Arthur Koestler’s masterwork was Darkness at Noon. In it, he tells of an old revolutionary caught up in Stalin’s terror who finds himself called to answer with his life for not being in step with the latest position of the Party. Rubashov, the name of this character, never chose to be out of step. The Party was his life, its power the sole measure of all things. Being out of step with the Party, as all true believers understood, made one necessarily an agent of the opposition, the greatest of political crimes. And since by his Communism, politics defined morality, he would in his own mind have lost all moral legitimacy.
The great Show Trials of the Thirties, as well as the lesser trials, consigned thousands to death and millions to slave labor throughout the Gulag Empire. They were orchestrated as Acts of Faith whose officiants demanded that the condemned person’s punishment be preceded by a full confession of sins. The model was the Inquisition’s autos da fe, which would ideally include a confession just before the sinner’s execution. A powerful incentive was that one who confessed would be mercifully strangled before the flames would begin to devour his (or her) body.
Koestler writes of the last moment of Rubashov, the fictional hero of his book:
To the Public Prosecutor’s concluding question, concerning the motive of his actions, the accused Rubashov, who seemed to have broken down, answered in a tired, dragging voice: “I can only say that we, the opposition, having once made it our criminal aim to remove the Government of the Fatherland of the Revolution, used methods which seemed proper to our purpose, and which were just as low and vile as that purpose.” Vera Wassiljovna pushed back her chair. “That is disgusting,” she said. “It makes you sick the way he crawls on his belly.”
And of course, after this confession, Rubashov was executed.
Koestler’s book was not available for Soviet citizens to read. Only in the West would he have an audience. But its lessons are universal, for we are ever in need of choosing freedom by keeping our government the servant of the people — and not the other way around.
When the state has stopped serving the people, people trained by the state’s example will follow its lead, and a culture of power emerges. Everywhere, there are lessons taught, by the daily evidence of all the lives that do not matter to the state enough to do anything effective to protect them. It doesn’t matter at all whether the life has ended, as in Minneapolis, due to the direct acts of government’s police force, or whether the life has ended, as in the ghastly toll of snuffed out lives in Chicago, where the government goes on and on amidst its failure to fulfill the most basic responsibility of any government — to protect the lives of its citizens. The results are the same; the politicians who supposedly have been empowered to take responsibility, content themselves with the power alone. The lives don’t seem to matter as much — if at all.
There should be little surprise, then, at the emergence of the mob. The mob’s brains will seek cover under the shadow of the First Amendment and mix among those who intend only to voice their grievances publicly but peacefully. Those educated well by the power-drunk state will use the trappings of legitimacy themselves to grab a long deep drink from that same intoxicating beverage for themselves.
And so we see, side by side with sincere and genuinely aggrieved citizens, those others who do not care at all about any people apart from their usefulness in building their own power.
Respect of difference and individuality is not tolerated; the chants that become the voice of the crowd have no space for nuances. Violence is the ultimate trimmer of nuance and all difference. And thus those hijacking the cause show themselves oppressors as well, to whom lives that do not serve them do not matter.
There still exists in even the most corrupt of cities a consensus powerful enough to contain the violence to the places that apparently don’t matter enough to either the perpetrators or the cities’ power elite. I pray, gentle reader, that you are blessed enough to live in a place safe from depredation.
But wherever we may live, we are in one stage or another of a concerted effort to collapse our freedom, for freedom does not suit the ever-expanding desires of those who see no legitimate limit to their aspirations for power. Instead, every day the news tells of forced resignations, public shamings, show cancellations, etc. Tolerance itself, Antifa signs tells us, is something they may extend or withhold at will. The limits of conversation, even the meaning of concepts and words, are for them alone to dictate.
My mind had turned to scenes like these after hearing of scenarios resonant with those Koestler portrayed. We do not hear people crying out, as they did in the Sixties, “We want our freedom and we want it now!” but rather, cries to end freedom: “Get on your knees and apologize for who you are and how you think.”
And this is the most critical part of the battle. The devotees of power use violence only secondarily on property and human bodies. What they really aim for is the soul — that we should confess our sin in daring to be other than how they would allow.
And so it played out, in scene after scene. Just as in Stalin’s time, there were more than a few who felt impelled to make confessions. These were people who considered themselves proper social warriors, and found this central to their identity. Like Koestler’s Rubashov, in their own mind, they were on the same side, in for the struggle.
And now, suddenly, what was yesterday cutting edge in the fight for social justice is today a foul betrayal of the cause. Such a betrayal, indicating a perhaps incorrigible genetic allegiance to structural racism, must be expiated as far as possible. Prostration before other humans, appropriately credentialed for such high service, was one mode of expiation. Resignation from one’s job certainly could be required. Verbal self-abasement seemed important for modern-day Rubashovs as well.
There are notable differences between Stalin’s show trials and today’s groveling. Today’s confessionals have been remarkable in that there is no secret police carrying out arrests. Instead the blow to identity is coming from mere condemnation by someone further up the interactionalist ladder of authority. It seems quite enough to spark an orgy of self-abasement, a desperate attempt to find the new right words, the new exact tone, required to regain any sense of self-worth and moral identity.
The violence of self-serving, power-hungry governments has a certain familiarity, even a historical charm about it. It has rarely been absent from our American scene. My father regaled me with tales of New Jersey’s own Mayor Frank “I am the Law” Hague and living in Boston brought me into the tales of Mayor James Curley. Both exist in legend as lovable rogues. So we have been able to take for granted that this is the norm in our cities and it ain’t so bad.
It would be wonderful if the atrocious death of Mr. Floyd served as that inflection point, when we as a country realized that governments that do not serve the people must be turned out, and our old traditions of political alignment must be cast aside if they stand in the way.
But as is necessary if we are to be truly free, this will only happen by choice. We see the possibility in front of us of succumbing to the totalitarian urge, the great temptation of simplifying all things by the unfettered use of power unconstrained by any other consideration. CHAZ is up and running, an American bastard child of the Paris Commune, with its romantic shell cracking rapidly open to the ugliness beneath. A faint aroma can be whiffed of the starved corpses of the Kulaks of the Ukraine, of the peasants of the Great Leap Forward, of those brought to Cambodia’s killing fields. The ghosts of Torquemada and Himmler and King Leopold whisper, “Go ahead, just do it. Make it American with a whoosh, but claim the power however you can. You are one of us.”
The choice for our country and for our soul is in our own hands, as ever it was. No slogan, no idea, can absolve us of our responsibility. With each act we do, each word we say, we are determining who we are and what our country will be.