The story is told of a man who has been sentenced to time in the gulag. The prisoner cannot make sense of it all, but he still believes the propaganda that has filled his life. “Please!” he begs everyone he meets, “Please tell Comrade Stalin! I am sure he would free me if only he knew!”
The prisoner cannot wrap his head around the fact that it was Stalin himself, not some uninformed apparatchnik, who was ultimately responsible for sending people to the gulag. And the victim is entirely resigned – committed – to the ideology that has made him who he is, and that now dooms him. There are no facts that will make him stop believing in Comrade Stalin. Entertaining the mere possibility of that mental dissonance would be his undoing.
I was thinking on how every liberal I know has no problem complaining about some government-run outfit or another – from the DMV to TSA – and yet their complaints make no impression whatsoever on their underlying belief system. Sure, the TSA may be useless at best – but the government is still there to protect us! It would be silly, of course, to throw out an entire belief system just because some middlemen made some errors in execution.
What intrigues me is how closely this way of thinking hews to a slave mentality. There is a biblical example that is very much like that of our unfortunate Russian: Pharaoh, annoyed by Moses’ petition to let the people go, orders the taskmasters to no longer provide straw for bricks to the Israelite slaves. He instructs, “Let them go and gather straw for themselves.”
What do the slaves, a broken people, do? They think there must be some kind of mistake! And they go right back to Comrade Stalin!
Then the overseers of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: “Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus, your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.”
They cannot believe that Pharaoh, the all-powerful ruler, could possibly mean for them to suffer! Surely, if he was just informed, then the disloyal bureaucrats would be punished, and all would be right with the world. The more things change…
The Israelites share the very same worldview as the gulag-bound prisoner. They know they are mere flotsam in this world, and they put their faith in the Great Man to save them.
In the Torah, believing only in great men for salvation is the sign of an enslaved and ultimately broken people. When we fail to rise to a challenge, and instead only passively wait to be saved by heroes, then we are no longer free.
But wait: what is the difference between believing in Comrade Stalin/Chairman Mao / Pharoah and believing in G-d?
One can argue from results, of course. Judeo-Christianity created Western Civilization while Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot killed 100 million people. Yet this does not prove that our belief is right – merely that it is useful.
The real difference, as I see it, is found in our sense of responsibility: whether we see ourselves as victims or not. In a world dominated by powerful warlords and heroes of various kinds, everyone else is merely a pawn, if they are even on the board at all. But with the G-d of the Torah, we are called to be partners, not merely subjects. We are responsible for ourselves, and our actions actually matter. The Torah makes this abundantly clear: we can have leaders, and even heroes. But heroes or no heroes, we remain individually responsible for our own choices.
More than this: we are only helpless flotsam if we see ourselves that way. And if we believe that we are capable of agency, then we can consciously choose whether we are active agents, mere bystanders, or collateral damage in the goings-on of the world.
The tragedy of the gulag prisoner is not merely that he is simply unable to accept that Comrade Stalin is the cause of his suffering, not the source of his salvation. That is bad enough. But the far greater tragedy is that he is no longer a capable person, adult enough to make choices, take responsibility for those choices, and grow: he has surrendered his divinely-gifted ability to effect change on himself and his world.
Ultimately this is a core difference between freedom-loving societies and the communism / socialism / fascism that oppress the individual: the enemies of freedom attack the power we have to become more than our mere nature and nurture, DNA and upbringing. And victimhood seems inexorably tied to loss of liberty: the condition is essentially circular and self-perpetuating. In the Torah claiming victimhood (from Adam and Eve through to the Israelites in the wilderness) always earned a strong divine response. G-d does not want us to be passive.
The enemies of liberty seek for us to return to serfdom, to believe in the State as the source of security. Comrade Stalin, Pharaoh, or the instruments of the State surely always have our best interests at heart.
It is on us to break off those shackles, the mental prison in which we put ourselves whenever we believe that we are mere victims. It hardly matters whether we claim to be victims of our own natural limitations or circumstances of birth or upbringing, or whether we claim to be oppressed by others. The result is the same: the hopelessly oppressed and unfree invariably look outside, not inside, for their salvation. Comrade Stalin is not going to help.
[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]