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June 20, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Reviews David Mamet

The condescension on display at the outset of Christopher Hitchens' review of David Mamet's The Secret Knowledge On the Dismantling of American Culture tells you exactly where the review is headed:

This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.

"By one of those people." It is off-putting. Minimizing. An appeal to stereotype and consensus. It is lazy, and it is meant to switch-on prejudice. "Oh, yes, one of those people!" Because, you know, there are all those people out there. It has the ring of insult, of saying "the other." It's reptilian to the degree it attempts to mark territory that leaves Mamet on the outside.

And isn't it the other way around? A person's faith is their reason, their rationale--the thing that explains it all to them, whatever the religion in question may be. Having lost one's faith, wouldn't it be more accurate to say the opposite, that a person has lost their reason?

Although it is a short article, Hitchens repeated use of isolated examples as the basis for general claims, largely insinuated, feels relentless. This appears to be Hitchens' instinctive, go-to form of argument. But he knows better. It is deliberate. People do this when they have nothing else. They resort to the faulty when there is no sound argument to be had.

Perhaps that is why Hitchens finds Mamet's book irritating. It forces him to use a few rhetorical tricks over and over, rather than constructing a persuasive, valid, and sound appraisal of the book. And he knows that. It's frustrating for him. I suspect that these analytical flaws stem from the fact Hitchens knew the conclusion he desired to reach from the outset. This is no more-objective-than-subjective review of a book. It is a collection of territorial grunts shoehorned into the space between premise and conclusion.


He has read — perhaps before Glenn Beck’s promotion of it on the air — Friedrich von Hayek’s classic defense of the market, “The Road to Serfdom.”

(Emphasis mine.) Nasty. Another gratuitous appeal to consensus--in this case, to the prejudices many hold against Beck, someone many regard as a flake. But it is such a slapdash reference, the rhetorical goal is obvious: tar Mamet by mentioning Beck.

Hitchens then refers to Mamet's "propagandistic writing." One might wonder whether there is a point where the self-refuting nature of Hitchens' critique dawns on him. But Hitchens is a brilliant man, so he must have known all along. Again, this is what you do when you have nothing else. Plan "A" would be dealing with the book on its merits. Plan "B" would be to attack the book simply by flinging feces and hoping some of it sticks. One employs Plan "B" when the true rhetorical goal is only to attack, not review.

[B]ut it is more than ignorant to say of Bertrand Russell — author of one of the first reports from Moscow to analyze and excoriate Lenin — that he was a fellow-traveling dupe and tourist of the Jane Fonda style.

Ignorant? Is this the same Bertrand Russell who was part of the anit-war, anti-nuclear protest crowd? The one who promoted unilateral disarmament? Jane Fonda style indeed. But this is Plan "B," so it doesn't have to hold together or make sense.

This review is about attitude, not the merits of what Mamet is saying. It spends almost no time at all on Mamet's transformation, the conclusions he has drawn and the reasons therefor. In fact, this review is meant to cut short consideration of such things. One learns very little about the book. It spends time nitpicking with spitballs rather than evaluating the actual thrust of what Mamet is saying. Why? Because that is a much more difficult task. And because the target audience likes this kind of spitball.

Hitchens wants you to know that Mamet is not part of the in-crowd. Remember, he is speaking to New York Times readers. These people want to be stroked. Think of Frank Rich's former column, Your Weekly Ten Minutes' Hate: We're smart; they're dumb. We're experienced; they're naive. We're good; they're evil. We're right; they're wrong. We're with-it; they're hopeless. We're superior. This kind of writing appeals to other self-regarded in-groupers. It is a collection of sentiments and postures designed to signal their membership and the exclusion of Mamet. It is meant to be reassuring to the liberal left elite--to salve the wound of losing Mamet, to make the existential threat he poses go away, and to remove the challenge he posed to their cognitive biases. And when they read Hitchens words, they will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing they are still wearing the white hats.

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posted by rdbrewer at 04:37 PM

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