To me, psychologically, the principle difference between the East and West, even Eastern and Western Europe, becomes a question of ego. In “socialist land” children are brought up believing that personal meaning is all about fitting into a larger whole, a larger consciousness. The West conveniently interprets this to mean loss of identity, that one merely becomes an automaton, a cog in a machine’s wheel. – The images we convey to ourselves of factory workers becoming the wheels and gears they operate, of faceless and starving peasants on collective farms, are still amazingly vivid years after the Cold War.
While the West busies itself putting down that whole “collectivism” idea, it now grapples with it’s own ideological dilemma, of elevating the ego while simultaneously discovering that it must also fit into larger (environmental, social) paradigms. It tries teaching this in its art, its music, and so forth, but it’s a rough go when it comes to changing real consciousness. We’ve always been taught that a strong ego (being special, “rugged individualism,” entrepreneurialism,“standing out”) determines one’s success or failure in the world. We’re taught that “I have to be a somebody” lest I become a “nobody.” The message is black & white. It also explains the epidemic of clinical depression in the West and its virtual absence in the East.
The socialist child finds this all rather puzzling and yet doesn’t have to announce it. This is because (s)he doesn’t have to make a public statement about it. (S)He seems to be taught that consciousness is about subtlety, trust, and self-awareness. There’s no comparison when it comes to maturity and self-discipline of children in Eastern versus Western cultures.
The bottom line here is about personal happiness and fulfillment. Both East and West don their best smiles as if trying to show the other who wins this argument. But the West wins only in the race to advertise it, to show itself off every every moment, turning up the volume and announcing “boy are we right – and you’re wrong!!” Even Western Europe finds America’s brashness, volume, arrogance, and swagger so distasteful that it almost goes into hiding and covers its ears in embarrassment for its chief ally. America simply protesteth too much – every day.
I take personal interest whenever I see European artists, politicians, and/or average citizens visiting American talk-shows. They show conspicuous culture shock, brain paralysis, as they drown in a deluge of volume, glitz, music, and celebrity swagger. They keep a “stiff upper lip” and a congenial smile, but the body-language never lies. They’re simply overwhelmed and (especially the British) respond in tones so low that America has to “turn itself down” just to hear them. Then “we” turn around and call them “contained,” reserved, high-brow, intellectual, haughty, and stuck up. We’re like loud drunken sailors on Saturday night physically shaking our one-night stands and yelling at them to “put out” more.
It just reminds me of the terrible dilemma the British had when America showed up at its backdoor during World War II. They needed America to defeat fascism and had no choice but to show unending appreciation and hospitality. But they sure as hell didn’t like us – and understandably so. “We” showed up with our swagger, chewing gum, big-band sounds, and with money to spare (and spend) on their women. All the while their men were stretched to their limits on the German front-lines. Never reported, there were plenty of bar brawls over this. The British shared a mantra: “They’re over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.”
All this is to segue into another big problem unique to the West, specifically America. Individualism (ego), self-importance, personal impressions, etc. also bleed deeply into religion and death. Martyrdom is by no means unique to America. Every culture and government has its pantheon of martyrs. But having them isn’t the issue. The problem is in our confusion over what it is, what to expect from it, hence our interpretations of meaning and purpose.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but probably the most dramatic divide between East and West concerns the application of literal self-sacrifice – the kamikaze pilot in World War II or the terrorist bomber today who blows himself up in the city square. “We” simply don’t understand it, nor can we allow ourselves to accept it in light of our ideological confusion. So we declare it “abhorrent.” What may contribute to this, though not the central cause, is again the problem of “selfhood.” “We” simply can’t imagine ourselves not existing. In war it’s always the “other guy” who dies. “We” (if not the self, then the soul) must remain eternal, and we write that condition into our morality and religion. This I think is a factor in our disbelief over enemies who crash planes and ignite themselves in public places. We immediately condemn both and place them in categories ranging anywhere from insanity/lunacy/ madness to barbarism, radical fundamentalism, anarchy, and simple savagery. Reversely, they see “our hangups” linked directly to self-importance and materialism. Their puzzlement is just as real and strong.
Each culture has its definition of martyrdom, but the West has a singularly difficult problem finding clarity because of its ambiguities and confusion surrounding death, eternity, and sacrifice – over which it simply places the veil of darkness. “We” therefore entertain many forms of martyrdom, mixed and confused. It’s recognition is eternally up for debate even today, and it most always comes down to a matter of politics, media presentation, and lasting impressions. Ultimately it comes down to a simple problem of definition.
In his book Fools, Martyrs, Traitors Lacey Baldwin Smith asks the critical questions: “Are all martyrs heroes and all dead heroes martyrs?” “The trick is to turn death from a conclusion into a beginning, to make it count…. So much depends on the debate over definition, the judgment of history, the cooperation of the executioners, the vagaries of timing and circumstance, and the question of motive.”
Christians for instance, “recognize ‘red’ and ‘white’ martyrs – those who gave their lives as opposed to those who suffered desperately for their faith.” And then there’s the added complication of the link between martyr and traitor which, says Smith, share two common characteristics: “Both are either alienated from or rejected by [society], and both are failures in the eyes of officialdom.” There is therefore the oxymora-sounding idea of the “noble traitor.” Martyrdom is an act of defiance or condemnation and hence a unique “display of individuality … sanctified by death.”
In the end there are as many kinds of martyrdom as there are (or have been) martyrs. When we peruse Western history we find that each one case more or less set its own standard and meaning. Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Thomas Becket, John Brown, and Mahatma Gandhi, to name a few, already create a template of many variances. At the end of his book Smith mentions “introverted martyrs tortured with doubt and oppressed with guilt,” “extroverted martyrs, those athletes of faith and warriors of truth, who regarded themselves as instruments of God’s ultimate design,” “conceited and ambitious martyrs who did the right thing for the wrong reason, seeking power, paradise, and self-esteem,” “accidental martyrs who through chance and circumstance stumbled upon death,” “useless and silly martyrs who squandered their lives for a chimera,” “false martyrs and fabricated martyrs, products of society’s need for heroic symbols,” “traitor-martyrs who may be any or all of the above,” and finally the “unrecorded martyrs … whose mark on history is like the air we breathe – there but unobserved.”
To this list (some introverted, some not, mostly “accidental” and/or “unrecorded”) I would add the “reluctant martyr.” Those who were perhaps acutely aware of society’s proclivity for stereotypes and its facile rush to finding “heroes” – yet who were simply immersed in their jobs and never meant to die for anything. In this category I would add the names of Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman, Rosa Parks, Madame Currie, Jackie Robinson, and Rachel Corrie.
A question of “selflessness,” to me, again is what accentuates the prime difference in martyrdom as seen in the West versus the East. Take for instance Thomas Becket as opposed to Rachel Corrie as opposed to Mother Teresa as opposed to Oscar Wilde (I choose Wilde here simply because he’s one of my favorite “victims” of circumstance, time and place).
Becket was a swamp of contradictions, and history is still debating his status as a martyr. A young, intelligent, clever opportunist/lawyer (some say “Becket” was a derisive name meaning “beak-nosed”), he was born midst of the notorious conflict of the “two swords” between church and state. In the 12th century everyone was forced to serve both the pope and king – an idea doomed not to last long. Thomas had the advantage of an education, he schmoozed with aristocrats, and landed the lucky job as an accountant for a banker, then as the archbishop where he learned the art of debate and legal legerdemain from the best lawyers around.
At thirty-two king Henry II appoints him archdeacon of Canterbury, and Becket proceeds to turn the “moral” side of the crown into a secularized and bureaucratized office. He is not only efficient at this but, by some accounts, neurotic and “pathologically concerned” with himself. He lives like a prince, extravagantly, with impressive and expensive entourages, while collecting revenues of ungodly sums – most of it channeled into his own appetite for dramatic entrees, pageantry and pomp. From this point on Henry begins regretting his appointment for archdeacon, and a life-long feud begins between himself and Becket. The monarch is furious that his “vassel, friend, and servant” could be so faithless, and Becket hides behind his new position to defend his right of sovereignty over the crown.
Then Becket shocks everyone. He suddenly capitulates to Henry and to the crown’s Constitutions of Clarendon. He imposes strict penance, fasting, and flagellation upon himself. Some say this is a turning point in his life towards martyrdom. He allegedly never forgives himself for his previous sins and indulgences. But at the same time he also refuses many of Henry’s conditions and punishments. He thinks that self-flagellation is enough and that Henry’s added censures and penalties are a direct attack on the Church. He sees himself and the Church as one and the same. He announces himself as the standard-bearer for Christ. Becket is exiled, seen as “Christ’s outlaw” (and later is the first person in history to die both as a martyr and a traitor).
Then, another alleged metamorphosis. Becket chooses to live as an aesthete – in poverty, wearing peasant hair shirts, sleeping on hard wooden beds, and subjecting himself to daily flagellation. He’s trying to purge himself of guilt and humiliation, not to mention carnal desires. But he still refuses to relinquish full authority to the crown. Several attempts are made by Henry to compromise (since he was being taxed elsewhere by war, and the pope himself had other political concerns filling his docket). But every effort to compromise is ruined by Becket’s stipulations putting the Church over the crown. He also refuses to surrender all the monies he collected as lord chancellor. In fact Becket retorts that Henry should pay him instead for all the revenues lost when forced into exile.
Henry even lifts the Constitutions of Clarendon and grants the Church its former liberties, but Becket jinxes it again by requiring Henry to submit to a series of contractual phrases, like the “kiss of peace” and “saving the honor of God.” Henry balks. – In the end Becket withdraws these phrases, Henry once again returns the Church’s previous liberties, and it looks as if the “two swords” might find reconciliation after all. But no specific terms are ever finalized. These are two proud and stubborn men never finding peace or trust between themselves.
Finally, Henry sends four crusaders to “arrest” Thomas, not to kill him, in the cathedral at Canterbury. But Becket stands his ground refusing to leave. And here, quoting Smith, “lies the rub: did Becket play-act at martyrdom, imitating the early martyrs, refusing escape, provoking his assailants, fearful lest delay should deprive him of his coveted crown, or was the script written for him by biographers determined to turn a man who possessed more than his share of human failings into a spiritual hero?” Hagiographers, says Smith, are “in the business of manufacturing martyrs” and dramatic willful death would make Becket “the most immaculate soldier of Christ.” But here is a man who is “haughty, rapacious, violent and cruel” who “wanted to be more than a king.” When the four crusades cut him down in front of the altar for resisting arrest it’s fairly clear that he is dying for personal pride, not for Christ or faith in the Church. All his pronouncements about living as an aesthete are efforts to instill a public image.
The dilemma for Christian martyrdom from then on involves the issue of using immoderate means to achieve “moderation in all things.” Smith says Becket is “self-absorbed” and “lacked the gift of empathy for others; some might say he lacked the gift of charity.” In the years to follow history decides not to be so kind to Becket. His light fades. There are no more “miracles” in his name, his shrine is destroyed, and his death is “degraded to a minor incident in the history of a four-century long struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of men…”
Compare this long-drawn out story to the 2003 murder/death of a virtually unknown crusader for Palestinian rights in the Gaza Strip. A 23 year-old girl named Rachel Corrie stands in front of an Israeli bulldozer to protest the illegal dozing of Palestinian homes. A more horrific death not humanly imaginable, Corrie does not anticipate being crushed, nor does she wish to die for this cause. The official Israeli response is that the driver “did not see her” standing in the way. Appeals to the Israeli court (the last one being in 2015) are systematically denied, including financial restitution (amounting to “one dollar”).
Corrie is not just an “unrecorded” crusader for justice. She is by all indicators a “reluctant” one as well who, it would seem, meets the requirements of martyrdom. She has no designs on notoriety, fame, position, or profiting from her efforts. She only has in mind the rights of the disenfranchised in Gaza on March 16th, 2003. She does not ask for a martyr’s signet and would most like reject the very idea of one. – But the point here is this: It seems that those who most disavow and reject such affiliations are those most deserving of them. The reverse is just as true for those, like Becket, who “lacked the gift of charity,” was self-absorbed, and who hid behind an institution for self-advancement.
Compare Corrie to Agnes Bojaxhiu of Skopje, Macedonia, alias, Mother Teresa – so-called defender of “charity for all.” Immediately, something stinks in the support of “everlasting charity.” Charity is supposed to be a temporary fix to help people in need. But when turned into a permanent institution and collecting huge sums of money while doing it, it becomes a crutch for the poor and actually ensures the “everlasting” imbalances of wealth distribution. Many, including even some at the Vatican, thought she wasn’t as much a friend of the poor as she was a friend of poverty. Christopher Hitchens said, “She praised poverty and disease and suffering as gifts from on high, and told people to accept these gifts joyfully. She was adamantly opposed to the only policy that has ever alleviated poverty in any country – that is , the empowerment of women, and the extension of their control over their own fertility.” She once announced that the greatest danger to world peace was abortion and that abortion and contraception were morally equivalent.
Teresa’s own Calcutta clinic was kept primitive, a place for people to “die” because medical treatment was kept virtually nonexistent. At the same time, when she became ill, she was flown to a first-class private clinic in California. She befriended people like Charles Keating who was convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy, and many other crooks who donated large sums that were actually stolen from the poor. She held firm at a referendum in Ireland condemning divorce and remarriage. At the same time she gave Princess Diana her blessings for getting divorced since her marriage was “such an unhappy one.” Father O’Connor said, “[A] lot of people in the church will tell you that she was indeed a very difficult woman.” And when the church set her up in a “nice little place” in Washington, she had everything modern stripped out of it “right down to the Formica.” And yet, “nothing but absolute austerity for the poor and the sick.”
The Church used to require two miracles to saint someone. Now it’s just one. And it confessed to having “fast-tracked” Teresa’s. Traditionally, hearings on sainthood couldn’t be held until five years after the person’s departing. But Pope John Paul II wanted to personally announce hers before he died. Hence, the near-frantic search for a miracle. And as luck would have it, they found a young Hindu woman with cancer who had apparently prayed to Teresa – and “miraculously” it was gone. Good enough!! The only stipulation after that was that doctors had to certify the cure was medically inexplicable, leaving only a supernatural explanation. Again, no problem. Lastly, it had to be decided that the cure was directly attributable to her, especially after she had died. The “after death” scenario is critical because it ensures that there will be no danger of hucksterism, no witchcraft, and above all, no need for proof or disproof of the miracle itself. – “Fast-tracked,” indeed.
Compare Teresa to a real victim of minority abuse and discrimination, who kept his dignity despite Edwardian jailers and late-Victorian piety, vilified as the exemplar of moral decadence. Oscar Wilde’s plays ceased to be performed and his writings fell out of print. Finally released from prison (for homosexuality), he was a broken man, exiled, nearly friendless, and virtually homeless. More than any other I can think of, he was the embodiment of someone who lived a hundred years “before his time” artistically, intellectually, and morally, which meant he suffered the strictures and censures of an acutely ignorant, intolerant, phobic, and hypocritical society. Extroverted, gregarious, hospitable, gracious, and highly sensitive, he lampooned the bourgeoisie and the indulgences of the upper caste (prefiguring Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and others), all the while caricaturing himself as a central player in that milieu.
“The best way of keeping my word is to never give it.” “America is the only place which went from barbarism to decadence without creating a civilization in between.” “If we are always guided by other people’s thoughts, what’s the point of having our own?” “If the skeletons in your closet are going to rattle, they might as well dance.” “There are only two tragedies: one is not getting what you want, the other is getting it.” “We all straddle the abyss. If we don’t look down, how would we ever know who we are?” (all taken from just one play, Lady Windermere’s Fan – made into the film, A Good Woman).
The publishers of The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde remarked, “[B]ehind the aesthete’s facade and the superbly crafted witticisms, he concealed great warmth of character and generosity of spirit, an insouciant gallantry in adversity, and a profound understanding of human life and human vanities.” Dorothy Parker said, “”If, with the literate, I am impelled to try an epigram, I never seek to take the credit; we all assume that Oscar said it.”
To peruse all these styles of martyrdom is to compare states and levels of selflessness – versus – ego. They all indicate vast stretches of gray in between those extremes. To borrow the old Christian metaphor, the “redder” martyrdom gets, the closer it touches the shoals of American ideology. The “whiter” it gets, the further East it drifts – if not literally , then through its consciousness.
Martyrdom could be the perfect lesson to those of us in America in how to at least understand the principle of self-sacrifice as an act of selflessness. To be sure, the terrorist who explodes himself is NOT necessarily selfless; in fact he probably does it to impress Allah and in hopes of great rewards in the afterlife (concubines and camels). Perhaps the kamikaze pilot had the same designs and expectations from his “god-emperor.” Who knows? But the fact is, their sense of self-importance and self-preservation were (and are) in a very different place than ours. The “socialist” individual lives for the commonwealth and sees his happiness in terms of the greater whole. “Individuality” (which is the centerpiece of market capitalist ideology) for him is greedy, reprehensible, and immoral. As opposed to the words echoed by Gordon Gecco in the film of Wall Street, for Americans the most praised, practiced, exalted, and shameful mantra of all: “greed is good.”
For better or worse, the fact is Americans are beginning to discover that the human species can no longer afford to think and live as separate and independent beings. We are not just a social species but a global species inextricably linked to each other. Survival depends on that humbling concession. We have lots to take away from the history of martyrdom, from those deserving and undeserving of that honorific. We’re finding that many so anointed are not so deserving after all, and those unknown, forgotten, and/or unjustly punished probably deserve it more than anyone.
“No man dies for what he knows to be true. Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true.” – Oscar Wilde.
© 2018 Richard Hiatt