“Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.”
― Adam Smith
The epigram from my work-in-progress, Dark Network, the sequel to the thrilling Faithless Elector, seems more apt as the days since the commencement of the 115th Congress and Donald Trump’s inauguration roll unalterably by (it’s only been a week!).
Each morning as I open the document and set to work finishing the novel, Adam Smith’s quote, above, stares back at me. The first clause, “virtue is more to be feared than vice” seems at first perversely counter-intuitive, the kind of cheeky opposition Oscar Wilde might construct to sharpen the witty inversion or tart reveal that completes his aphorism, as in: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”
Adam Smith is after darker matter. Principled men are often the worst sort of demagogues, because they believe they are doing the right thing. Taken in full, Smith’s sentiment seems like a postscript to Socrates’ claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We examine least—if at all—that which we regard as virtuous or legal. As the comedian Chris Rock reminds us: apartheid was legal; the holocaust was legal; slavery was legal. In the end, legality seems to be less a matter of justice than of power.
Dark Network is about power. The umbral conspirators are bent on taking power for themselves at the expense of everything we hold dear. The chilling, dark recognition at the heart of the plot is that the conspirators would say they were seizing power in order to preserve everything we hold dear. They are doing the right thing, they would say. And people who are doing the right thing are rarely troubled by scruples or conscience. Why would they be? The tension for the characters in the novel centers on how far they are prepared to go in defense of their principles before they have abandoned them all.
I was troubled by how close to the wind Faithless Elector unwittingly sailed. (I wrote it years ago and published it March of 2016, long before Trump was even the Republican Party’s candidate.) But Faithless Elector presaged the threat of vote-rigging as a campaign tactic, as well as the manufacturing of news stories. It does not end in the same way as the true election; and I thought, wrongly it turns out, that Dark Network, as the sequel describing in effect an alternate universe would not be so potentially controversial or inadvertently relevant.
I may be all too right about the forces arrayed behind the shadowy conspirators and where the real power lies.
Dark Network is coming soon. Maybe it's already here.