Richard Dreyfuss

to Susannah Black

June 19, 2015

I haven’t dropped off the planet, I’m just overwhelmed with work. At a break in the work I’ll address your thoughts, but keep in mind the burning house, and how to best corral the minds of all in a crisis of the public sphere we no longer even think about. There will be no one to test our intellects against if this still unrecognized monster actually is the heir to our way of thought.

More later—tho I will say your thoughts about the pursuit of happiness have altered my reflexive loathing of Jefferson. As secular as I may be, I have always felt the pull of the reality of spiritual questioning and the difficulty of finding answers, though I have enjoyed the wrestling match. I will tell you of my encounters with angels, with no embarrassment, some of which brought me to this endeavor…


Richard Dreyfuss

to Susannah Black

June 20, 2015


How about this: we should find a journal, a monthly or something, reflective of Christian thought in American life; we should together be seeking a platform for an urgently needed focused discussion—between a fiercely intelligent person of faith and a person who has a deeply vested interest in saving the structure of the American secular system. We need to take this on the road, and make it standing room only, pointing attention at this tepid community we’ve become, and the muscular spiritually invested people we have been.

We have become so divided that just our dialogue would be a rarity—we come from differing starting points, but hopefully share a fear of a future where our system is weakened to the point of puffed up flab with no rigorous training in who we are, and in what our nation means in and to the world; and Susannah, make no mistake, America means something profound in this world. Not the present nation so confused and anxious and wounded by an assault on our senses by the noise of new technology and old greed, but the older idea of government controlled by the people themselves, who created the first nation that detailed its protection of faith, of merit in the individual…

Tell me that I don’t have to persuade you to something I deeply feel you already know, that we are in fact man’s last best hope, and that if we don’t take care, we will kick religious freedom and all the other freedoms into the void of history’s failures, be compelled to endure the limiting of our minds, the hate-filled worship of a God we are terrified into following and make up the legions of the forcibly converted… Tell me that you understand that we have to think our way through this and we’ve tied our children’s hands, our politicians’ wisdom, to a point of apathy and dull observation of the theft of our savings, our security, our mobility of mind… And tell me you don’t hear in what I’m saying a childish ‘anti-religion’ stance. You’ve got to feel the horror I feel at the emptiness of our preparation of our kids. We treat them already as if we hate them, as if they’re the enemy; why else have we abandoned them?

Why have the churches and synagogues become so safe as to become transparent?

Where are our values being taught, or have we decided that we shouldn’t teach shared values, so all the different groups who come here find no ties that bind them to the nation they hurried to?

I’ve tried to respond to your letter piece by piece.

You wrote:

It’s not so much, for me, about “getting back to the founders’ vision.” First of all, I think that to project a completely unified vision on them is massively oversimplifying, because they disagreed with each other on a lot. Second of all, on what they agreed on, I don’t necessarily agree with them.

—Nor I, though most in the current political arena don’t make such distinctions, at least not when and where such a distinction might be enlightening

I believe that [politics] probably has a role in everyone’s life: that “public life” is something that everyone should do, in some way…

—As you’ve convinced me, a wholly complete man lives out a public connection and obligation.

I think that voting is probably neither necessary nor sufficient for good civic engagement.

—Currently it is a hollow and misleading act, pretending to a participation that doesn’t actually carry any weight.

I think that we are probably all called to be “civic” in some way, but that it’s not true that republican democracy is the only way that should look, across all times and places. Although it’s what we’ve got, and that’s completely fine.

—Yes, it’s what we’ve got, and it’s a far more mature reflection of man than any other system so far used or dreamed of; it deals with man as he truly is, with greed and generosity mixed in with laziness and an astonishing strength of grit.

Can you name any other system that begins with a public who is realistically human, and not elevated or degraded beyond recognition?

I am a city girl, as you know, and I don’t share the anti-political feeling of these folks.

—And we’ve got 330 million people, and we’re not going to turn back to the village.

The Enlightenment minimum that the Founders wanted to operate on implies a whole lot of questions that you can’t take seriously without getting sucked right back in to all this “mystical” or “metaphysical” stuff. For example, what does it mean to say that all men are created equal? Why do you think that’s true, where does that equality come from, and in what does it consist? What does it mean to say that a law is just? Is there a standard you’re measuring this law against, and where did that standard come from? When you say that something is “morally unacceptable,” what do you mean specifically, and where does that come from? If someone says, OK, you like societies where people aren’t shot on the beach for practicing their faith or forced to marry against their will, but I like sharia… what would you say? Is it a matter of taste? If not, what is it? I’m asking you, Richard, for real—if you’d like, I’d love to hear what you think about these specific questions, as well as any other thoughts about all my mystical weirdness above.

—These are the questions that separate our system from all the others: that we’re able to ask them freely, I mean. And I wonder if in putting these questions to me you began to feel the uniqueness of actually asking and expecting answers openly that men were killed for asking.

And I have every intention entering this particular dialogue, but not now, Suze. (And it’s not mystical weirdness to me and never has been; it is a fundamental need in humanity to feel the presence of something that cannot be reduced to debate, or even conclusions.)

We’ve both known we’re going to test ourselves in a far-ranging and most likely life-long debate about the nature of these awesomely interesting questions. But I need you to understand why what I am asking for takes a priority, not in import but in the practical questions that must come first, not replacing yours but giving them shelter and strength.


Richard Dreyfuss

to Susannah Black

June 25, 2015

I just read your Raymond Chandler piece, and had a thought: check out the 1632 series by Eric Flint. It’s a great fantasy of a small West Virginia mining town suddenly thrust into the Germanies of the 1600’s. Your urban experience and Chandler’s man of honor meet in a thousand ways…It may not be to your taste but let it surprise you…




Susannah Black

to Richard Dreyfuss

June 27, 2015

My dear:

I haven’t dropped off the planet either! It’s been a crazy few weeks—I’ve been working nonstop to put together the graduation issue of the school newspaper. But graduation was yesterday—the kids who were graduating this year were the ones who were freshmen the year I started working with this school, which is amazing.

Just ordered 1632—thanks for the prompt! And I pulled the Mark Steyn off my shelf & have started it, and it’s pretty sobering…it’s been easy for me to be somewhat un-engaged with the “threat of radical Islam” debate, for a couple of reasons. First, it seems so distant, compared with, for example, abortion, which seems to me to be an in-my-face wrong: something that so many people I know and love so much have chosen or considered, something that just shreds my heart and my city—41% of babies conceived in New York, every year! Compared with that, radical Islam seems pretty tame, and also simple—it’s not good, but it’s distant and it’s not a belief system that people I love are attracted to.

And also, I’ve felt like… I’m sure you’ve run into this… in our shared social world, it’s so hard to be “non-standard,” i.e., “conservative,” about anything at all that I’ve just felt like thinking about Islamism, being worried about it, talking with people about it, is not a battle I want to be fighting—I only have so much street cred to lose with people I care about, and I’m already running on fumes, thanks to my (I’m sure) annoying Christianity and anti-abortion stuff.

But maybe I should be more aware, more worried…

It’s restful, somehow, to write to you about this, because it feels like we’re both (in our various ways) in the uncool-kids club with some of our beliefs, and so I can count on you being fine with my conservatism, since I’m fine with yours! Maybe we should just, like, rent a cabin in the woods and sit on the porch with shotguns being crotchety together.

What I’m trying to figure out now, as I type, is what our two positions have in common. They do share more than a word, a label—it’s not just that we might both be called “conservatives,” according to modern American ways of speaking. (Although we might both on other days be just as easily be called liberals—my preoccupation with conservation, my suspicion of aspects of capitalism, would peg me as a lefty, and your passion for free speech, freedom in general, would peg you as a liberal, and liberal and left are semi-synonyms… aren’t they? Honestly, labels seem completely muddleheaded, sometimes.)

So forget the labels, maybe. What do we share here?

Quite a huge amount, I think. You talk about us sharing a “fear of a future where our system is weakened to the point of puffed up flab with no rigorous training in who we are, and what our nation means in and to the world…” but I think we share more than that—the reason you care about our nation is that you’ve seen in the ideas of the Founders a commitment to something that is genuinely, trans-culturally good. You’re responding to the truth of the idea that man-made laws ought to be more than the arbitrary pronouncements of people in political power—i.e., George III or the Congress or the Supreme Court—but should reflect what is really right. That’s what I mean by natural law—it’s nothing mysterious, it’s just what you already believe, that (think about Richard Harris in Camelot!) might does not make right, but that might should be for right. And that it is coherent to say that some laws are not just, not reflective of real good, true justice.

And this is true even if those laws are made by a democratically-elected legislature, even if they’re interpreted by judges who have been duly appointed by democratically-elected leaders. It’s not that democracy is not the best system of governance—it may be, it may not. It’s that democracy doesn’t guarantee the justice of the laws made, even made through proper procedures, in that democracy. Cue Hitler reference here, obviously.

So—you might say here—that’s why the American system is unique—because it’s not a purely democratic system, but is a democratic republic, with constitutional protections of the rights of minorities against the potential tyranny of the majority. And yes, that’s true—but there are a couple of things to notice here. First is the distinction between these two ideas—between what you’ve called “the idea of government controlled by the people themselves,” and a government “that detailed its protection of faith, of merit in the individual.” A government that values the individual human person, a state that makes laws that accurately reflect the nature and, frankly, sanctity of the human person, is not necessarily one that is democratically elected, and one that is democratically elected is not necessarily one that values the sanctity of the human person.

The thing is, we simply can’t get away from first principles—from finding out and caring about what is actually good, what human beings actually are, what we actually owe each other, where justice really lives. We can’t put these questions on hold till after we get our society together, until after we teach civics again, until after we defeat radical Islam—because they’re the questions that the content of civics rests on.

Why is it good to be able to live in a place where you and I can have these conversations? Because we’re the kinds of creatures that can give reasons, and can understand reasons, and can make covenants with each other, and can exercise self-control. Because the universe is founded on reason—it’s not arbitrary or chaotic or simply the result of blind forces; there’s a logic behind it, an intelligence. Because knowing and living in harmony with that intelligence, that Reason, is what we are meant for. And so a society that values debate and discussion is a society that knows something about the kind of creatures humans are, and about their proper end. That doesn’t mean that debate is an end in itself, or that you can’t take an incorrect position in a debate. It is possible to be wrong in a debate, to be mistaken. We are called to understand what the truth of these big questions is, and precisely because of that, we ought to live in a society where we can give and receive reasons, and not just be told in a bludgeoning way what we are to think.

I think the fact that you know this stuff, Richard, is why you love America—I think that what you mean by loving America is loving this kind of society. I think that what you mean by loving this kind of society is loving the Reason in whose image we’re made, we creatures who give and receive reasons for what we do, for what we choose.

I think—I hope—that the part of you that is horrified by the idea of forced conversion in Islam is the part that responds to the idea of freely chosen commitment to a God who is Truth, and who is Love. That’s what I think; that’s at least what I hope, for you. I know that there’s no childish anti-religion stance in what you’re saying—of course I know that. But I also know that it’s not America itself that’s man’s last best hope. What America is, at its very best, is a very, very decent system of government that in many ways accurately reflects many truths about humans. It has been, and can be, one of the governments that uses might for right, and knows that might does not make right. All I’m saying is that defending the American system, even at its best, can’t distract us from the questions behind the good of that system.

Did you ever read T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which Camelot was based on? I know Dad read me The Sword in the Stone—but I think we might’ve gotten bogged down in the second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness. I know I never read the third book—The Ill-Made Knight—which is where this quote comes from:  

There was a time when each of us stood naked before the world, confronting life as a serious problem with which we were intimately and passionately concerned. There was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. Obviously the existence or otherwise of a future life must be of the very first importance to somebody who is going to live her present one, because her manner of living it must hinge on the problem.

That’s all I’m saying.

Man, I love this conversation. Yes, we should take this circus public. Once we figure out all the questions of political philosophy and theology and civics, of course. Which I’m sure we’ll do any day now. (Or maybe we’ll have to just hope to find an editor interested in a conversation-in-progress… 😉 But seriously—I really do think it’s a good idea. I can do a bit of editing and send it out—but don’t let that stop you from responding to this; I want to know what you think!

Meanwhile…Emily just emailed me about her and Seth’s big news!! Congratulations, Grandpa! I know she’s going to be around here in late July, right? I think we should petition her to come upstate and we can all go to Tanglewood. For that, I’d actually manage to get myself out of NYC.



P.S. Dad just told me about you as Madoff! That’ll be a firecracker of a miniseries… awesome!


Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. Her work has been published in First Things, The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, and elsewhere; she is a founding editor of Solidarity Hall.  She blogs at and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.

Richard Dreyfuss was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1947 and began his acting career at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center when he was eight years old. He began doing features in roles of size in the early 1970s in films such as American Graffiti, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Jaws. He won the Oscar in 1978 for his performance in The Goodbye Girl. He has been acting in American theatre, television and film for over 45 years. In his personal life, Dreyfuss has undertaken a nation-wide enterprise to encourage, revive, and enhance the teaching of civics in American schools. He has become a spokesperson on the issue of media informing policy, legislation, and public opinion, speaking and writing to promote privacy rights, freedom of speech, democracy, and individual accountability.


image: Corrupt Legislation, Elihu Vedder, 1895. Library of Congress/Jefferson Building