In a boot-strapping individualist meritocracy, victimization is a bad word. Conservatives tell people to buck up, stop suffering and turn over their problems to God for relief. When the victims ignore the facile and unhelpful advice the victim is shrugged off as unrewarding, recalcitrant and at fault for his own victimization. Which brings us to Rod Dreher, or rather a little story he wanted to share with his readers
I had a friend once who suffered a series of significant losses, the victim of serious injustices, wrongs that could never be made right, debts that were impossible to repay. When we knew each other, I felt sorry for her at first, but in time, I came to see that she was a total slave to her past. She interpreted everything in the present in terms of the past, and without knowing what she was doing, determined that her future was bound to be miserable. Eventually I quit hanging around her because all she could talk about was herself as a victim. And she was indeed a victim! But she was a sad person who drove people away, because she had come to define herself by her suffering. For whatever reason, she refused to let that wound heal, and declined any help in healing. Thinking back on that tonight, it seems that to let go of her (entirely justified) sense of grievance would have been to lose herself. She is, or was when I knew her, the sort of person Dante would have met in Hell.
We might never know what advice Dreher gave the unlucky woman but it is safe to assume that his (present) God figured large in the conversation. The woman refused
to forgive and forget about the abuse that made her the woman she became. She declined
the offers (by Dreher, no doubt) of assistance in her healing. Perhaps there were offers of a prayer circle or an e-mail chain letter of prayer. Who knows? All we know is that she was at the end of her rope, in her own personal hell, and Rod regretfully deleted her and her tiresome self-pity from his life. It was the Christian thing to do.
It was also the Dreher thing to do, for Mr. Rod Dreher has spent his entire career wallowing in self-pity and cultivating victimhood by predicting a constant onslaught from the Social Justice Warriors of The Gay Agenda Brigade in the War Against Christianity And Community But We Repeat Ourselves.
Usually we are left to wonder what exactly creates a sense of victimhood so severe that one is driven to deny it exists while constantly, publicly, and for $19.33, cultivating it. Fortunately Dreher not only lets us know from whence it came, he can't shut up about it
Dante's particular temptations were not my temptations, but I had done the same thing as he. I discovered that I had grounded my self-worth in the approval of my father, which I could not hope to earn. I had grown up in the household of a strong, loving father, a traditional Southern patriarch whom I hero-worshiped. He was gentle and kind, though also proud and willful.
We were very different. He was an outdoorsman who loved team sports; I was bookish and unathletic. By his own admission, he had no idea how to relate to a son who was so unlike himself. Despite his open affection, I always knew that I, who share his name, was a disappointment to him. This hurt. A lot.
One suspects the "open affection" was neither. It is very clear that his father did not approve of Rod and his girly ways. His father was proud and willfill; he had high standards and wanted Rod to be the kind of son and boy that he wanted.
When I entered my teenage years, we argued often, and I finally left for boarding school, in part to get out from under his roof. After I became a Catholic in my 20s, I transferred worship of my dad to worshiping the church -- this, without knowing what I was doing. I expected of the church's bishops, as I had expected of my father, something they were not capable of giving consistently: unconditional love, affirmation, and patriarchal care in which I could trust.
Why? Because I wanted nothing more than to feel at home and cared for unambiguously by a father. I could never be truly at home in my father's house, because I could not shake the crippling sense of not measuring up to his standards. As a loyal son of the Catholic Church, I grounded myself in a substitute household, and felt strong filial respect and affection for the ecclesial patriarchs, especially Pope John Paul II.
Rod lays his words out with an artless honesty that is utterly blind to their implication. Rod could not win the unconditional love of his father so he turned to the next authoritarian structure to give him what he needed: organized religion.
When we all learned how so many priests used their roles as fathers to rape the children in their spiritual care, and that even the saintly pontiff had failed in his duty to protect the most vulnerable Catholics in his care, the revelations affected me with an intensity I did not fully understand, not even years after I left the Catholic Church, spiritually broken.
Reading Dante revealed something shocking to me. The collapse of my Catholic faith had been about fear, injustice, hypocrisy and the obliteration of trust. That I knew. But more than that, it had been about fatherhood and sonship.
The abused adult will go from one authority to another and another, serially hopeful, disappointed, disillusioned, and then back to hopeful again.
I was not wrong to condemn the fathers of the Catholic Church for their wickedness in the scandal, but I had made a mistake that the devout Dante did not: I expected more from them than they could deliver, and came undone by the shock of their failures.
This realization did not cause me to return to Rome. As I said, I don't believe in Christ as a Catholic any longer; I am firmly Orthodox.
But it did occasion understanding, and call forth mercy (this happened, too, with my father); the bishops, the priests and my own dad were not monuments to unerring authority, but rather my companions in shipwreck.
And it taught me the importance of never mistaking icons through which the divine light shines imperfectly -- for example, the church, the clergy and the family -- for God.
The one authority that can never disappoint, since nobody expects a birthday present or phone call from Him and never has to hear how disappointed He is in you for not finishing college/becoming an accountant/making the football team. Meanwhile on Earth, Rod is still searching for God's unconditional love. Sadly, he continues to look for love in all the wrong places.
It just occurred to me, re-reading that, that the deepest break between my father and me came over hunting. My father wanted to make me a hunter, but I couldn’t do it, because I was too tender-hearted towards animals. There’s an extremely painful moment that occurs while hunting — something I tell in How Dante. And there is a healing dream I have, 30 years later, while reading Dante, involving my father and a hunt. I won’t reveal it here, but just now, re-reading the Cacciaguida material, I marvel at how it was old Cacciaguida, a Crusader knight, a father figure to Dante, and the Guide of the Hunt, who gave me the courage to tell the truth, no matter what.
So, listen, if you live in north Texas, come out to see me and let me sign your book on Wednesday night at the Barnes & Noble near North Park, at 7pm.
Rod has come up with (at least) two different ways to ease the pressure of his self-loathing for being disappointingly bookish and unmanly. First and foremost, as is the way of his people, he turns sin into a redemption story that gives him moral authority. This gives him a sense of specialness, almost holiness, to compensate for all the insults, digs, yelling and temper tantrums that authoritarians indulge in when trying to force their children to obey. Self-esteem makes the child independent of authoritarian control; to think for yourself, speak for yourself, dream for yourself, create your own moral code, or disobey authority is wicked. The child must learn to obey for his own good.
Children need love and adults need to have been loved. Adults are usually reluctant to become angry at mistreatment from their parents because they still hope to gain unconditional love from their parents. Unfortunately the adult can never relive his or her childhood. He will never find peace until he realizes that you cannot forgive and forget, you can only let go.
Everyone needs a way to feel good about themselves. But everyone also needs release from fear and anger. It cannot be aimed at its proper target, the parents and parent substitutes. Authoritarians learn it is much safer to kick down than up; there is still too much to lose. So they cast about for a victim, someone that reminds them of all the things they hate about themselves. Manliness, let's say. You were forced to be manly every damn day of your life. It was for your own good. You still want your father's love, even if he is in the grave. So you will eradicate any unmanliness in the world in your father's name. You will face many difficulties, might even be forced to retreat from your enemies to lick your wounds and build up a sense of hope, but you will prevail in preventing gays from buying wedding cakes.
As we said elsewhere, Alice Miller said
, "Fantasies always serve to conceal or minimize unbearable childhood reality for the sake of the child's survival; therefore, the so-called invented trauma is a less harmful version of the real, repressed one." Rod's persecution fantasies will eliminate the real persecution from his father. Rod will not be the victim here; victims are supposed to receive God's healing Grace, not still be hurting from the abuse decades later, feeling it affect his relationship with his childhood family, his own family, and his sense of self.
Rod was a sad person who drove people away, because he had come to define himself by his suffering. For whatever reason, he refused to let that wound heal, and declined any help in healing. It seems that to let go of his (entirely justified) sense of grievance would have been to lose himself, with no family, no home and no faith. He was the sort of person Dante would have met in Hell.
Yet Rod considers himself a joyful man, a happy warrior for Christ. He is very happy because he is able to have his victimization and his Grace too. All he had to do was blame gays, women and liberals for his parents' sins. He gains everything he feels he is missing; appreciation for his intellect, respect for the depth of his religious feelings, attention, ego-gratification, and a type of love and approval from strangers or fellow authoritarians.
But fantasies are ephemeral. They are difficult to maintain and when some little boy points out the Emperor has no clothes the fantasies are exposed as lies. Our happy warriors are driven to fight hard for their own imaginary world and we absolutely must expose the lies or be forced to live in their dystopian fantasy. We must mock their fight, which we will greatly enjoy calling by the German word Opferfreud, the joy at victimization. If it seems a shame to pick on a poor innocent little Christian boy and make him cry, well, God never said life was fair.