Monday, 26 September 2016

Principled virtue is more to be feared than vice

Faithless Elector
I fell down the internet rabbit hole a few days ago while looking for a quote, and I have only just recovered. I wanted an epigraph for my novel-in-progress, Dark Network, the sequel to Faithless Elector. As is often the case, when I check something I think I know, I had it wrong.

I had thought Winston Churchill once said something along the lines of "God save us from men of principle," when in fact Churchill said:  "God grant that men of principle shall be our principal men." It's a nicely turned phrase, I suppose, but I suspect its validity; and at any rate it means the opposite of I was looking for.

My father, a political science professor, now retired, suggested the perfect epigram for Faithless Elector, from the Tammany Hall boss, George Washington Plunkitt:  "I seen my opportunities, and I took 'em," Plunkitt said during a morbidly fascinating disquisition on "honest graft."
I chose it as the quote for the book because its casual, neutral regard for something despicable and sinister fit with the attitude of the conspirators in the book, who are trying to subvert the 2016 presidential election.

That casual cynicism reminded me of the scene in The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby reveals to Nick that their luncheon guest, Meyer Wolfsheim, was the man who had fixed the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series:
"How did he happen to do that?" [Nick] asked.
"He just saw the opportunity."[Gatsby replied]

In both cases, if either of these men had been pressed regarding their integrity or the rightness of their actions, I think they would have been mystified by the question. It's indeed possible that Wolfsheim might have noted that in the larger scheme his act was a benefit, because it exposed hypocrisy and weakness in a smug, self-satisfied corner of America.  The fact he personally benefited from the arrangement would, of course, be immaterial.

As I began work on Dark Network, I kept coming back to an exchange between Control and Alec Leamus, from le Carre's very fine The Spy Who Came in from the Cold:
“I would say that since the war, our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same. I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's 'policy' is benevolent, can you now?”

Put more directly, the question becomes: how far can we go in the rightful defense of principles without abandoning them along the way?

This quandary becomes the central question for the FBI Agent, Imogen Trager, who is left to pick up the pieces as the Faithless Elector saga continues, and it becomes clear the plot is still going forward. She is upholding principles a great many of us would also seek to champion, truth, justice, fair elections. But the conspirators regard their actions, while regrettable, as necessary.  They are doing the right thing.  And people who believe they are doing the right thing rarely pause to interrogate their motives.

I think I found the perfect inversion of Churchill's "principled men" homily from an unsuspected source, pithier than Control's dismissal of benevolence, the Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith:
“Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.”

Maybe Wolfsheim's defense would be correct, and his actions do have benefit.  Maybe, like Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, private vices have public benefits.  
Fable of the Bees

At any rate, Agent Trager faces an enemy who will kill to defend their principles.  What will she do?


Publishers Weekly says Faithless Elector is a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.

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