R. R. Reno
The poet Czesław Miłosz defected from Soviet-dominated Poland in 1951. Two years later he published The Captive Mind. He had been a “man of the left,” and accommodated himself to the communist regime in Poland that was imposed by Russian tanks. But over time he became demoralized by the need to practice what he calls “Ketman,” the practice of external conformity to reigning orthodoxies while harboring interior heterodoxies. I read The Captive Mind decades ago. But I took it up again this fall, because Miłosz describes a soft, insidious totalitarianism that is much more relevant to our current situation than the harsh gulags depicted by Solzhenitsyn. The main chapters of the book describe different rationales for complicity, some of which shed light on the feckless Baby Boomers in academia who go along with the Woke Revolution, punishing any who dare to dissent.
John Dortmunder is one of the remarkable creations of American crime fiction. He was born in 1970 in the novel The Hot Rock, written by Donald Westlake and made into a feature film two years later with Robert Redford and George Segal. He showed up again, along with a regular company of fellow thieves, in another thirteen novels and a batch of short stories, too. Westlake is better known for his Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, which are great in their own way. But while Parker is cold, savvy, brutal, and murderous (when he has to be), Dortmunder prefers to avoid conflict, to get in and out of a robbery with no violence, no noise, no scheming against his colleagues. He is quiet, sullen, pessimistic, defeatist. He's scared of police officers. He'd much rather lie and worm his way out of a tight spot, not fight his way. Apart from his crime nights, he lives modestly with a waitress girlfriend (who works at Safeway), wanting only peace and relaxation. Expectations are low. Human beings mistreat him and the gods disfavor him, though he wastes little time complaining.
He has a special knack, however, for plotting a heist, an instinct for how to do it. His compatriots (a driver, the muscle, the safecracker, etc.) know it, and they wait patiently as a target is proposed and Dortmunder goes into a reverie, visualizing the space and time, charting escape, assessing security . . . until he's got it, his eyes open, and the plan is set.
But things never go accordingly. In one story, Dortmunder and a sidekick tunnel into a bank only to break through the wall and find a dozen bank employees inside. They have been put inside by another gang of bank robbers, and they believe that Dortmunder is a cop there to rescue them. Dortmunder bumblingly plays the part until the bank robbers open the steel door and seize him as a hostage/messenger when the real police show up outside. As the robbers consider options—they're obvious amateurs, Dortmunder judges—he begins to shoot down their proposals, and they want to smack him but realize what he says is sensible. (Dortmunder urges them to grab a bus parked down the street, jump aboard with all the hostages, race over to Times Square, open the doors, and order everyone to run, as the robbers join them and act just as terrified, the chaos making it impossible for the cops to single them out.) It doesn't work out that way, for nothing ever does in Dortmunder's escapades. He believes in cosmic irony, and Nature usually reinforces it.
I want my son to read them so that he can see how to behave when the best-laid plans fall apart, when fate seems to have it in for you, when you watch the thing for which you worked so hard collapse forever. Dortmunder never laughs, but we do, as when a bauble worth $300,000 drops into his hand and seems to be a dream come true, until he sees a newspaper headline about the gems (they belong to a volcanic celebrity couple—the girl was angry at the guy and dropped it out their hotel room window, where Dortmunder was lying in wait until he could burgle the place). The last thing he wants is publicity, which will make it ever more difficult to fence the stone. The more famous it is, the less it's worth to him. He'll have to let it go for pennies on the dollar. That's just not fair, Dortmunder thinks. “Why me?” But he doesn't lament too much, he just accepts it, because the universe isn't fair, life's not fair . . .
Francis X. Maier
Since Roger Scruton’s death in January last year, I’ve methodically reread his work. It’s a big job. He had an astonishing range of interests: from beauty and sexual desire, to politics, architecture, music, art, literature, the environment, God, and religion. His importance as a conservative thinker can be gleaned from the thinly veiled jealousy and resentment in obituaries published on the left. Philosophers on the right, according to the march of history, are supposed to be retro and clunky. Scruton didn’t play the role. He committed the blasphemy of being smarter, more engaging—and also funnier, in his dry English way—than his critics. My currently favorite text (it changes monthly) is The Uses of Pessimism, a dismantling of the “unscrupulous optimism” at the heart of modern ideologies, seasoned with just the right pinch of humor. But if you read nothing else, do his essays “Regaining My Religion” and “Stealing from Churches,” collected here, and “Man’s Second Disobedience,” included here. Scruton’s command of the language, marvelously vivid and fluid, is part of the pleasure of reading him.
In every class I’ve taken in which the history of political thought was a point of discussion, from my seventh grade American history course through to the Shakespeare seminar I took last fall, the divine right of kings gets a very quick run-through. It is always presented as little more than an arcane and childlike superstition that was swiftly and easily cleared away once Hobbes and Locke wiped the dogmatic crust from their eyes and articulated the contract theory undergirding liberalism. This caricature is unsurprising—for better or worse, we have inherited the project of Hobbes and Locke, and our world is in many ways still theirs. But perhaps that will not be true for much longer.
Reading Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), I was astonished by the skill with which the author defends the divine right of kings. Filmer’s background is extensive: Beyond his rapid-fire citations of English common law, he shows a thorough acquaintance with Plato, Aristotle, the Greek and Roman historians, the Old Testament, and the works of Josephus (although I find his citations of Plato unconvincing, as he ignores texts like The Laws); among his contemporaries, he is in constant dialogue with both Roman Catholic scholars and “members of the Geneva sect.” The real strength of the text is in the first two sections, wherein Filmer articulates an account of sovereignty that situates the sovereign above and prior to the law. In many ways, Filmer anticipates Schmitt.
Where Filmer loses me is with his scriptural citations. His reading of Saul’s coronation fails to account for God’s declaration that he intended his people to live not by the law of kings (1 Samuel 8:7). His exposition of the New Testament ignores key passages that fatally undermine the analogy between the father and the state (Mark 12:17; Luke 14:26). Nevertheless, it is truly unfortunate that the political tradition Filmer represents has been so often taught as a dark footnote in our history, as something akin to the belief in witches. Filmer’s writings pose real problems that I don’t think liberalism has any easy answers for, and simply ignoring those problems does the liberal project no favors.
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