Not too long ago, bold young conservatives were tramping from campus to campus denouncing the idea of "victimhood," suggesting that all those who complained about, you know, oppression, were just crybabies out to blame the world for their problems. Dinesh D'Souza, leading the charge, called for a vigorous assault on the "victims' revolution" threatening the nation's universities; he denounced the champions of victimhood as "Visigoths in tweed."
So it's a little strange that those who have been the most vociferous about denying the oppression of others--conservatives, whites, males, and conservative white males--are now eager to claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves.
The hugely popular Michael Douglas vehicle Falling Down features the adventures of America's latest candidate for victimhood--the Straight, White, Uptight Male--in his quest for truth, justice, and a life free from hassles. Douglas is perfect for the role: in films like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct he's lifted the most paranoid, politically incorrect white-male fears and fantasies to the level, almost, of art. "Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now," Douglas recently explained, "because of women's unreasonable demands." Now that he's taken care of the pesky Woman Question, why not take on the rest of multicultural America? (With an Uzi, no less.)
Newsweek, in its cover story on "White Male Paranoia" inspired in part by the film, asks the rhetorical question: Are white men the newest victims, or "are they just bad sports?" The article, relentlessly glib in style and content, manages to come down firmly and without equivocation on both sides of the question. But let's face it, it's hard to summon up much sympathy for the travails of the beleaguered white male. I'm a white man myself (and a reasonably uptight one at that), but I can't honestly say that I've suffered--beyond a little sunburn--because of my whiteness or maleness. I never have trouble hailing taxis and I can get buzzed into any jewelry store I want.
Maybe--skin excluded--I'm just not sensitive enough. It's not only the big things--affirmative action, charges of sexual harassment--that are making the Great White uptight, Newsweek reports; it's the little things as well. "It sounds crazy even to mention them, but they add up," Newsweek's David Gates writes, only partly tongue in cheek. "His cash machine asks if business is to be conducted in English or Spanish. . . . He's passed by a car, more luxurious than his own, booming rap music. . . . At preschool they're teaching his kids songs in Swahili: what happened to 'Three Blind Mice'--or aren't you supposed to say 'blind' anymore? . . . He hates the word womyn, and anything with the suffix -centric. He worries that he's becoming a fascist. He has been thinking about buying a gun." (That'll teach them Swahili-singing youngsters!)
In many ways these exaggerated claims of white-male victimhood are the direct descendant of the attack on political correctness that was so recently all the rage: the Newsweek story chronicling white male paranoia is the logical outgrowth of the same magazine's "Thought Police" cover story several winters ago.
It's really an astonishing feat of intellectual sleight of hand. By knocking down everyone else's claims of victimhood, conservative white men set themselves up for the big prize--if anyone accuses them of being the "oppressor" they can claim discrimination. By playing on the ample reserves of guilt that lurk within every liberal heart, the PC busters make the uncomfortable patrons of political correctitude squirm. Comfortable white guys who feel entitled to a life utterly free of interracial, transgender inconveniences certainly have a right to their own flamboyant claims of victimization. (It may be less a white thing than a male thing--or at least a privilege thing. A few well-fed Right-thinking men of color--Clarence Thomas comes to mind--claiming victimization by a cabal of feminists are as whiningly self-righteous about their supposed oppression as Michael Douglas is about his.)
It's amazing how easily conservatives can use claims of victimization to outflank the forces of political correctness. One dreary evening about a year ago, I watched in dismay as head PC-buster D'Souza (in a talk at Northwestern University) guilt-tripped the liberals in his audience into uneasy silence. This was the crowning irony of an evening rife with ironies. D'Souza's talk, to a crowd that seemed an equal mixture of the already converted and the unconvertible, was advertised in the school paper as a high-minded defense of traditional education against modern multicultural heresies. (In the advertisement itself the word "curriculum" was misspelled.) D'Souza spent much of the evening denouncing leftist "totalitarianism" on campus; on the way into the lecture I watched as a pair of campus police officers threatened to arrest a small group of socialists for attempting to sell newspapers outside the meeting hall.
D'Souza regards most claims of racism as little more than unfair whining. In his writings he sneers at those who "consider themselves oppressed" and blames the vestiges of campus racism he sees on minority students' "separatism." He devoted most of his talk to an attack on campus policies promoting "diversity," part of a devious PC plot allowing "unqualified" minority students to force themselves on schools where they really don't belong.
Despite the uncivil implications of many of his ideas, D'Souza spoke softly, phrasing even his most controversial formulations in neutral-sounding--and surprisingly politically correct--language, coating his arguments with a patina of quiet reasonableness. While attacking affirmative action, he quoted Martin Luther King; he made a number of pointed references to his childhood in Bombay, as a way of reminding those in his audience (if they hadn't noticed already) that he too is a person of color. This concern with concern is a new thing for D'Souza, who famously started his career, at the Dartmouth Review, as a kind of right-wing pit-bull journalist. The old D'Souza "outed" gay students against their will; the new D'Souza denounces "odious name-calling and jeering" and calls for (or, rather, demands) "civility."
It's hard, in the abstract, to argue with that. But D'Souza has a highly peculiar, and limited, definition of "civility"--one should be civil, that is, to him. Just moments after a prolonged and seemingly gratuitous attack on university programs designed to encourage racial and gender sensitivity among students, D'Souza was demanding an even greater sensitivity from his audience--toward people like himself. D'Souza implied that anyone who challenged him in anything but the most measured language was by definition challenging "rational debate" itself. He redefined disagreement with his ideas as a dire symptom of intolerance. What D'Souza had done, I realized later, was turn liberal guilt on its head--transforming sensitivity toward women and minorities into an example of PC "totalitarianism" while elevating the hurt feelings of young conservatives to the center of the campus debate.
The strategy worked. Those in the audience who disagreed with D'Souza made only tentative and timid criticisms of his views, downplaying their anger and ceding to D'Souza the terms of the debate--and those few who responded with obvious anger ended up looking vaguely hysterical. (D'Souza's supporters were less restrained: one enthusiastic Northwestern senior prefaced his questions by saying "I am absolutely thrilled and honored to be in your presence; I've been a fan of yours for about a year and I agree with about 100 percent of what you've been saying.") D'Souza at least made one thing clear to me, which the continuing debates over victimization have made even clearer: guilt is a terrible basis for politics. Liberal guilt, if properly manipulated, can easily overwhelm liberal ideology.
The redefinition of victimhood is such a central part of contemporary conservative ideology that it was only a matter of time before someone wrote a book about it. Charles Sykes, the prolific author of two previous anti-PC diatribes (ProfScam and The Hollow Men), has rushed once again into the breach.
In A Nation of Victims, Sykes argues that America has become self-indulgent, as an endless number of groups (from ethnic minorities to "shopaholics") have swamped the political landscape with lurid, and often contradictory, claims to victimhood. America is faced, Sykes argues, with a "Revolution of Rising Sensitivities." Everyone claims their own wounds. "The National Anthem has become The Whine," Sykes whines. "Americans act as if they had received a lifelong indemnification from misfortune and a contractual release from personal responsibility." Sykes, it is fair to say, is not much enamored of these developments.
As a literary enterprise, A Nation of Victims has little to recommend it. The book loses steam about ten pages into the first chapter; the rest offers only endless restatements of the original premise, pedestrian summaries of the ideas of others, and a whole series of pointless digressions (called "chapters"). These chapters leap from topic to topic, from century to century, with no logic beyond that of free association. He can't sustain an argument for more than a few pages at a time, and 7 of the book's 18 chapters are ten pages or less--reflecting an attention span short even by TV-generation standards. The book does have, though, a certain utilitarian function--as a compilation of various contemporary conservative ideas, most of them bad, about the notion of oppression.
Sykes does acknowledge that not all claims of victimization are fraudulent. "There are, of course, real victims," he notes. "Neither racism nor sexism are myths. . . . The handicapped still face the daunting barriers of everyday life." But if too many people get into the victim line, Sykes is convinced, then no one will be served. "Victimism reaps its advantage at the direct expense of those most deserving of compassion," he argues. "If everyone is a victim, then no one is." (His italics.)
There is a shred of logic to this approach: some people, after all, are more oppressed than others, and it makes little sense to consider the psychic dilemmas of, well, Michael Douglas as being on a par with those faced by the inner-city poor, which are compounded by drive-by shootings, evictions, lousy health care, police harassment, and all the other little annoyances that accompany being financially challenged and the wrong color to boot. But, predictably, Sykes's concern for what he calls "real victims" is about as hollow as Reagan's affected concern for the "truly needy." He tries to set competing victims against each other, to convince us that what he calls "victimism" is more debilitating than victimization, that "genuine victims" face their greatest dangers from "bogus victims" moving in on their turf. Sykes ominously warns, "Our concern for the genuine victims of misfortune is sorely tested as the list of certifiable victims continues to grow."
The real purpose of this book, it is quickly apparent, is to deny the legitimacy of virtually all claims of victimization. So while on one page Sykes waxes semieloquent about the elevated "moral vocabulary" of the civil rights movement, on another he denounces the higher expectations that followed in the wake of that movement, the "shrill rhetoric of unconditional demand" that emerged from "the raucous parade of gays, Native Americans, the elderly, the handicapped," and others who came forward in the 1960s and 1970s to demand justice. On one page Sykes argues, in his typically graceless prose, that "of all the groups clamoring for rights, the demands of the physically handicapped are the most compelling"; four pages later he denounces the "victimist creativity" of the Americans With Disabilities Act, quoting with evident relish conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke's account of the signing of the bill: "People in wheelchairs were yelling at the deaf to sit down and the blind were bumping the palsied with their dogs. . . . In a crueler age some onlookers might have laughed, but we never laugh at misfortune today. In fact, we're all trying to get in on it." So much for sensitivity.
There are many ironies (one could say contradictions) in Sykes's book, not least that his notion of "victimism" is almost wholly a figment of his own imagination: if the current terminology is any indication few people actually embrace victimhood with the glee Sykes supposes. There are of course a great many people who can describe the specific ways in which they have been victimized--by racism, by sexism, by ignorance, by governmental neglect. And why shouldn't they? But people tend to describe themselves as "incest survivors" not "incest victims," "people with AIDS" not "AIDS victims." The distinction is crucial. These terms, and others like them, are not simple euphemism; they are assertions of dignity and selfhood in the face of real problems. Sykes and D'Souza could learn from these people--about real sensitivity, and about real strength--if they weren't so eager to ridicule. Perhaps even Michael Douglas could learn some humility. There is, after all, a difference between suffering and self-indulgence.
A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character by Charles J. Sykes, St. Martin's Press, $22.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.