The Tuesday | National Review (2022)

The Tuesday | National Review (1)

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about language, culture, and, when the stars align, dachshunds. And politics, when unavoidable. The Tuesday is available only to NRPlus members: If you would like to join our happy little platoon — and I hope you will — then you can sign up here.

The Dumbest Criticism of Biden

Joe Biden makes it too easy for the comedians: Obviously hoping to dispel concerns about his age and his fitness for the presidency, President Biden took a bicycle ride and cruised over to a crowd of gawkers, and then promptly tipped over and fell on his patootie. Biden has long been defensive about fitness — you’ll remember him challenging that random guy in Iowa to a push-up contest. That’s not how you fix your image, and, at Biden’s age, fixing his image is probably a foolish thing to try, anyway.

Biden’s most bitter critics have a litany: He doesn’t do evening events, he goes home to Delaware every weekend to rest up, etc. Scandalous, I’m sure.

But those are the things I like about Biden. Almost the only things I like about him.

Biden’s is a special case, because he is so very old and so very manifestly frail, but criticizing presidents for their leisure time has become part of the ritual of the imperator cult, and younger, more robust men have been criticized for their down time and their recreation. Before there was Biden, there was Donald Trump and his golf and “executive time,” before Trump it was Barack Obama and his vacation days, and before that it was George W. Bush and his vacation days. Trump on the links, Obama at Martha’s Vineyard, Bush at the ranch, and Biden in Delaware. I’ve been to Delaware, and I think I’d rather spend the weekend in Martha’s Vineyard or clearing brush in the hot Texas sun with W. Your preferences may vary.

This isn’t a particularly 21st-century thing: Ronald Reagan was criticized for his down time and his apparently light schedule. Republicans who lambasted Michelle Obama’s travel budget were echoing Republicans in the 19th century who blasted Mary Todd Lincoln’s household expenditures. (Lincoln got a lot of grief from members of his own party, since Democrats weren’t being heard from that much on such issues, at that time being busy in their vigorous defense of treachery and slavery.) Nothing new under the sun, etc. Dwight Eisenhower had an extraordinarily eventful presidency, and he had the political savvy to let America believe that he spent most of his time playing golf. Do you remember that SNL skit in which Reagan is the avuncular goof in public and the ruthless mastermind behind the scenes? That was Eisenhower.

But, of course, Joe Biden is no Dwight Eisenhower — although he is so very dust-fartingly agéd that he was a teenager during Ike’s presidency. But there are parallels between the two presidencies — important ones: The Covid-19 epidemic was not World War II, but it did involve an extraordinary deployment of federal resources, heavy expense, and economic disaster. Like Warren G. Harding after World War I, Eisenhower was a “return to normalcy” Republican who helped the country to move on from World War II. Eisenhower had planned the Normandy invasion, but when he left office in 1961, military spending was lower than it had been when he assumed office in 1953. ($52.8 billion vs. $49.6 billion as Treasury runs the numbers.) There was even a small budget surplus in the last year of his presidency — like every other president, Eisenhower had no real control over spending, but he was a capable politician who worked intelligently with congressional Democrats, whom he often found easier to negotiate with than his fellow Republicans, who were, then as now, impossible.

Joe Biden advertised himself as a “return to normalcy” Democrat, but he has, so far, failed to make good on that promise. He may prefer quiet weekends at home and an early bedtime (the wisdom of which becomes clearer to me every year), but he hasn’t done the real political work. Normalcy is an agenda, not just a lifestyle.

The relevant issue for Joe Biden is not the depredations of age but his moral and political weakness — and these are not new: Biden has been a coward for the entirety of his political career. Biden may have some centrist instincts, but these are and always have been a matter of political advantage-seeking than a matter of governing principle or moderation in policy. He sets them aside when it suits. When Biden thinks pretending to be Donald Trump will benefit him, he pretends to be Donald Trump; when Biden thinks pretending to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will benefit him, he pretends to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’ll do populist-nationalist for the Teamsters and he’ll do woke for the wokesters. Biden is a man who does not engage in introspection, because there is no there there. There is, in the midst of all that ridiculous posturing, no single sinew that serves no political appetite of Biden’s, but is just Biden. One of the great ironies of life is that the more self-centered a man is, the easier he is for other men to manipulate — a man without a real foundation is easy to push around. If you’ve ever wondered why these Silicon Valley billionaires with more money than Croesus and Paul McCartney put together are so easily bullied into conforming with whatever silliness is demanded of members of their class on any given day, that is it — they may be excellent technicians, excellent managers, and excellent investors, but all that “Let’s change the world!” principles-and-purpose talk is just advertising: mission as marketing. They are the hollow men, but stuffed with money rather than straw.

A return to normalcy would mean, among other things, winding down and reversing the elevated Covid-era spending that has supercharged the supply-chain problem and made it into an economic crisis whose main manifestation — higher prices for energy, food, and consumer goods — is very likely to be the undoing of Biden’s administration. Instead, Biden proposes to entrench and expand that spending. A larger and more expensive state is ground gained in the public sector’s war on the private sector, and Democrats are not about to abandon those gains.

Inflation is the No. 1 issue right now (and also issues No. 3, 4, 5, and 6), but it is not the only one. The cultural radicalism of the Left, the socialist ambitions of Democrats in the Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders camp, the corruption of important institutions by narrowminded enforcers of petty political orthodoxies — these are all things that Joe Biden as a Democratic president is positioned to speak to. Speaking to them would do him some good. I hate the way in which clichés constrain our political imagination, but those who talk of Biden’s need for a “Sister Souljah moment” are not wrong to be thinking in that direction.

But Biden can’t do it. Archimedes once said that if he had a long enough lever and a place to stand, he could move the world. Biden as president of these United States has the longest lever in the world, but he doesn’t have a place to stand. He is out there floating in space, a man in zero political gravity.

Another dumb cliché of our political conversation is the need for “unity,” but ignore that for a moment and consider this from Ted Widmer, writing in That August Journalistic Institution in the closing days of the 2020 campaign:

Many Americans remember the 1950s as a banal time of sock hops and drive-ins, but the decade began badly, with a nasty war in Korea, constant friction with China and Russia, and bitter sniping between Republicans and Democrats, who were no longer interested in the consensus that had led America to victory in World War II. In the final two years of Harry Truman’s presidency, the nation’s capital turned angry and dysfunctional. Congress and the White House were at odds; financial scandals plagued the administration; and an ugly new politics of bullying, perfected by Repulican [sic] Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was rising quickly.

To unite the country, Eisenhower first had to bring together his own party, which was no simple matter. A deeply conservative Ohio senator, Robert Taft, wanted the nomination for himself. “Mr. Republican,” as Taft was known, held important cards as a party insider, but he lacked charisma, and his cranky isolationism put him at odds with the party’s more moderate wing, centered in New York and New England. These East Coast Republicans gravitated naturally to Eisenhower, whose sparkling résumé included stints as the president of Columbia University and as NATO’s supreme commander.

No one would call Eisenhower a scintillating speaker, and he looked older than his 62 years. But he understood that less could be more, and his calming speeches stood in sober contrast to the heated rhetoric of the times.

But it wasn’t just style and rhetoric. As Widmer notes, it was policy, too, including policy compromises that so irritated the Right that one might reasonably argue that the modern conservative movement in the United States was at least as much about opposition to Eisenhower and Republican moderation as it was to progressivism at home and socialism abroad. “Our principles are round,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “and Eisenhower is square.”

(Eisenhower’s great sin, as far as post-war conservatives were concerned, was his part-and-parcel acceptance of the New Deal. Only a few decades later, the great champion of conservatism in the United States would be Ronald Reagan, a Republican who described himself as a New Deal Democrat, a lifelong FDR man alienated by the radicalism of his party in the 1960s. In 2016, most conservatives linked arms with Donald Trump, who not only accepted and celebrated New Deal and Great Society entitlements but refused even to consider reforming them, no matter their ruinous financial cost. As with Biden’s daft drift left, Trump’s welfare chauvinism was mainly a matter of moral cowardice and political self-interest, but the fact that defending progressive entitlements is how one panders to conservatives in 2022 says a great deal about how the movement that calls itself “conservative” has changed.)

What Biden needs is some real conservatism.

There is a theoretical side of conservatism (read your Mises!) and there is a folkish conservatism, too, and the two are sometimes at odds. The theoretical side of conservatism prioritizes free markets and free enterprise, small government, scrupulous constitutional interpretation, etc. The folkish side of conservatism understands that there is a relationship between stability and prosperity, hence the traditional — but now almost extinct — conservative aversion to radical social change and radical political change. Sometimes, there are radical policy shifts in response to emergencies (real and imagined), and the conservative habit is to undo these and restore the status quo ante once the emergency has passed. The progressive tendency is just the opposite: It is Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan, with progressives ready to take any emergency as an occasion to saddle up and ride Leviathan onward toward utopia. Biden came into office with the country’s politics even angrier and dumber than usual as a result of the Trump experience, and with the economy and a good deal of government in disorder in the aftermath of the Covid epidemic. The most important work that Biden could have done would have been the work of undoing, but he does not have it in him to resist the rage-addled utopians around him — neither them nor the self-interested chiselers who use progressive moral crusades to fill their own pockets and to create sinecures for their allies and benefits for their dependents, which is what that expansion of the federal machine is really all about.

Does Joe Biden take a lot of naps? I don’t know. Winston Churchill did, and he never challenged anybody to a push-up contest. (Maybe a drinking contest.) Dinner at home with the family and bed by nine isn’t exactly a political agenda, but I’ll vote for it 19 times out of 20.

If anything, I wish Biden were more retiring than he is. The last thing we need is another swaggering buffoon in the White House. Give me the hardheaded competence of a taciturn Puritan such as Calvin Coolidge any day over the bumbling grandiosity of a Barack Obama or its echo in his elderly epigone.

The trouble with Biden is what he is doing, not what he is not doing — or, looked at another way, the problem with Biden is not with what he is not doing but with what he is not undoing.

Speaking of Dumb Criticism . . .

As you can probably tell from reading this newsletter, I enjoy my friend and former National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg’s Remnant podcast. Bearing in mind the maxim that one should criticize in private and praise in public, I will take issue with one tiny little thing that isn’t really specific to Jonah, but something that he gave a pretty good example of in his weekend podcast.

Jonah, like me, is a critic of Joe Biden who also thinks (let me put some words in his mouth) that Donald Trump was a wretched weaselly bumbling immoral ignoramus who, morally and intellectually speaking, would have to ride a hot-air balloon straight up for an hour and a half before he rose to the lowest gutter in New York, who is about as well-suited to the presidency as I am to dancing in the Bolshoi ballet.

Naturally, every time Jonah criticizes Biden, he hears from the usual chorus of morons: “Why’d you vote for him, then, huh?” Which, as Jonah explains, he didn’t. As to the broader line of criticism — that having opposed Donald Trump for being a creepy little moron who tried to stage a coup in 2020 means that Trump’s critics are somehow morally responsible for the multitude of dumb and wrong things Biden has done and can reasonably be expected to continue doing — Jonah offered a lengthy, intelligent, logically sound response, which you should listen to, but which I will summarize: Choosing someone to do a job is not a preemptive endorsement of everything he does in that job thereafter. Even partisan Democrats who voted for — donated to, campaigned for — Biden are not morally responsible when Biden does something wrong or something with which they disagree. (We could stand to hear a little more from those disappointed Democrats.) Both parties sometimes resemble criminal conspiracies, but politics is not in fact a criminal conspiracy in which every conspirator is liable under the law for every crime committed by every other conspirator.

The thing is, almost nobody really believes that A-B line of criticism.

The argument that Jonah describes is made in earnest by a very small number of genuine morons and by a considerably larger number of people speaking in bad faith. Jonah observed that he is used to getting that sort of stupidity on Twitter, but was disheartened to get it from within the Dispatch, the publication he founded a while back. He shouldn’t be surprised — every comments section in the whole of this fallen world looks about the same, from National Review to the New York Times: There is some good and useful conversation happening among intelligent and responsible people, and there is the digital version of a bunch of monkeys masturbating and flinging poo at one another in the zoo. You get a different mix of thoughtfulness and poo-fullness in different publications. It is amazing to me (but not surprising) that the founders of Twitter got private-plane rich by saying: “You know what would make the comments sections better? Getting rid of the content!”

The Internet makes all of us stupid in ways, and it hits intelligent and sensitive people harder than it does morons and the insensate, who are more difficult to make a dent in. You get a weird interaction between well-known public figures such as Jonah, who writes under his own name and thinks about things, and people whose words and affect are shaped by anonymity, urgency, and immediacy. Because of the social nature of social media, that conversation looms larger in our consciousness than it should. As observed by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, one of the few members of Congress whom I do not wish to see driven into exile:

Political Twitter isn’t real. Only 22 percent of Americans use it,and more than half of that 1/5 never follow politics on Twitter. The vast majority of traffic on Twitter is driven by well under 2% of the public. And yet politicians – again, left and right are barely distinguishable – in seeking to cater to this tiny minority and the algorithms that drive addicted-engagement.

Political algorithms run on rage.

Nobody goes viral for making a good faith argument.

Nobody goes viral for admitting there are policy trade-offs.

My criticism of Jonah isn’t what he said so much as the fact that he said it — I don’t think that this sort of thing is worth 15 minutes of his time. Of course, it’s his time, and he can do whatever he wants with it, but I think that we sort of pollute ourselves and the discourse by spending so much time thinking about and responding to these morons, miscreants, and bad-faith actors. I think that they rub off on us in both subtle and unsubtle ways. And by spending so much time and energy on that tiny little slice of the conversation, we elevate it — and its values and its style — far above where that sort of thing would otherwise sit in our common life.

I am sure that I am guilty of this myself at many times and in many ways — in fact, I’ll give you an example immediately below — and I have seen this very often in friends who are a little more sensitively constituted than I am, who get so worked up by Twitter, the comments section, etc., that they come to believe that this is 98 percent of the conversation rather than the 2 percent that it is. But, of course, it is difficult not to be affected, especially when the conversation is about you personally.

The solution, of course, is contempt. And by that I do not mean a haughty intellectual posture (though, sure, yeah, guilty as charged) or irrational dismissiveness or pseudo-Nietzschean arrogance or anything like that, but rational dismissiveness. My neighbors once shared with us a very amusing post on NextDoor in which some well-meaning busybody began his advice with the immortal words: “I’m not a neurologist per se . . .” I’m pretty good on a few subjects, but if I started lecturing my friend the orthopedic surgeon on orthopedic surgery, I suspect that he wouldn’t even bother laughing at me — he would just be confused. We understand that dynamic in almost every sphere of life except politics, because we get confused about what democracy means: Democracy means one vote is as good as another, but it doesn’t mean that one thought, one sentence, or one point of view is as good as another. It doesn’t even mean that one voter is as good as another, only that we have agreed to give each vote equal weight as a procedural convenience.

(The fact that those equal votes are based on unequal values is where democracy gets kind of interesting — de jure equality has a complicated relationship with de facto inequality.)

Contempt is a natural — and good — byproduct of a rightly ordered understanding of public life and the hierarchy associated with it, as much as we good democrats and egalitarians instinctively resist any acknowledgement of hierarchy. Some things — and some ideas, and some writing, and some morals — really do belong at the bottom of the pile. And, with all due concern for Christian charity, so do some people.

(Put an asterisk next to “Christian charity” if you like, but Jonah Goldberg, who describes himself as an “Upper West Side demi-Jew,” exhibits more of that than most political commentators do.)

So, a plea to political writers and pundits and such: Try not to spend so much time responding to Twitter and its ilk. You may be well-intentioned, but you aren’t doing the world any favors.

More Monkeys

And now, let me set aside my own advice. I was thinking about particularly rank comments sections and took a peek — against my better judgment — at the Washington Post, specifically at the comments at the bottom of a Jennifer Rubin column. (Related to points above: There’s plenty to criticize about Rubin, but she doesn’t write the comments.) The first one that caught my eye:

When the Republican Party has spent the past 75 years supporting candidates who advocate racist, xenophobic, misogynist policies and oppose environmental protection and public health programs, etc, etc, — then support for candidates who are election deniers is just another evolutionay adaptation in the Party’s nihilistic, anti-democractic agenda.

So, there’s regular illiteracy (I didn’t fix anything), and there’s historical illiteracy, too: If racism is your master criterion, then consider that 75 years ago, the nation was looking forward to the presidential election of 1948, in which Democrats divided their votes between Harry S. Truman, who had joined the Ku Klux Klan to advance his political career, and Strom Thurmond, a vile racial opportunist who broke with the mainstream of his party and ran as a segregationist “Dixiecrat” insurgent, while Republicans backed Thomas Dewey, a New York governor whose hallmark accomplishments included signing the first state law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment — way back in 1945, when Democrats following Franklin Roosevelt were busy herding Americans into concentration camps because of their ancestry.

Outrage is intoxicating, and, like all intoxicants, it makes you stupid.

And Furthermore . . .

Here’s an observation: You can tell a great deal about somebody by how he responds to the sound of a crying baby. It is an aural Rorschach test.

There is a podcast called “Millennial History,” and “a podcast called ‘Millennial History’” sounds to me like the soundtrack to life in Hell, but it is, in fact, pretty good. One episode that stuck with me talks about life growing up in an orphanage in Romania under communism, in the last days of Nicolai Ceausescu.

You would think that orphanages would be loud — very loud — with the sound of crying babies, but, as the podcast explained, the socialist orphanage was a terribly quiet place: The babies stopped crying because they learned that no one was coming to help them, and that their crying was a waste of energy. Babies are designed to learn, and that is what those babies learned: Don’t bother crying — no one is coming. That is one of maybe the four or five worst things I have ever heard, and it has stayed with me.

One of the best examples of the sort of behavior that used to be called, without irony, gentlemanly that I can remember came from a priest who was celebrating Mass in New York when a baby started crying in the congregation — a remarkably loud baby, a baby with the lungs of Pavarotti. The mother was embarrassed, but the priest — I am sure he had used this line 1,000 times — said: “We don’t mind crying babies in this place.” He gestured around the sanctuary. “That’s how all this got started.”

If man is man in the likeness of God, then every mother is a tabernacle. That is one way of seeing the world.

The other one is man-as-meat. I don’t think there is a third choice.

Words about Words

My friend and colleague Andrew C. McCarthy sends a question — “Prudent or prudential?” — and then does a far better job of answering it in the legal context than I would have. Writes McC.:

It is customary in the law to refer toprudentialrules, as distinguished from mandates. The idea is that, to take one example, the right against self-incrimination is a constitutional mandate, but Miranda is a prudential rule that is designed to protect the core mandate. The prudential rules become norms, often to the point that they become indistinguishable from the core they were first conceived to protect — e.g., the Supreme Court held in a 1990s case, called Dickerson v. United States, that the Miranda rule has now blended into the Fifth Amendment guarantee. And I supposeprudentialis better thanprophylaxis, another word to describe what prudential rules are supposed to do.

Prudent means careful, or having due regard for consequences. (Don’t write future consequences, as I almost did there: All consequences come in the future.) Prudential means involving or exhibiting prudence, requiring judgment, etc. A prudential decision is often discretionary, subject to guidance. For example, the General Prudential Rule of nautical navigation, in which “C” means “captain” and “V” means “vessel.”

The General Prudential Rule: C must consider all dangers of navigation, collision, & special circumstances, “including the limitations of the vessel”. C must insure V is properly manned & equipped including appropriate charts, weather info, etc., and have knowledge of other’s maneuvering practices.

Seamanship requires much prudence, based on experience: That is why we speak of an experienced hand taking a newcomer under his tutelage to “show him the ropes,” the literal sense of which is showing somehow how the rigging of a sailing ship is operated.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A “couple of things” or a “couple things”?

One of the long-term trends in the evolution of English is that, over time, English-speakers simplify and streamline words and expressions. “Couple of” is like many other “x of” expressions that have, over time, dropped the “of.” In Daniel Webster’s time, it was standard to write of a man having a “half a million of dollars” rather than “half a million dollars.” “A dozen of eggs” became “a dozen eggs,” etc. Myriad, from the Greek number word meaning 10,000, was in its earliest English usages a noun, used like dozen: “The Spartans faced a myriad of Persian mercenaries.” Over time, the of has mostly disappeared, and the word has evolved into a pseudo-adjective: “He had myriad reasons for concern.”

I suppose I would use “a couple things” if I were a political speechwriter, the times being what they are, even though I think a “couple of things” is less offensively democratic-sounding. I wouldn’t be too much of a pedant about insisting that a “couple of things” be two things and two things only — “a couple of things” can mean “a few things.”

Sometimes, English moves in the opposite direction, away from simplification and effacement. “What in Hell?” became “What in the hell?” after English-speakers stopped believing that Hell was a proper noun and started treating it as a common obscenity, like “What the f**k?”

I prefer my Hell uppercase.

By way of parallel, “Earth” should be uppercase when used to refer to the planet, “Life on Earth,” “What on Earth were you thinking?” and lowercase only when using “earth” in the sense of “soil,” i.e. “farmers who till the earth.”

Also . . .

Occasioned by a sentence above: Make sure you distinguish your de jure (by law) from your du jour (of the day). I have more than once heard someone ask for about the “soup de jure” and imagined Learned Hand in the kitchen.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

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Recommended

I enjoyed this essay in Slate by Rebecca Onion about world-without-men fiction. But I kept looking for The Elementary Particles.

Join the NRI Family

You guys all know your Hayek, right?

Right?

A little refresher about Hayek’s theory of social change: The way to really influence the thinking of a society, he argued, isn’t to try to identify and cultivate once-in-a-generation geniuses or to try to change the minds of the people at large through conventional mass-media operations and democratic electioneering, but to work in the upper-middle, with the people he called “second-hand dealers in ideas.” That phrase sometimes strikes people as sounding dismissive, but it isn’t — the people Hayek was talking about are important leaders in their communities, their businesses, their industries, and in other kinds of institutions.

I have a feeling that he was talking about a lot of the people who read this newsletter. And if that is the case, I have something that will be of interest to you.

National Review Institute does a very cool fellowship for college students, but we also have a very fun and interesting program for adults — and here I don’t mean policy-and-politics nerds but real people with real jobs and such — the “Burke to Buckley” Regional Fellowship Program, which will be offered in Dallas and Chicago in the fall. I recommend it, and not just because I participate in the program.

This is an eight-week program for the sort of people usually described in marketing copy as “mid-career professionals” — that means, more or less, people from 35 to 55 who have had a real job for ten to 25 years — with the aim of hosting high-level discussions and building networks of likeminded people who can help our ideas — and each other — advance through friendship and cooperation. Each class has 20 to 25 participants, coming from a pretty broad range of professions and industries and backgrounds. (You know, diversity — the meaningful kind.) This isn’t for recent graduates and isn’t really meant for political professionals or would-be politicians. If you really do know your Hayek, you know the importance of those “second-hand dealers in ideas.” If you don’t know your Hayek because you’ve been busy doing something like running a business, making money, etc., then . . . I’m pretty sure there’s going to be Hayek on the reading list.

The fall programs run from mid-September to mid-November. We get together over dinner and discuss the selected readings, which come from the foundational conservative texts. Each dinner is hosted by a guest moderator, usually a National Review writer or a fellow at National Review Institute, who guides the discussion. It’s something more than a book club but less than graduate school.

Some of the discussion headings are:

William F. Buckley Jr. and American Conservatism
The Founders’ Constitution
Economic Freedom and Political Freedom
Burke, Prudence, and the Spirit of Conservatism
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Fusionism
Mediating Structures between the State and the Individual
Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy
The Conservative Spirit and Civic Gratitude

It’s good to explore the ideas in more depth and detail, and it’s even better to make new friends who share your interests and values. This is really a good opportunity to do both of those things. My experience — and I think this is the common experience — is that it is difficult to really make new and lasting friends as an adult, and difficult to meet people who really share your values. And by that I don’t really mean political opinions but the values of study and discussion, good conversation, and continued lifelong interest in the things that matter most for our communities and our country. We talk a lot about Bill Buckley’s legacy and values, and two of the things he valued most were conversation and friendship. I expect that many of you have that in common, and I know I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve met through the program.

The application deadline is July 15. There’s a webpage with more information and the application right here.

In Closing

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Martyrs of Ararat or the “Ten Thousand Martyrs,” formerly a popular Christian celebration of 10,000 Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity and were crucified en masse by the Roman emperor in retaliation. (That’s a literal myriad of martyrs.) It is a very moving story and a popular subject in Renaissance painting, the kind of stark religious example that has everything you might want except for the part about being true. The legend first appears some several centuries after the alleged incident, and, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, the story is “utterly improbable.” The cult of the 10,000 martyrs of Ararat was officially suppressed in 1969. There never was a St. Christopher, either, but you can still buy his medal on any sidewalk around St. Peter’s.

We do not need fictitious martyrs — the tyrants of this world are making new ones every day, and it is likely that the junta in Beijing will add Cardinal Zen to the Christian martyrology. The cardinal, in a laconic observation for the ages, remarked after his arrested by Chinese authorities:

“Martyrdom is normal in our church.”

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