Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Conservative Culture of Victimhood

Not so long ago, it was in vogue for conservatives to accuse liberals of fostering a “culture of victimhood”. What this meant is that conservatives had heard enough of women, African-Americans, and other minorities complaining about inequality.

After years of telling women, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, the disabled and others to “get over it”, conservatives finally decided they would develop their own narrative of victimization. In recent years, we have heard that white men are an endangered species, that Christians are an embattled and widely persecuted group in the United States, and that conservatives face discrimination of their own, for instance, in academia. The latest episode in this unreality series is the assertion that there is a “War on Christmas”. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News claims this is part of the “secular progressive agenda…to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square”.

O’Reilly’s silly attempt to force a non-issue onto centerstage of public debate does not merit attention for its own sake. However, the underlying theme of white male/Christian/religious/ conservative persecution should catch our attention as it (a) runs counter to reality and (b) is an example of rank hypocrisy on the part of those who used to delight in ridiculing supposed liberal whiners.

Take a look at American institutions of power—Congress, the White House, the federal courts, corporate boardrooms. You will find the overwhelming majority of elites are white men. How many members of Congress are agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist? Similarly, few are gay, lesbian or female —the overwhelming majority is Christian, white, male, and straight. Congress opens legislative sessions with prayers. President Bush does the same at cabinet meetings. The White House has an Office of Faith Based Initiatives. Conservatives control both branches of Congress and the White House. The Supreme Court is as conservative as it has been for decades—the most “liberal” member is probably Justice Souter, a Republican appointee who would have sat squarely at the political center of past Courts. “Liberal” is a dirty word in American politics—when’s the last time a presidential (or any) candidate proudly declared him or herself to be a liberal? By contrast, President Bush proudly describes himself as a “compassionate conservative”. There is no infamy associated with identifying oneself as a conservative. “Liberal” brings to mind tax and spend, socialist, even communist. Years of overheated conservative rhetoric have made the word radioactive.

According to the CIA’s world factbook, three quarters of Americans are either Protestant or Catholic. (The CIA factbook also says 81% are white, but there is no separate listing for Hispanics so it is not clear exactly how to parse this statistic). Our president is an evangelical Christian who makes his faith clear in his rhetoric and his policy choices. Who exactly are these atheistic Grinches who supposedly wield the power to ruin Christmas and banish religion from American life? No one seems to have identified any hard proof of their existence. If they did exist, they wouldn’t get very far with their sinister agenda.

Why have conservatives seized on a rhetoric of victimhood? I don’t know—my guess is they realized (consciously or otherwise) it was an effective talking point, a good way to play on and redirect feelings of humiliation and anger that reside in white men and the religiously faithful who nostalgically yearn for a mythic past when everyone went to church, women knew their place, and (here I am sympathetic) high school graduates could find good jobs with benefits that allowed them to raise families and send kids to college.

If Bill O’Reilly has his way, we will waste our time arguing about figments of his imagination. The reality is that, though this is a multicultural country with no state religion, it is predominantly Christian, and (some) men have held on to their positions of power in elite sectors of society. 21st century Archie Bunkers have plenty to be mad about—stagnant wages, vanishing fringe benefits, a disastrous war in Iraq, failure to improve national security. Conservatives would rather have them get angry at those who have the least power to affect their lives—atheists, gays, lesbians, ethnic and racial minorities, feminists. Scapegoating is a an old and tired political tactic used to deflect responsibility from failed governments to powerless straw men. So is developing a rhetoric of victimization. Turnabout is fairplay. Hey, Bill O’Reilly: get over it!


Anonymous Oliver said...

great read!

12:05 PM  

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