C.S. Lewis on Dick Cheney

Behind the torturers stand well-dressed men in well-lit offices.

From The Screwtape Letters:

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Say what you will about Lewis’s political and social ideas, or about his theology, but you can’t deny that he was one of the great masters of persuasive English prose, up there with Orwell and Bertrand Russell. It’s strange, but I can’t think of an American since Lincoln I’d put in that class.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

22 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on Dick Cheney”

  1. I wonder how many people would use that quote to brand President Obama, or any politician they dislike?

  2. Quoting C. S. Lewis is playing with a double-edged sword.

    "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals."

    C.S. Lewis on Tyranny “for the Good” of Its Victims

  3. As I recall, in that play the true evil isn't in starting wars or ordering atrocities — it's in turning people away from God and the Christian faith?

  4. Dick Cheney is the breathing incarnation of Uncle Screwtape. All that snarling rage bottled up under the fasade of deep seriousness and well thought out worldly understanding.

  5. "As I recall, in that play the true evil isn’t in starting wars or ordering atrocities — it’s in turning people away from God and the Christian faith?"

    That does pretty much follow from taking religion seriously: In a world where a finite life is followed by an infinite after-life of wildly disproportionate rewards and punishments, life only matters in so far as it effects the nature of your after-life. If Lewis had thought the busy-bodies would make their victims more likely to go to 'heaven', he'd have been all for them.

    IOW, you start out crazy, you end crazy.

  6. Kinsley (though his prose is not classical, I'd put him up there with Russell, essay-wise), Hedrick Hertzberg. Dwight McDonald.

  7. this link is to a CBC radio interview with Col Wilkerson, the former undersecretary to Colin Powell. He blames the former American V.P. for weakened regulations that led to the Gulf disaster.


    Go to Wednesday's show, Part 2 (after very brief intro of other items) you'll get interview.

  8. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive."

    "If your desire to save mankind is serious, you must harden your heart and not reckon the cost."

    The Pursuit of the Ideal

    Isaiah Berlin

    To my mind, John Ruskin is the greatest English prose writer.


  9. By the way, Lewis's That Hideous Strength contains an extended pitch-perfect mockdown of the kind of bullshit political rhetoric that has been characteristic of nationaly Republicans for the last fifteen years — the banality of evil meets message discipline.

  10. Johnny Canuck, I didn't hear the interview, but I do know this, which I haven't heard any American "journalist" mention (go figure).

    In the first weeks of his administration, President Bush established the National Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, which in its report issued in May 2001 recommended in Chapter 3, “Protecting America’s Environment,” the following:

    “The NEPD Group recommends the President issue an Executive Order to rationalize permitting for energy production in an environmentally sound manner by directing federal agencies to expedite permits and other federal actions necessary for energy-related project approvals on a national basis.”

    Subsequently, on May 18, 2001, President Bush issued Executive Order 13212, Actions To Expedite Energy-Related Projects, which in Section 2 required executive departments and agencies to “expedite their review of permits or take other actions as necessary to accelerate the completion of such projects, while maintaining safety, public health, and environmental protections.”

    Expedite, yes (with sex and cocaine as I understand it); safety, public health, and environmental protections, not so much.

  11. At his best, and despite many of his substantive positions, Leon Wieseltier.

    But I'd second Twain and Mencken too. That first-rate persuasive writing ought to be somber rather than humorous is a prejudice, not a valid criterion.

  12. Pacato:

    1. you really should listen to Wilkerson interview;

    2, i believe the expediting required environmental approval within 30 days, so if you couldn't do it that fast had to waive it.

    3. So much of this echoes the Titanic: hubris- we're building the safest ship, so doesn't matter if we scrimp here and there-eg poor quality rivets; and we're unsinkable so OK to take chance of going full speed through iceberg field. the BP plan- with its cut and paste from arctic precedent -complete with walruses- was so sure the technology couldn't fail they obviously saw recovery plan as silly bureaucratic red tape and not worth any serious thought.

  13. As Petrarch wrote in one of his sonnets in the Canzoniere (in a different context; he thought his lover could never die):

    "how easy to deceive one who is sure!"

  14. I would put Michael Herr's "Dispatches" up against anything by Lewis, Orwell, or Russell; ditto Paul Fussell, "The Great War and Modern Memory"; and as wild card, H.S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" — corrosive, sprezzatura genius disguised as throwaway.

  15. C.S. Lewis gave a great speech on the basis of many evil acts in society full text here

    One of the great passages from it is:

    And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif, or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play: something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which "we"-and at the word "we" you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something "we always do." And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man's face-that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face-turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

  16. Veering further off topic, Sebastian's quote reminds me of how much it bugs me that children's stories — including the Narnia books, AFAIK! — constantly depict evil people/beings as ugly and scary. That's not usually how evil rolls. (Although, as I think of it, Cheney does look like a villain.) It sounds like (not having read the books) the Snape character in Harry Potter is a nice example of the converse point, that ugly and scary people might be good.

  17. This is what we should be teaching children in school! I always felt that reading Orwell actually made me smarter, like Mozart. Kinsley too. I'm sorry to say, I've never heard of a lot of the others mentioned.

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