Pliny the Younger was a gentleman of means and standing. He ascended the ranks of high Imperial Roman society, climbing from one magistracy to the next under the favorable auspices of Emperor Trajan. Pliny was a careerist. He did everything right.
In 100 AD, Pliny delivered a speech praising Trajan in the Senate, a Panegyricus. Among the many proofs of the emperor’s greatness, said Pliny, was his humility: Trajan had only a few modest statues of bronze, whereas his hateful predecessor Domitian had bedecked himself in effigy with shining gold.
But Trajan, beloved as he was, would stand forever in the memory of Rome. Those other opulent sculptures, said Pliny, already lay toppled in the mud, defaced and torn down in a gleeful revolution against the memory of the old regime. Pliny himself had participated in what scholars call a damnatio memoriae, tearing the statues of the old emperors limb from limb: “How delightful it was to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows” (52.4-5).
As if blood and pain would follow. As if by tearing apart the statues of the evil past, Pliny and his fellow loyal subjects could relish the anguish of Rome’s former oppressors, could hear their screams and know that justice had at last been done.
Compare this with the third season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, in which a sadistic racist from 19th-century New Orleans is magically lifted from her coffin and made to serve a modern black woman as a slave. The actual criminal, in the flesh, at last receives a taste of the hideous suffering she inflicted on black people in her own day. “There’s nothing I hate more than a racist,” says Jessica Lange’s character, the supreme witch, as she forces the white villain into servitude.
This fantasy of historical catharsis lies behind all the demands for racial reparations made today by BLM, Antifa, and their associates. An aching desire for revenge makes people deface images of the Founding Fathers and inspires the call to racially purge our boardrooms and schools. What mobs really want—as René Girard and Joshua Mitchell have argued for decades—is to tear the perpetrators apart with their own hands. But the perpetrators are all corpses, gone forever beyond our human capacity to enact justice. So the mobs tear down statues instead.
In an imaginary world, witches can resurrect the dead and make them answer for their sins. In the real world, there is only one person who can do that. God almighty has declared that justice is his; that it will be his job to mete out retribution and mercy at the last.
But our new Marxian vanguard does not believe in God, which is why they have concocted a religion of their own. It is a religion of endless self-abasement. America’s rioters demand that we kneel forever and plead for a forgiveness that is not forthcoming; that we confess a sin of privilege which we can never escape; that we sacrifice ourselves as ineffective scapegoats for the failures of our ancestors.
Emperor Domitian was a cagey autocrat and a brutal tyrant, to be sure. He was known for dispatching violently with noblemen who provoked even the least suspicion in him. And no words could capture the atrocities of racial violence that lurk in some corners of America’s past, though American Horror Story depicts a few of them in painful detail. I do not deny that to encounter those truths is to experience a very real and human desire for what our tradition calls suum cuique—the righteous judgment which gives to each what he deserves.
But it can’t be done. That’s why Pliny’s words are instructive: they tell us what really motivates the increasingly ferocious racialism that has broken out over the past several months. The nation of America—which is in reality the only antidote to racism this side of heaven—is being held hostage to an impossible fantasy, a displaced thirst for blood which will not be satisfied with black squares on Instagram and pious corporate displays of “solidarity.”
The natural endpoint of this is not kneeling football players. It is the guillotine, and worse. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that all human attempts to cleanse the sin of the world are ineffective—that only one Sacrifice can make us clean within. In place of that sacrifice, our new inquisitors demand the overthrow of the American regime. What BLM and Antifa want is blood for blood.
It cannot be had, so they will never stop—unless we stop them.