Ursula Le Guin and the Persistence of Tragedy: We ought to read The Dispossessed to appreciate complexity—and the imperfection of our theories in the face of life’s messy reality. (brian a. smith, 3/13/20, Law & Liberty)

The Dispossessed provides us no resolutions. For most of the story, Shevek is a man trying to find his way home, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. That along with the way Le Guin refuses to let the reader see either of her settings with rose-colored glasses suggests one of the novel’s great values today. Reading the book can help readers clarify what their deepest aspirations and longings will really cost.

Those on the Left should ask how much they’re willing to give up in pursuit of equality. Modern socialists often try to harmonize their opposing desires: they think we can have the tremendous wealth of a modern economy alongside deep equality; they want radical, autonomous choice and also the opportunity to enjoy familial and communal solidarity; they want political and religious conformity without a diminution of cultural and artistic ingenuity; and they desire ongoing technological innovation without the dramatic inequality that entrepreneurs and inventors so naturally generate.

Far from being a platform for family to succeed, socialist intervention may well require the ongoing shredding of those bonds for the simple reason that families undermine the broader solidarity real socialism requires.

Socialists—especially Christian ones—now praise immigration as a great moral imperative. What does it suggest that all of the world’s most successful solidarity-driven socialist experiments are small-scale monocultures? Isn’t it telling that Le Guin’s relatively successful socialist scheme on Anarres is a hermetically-sealed unit speaking a common language and sharing a single, tightly-unified culture?

Traditionally-minded conservatives naturally look to old modes and orders for inspiration. This certainly doesn’t mean that they’re averse to creating new ones, but taking Le Guin seriously might force them to ponder some little-considered questions. What does reestablishing moral order really mean, particularly in the context of a national economy? There’s the obvious (banning porn) but what about the not-so-obvious elements of this, like the moral status of the goods and services we buy and sell?

If the new conservative goal is limited to a worker-friendly industrial policy, that’s one thing, but conservatives ought to keep an eye on where the aspiration to live with the right sort of virtuous economy can lead. The barely-concealed aristocratic longings enjoyed among some traditionalists risk making them into the caricatures of conservatism that Corey Robin imagines who simply long to “keep the lower orders down.” It is good to be clear about what we really mean when we ask for a new economy. Just as a growth oriented economy leads us down disruptive paths, we shouldn’t forget that a stable, virtuous pattern for economic activity might necessitate a return to older patters of life.

Insulating us from Utopian thought is one of Western Messianism’s greatest gifts.


Chasing Lions: Don Quixote in Pursuit of the Beautiful (Jacob Terneus, January 15th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

Chivalry and tales of it, therefore, dispose man to virtue, drawing him into closer union with the people and things which he loves, the things which “delight and amaze” him. To the extent that a chivalric knight becomes more like a beautiful thing and begins to understand it for what it really is, he cannot help treating it well and virtuously, as a part of himself which is good and noble. […]

Focused on truly good things, he is not easily distracted by trivial matters, even if the world considers them important. In a manner reminiscent of the instructions given to those other travelers—“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts”[6]—Don Quixote laughably neglects to bring money on his first foray, trusting that chivalry and good-will would be sufficient (DQ, 37). Again, despite suffering numerous bludgeoning, he never seems to give them too much weight, accepting them as necessary nuisances on his journey of chivalry. Even his squire Sancho eventually learns from him to take a phlegmatic attitude to such beatings and inconveniences. We see this attitude explicitly when Don Quixote hears the crimes of the prisoners he encounters; he considers it “excessively harsh to make slaves of those whom God and nature made free,” and tells their guards to let them go and “let each answer for his sins in the other world” (DQ, 183). Their crimes are, to him, secondary to their worth as human beings, so he disregards the sins and frees the men. So also, when lying on his deathbed, he realizes that chivalry itself, is not the most beautiful thing he can achieve, so he pushes it aside for an even greater end, to be “Alonso Quixano the Good.” He does not cease to desire beauty, but simply concentrates on dying a holy death.[7] Here, too, he is not distracted by lesser things, but strives always after the most beautiful object he can see in the moment.

Instructively, the first novel is the first where the text escaped the control of the author, a critique of chivalry becoming a celebration and the Don the hero, the rest fools.


Why Harry Potter Is a Tory (BEN JUDAH, 1/05/18, American Interest)

[W]hen British readers pick up Harry Potter they instantly recognize it as that most Tory of genres. A piece of public school—and in Britain this of course means not only private but elite education—school days fiction, just with wizards on flying brooms.

Whereas in most postwar British public school fiction, such as the 1968 schoolboy insurrection movie If, the school was the enemy, administering senseless punishments and ridiculous demands, from the Philosopher’s Stone to the end, the real hero in Harry Potter is the school. The enemy, those who wish the institution harm.

But there is something deeply deferential—and utterly Tory—in how Harry takes on Hogwarts. The headmaster is practically the boy’s best friend, and he advances by doing exactly as he is told by the wise old Dumbledore. The order the school represents is nothing malevolent in the Potterverse—an enchanted Tom Brown’s School Days. There are no tie-loosening, headmaster-hating rebels for us to identify with at Hogwarts for J.K. Rowling. Only Dumbledore’s boys.

Right to the end—and this is one of the rare moments of dissatisfaction I can usually detect amongst Potterheads—Harry does the Establishment Thing and not marry Cho Chang, but Ginny Weasley, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic, but financially threadbare, noble line.

But is that enough to find Harry Potter inherently Tory?

Not until we enter the Ministry of Magic.

To me, perhaps the most blatantly Tory strain running through the Potterverse is the portrayal of Wizarding Whitehall. Nothing good can ever come of the Ministry of Magic, whose bureaucrats are badgering nincompoops with names like Cornelius Fudge and Pius Thicknesse, men who talk down to the befuddled Muggle Prime Minister, informing him how things are really run through a portrait and a fireplace in Number 10 Downing Street, like a voice of a Regency Palace emissary.

Not only are bureaucrats goofy and gluttonous, but every intervention by the Department of Mysteries and the Department for Magical Accidents and Catastrophes makes things worse. Problems, in Harry Potter’s world, can only be solved by the Wizards themselves—by the Tory Big Society of chipper public spirited Wizards. All that can be hoped for, even under Minister For Magic Hermione in J.K Rowling’s latest 2016 theatre spinoff Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is for government to be less corrupt. Magic will never come to the masses.

There is something terribly Tory too, in what Potter is fighting for, and the way he goes about it. What does he do with that extraordinary Elder Wand? What does he do with with second chance at life?

There is no magical socialism in the epilogue “Nineteen Years Later” at the end of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. There is no life’s work (and clearly no interest) in bringing the magical and muggle worlds back together for all mankind. All we see at Platform 9¾ is Harry Potter cheerfully sending off his children on the Hogwarts Express to public school. Harry has protected a venerable institution and then has simply pottered off, to live out his days in some secluded wizarding Surrey.

But what about Lord Voldemort? The hole in Harry Potter is that there is no meaningful interrogation of the system that produced Voldemort—the system of segregation and secrecy between muggles and magicians. As long as Harry Potter shows no interest in opening Hogwarts, handing everyone in Britain a wand, and closing down the Ministry of Magic, the system that produced both Voldemort, Grindelwald and the Death Eaters, the political system of which Slytherin is an inherent part, will remain.

Because as long as there are muggles and magicians, as long as there is magical blood, there will be wizards who think they are racially superior to the muggle-born, meritocratically catapulted into Hogwarts, and wizards who dream of slavery. But Potter is perfectly happy sending his son up to Hogwarts, at Platform 9¾, next to a now-pater familias Draco Malfoy.



In The Maltese Falcon, the Flitcraft story is told by Sam to his client and lover Brigid O’Shaughnessy in his Post Street room, the very apartment Dashiell Hammett inhabited while writing the book. The story he tells her is in fact about as much as we learn of Sam’s earlier life, apart from an unwise past affair with his partner’s wife. Hired by Mrs. Flitcraft to find her vanished husband, Spade locates him in Spokane in 1927, when Flitcraft is eager to explain what happened five years before:

“Going to lunch he passed an office building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek….He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

The life he had known before going to lunch was “a clean orderly sane responsible affair” in which good people were rewarded with beautiful families and gulf club memberships. Now a falling beam had shown him that even good men lived “only while blind chance spared them.” A change came over him, Spade tells Brigid, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

The close call spurs Flitcraft to quickly reorder his life to the new reality. He leaves his family and job in one city and ends up in another, where Spade tracks him down and finds he has outwardly recreated his old existence, with a new job, name, and family. But that is not how it feels to Flitcraft, who is unrepentant about the adjustments he felt compelled to make. He only worries that Spade won’t understand him. “I got it all right,” Spade says to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was.”

It was.


Civility: Reading Each Other (Sarah Skwire, January 23rd, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

In 1921 Booth Tarkington published his Pulitzer Prize-winning and now much-neglected novel, Alice Adams, which contains the most horrifying description of a dinner party since Grendel slaughtered and ate Beowulf ’s men in the mead hall. Alice Adams is just about to age out of the marriage market in her Indiana town. Her social class is marginal. She stayed at home while other local girls of “good” families went away to school, and she became something of the town belle, but did not manage to “secure a husband.” She has now attracted the attentions of Arthur Russell, a wealthy and handsome out-of-towner. Throughout the summer, Arthur and Alice have spent the evenings talking in the romantic twilight of Alice’s front porch. But now the relationship has come to the tipping point and Arthur must be invited in to dinner.

We’ve all done it, right? Dinner for the boss? For the prospective in-laws? For the man or woman we want to impress? We all know how it feels—that fear that what we have and what we are isn’t good enough. And we all begin to die a little inside when things go wrong for Alice. There’s the heavy, pretentious meal that her mother decides to serve: from canned caviar sandwiches and hot soup to larded beef fillet and Brussels sprouts. There’s the intoxicated waitress hired to make it appear that Alice and her mother don’t engage in housework. There’s Alice’s bewildered father, who can’t understand why they have to pretend to be fancy since “If they get things settled between ’em he’ll be around the house and to meals most any time, won’t he? . . . Well he’ll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off and bluff, won’t he?” There’s Alice’s mother, whose desperation to charm Alice’s suitor sends him running. And there’s the heat “like an affliction sent upon an accursed people”—that renders the heavy food, the reek of boiled Brussels sprouts, and the endless social pressure even more torturous.

The first time I read Alice Adams I was a teenager, and I thought the dinner scene was heartbreaking. It seemed unfair for Alice to have worked so hard and gotten nothing. And didn’t this Tarkington guy know anything about romance? Everyone knows the pretty girl and the handsome young man are supposed to get together at the end. I suffered for Alice, but I suffered childishly.

The second time I read Alice Adams I was in college. This time, I thought the scene was hilarious. Alice and her mother were such hopeless, desperate social climbers! I felt very sophisticated getting Tarkington’s joke.

Practicing Sympathy

Reading Alice Adams as an adult, I realized how callous I was as a college student and how sentimental I was as a teenager. Today the scene strikes me as a masterpiece of literary balance. It is tragic. I wasn’t wrong at 15. And it is hilarious. I wasn’t wrong at 20. But it took time and life experience for me to realize that Alice’s dinner party could be both of those things at once—and that when it was, it was a better, richer, more realistic piece of fiction than my earlier readings had indicated.

What I was doing with my repeated readings of Alice Adams, though I didn’t know it, was practicing what the eighteenth-century moral philosopher, economist, and rhetorician Adam Smith called “sympathy.” And I was using the humanities to do it.


Taking on the right-on with cold, hard facts: a review of Social Justice Fallacies by Thomas Sowell (Jaspreet Singh Boparai, 2/05/24, The Critic)

These days, “idealism” means never having to say you’re sorry, and Sowell is disgusted by the mechanisms whereby intellectuals are protected from the consequences of their decisions, particularly when their ideas end in failure and cause people to suffer.

Sowell thinks the most dangerous intellectuals are the clever ones who don’t realise they have a faulty grasp of information that could change their ideas. Most of us would agree that decisions ought to be made by those with the most relevant knowledge. The problem is that intellectuals often disagree, not just on what constitutes “relevant knowledge”, but on bigger questions involving what knowledge itself really is.

To a normal person, this all looks like hair-splitting. Yet arguments about the definition of knowledge can have life-and-death consequences. Intellectuals have the job of trying to settle these questions for everyone ’s benefit. Alas, too many of them forget about benefiting others. Many develop a taste for using other people as lab rats. Sowell reminds us:

Intellectual élites crusading for their intellectual goals have, for centuries, seen children as a special target for their messages. As far back as the eighteenth century, William Godwin said that children — other people’s children — “are a sort of raw material put into our hands”. Their minds “are like a sheet of white paper”.

Sowell has a special contempt for Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton University before he became US president. Wilson epitomises the smugness, self-righteousness and passive-aggressive authoritarianism of those who believe in a dictatorship of professors and seem to regard freedom as conditional on your race and whether you have the right academic qualifications to make decisions for yourself.

Wilson is one of the central figures in the “Progressive Movement” of the early 20th century, who were obsessed with breeding and eugenics; Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) helped shape much of their thinking. Grant deplored “a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life”, especially when it was used “both to prevent the elimination of defective infants and the sterilisation of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community”. Idealism provides no protection against dark ideas, it seems.

MAGA and the Progressives are united by their Darwinism.

Woke books are a flop with readers (Nick Tyrone, Dec. 4th, 2023, Spiked)

An article in the Daily Mail confirms something many of us have seen coming for a long time. It reveals that scores of woke books published by major houses have been flopping. As it turns out, publishers have been throwing money at books that no one actually wants to buy. It shows that the mantra of ‘go woke, go broke’ applies even in the publishing industry.

The shining example of this is Pageboy, the memoir by Elliot (formerly Ellen) Page, an actor famous for ‘coming out’ as transgender. According to the Mail, Pageboy has sold 68,000 hard copies. That might seem like a lot of books, but context is important here. Selling 68,000 copies would have a small indie publisher popping open the champagne. But for a huge house like Macmillan, which published Pageboy earlier this year, these kinds of numbers are embarrassing.

Crucially, Page was given a $3million advance for Pageboy. As a rough estimate, Macmillan would have needed to sell about 500,000 copies to break even. I’m being generous here, and probably vastly underestimating the promotional budget for the book – another huge additional cost. An advance of that amount tells you the publisher thought the book was going to sell millions. Yet all available sources point heavily to the fact it has not.

Publishing is now littered with these kinds of stories.

MAGA is going to need help untwisting their panties.



The White Priory Murders is an “impossible crime” novel by the master of the locked-room mystery, John Dickson Carr, masquerading as Carter Dickson, the name associated with his stories featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. Originally published in 1934, this was Merrivale’s second recorded case, written with youthful verve at a time when the author was still in his twenties.

This is a mystery set in the run-up to Christmas, and the presence of snow on the ground provides the scenario for the paradox at the heart of the book. How could someone be beaten to death in the Queen’s Mirror pavilion, when it is surrounded by snow, and there is just one set of footprints leading to the pavilion, and none leading away? […]

Sir Henry Merrivale, often called “H.M.” or “the old man,” had made his debut in a locked-room-mystery novel published earlier in 1934, The Plague Court Murders. When writing that book, Carr envisaged the official police detective Masters would take centre stage. Merrivale only enters the story half-way through. […]

Sir Henry Merrivale was a baronet and a man of varied accomplishments. A qualified physician, he was also a barrister, as we see to dramatic effect in The Judas Window (1938), widely acknowledged as one of the finest locked-room mysteries ever written. Initially characterized as “a fighting socialist,” he eventually shifts his political affiliations to fall in line with Carr’s conservative worldview. During the First World War he served as head of the British counter-espionage operations (earning the nickname “Mycroft”), and he continued to hold this post in the post-war era. Secret service work plays a part in three of his recorded adventures, The Unicorn Murders (1935), The Punch and Judy Murders (1936), and And So To Murder (1940), but his greatest gift is for detecting ingenious crimes and unravelling the puzzles which arise from what he calls “the blinkin’ awful cussedness of things in general.”

Carr took a great deal of care when constructing his intricate plots, but like most crime writers responsible for a long series, he proved fallible on matters of detail about his protagonist. He admitted in a letter to Smith that: “Errors or contradictions…abound in H.M.’s saga… During the nineteen-thirties, being young and full of beans, I was grinding out four novels a year.” As for bringing Merrivale back to life, he said: “Many readers seem fond of…the old gentleman… I also am fond of him. But that’s just the trouble. For many years certain critics…have been bewailing my ‘schoolboy’ sense of humour. H.M. usually enters the story with a rush and a crash, heels in the air. Once, in an unwise moment, I gave the date of his birth: February 6th, 1871. If he were alive today he would be ninety-six years old. His customary antics at so venerable an age would be as inadvisable for him to perform as for me to chronicle.”

The audio is available at Internet Archives.


The World Spins On: “The Value of Herman Melville” (Daniel Ross Goodman, November 13th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)

The quest to write the Great American Novel has long been the American literary equivalent of the mythical and historical quest for the Holy Grail. Writers ranging from Mark Twain to John Updike to many in between (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Roth, Morrison) have all staked their claim to this elusive prize. Among the perennial roster of contenders for this legendary status, there is a strong case to be made for Moby-Dick. No other novel captures the massive scale of monomaniacal ambition—and the all-too-frequent futility and frustration with which our ambitions ultimately meet—than Melville’s masterpiece about futility and frustration. The hunt for the elusive, uncatchable great White Whale is as American as the pursuit of fame, wealth, and happiness—goals which we will probably never achieve, but which something about our indomitable American idealism never allows us to desist from pursuing. But if the never-ending pursuit of the great white whales of fame, wealth, and happiness is particularly American, so is the multiethnic, multiracial, and multinational nature of the cosmopolitan crew of the Pequod. And so is the camaraderie and close male friendship of Queequeg and Ishmael. And so too is the perennial hopefulness symbolized by Ishmael’s having survived the wreckage of the Pequod and being rescued by the providential arrival of the Rachel. Melville’s great fictional anti-hero Ahab may fail in his pursuit of his Holy Grail, but Melville himself may have ultimately—albeit twenty-five years after his death—succeeded in the pursuit of his: the writing of, if not the Great American novel, at the very least the creation of the King Lear of American literature: our existentially bleak, yet preternaturally hopeful, grand American masterwork. As Dr. Sanborn, regarding the meaning of Moby-Dick, so powerfully puts it, even though “the ongoingness of the world can seem terrifying in its stolidity, its unresponsiveness to human concerns,” Ishmael survives. “The whale swims away. The world—which is, as it turns out, capable of bearing our psychic investments in it—spins on.”