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Why did Irish singer Sinead O’Connor tear up a photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live last month? She later explained it was because she had been abused as a child by her parents and that the Church had sanctioned such abuse. Later still, she blamed Great Britain and the Holy Roman Empire — which collapsed in 1806 — for causing her to be abused.
A Victim of
the Holy Roman
Welcome to the 1990s, the Age of the Victim.
Charles Sykes, author of the recently published A Nation of Victims, commented that "O’Connor is emblematic of the new shrill victim who justifies outrageous behavior and the venting of spleen based on her victimization."
Notwithstanding O’Connor’s Irish nationality, Sykes says that donning the cloak of the victim is a particularly American phenomenon.
"Something extraordinary is happening in American society. Crisscrossed by invisible trip wires of emotional, racial, sexual, and psychological grievance, American life is increasingly characterized by the plaintive insistence, I am a victim," Sykes wrote.
"We want to be a pain-free, no-fault, no-guilt society. Frankly I think a little more personal guilt wouldn’t hurt us at all," said Sykes.
Not everyone agrees.
"These are the kinds of arguments we heard against the rights of workers to organize, against social security and the right to dignity in old age," said Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine, California and Democratic presidential candidate. "In short, this is the time-dishonered point of view held by the haves as they try to crush the insurgencies of the have-nots."
Nonetheless, says Sykes, increased wearing of the victim label leads to what he calls "compassion fatigue."
Said Sykes: "There are real victims and people who have suffered genuine misery. The problem is, they tend to get lost in the shuffle."
In this case, said Sykes, "Bogus victims drive out real victims. There are so many claims that are so shrill on the nation’s compassion that this generates overload leading to backlash and cynicism."
It can have a major impact on the economy. One aspect of this mentality in America, says Sykes, is the steady rise in litigation.
Sykes cites as an example a family of tourists in Hawaii who, having been shunted to less-desirable lodgings by their overbooked hotel, sued not only for claimed economic losses but requested and received cash for "emotional distress and disappointment."
Said Walter Olson, author of _The Litigation Explosion_ and senior fellow
at the Manhattan Institute think tank, "You get to a list of grievances so long that you could redistribute the entire GNP without getting to the bottom of them."
Olson says that while not long ago people generally accepted some responsibility for their misfortunes or wrote them off as bad luck or "God’s will," today we live in a society in which we see every misfortune as a wrong committed against us that must be legally rectified.
Said Olson: "Getting along with people, forgiving people, has been thought of over most of history as being a virtue, not as being a chump. We’ve gone down an odd path when to overlook the possible chance of suing is something you should apologize for."
It is in the area of employment law and specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which goes into effect this year, that the chickens will come home to roost next, warns Sykes.
Said Sykes: "The ADA is going to open up a Pandora’s box of new groups of victims. It will be a radical expansion of the culture of victimization. Businesses are looking at a new flood of litigaton in an area where frankly nobody knows how liberally courts will construe this act."
Already, Sykes says, victims have been wringing employment laws for all they are worth.
He cites the case of a Virginia special-education teacher who sued in federal court after failing to achieve the minimum acceptable score on a standardized national test - eight times. She claimed she was handicapped because the test did not accommodate her slowness in understanding written and spoken information.
While a federal judge dismissed her suit, the appeals court overruled him and reinstated the claim.
According to attorney Julie M. Buchanan, a labor lawyer in Milwaukee, "Given the (ADA’s) broad coverage, along with its many uncertainties, it is a nightmare for employers and a dream for lawyers. Nearly everyone has a chance to be a victim now."
According to Sykes, "There are short-term advantages to victim status, at least three of them. First, the victim is always innocent. Second, the victim has moral authority. Third, there are specific entitlements and benefits."
But, he added, "I think in the long run, identifying oneself as a victim and building one’s power around this victim status means you’re always going to identify yourself with deficiencies and the inability to compete and flourish."
"The basic problem," he said, "is you begin identify yourself as one so oppressed that you cannot be expected to succeed. You’ve armed yourself with excuses that make failure inevitable. If you drop out of school, gamble yourself out of money, commit a crime, you’ve supplied yourself with excuses as to why it’s not your fault. It’s unlikely to be a formula for personal success."
Sykes quotes Jaime Escalante who, while a Los Angeles school teacher, had extraordinary success in teaching inner-city youths that later was portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver.
Said Escalante, schools today "tend to look upon disadvantaged minority students as though they were on the verge of a mental breakdown, to be protected from any undue stress."
Escalante said: "Ideas like this are not just false. They are the kiss of death for minority youth and, if allowed to proliferate, will significantly stall the advancement of minorities."
Said Sykes, "The end result of clinging to victim status is a sort of self-loathing."
Sykes reserves some of his sharpest criticism for those in the feminist movement who would treat all men as rapists, and all women as victims of their predations. In that view, society is hopelessly patriarchal and women hopelessly oppressed.
Said Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.: "The biggest damage has been to marginalize the women’s movement. It (the victimist mentality) has discredited the feminist movement."
Said Sommers: "One crisis for feminism is (the growing inability) to attract younger women. Younger women who are strong and have never had better opportunities are going to be turned off by an organization that casts them as helpless victims and pawns in a hopelessly patriarchal society."
Sommers said she recently attended a conference of the National Women’s Studies Association in Austin, Texas, where she saw "people saying they were victims when they had professorships and good jobs and have fared very well in the patriarchy. All these women’s studies practioners are doing well, they command huge salaries at respected institutes. I think it’s disingenuous."
Tama Starr, the author of the recently published book The Natural Inferiority of Women, a collection of quotes from literature deriding women, agrees.
"So much of modern feminism is concerned with asserting that all women are victims that I don’t want anything to do with it," Starr said. "I consider it disgusting. They’re trying to assert equality, and then get special treatement. The idea of group entitlement vs. individual treatment is repugnant."
The result of race victimization, some claim, was illuminated for all the world to see by the hundreds of fires and the looting during the Los Angeles rioting last spring.
The riots "were the direct fruit of this culture in which people have come to believe that they were being victimized by every aspect of society and that gave them license to erupt in righteous wrath," said Sykes.
Rep. Maxine Waters, defender of the L.A. riot
During the L.A. rioting, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, a black woman in whose district the rioting began, sought to justify the rioting saying, "That’s what happens when people are frustrated and angry and feel there is no justice."
Said Sykes: "I think you probably saw all the culture of victimization replayed in L.A. First, it was used to justify criminal behavior. Then there were all the excuses of, ’We can’t expect anything better of them.’ "
Waters’ comments aside, many black leaders have said that nothing justified the L.A. rioting.
"I’ve been thrown in jails as a result of civil rights activities in the ’50s and ’60s and my forebears before me were lynched," said Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington. "But it didn’t cause me to destroy my children and our property."
He added, "How can people say there is more prejudice now than then?"
Woodson says that when it’s not people — both black and white — who are shielding rioters and looters behind a wall of victimist indignation, it is black leaders shielding themselves.
"The whole fabric of the civil rights garment has been soiled by (those) who have used it as a shield from social responsibility," he said, citing such instances as a former Washington mayor blaming racism for his drug-use conviction and Rep. Gus Savage, D-Ill., using the same defense against charges of sexual misconduct.
"This has been a full-scale assault on the legacy of the civil rights movement and has devalued legitimate complaints," said Woodson. "Dr. (Martin Luther) King was truly targeted by J. Edgar Hoover, but he never once recruited black America to defend himself against Hoover because he knew the civil rights cloth was too precious to damage in shielding himself."
False accusations, said Woodson, have "played into the hands of racists. It provides cover fire because they know the public has become somewhat numb. They’ve just cried wolf too many times on the racial issue."
Dinesh D’Souza, author of the best-selling Illiberal Education, which documents the victimization phenomenom on American college campuses, adds that "Even if victimization caused every problem suffered by minority groups today, that doesn’t say one word about what the solution should be. I like what Booker T. Washington said, that moral worth is determined not by the degree to which one is a victim but by what he does to overcome that."
"We are measured," said D’Souza, "not by where we started out or where we ended up, but by what we accomplished in between."