“If you want to imagine an audience on your side, History won’t do; you’ve got to look all the way up to God and His angels.”
Bonald, “Die Hard: A Model of the Enemy’s Motivation,” Throne and Altar Blog (March 11, 2016)
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Matthew 27: 46
I was just re-reading Handle’s excellent discussion of Dreher’s Live Not by Lies, which I recommended to you last fall, and once again recommend to those of you who ignored my recommendation. Handle and Dreher both warn that a totalitarian empire is upon us—Handle rather more urgently than Dreher—but their great service is to explain that the totalitarianism of this empire is soft rather than hard.
There is a pretense of liberty under soft totalitarianism, but the state has an official ideology and is by no means neutral in its treatment of loyal and dissenting subjects. It does not send dissenters to the gulag, but it none too gently “nudges” them towards compliance with petty persecution and wall-to-wall propaganda. Dissenters are sent to punitive sensitivity training (which is actually sensibility training), thwarted by “glass ceilings,” hen-pecked by officious “microaggressions,” and routinely humiliated with reminders of their social, intellectual and moral inferiority.
You will notice that the soft totalitarian state uses the methods it claims to combat. Anyone subjected to “sensitivity training” learns that sensitivity trainers are remarkably insensitive to the sensibilities of those they “train.” “Glass ceilings” bar dissenters from top jobs and honors. “Microaggressions” grate the sensibility of dissenters every time they read a self-righteous missive from the party hacks in senior management. There are striking exceptions to the rules against use of denigrating language.
The soft totalitarian state has also solved what I have called the “martyr problem.” It understands that brutal repression makes rebellion romantic. A song will be written about a rebel it hangs on a gibbet, starves in a prison, or immolates on stack of flaming faggots. A dissenter who complains that he is trapped under a glass ceiling sounds, on the other hand, like a whiny loser. No song will ever be written about a man who patiently endures years of hen-pecking by self-righteous office memoranda. As I said in my first post on Handle.
“A solution to the martyr problem is one of the great evolutionary adaptions of soft totalitarianism. A dissident becomes a martyr when his punishment entails what we nowadays call the “bad optics” of apparent brutality. Tank columns, prison camps, helicopter rides, show trials. These instruments of hard totalitarianism crush dissidents, but they also create martyrs, and by creating martyrs they sow the dragon’s teeth that sprout into more dissidents.”
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I daresay we all enjoy playing a martyr. This is to say that we all enjoy suffering mildly unpleasant persecution in the knowledge that it will not end in death or permanent disgrace, but in an extremely gratifying reunion, at an elevated status, with people from our gang. I daresay the actual pain of a flogging is greatly reduced by the anticipated pleasure of showing the welts to sympathetic comrads. I doubt I am alone in being inwardly delighted by a microaggression, so long as I can soon thereafter regale a sympathetic audience with a tale of the outrage and my suffering.
I strongly suspect that I would be much more delighted if my martyrdom was so playful that I could regale a sympathetic audience in an editorial published by the New York Times!
Being a martyr is not nearly so enjoyable as playing a martyr, since a real martyr doesn’t get to go home to the croons and caresses of friends and family. Real martyrs have no love-bombs to look forward to. Faced with this bleak prospect, some real martyr find solace in an imagined vindication by History. I do not wish to deny these real martyrs their solace, but this betrays a very poor grasp of history. The power that can make a martyr can almost make that martyr a villain. The martyrs of the early Church were not typical martyrs because they died for an ascendant institution. Most martyrs suffer for lost causes, and are remembered, if they are remembered, as kooks, cranks, lunatics or fiends.
As my first epigraph from Bonald states, this leaves a real martyr with the consolation that he has a sympathetic audience in heaven, and that God, at least, will one day croon and caress him for. As my second epigraph from Matthew states, the martyred Christ was denied even this consolation. It appears from Matthew’s account that Christ died in a state of absolute pain, absolute social rejection, and absolute spiritual despair. I know that Luke suggests otherwise, but Luke has always seemed a little too Sunday-school to me. And the absolute annihilation of a hopeless death strikes me as necessary to the perfect sacrifice of absolute martyrdom.