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Roger Donway: A Salute

Roger Donway: A Salute

Robert James Bidinotto

5 Mins
|
March 30, 2011

July/August 2005 -- I cannot take the helm of this magazine without first paying tribute to the helmsman who has steered it so far, and so true.

I first encountered the name Roger Donway during the late 1960s, in the pages of The Freeman. His potent articles on political topics jumped out at me—not just for their rare clarity and logical rigor, but because he was one of the few among the magazine’s many authors who was clearly influenced by Ayn Rand . For a young, philosophically isolated, wannabe writer like me, Roger’s articles felt like an encouraging pat on the back—reassurance that someone, somewhere, was already able to do what I only aspired to do.

I would eventually learn that Roger was born and raised near Worcester, Massachusetts; that as a child his character had been indelibly stamped by fictional accounts of American frontiersmen and Sherlock Holmes, and later, by science and science fiction; and that he had been introduced to Rand’s Atlas Shrugged by his older sister in 1962…while working a summer job feeding laboratory rats!

That experience (with the novel, not the rats) inspired Roger to major in philosophy at Brown University, where he met another undergrad named David Kelley. The two learned philosophy together, serving as mutual sounding boards and teachers, and later as co-authors, colleagues, and lifelong friends.

From those early days Roger Donway has tirelessly championed the values and virtues of Western civilization. He worked extensively on The Steelmasters, a projected history focusing on giants of the industry, such as Henry Bessemer. With David Kelley he co-authored a 1983 monograph, Laissez Parler: Freedom in the Electronic Media. Besides writing articles in journals including The Freeman, National Review, On Principle, and The Objectivist Forum, Roger championed local capitalists as a business reporter for the Worcester Telegram.

One of those businessmen was Philadelphia entrepreneur Ed Snider, whose skillful management transformed the ailing Worcester Civic Center into a profitable business. An Objectivist, Snider also co-founded the Ayn Rand Institute. Roger’s glowing feature profile in the Telegram led to a job offer from Snider, and a move to Philadelphia. After attempting to establish an anti-communist magazine, Snider helped Roger land an editorial position at Orbis, a quarterly published by noted scholar Daniel Pipes and his Foreign Policy Research Institute. In time, Roger became managing editor, absorbing the nuances of foreign policy with all the passion and brilliance that had helped him conquer philosophy and history.

In late 1996 Roger and I were hired by David Kelley to join the staff of what was then the Institute for Objectivist Studies. (IOS is now The Atlas Society) We have worked together ever since.

And I have learned so much from him.

As editor of The IOS Journal and later Navigator (the forerunner of The New Individualist), Roger brought not only well-honed editing skills, but knowledge of astonishing breadth and depth, the product of his voracious appetite for the printed word. Roger seems to read everything, and know almost as much. Go online to Google and to The Atlas Society web site, type his name into the “search” boxes, and survey the results.

Roger’s essays, which cover a mind-boggling range of topics, are both erudite and elegant.

You’ll find Roger’s stylish reviews of historical novels about ancient Greece and Carthage, and of classic self-help books; his illuminating discussions of masterworks by great artists such as Verdi, Pope, and Michelangelo; his revealing commentaries about great capitalists such as John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill, Matthew Boulton, and Henry Bessemer—inventors and engineers such as Edward Jenner, Alexander Graham Bell, James Watt, and John Rennie—towering thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, Maurois de Maupertuis, Peter Abelard, and John Adams. There are his lengthy profiles of persecuted businessmen such as Frank Quattrone, and of business persecutors such as Eliot Spitzer.

And then there are Roger’s essays. Elegant, erudite essays on a mind-boggling range of topics: the Enlightenment, postmodernism, epistemology, the philosophical basis for rights and of government, the nature of force and fraud, even the meaning of marriage. There are charming essays on virtue and character, wonderful insights on the emotion of gratitude, ringing defenses of free speech. There are essays on national defense that have provoked some libertarians, and essays on the ethics of heroism that have provoked even some Objectivists.

But that’s the mark of a great writer and thinker: the ability to provoke thought and debate. Roger’s first effort in The IOS Journal was a seminal, systematic three-part series, “Rethinking Foreign Policy.” And who else could have discerned the influence of Derrida in the legal commentaries of ABC News reporters? Or the influence of Rousseau in the post-9/11 rants of Norman Mailer?

How Roger can cut through muddled thinking. David Kelley rightly calls this Donway passage “a Strunk and White paragraph”:

“‘Limited government’ means a government restricted to certain purposes, namely, the defense of individual rights; ‘small government’ means a government that absorbs a small percentage of the gross national product. If a country has been invaded, its government might absorb 50 percent or more of the nation’s product to mount a defense—and yet remain a ‘limited government’ in the relevant sense. Conversely, a government that abandons its military and police missions might spend very little of the national output, but if it spends that little on health, education, and welfare, it is not a ‘limited government.’”

And how he can turn a phrase. From his manuscript The Steelmasters:

“So we will see, first, how ancient metalworkers built furnace holes that turned rock into wrought iron. And we will see how Renaissance ironmasters raised the blast furnaces that loosed a flood of cast-iron over Europe. But we will see, chiefly, how five hundred years of heroes labored with that flood—channeling it, controlling it, transforming it—by reason—until at last they could send it gushing forth as a geyser of girders and rail.”

No surprise that in his rare leisure moments, Roger pens poetry, too.

Roger Donway has held the tillers of this publication’s predecessors firmly in hand for nearly nine years. He not only has brought his formidable intellect to bear on the great issues of our time as a writer; as an editor he has improved immeasurably the quality of what other writers, self included, have sent him. His standards have been exacting, his professional integrity unflinching.

And his wit and charm cheer all who know him.

As readers, you have benefited incalculably from his presence here. And if I have my way, his words will continue to grace these pages for years to come. I cannot hope to match his knowledge; I can only hope to match his spirit—the spirit embodied in another passage from The Steelmasters, about the achievements of the heroes of industry:

“…I hope to tell [readers] what they need to hear: not that such things were done, but that such things can be done: by us, as well as the steelmasters; now, as well as then. From subatomic particles to solar systems, from psychologies to societies, the world can be mastered and our problems solved, wherever and whenever there are men and women who are willing to devote themselves to reason.”

For all his life, Roger Donway has demonstrated that devotion.

Thank you, Roger.