’ve been more badly treated.

Or maybe it’s a harmonic convergence of some craziness of Mamet’s own, untraceable outside of the psychoanalytic sanctum, and the institutional needs mentioned earlier. Institutions don’t necessarily make people crazy, but they’re very good at finding the people whose craziness suits their purposes–and providing a bully pulpit for points of view that, if aired without institutional sanction — at a cocktail party, say — would send any hearers quickly off to circulate.

But strange as Mamet’s views are, and stranger still the wild-eyed rhetoric he couches them in — the strangest thing about this book is a dog that doesn’t bark. Mamet is conducting this supposedly en-famille conversation with his landsmen in public, and at the top of his voice. He’s saying very mean things about us dangerous goyim –in our hearing! To our very face! How are we expected to react?

Now Gentiles aren’t a group–just a pseudo-category encoding a negation. We’re the set of humans who are not elements of the set of Jews. There’s no Gentile history to celebrate, no Gentile food to cook, no Gentile pride to bristle, no Gentile lobby to swing into action. But even so, as individuals, we Gentiles all fall under the shadow of Mamet’s condemnation. We’re all supposed to be potential Cossacks. We’re all individually insulted by Mamet’s fundamental axiom. And if you prick me, do I not bleed?

If someone wrote an essay claiming, say, that Asians were worse drivers than the other peoples of the earth, wouldn’t he expect to get some flak about it–even though “Asian” is the same kind of empty category as “Gentile”? And yet Mamet apparently does not expect us goyim–us hate-filled pogromists-in-waiting–to get riled at his disobliging expressions. If he were as scared of us as he claims, wouldn’t he be a little less blithe about twisting our collective tail?

On the contrary: he clearly expects that we will butt out. Mamet’s is a book which is in some way about us, at least by implication; but even though the conversation he wants to start is conducted in our hearing, we’re expected to act like furniture.

Surely one must conclude that this is all… theater. Mamet is striking an attitude, chewing the scenery, shivering in fear of a specter who is, really, just a stage effect–some phosphorescent paint, a bit of cheesecloth, a blacklight to give the whole flimsy construct a creepy, uncanny glow. In fact Mamet no more expects us to talk back–or saddle up — than Hamlet expects Yorick’s skull to start cracking jokes.

Does Mamet have a real purpose? Does he truly want his readers to go to their homes–or their supposed homeland — after the show, looking fearfully over their shoulders? Or does he only want to excite them, give them a frisson, make them feel they’ve experienced something unique and special, let them revel in the victim’s role without any of the actual disagreeable consequences — and then collect his meed of applause?

There’s something in the frenetic hamminess of the performance that suggests we’re on the right track with this analysis. But that raises the further question: Who enjoys reading this stuff? Who’s buying tickets to the show?

Presumably the audience is not those Hellenized Jews, with their Gentile spouses, whom Mamet excoriates. Or no, maybe that’s too simple. People are complex creatures. A little trip through Mamet’s mind might be a bit like a walk on the wild side. You wouldn’t want to live there–it’s like Israel, that way — but it is sort of exciting to visit, once in a while.

And then, too, even if you’re pretty Hellenized, you may feel a little funny, a little ambivalent about it. Is this the way you really want to go? Don’t you lose as well as gain? Those guys in Fiddler On The Roof seem to have a life that’s so rich, so charged with meaning. Seems a shame to give up all that.

Personally, Gentile though I am, I feel sympathetic to this ambivalence. It’s too bad that the best word we have for this feeling is “nostalgia.” The feeling deserves to be taken more seriously and given a more respectful name. It’s not just a matter of wishing that cars still had tailfins.

If you consider the past to be a package deal, as we reasonably must, then you will probably agree that we wouldn’t want to go back there, even if we could. Bach and Couperin are wonderful, and it’s a damn shame nobody’s writing music like that nowadays, but we wouldn’t want to be ruled by the Hohenzollerns and the Bourbons. [Speak for yourself, Smith! Back to Franz-Josef, I say! AC]

This is the decision that Mamet’s detested Hellenized Jews, reasonably, have made. Tevye may be sympathetic, and likable, but few people nowadays want to live as he did–and truth to tell, few would want to see all that much of him, either, if he were still around.

If Mamet’s audience still want to keep a foot, or a toe, in Tevye’s old world, I’m the last person to blame them. But increasingly, they’re doing so without a bogus, anachronistic Mametian sense of persecution and embattlement.

Mamet, for whatever quirky personal reason, needs his fury; it keeps him warm, or something. And the mighty noise machine of what has come to be called “the Israel lobby” gives him a context for views that might otherwise seem little short of lunacy. But when Caliban looks in the mirror of his fellow-congregants at his shul, he increasingly sees a face that looks nothing like his own snarling countenance.

And he rages.

MICHAEL J. SMITH lives in New York and wages Quixotic war against the Democratic Party on his blog, stopmebeforeivoteagain.org.