October 2009

Kelsey Osgood

nonfiction

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews by David Mamet

Confession: I am not Jewish.

David Mamet would think this was important for you to know. I am interested in Jewish history and tradition, but while reading The Wicked Son I wondered if I even had a right to do so, given that Mamet specifies his desired audience to be the Jewish apostasy. Where, if anywhere, does a Gentile fit into this equation? Putting the issue of Semitic identity aside for a second (if I may be so bold), readers of this book must first recognize that it is difficult to separate perceptions of David Mamet, the playwright and personality, from his work, even if it is subjectively relegated to Judaism. Mamet is famously vitriolic, “blunt and bracing,” as was written in the New York Times Book Review, and he certainly doesn’t hold back here. In truth, his delivery is often a bit more biting than the ideas behind it.

Mamet writes, “The masochistic and sadistic imagination engages in fantasies wherein the cryptosexual delight of unlimited power is experienced (equally and perhaps interchangeably) as victim and perpetrator. Holocaust films and slave epics are, essentially, these sexual fantasies.”

One’s first thought, as a reader, will likely be: “Oh my God, is he saying I get off on slavery? Therefore I’m a sexual deviant AND a racist?”

Yes, and no. As a famous apostate put forth, there is a kernel of sexuality in everything, but Mamet’s wording makes liking Amistad sound like far worse a crime than it really is.

Much of Mamet’s prose and the references he chooses seem to be designed to bludgeon the reader into first, self-analysis and eventually, submission. You can almost picture him as the crazy uncle who backs you into a corner at family functions until you throw up your hands in defeat. “Okay, Uncle David, I’ll go to shul, just chill out.”

The main issue with the book is Mamet’s exhausting indefatigability when it comes to his arguments, which are at times flawed, and at others, rife with the courageous intellect that is his trademark. He manages to tie Anti-Semitism to topics as wide-ranging as Anti-Stratfordians, de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and O.J. Simpson. He cites The Economist and the works of Philip Roth, but also the film Boys Town and the children’s book The Polar Express. He serves serious and valid indictments to those who may interchangeably be called liberal or searching or showy. “For ‘I am Jewish, but I do not practice’ is as much of a ritual as the Shema. Both are protestations of faith in a superior power -- in the first case, assimilation; in the second case, God.” Here, he beautifully sets forth his argument that worship is worship, and those who think themselves above it are usually just bowing down elsewhere.

There are times, though, when his invocation of taboo subjects seems to be more in service of rendering mute those who would argue against him. The worst example of this is when he asks the reader, “Is it reasonable to ask of the victims of Columbine, ‘What did they and their parents do to bring it about?’” The question is rhetorical, of course, and answered by his command, “Then you may not ask it of Israeli bombing victims, and of their race or nation.” The issue here is that after Columbine, many people did ask questions in that vein, and many, myself included, still see this dialectic as an important part of moving forward.

There’s also something fundamentally off about his mathematics. Mamet clearly states it is simply racist (ergo, bad) to make a statement about the Jewish people as a whole, but he has no problems making sweeping generalizations about the Jewish apostasy or even the entire non-Jewish world as a whole. The book itself blooms forth from the statement that, “The world hates Jews.” Therefore, it’s perfectly fine to boil down a mass of people to a single crude statement sometimes, but in other cases, you dare not, for if you do, you risk being called a racist.

The book, though, has been the springboard for many a discussion since I began it, which in and of itself speaks volumes. It is nothing if not dense and thought-provoking and didactic, and despite my issues with some of the idiosyncrasies of his arguments, I would absolutely recommend it. Now, I could be wrong, but I believe it’s time to atone?

 

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews by David Mamet
Schocken
ISBN: 0805211578
208 Pages

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