THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
To the Victim Go the Spoils
"Since our new-found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, the white American male starts bawling for victim status too."
—Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint, 1993
Upon turning on the television in a Neapolitan hotel room in 1984, I was greeted by a program of surpassing tackiness: a combination game and variety show, featuring barely clothed female "performers" and impossibly clueless contestants answering astonishingly vapid questions. It was the sort of blatantly sexualized concoction that makes Americans bristle whenever their entertainment is branded as shallow and anti-intellectual by European commentators.
It was hard to reconcile the glitzy images on the screen with a story I had heard just a few weeks earlier by an Italian-American friend. His grandfather, still living in a remote part of southern Italy, had cut off all ties with his American relations because of an unforgivable breach of protocol: one of the grandchildren was engaged to be married without first traveling to his village to seek his consent. How was it possible for two such divergent Italian cultures to exist at the same time? What on earth would that old gentlemen have thought if he had ever peered into a television set and seen this parade of jiggling flesh? No doubt he would have thought that he was seeing a different world, or that it was just fake, perhaps an illusion perpetrated by the devil himself. If he had somehow managed to absorb the idea into his consciousness that this was indeed an efflorescence of his own society, he would no doubt have become deeply disheartened by the dark turn it had taken. Moreover, he would surely have wondered what place he had any longer in such a country.
These events were aroused from memory by a keen observation made by the novelist Mohsin Hamid, whose recently published Exit West depicts two young lovers dreaming of escape from their fictional war-torn city. Hamid's novel depicts one character who remains in the same place her entire life, but, because the world around her has changed utterly in that time, she has become a migrant nonetheless. Even those who remain at home run the risk of feeling lost and disoriented. This seems a particularly apt description of the many Americans who, since the election of the previous president in 2008, have been clamoring to "take our country back". In response, many have wondered, "Take it back from whom? And take it back where?" But this is a tone-deaf response that misunderstands the problem. The person who finds himself in the latter stages of his productive years to be unemployable or neglected or simply passé, is not being unreasonable in feeling that he's gotten a raw deal. The world he was promised has disappeared.
The English author L.P. Hartley is generally credited with writing, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
The migrant appearing from abroad, finding himself in a peaceful and prosperous land, is filled with hope and gratitude, even if he used to be a doctor or an engineer and is reduced to picking fruit or washing dishes for a living. It is all uphill from here. The jobless middle-aged industrial worker, on the other hand, whose life has tumbled steadily downhill and whose town has fared no better, is filled with despair and hopelessness, and considers the low-wage work undertaken by immigrants to be beneath his notice. It's not so much that he wouldn't stoop to do these jobs (though clearly some would not), but that they offer no path back to where he started.
Thus the self-confident hero of one's own life descends into victimhood. In this toxic field of helplessness and resentment, the demagogue and conspiracy theorist find fertile soil. The reassurance that one is not to blame for one's own demise, and the promise that the old world can be revived, both have an irresistible appeal. Never mind that the past is not only irretrievable, but that every historical attempt to recreate a lost era has degenerated into untold violence and suffering — not least because the reactionary mind is invariably haunted by scapegoats: rapist Mexicans, terrorist Muslims, capitalist bankers, elitist liberals, who must all be brought low or eradicated for true patriots to rise again. The only way to bring the dead back to life is to kill the patient in the first place.
When Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics in 1965, he was not referring to the characteristics of any particular public figure, such as Richard Nixon, who was the poster boy for political paranoia in his day. Hofstadter was exploring a much broader and more disturbing trend in American history: a persistent belief among a small but usually vocal minority that the country is under constant attack, from within and without, by evil forces that threaten to subvert our democratic form of government and take away our liberties. This predilection for conspiratorial thinking took root in the early days of the Republic, and its targets have changed shape to suit the political and social realities of their respective eras: first Freemasonry, then Catholicism, and later Communism, among others. Certain features are common to every iteration of this phenomenon: the existential fear of "the other"; certainty that our way of life is on the verge of annihilation; the complicity or even treachery of "elites" in undermining the nation; and a cult-like worship of political leaders who dare to speak the truth about the mortal peril facing the nation. And, of course, the dismissal of these fears by a majority of citizens as unfounded hysteria. Which, in turn, only deepens the conviction of the faithful, who see the apathy of the majority as symptomatic of the very disease they seek to cure.
And yet, though it is the special province of a small faction, the paranoid style never goes away. It continues to resonate with succeeding generations of the dispossessed, mostly white Christians who somehow imagine they are all descended from the founding fathers, and that none of their ancestors were little better than slaves themselves: indentured servants or just plain dirt poor farmers and unskilled laborers. According to Hosfstader, "it represents an old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life which has frequently been linked with movements of suspicious discontent and whose content remains much the same even when it is adopted by men of distinctly different purposes. Our experience suggests too that, while it comes in waves of different intensity, it appears to be all but ineradicable."
In other words, we are stuck with it. Every generation seems to product a catastrophist like Glenn Beck, whose ilk will always find an audience. Grafted onto today's America, the fears embrace different bogeymen: terrorism, globalization, multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism. It is tempting to find a left-right divide in these conflicts, but though the purveyors of political paranoia have almost always come from the right, it is not a perspective that ever aligns neatly with mainstream conservatism, or even opposes every tenet of liberalism. Global trade is an obvious example: now under attack by the radical right, it was always a special project of the capitalist establishment and the nemesis of the socialist left (notwithstanding the alleged international solidarity of the working man). Even some conservatives (who are out of office) fear the consequences of climate change, and even some liberals (who are in office) have seen the light on American isolationism. This paranoia-based political rift looks more like a standoff between optimism and pessimism, because nothing could be more pessimistic than wishing for a return to a place and time that no longer exist. Burning down the house will indeed send all the vermin scurrying, but a better house will not rise spontaneously from the ashes, and the provocateurs who supplied the torches, and who have very nice homes to live in far from the rubble, will be the first ones to praise the virtues of self-reliance when it comes time to building a new one.
It is rare for electoral politics and its rhetoric to be so portentous, and to adopt the terms of this centuries-old problem, but such instances have breached the surface of decency before. The most salient example is McCarthyism, which was a recent memory when Hofstadter wrote his essay on political paranoia. His analysis remains astonishingly prescient in describing the present moment:
If we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country — that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modern radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.
By "contemporary", he is of course writing about the 1960s, when the aftermath of the Communist witch-hunt still affected the lives of many people. We shouldn't be surprised if it sounds as if he is describing the current political situation, partly because he is writing about an enduring feature of the American mind and it should therefore be pertinent to any particular period of our history; but also because that last great eruption of American paranoia defines much of the atavistic thinking and tactical maneuvering of the present incumbent of the White House.
If one is looking for rationality or strategic thinking, however misguided, in the quest for a mythical past, one looks in vain. Andrew Jackson, who was looked upon by many as the ultimate anti-elite, a man elected president on the strength of his commitment to upending the status quo of his time, was himself a Freemason. The impact of that historical irony is hard to put in context. Imagine if Dwight D. Eisenhower, a pillar of 20th-century Republicanism, had actually been an avowed communist, and not just in the addled imagination of the John Birch Society. How did the anti-establishment, anti-Freenmasonry zealots of the 1820s reconcile themselves to the fact that their champion was a member of the very organization that had been the object of their venom for generations, a follower of a secret society so treacherous and deviant that it was deemed a mortal enemy to the young republic? Apparently, they did not, any more than working class Republican voters in 2016 dwelled on the fact that their candidate was an elitist New York billionaire. Historians may weigh in on whether or not the Jacksonian era actually put an end to the decades-long obsession with Freemasonry (and not long before the paranoid refocused their febrile attention on the impending threat of a Jesuit invasion) and of the lessons that episode holds for current and future instigators of anti-establishment fervor. Now, Jackson's portrait has reportedly been hung in or near the Oval Office, where another dutiful leader of his adoring flock can gaze with no hint of irony upon the visage of a predecessor who overturned his share of the White House furniture, and hastened the extinction of the continent's native population, but otherwise delivered a great deal less than the permanent revolution that many of his followers were expecting.
Some 30 years after Hofstadter's landmark essay, and many social upheavals later, Robert Hughes published Culture of Complaint. Hughes, a left-winger of a now largely extinct variety, is best remembered as an art critic and for an insightful history of his native Australia. But like Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, this largely forgotten 200-page rant against the nascent evils of political correctness, the fetishization of victimhood, and the takeover of American academia by a petty and aimless radicalism, has a strangely prophetic air about it. Consider this passage:
…what's left of the Left would like to endow ordinary internal differences within a society — of gender, race and sexual pattern — with the inflated character of nationhood, as though they not only embodied cultural differences but actually constituted whole "cultures" in their own right. "Queer nation" indeed. At the same time, American conservatives are apt to take this futile attempt to draft multiculturalism into post-Marxist system-saving as though it represented some kind of reality. There is no Marx left to fight; so forth we go in knightly array against the vague and hydra-headed Multi. Thus both sides are trapped by mutual obsession, in an otherwise empty side-trench of an extinct Cold War.
How utterly depressing that, a quarter-century on, a largely imaginary cultural struggle that was already antiquated when Hughes wrote these lines still rages among the "elites". Recent events at Berkeley and Middlebury College bear out the dreary sameness of it all: speakers hardly worthy of conversation were shouted down by students and, in the Middlebury incident, physically attacked while attempting to retreat. Some will insist that the protesters were outside agitators, but even if that were so, they didn't need much help enlisting allies on campus, and it is utterly beside the point. The left has abandoned the ground of free speech and handed it on a silver platter to the right for the sake of — what? The hurt feelings of undergraduates? The doctoral ambitions of graduate students? The career security of professors? All of the above, Hughes argued, and then some. We have nothing to show for all these years of denying a platform to those whose views we abhor than a conservative movement that is stronger and more resurgent than ever. Speakers on campus are a dime a dozen, but censorship always makes headlines. A suicidal strategy if there ever was one.
A few months ago, The New York Times ran an obituary on Oscar Brand, the folk musician who hosted the longest running program in the history of American radio. When Brand invited Burl Ives on his program, it was too much for some of his fellow musicians. Ives had testified before the McCarthy hearings, and had named names. But Brand had a succinct response to his colleagues: We on the left do not blacklist. End of argument. How much credibility, how much political power, how much of the world we have lost by failing to adhere to that ethos?
In the same year that Hughes published Culture of Complaint, 1993, Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" debuted on Comedy Central. He dropped the title when HBO picked up his show in 2002 (ironically, after being dropped by ABC after he made a politically incorrect comment about the 9/11 attackers), but the mind-numbing debate over politically correct speech drones on into the void. For conservatives, it is the gift that keeps on giving, not only because it provides endless examples of liberal hypocrisy for right-wing fear-mongers to feed upon, but because it unfurls the flag of victimhood for conservatives of all stripes to march behind. Not only are you not responsible for the sufferings of others, but those who have long blamed you for their own suffering are actually the cause of your suffering. What could be more liberating? There may be no going back to the good old days, but at least one doesn't have to live with the indignity of watching others less deserving march forward into a future in which you and your kind are not welcome.
The party of Lincoln, TR and Reagan, the party that used to stand for personal responsibility and moral uplift, has now become just another pressure group, angling for its slice of what feels like an ever-diminishing pie. Now that the downward cycles of poverty, substandard education, addiction, incarceration and family dysfunction have engulfed those white Americans at the bottom end of the economic ladder, victimhood is now firmly entrenched in the conservative portfolio. The election of 2016 has made this much clear: family values, religious morality, independence and old-fashioned Midwestern decency can't hold a candle to the solidarity of white victimization. Give credit to a conservative writer like J.D. Vance, who chronicles the ills of the society from which he came but does not excuse the bad decisions that brought so many of his friends and family down. But he is the exception, not the rule. Moreover, he offers little in the way of solutions other than the standard right-wing exhortations to get one's act together and forget about government assistance. It matters little what thoughtful conservatives say, anyway, because the airwaves shriek all day every day with people to blame: immigrants, free-traders, liberals, feminazis, tree-huggers, bureaucrats, minorities. As if we weren't all immigrants once, or don't all care about free speech, or want to see nature utterly destroyed, or don't rely to some degree on the government for our well-being. For at least two generations, the beleaguered minorities have shown the way, and the way is to take no responsibility for ourselves. If there are people out there who hate us and want to do us harm, doesn't that make us an oppressed minority by definition? It is how millions of all colors have come to define their identity: the new American way. Why should anyone have been surprised that we elected a president who oozes persecution from his every pore?
Hughes wrote, "The right needs a left: if the battlements of Western culture were not under continuous siege, what would happen to their defenders?" For two-and-a-half centuries, a part of the right-wing fringe searched in vain for an adversary worthy of its paranoia. Now that most of America's real enemies have withered away (notwithstanding Islamic fundamentalism and North Korean despotism, which are serious problems but much more threatening to some of our allies than they are to us) the right has discovered something much better than mere paranoia. The beauty of victimhood is that, once it becomes enfolded in the culture, it doesn't need plausible enemies. Any old hobgoblin will do. What do you have lying around? Mexicans, Chinese, Muslims, government agencies, Democrats: they'll do just fine. Blame the gun laws. Blame the EPA. Blame public television. Blame the war on Christmas. Blame Canada. If you feel downtrodden enough, you can blame the weather and get away with it. We are all victims now.
Officials in India have mooted an idea that seems shocking in its simplicity: a minimum basic income for all citizens.
At the very thought of it, the American sensibility shivers to its Calvinist roots. A host of slogans and catch-phrases leap into ones' throat: dependency, entitlement, permanent underclass, the dignity of work, welfare cheats, redistribution. How will the nation pay for it? And why should it bother?
First, we can barely imagine the levels of grinding poverty in which vast numbers of Indians live even today in order to understand that an income of extremely meager proportions would still be a vast improvement for many of them. Second, some economists reckon that if India could merely correct the inefficiencies and eliminate the corruption in its vast array of existing and overlapping welfare programs, it could very nearly afford to provide a basic income to everyone. And third, our revulsion at this idea reflects a Puritanical worship of daily toil, and of the people who are forced to do it, that has been centuries in the making.
Could it even happen here? To a surprising extent, it already has. The United States of America already provides a guaranteed minimum income to 66 million of its citizens: Social Security. The majority of those people are seniors, who are deemed to have earned the right to this modest pension because they paid into the system while they were working. True enough, but Social Security recipients are not literally being reimbursed from the taxes they paid into the system years ago. Those taxes are long gone, having paid for the benefits of people who were retired at the time. If not for the contributions of current workers, there would be no money to pay anyone more than a pittance today. Moreover, more than 14 million Social Security recipients are disabled people younger than 65, a great many of them adults of working age. Some of these people are truly disabled, but reporting has shown that a significant number of them, perhaps a majority, are not in fact too disabled to work. Many have medical conditions that millions of other people manage to live with while working. But they happen to live in places where there isn't any work for them any more, and/or their unemployment benefits have run out, and/or they have no other means of support, and/or they have no ability to relocate — and a doctor signed a form stating that they were physically unable to work, if for no other reason than there was just no other option for them but destitution. The government has effectively told these people that they are not expected to work ever again, and while many of them would if they could, no outcry has been heard rising from the land or from the right-leaning halls of power denouncing the government for this act of unintended mercy, or condemning the recipients for their laziness.
Perhaps that's because most of these people are not minorities or other representatives of the "undeserving poor", but are former members of the white working class. One of the unexpected benefits of victimhood is that it absolves you of having to explain yourself. ("I'm an oppressed person, that's why.") But whatever the reason, we Americans, the world's standard-bearers of the work-ethic, mockers of the French month-long summer vacation and haters of idleness in all its forms (golfing presidents excepted), have quietly taken a significant step toward guaranteeing that no citizen shall be destitute because he or she simply cannot find a job. If we can someday manage to add free or low-cost college tuition and Medicare for all to the basic rights of citizens, we could free most of us from having to worry about temporary misfortunes turning into life-altering calamities. The more people receive an entitlement, the more perilous it is politically to take it away, which is precisely why conservatives resisted Obamacare so forcefully, and why repealing or even amending it now is proving difficult: a perfect example of how attempting to turn back time always inflicts casualties.
If we fear becoming a society of dependency, get over it: that ship has long sailed. The underclass is not only permanent but growing. The plain truth is that many more jobs are lost to technology and automation than to outsourcing or cheap immigrant labor, and nothing is going to significantly or permanently reverse that trend. We just don't need as many workers as we once did to maintain the economy, but haven't figured out what to do with all those people whose labor is now superfluous. Making them feel like victims is a salve but will do nothing to alter this new reality. If we fear being a society in which the rich handily pit one group against another to make sure that the vast legions of the have-nots never make common cause against the haves, then a basic minimum income may be an idea worth considering. Studies have shown that unhappiness does not arise in a vacuum, but depends on one's status in relation to others. The unfairness quotient is based entirely on our expectations of what is due to us, rising mainly when someone else is deemed to get something we don't.
Imagine if you can't ever find a job but your kids can still go to college. Imagine all your health care needs being taken care of from birth to death. Call it socialism, call it communism, call it Freemasonry if you prefer. No matter, because the world is going to keep on changing, and while the young and adventurous will be thrilled to go along for the ride, there are others, through no fault of their own, who are going to be left behind. We can make them feel like victims, we can hold up a mirror to an imaginary golden age, offering false hopes and empty solutions, or we can make them comfortable. Victimhood will seem like small consolation when you could have had happiness all along.
March 21, 2017
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