Rediscovering A Neglected Classic

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We
can thank the excellent A Common Reader book catalogue (www.commonreader.com)
for giving Evelyn Waugh's Robbery Under Law its first American
publication in roughly 60 years. Published now by the catalogue's
Akadine Press, it is, like all Waugh's oeuvre, skillfully written.
It is also easily the most political of Waugh's books, for among
other things it is a critique of socialism, an affirmation of the
free market, and shows a preference for monarchy over democracy.

With
regard to the last, Waugh says that elections, "even in countries
of homogenous race, widespread education, and a tradition of public
service are a capricious guide; in Latin America they have always
been farcical. There are, in various parts of the world, various
means of securing election; the candidate may buy votes in the old
English way of ready money down, in the new English way of promises
to pay from the public funds when elected; he may evict opponents
from their cottages or shoot them up with machine-guns in the streets
of Cicero; the Mexicans, for the most part, prefer to leave the
voting papers uncounted and draw from the lists made up at the party
headquarters." Monarchy at least provides for a rational process
of succession.

Robbery
Under Law covers much of the same ground as Graham Greene's
The
Lawless Roads
. Both authors were Catholics who in the late
1930s went to Mexico to observe firsthand the violent anti-Catholic
persecutions there. (Indeed, Catholicism was officially illegal;
Church property was seized; religious orders were forcibly closed;
and practicing priests were subject to execution.)

Greene's
book is memorably atmospheric. Waugh's Robbery Under Law
is a much more straightforward economic, political, social, cultural,
historical, and religious polemic. It is not only very well — and
entertainingly — done, but it casts a light on a country that most
Americans, despite our proximity to Mexico, know virtually nothing
about; and most of what we do "know" is wrong.

I
used Waugh and Greene both for my own discussion of Mexico in Triumph:
The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History
.
And while I'll take Greene for style, I warm to Waugh because we
share many of the same convictions and prejudices. Robbery Under
Law is also highly quotable.

Here's
Waugh on the Mexican character: "Mexican popular heroes are
drawn in another shape — squat, swarthy, passionate, intolerant,
vain men who when cornered shoot their way to freedom and take to
the mountains, who will steal and promise and give lavishly, sell
anything and repudiate the bargain, murder their friends and buy
off their enemies, nurse a grudge and forget a kindness, sometimes
grossly sacrilegious, sometimes heroically pious, Aztec and Castillian
inextricably confounded."

Waugh's
book is subtitled The Mexican Object-Lesson, and its relevance
for some readers will be less historical or literary than it will
be the enduring political lessons Waugh draws from Mexico. One of
these is that Mexican history illustrates the degrading and destructive
effect on a civilization of Leftwing ideas — especially as these
Leftwing ideas manifest themselves as materialist and opposed to
religion. Eighteenth century Mexico, Waugh argues, was a more educated
and civilized country than the early United States. But once it
became independent of Spain (in 1821), political movements of the
Left progressively destroyed Mexico's Catholic civilization. Waugh
concludes: "Altruism does not flourish long without religion.
The rulers of Mexico have almost all started by denying the primary
hypothesis of just government." Indeed, Waugh asserts, Mexico
became "a country where there are no conservatives."

And
this leads Waugh to the pronouncement of a sort of political creed:
"A conservative is not merely an obstructionist…, a brake on
frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do…. Civilization…
is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized
man to keep going at all…. Barbarism is never finally defeated;
given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly,
will commit every conceivable atrocity…. Unremitting effort is needed
to keep men living together at peace…. There is nothing, except
ourselves, to stop our own countries becoming like Mexico. That
is the moral, for us, of her decay."

Robbery
Under Law was written on the eve of the Second World War. But
its metaphorical call to arms — of the necessity of conservatives
enrolled on the side of civilization against the forces of barbarism
within our own societies — resonates beyond even the hecatombs of
World War II.

It
is a book that is very well to have back at hand. Kudos to the Akadine
Press.

February
5, 2002

H.
W. Crocker III is the author of the newly published Triumph:
The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History

(Random House). His
prize-winning novel, The
Old Limey
, will be reissued in paperback this March.

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