Thursday, December 30, 2010


I'd like to share a few vague and ill-formed thoughts on an important topic: The strange allure of "victim" status.

In recent posts, we looked at some well-known instances of women who brought false rape accusations. Statistics indicate that the problem may be worse than previously supposed.

Now zoom out for a larger view.

One of those earlier posts referenced the case of Lauren Stratford (real name: Laurel Rose Willson), who wrote a popular book about her alleged persecution by conspiratorial Satanists. Later, she claimed to be a concentration camp survivor -- even though documentation proves that she spent her childhood in Canada. Her "camp" memories were seconded by one Binjamin Wilkomirski, another fraud.

Inevitably, the exposure of the Stratford and Wilkomirski hoaxes proved useful to the Holocaust revisionists -- who are themselves fraudsters of a different sort.

Without giving aid or credence to the "revisionist" goon squads, we may fairly ask: Just how many Laurens and Binjamins are out there? I'm not just talking about false Holocaust claimants, of which there are, fortunately, only a handful. I'm talking about a widespread cultural disease with a dizzying variety of symptoms.

The sorry history of this planet offers many genuine cases of oppression, persecution, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and genocide. We must find ways to talk about the dangers of "victim chic" while maintaining proper respect for the real victims, of which we have an appallingly abundant number.

Take, for example, the religion known as Wicca.

Like all other religions, Wicca has its foundation myths. Practitioners like to pretend that theirs is the world's most ancient religion, even though it was actually invented by a genial oddball named Gerald Gardner in the 1930s. So far, so harmless.

Less innocent, perhaps, is the Wiccan rallying cry: "No more burning times!" Many self-proclaimed "witches" identify themselves with the victims of the great European witch hunts of the early modern period. Worse, they have an utterly skewed idea of that history.
A figure of nine million victims (or "nine million women" killed) in the European witch-hunts is an influential popular myth in 20th century feminism and neopaganism.
Voigt's and Roskoff's nine million figure is too high by a factor of at least 100 according to modern estimates, but it has kept on being repeated throughout the second half of the 20th century, by Gerald Gardner (1954) and subsequently in Gardnerian Wicca and second wave feminism, as late as in the 1990 The Burning Times film and the lyrics of the 2005 Burning Times album by Christy Moore.
The best books I've read about the witch hunts are Norman Cohn's Europe's Inner Demons and Elliot Rose's wittily-titled A Razor for a Goat (the "razor" being Occam's). According to these scholarly works, the number of victims was roughly 50,000. Men and women were persecuted equally, and the barbarism was (slightly) worse in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries.

Yet the legends live on. Many people today believe that wearing a pentagram and repeating the phrase "blessed be" confers spiritual kinship with the persecuted millions.

True, today's fundamentalist Christians have been known to spread nonsensical conspiracy stories about witches. But paranoia does not justify counter-paranoia, myth does not justify counter-myth, and screwing with history is always uncool.

Speaking of fundamentalist Christians...

At some point in the 1970s, they began to circulate the myth that their imaginary "one world government" would soon try to quash their faith. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, a strange, quasi-samisdat literature persuaded millions that the American government had already erected concentration camps designed to be filled, one day, by the followers of Jesus. Many people still believe this malarky.

Those who traffic in this legend can point to actual examples of persecution of Christians -- in communist countries and in certain Islamic nations. Which brings us back to our main problem: "Victim chic" always justifies itself by pointing to real-world examples of victimization.

The Tea Partiers show us what can happen when the "Laren Stratfords" among us receive major funding. They have convinced much of the country that Obama has raised taxes, when in fact he has lowered them. They believe that Obama was strangled capitalism with draconian financial regulations, when in fact he gave the economy over to Wall Streeters Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. They argue that Obama has instituted socialized medicine, even though this administration's health care plan was a gift to the (unnecessary and vampiric) insurance industry.

These fantasies are credibilized by a kernel of truth: Obama has indeed been a terrible president -- precisely because he did not do the things which teabaggers believe he has done.

I suppose a few words must be said here about America's view of the Holocaust.

Over the years, American attitudes (both within the Jewish community and outside of it) toward that unparalleled crime have shifted. The nature of the shift is elusive and difficult to explain, although Norman Finkelstein has made an interesting attempt to find the right words:
My original interest in the Nazi holocaust was personal. Both my father and mother were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi concentration camps. Apart from my parents, every family member on both sides was exterminated by the Nazis. My earliest memory, so to speak, of the Nazi holocaust is my mother glued in front of the television watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961) when I came home from school. Although they had been liberated from the camps only sixteen years before the trial, an unbridgeable abyss always separated, in my mind, the parents I knew from that.

Photographs of my mother's family hung on the living-room wall. (None from my father's family survived the war.) I could never quite make sense of my connection with them, let alone conceive what happened. They were my mother's sisters, brother and parents, not my aunts, uncle or grandparents. I remember reading as a child John Hersey's The Wall and Leon Uris's Mila 18, both fictionalized accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto. (I still recall my mother complaining that, engrossed in The Wall, she missed her subway stop on the way to work.) Try as I did, I couldn't even for a moment make the imaginative leap that would join my parents, in all their ordinariness, with that past. Frankly, I still can't.

The more important point, however, is this. Apart from this phantom presence, I do not remember the Nazi holocaust ever intruding on my childhood. The main reason was that no one outside my family seemed to care about what had happened. My childhood circle of friends read widely, and passionately debated the events of the day. Yet I honestly do not recall a single friend (or parent of a friend) asking a single question about what my mother and father endured. This was not a respectful silence. It was simply indifference. In this light, one cannot but be skeptical of the outpourings of anguish in later decades, after the Holocaust industry was firmly established.

I sometimes think that American Jewry "discovering" the Nazi holocaust was worse than its having been forgotten. True, my parents brooded in private; the suffering they endured was not publicly validated. But wasn't that better than the current crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom? Before the Nazi holocaust became The Holocaust, only a few scholarly studies such as Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews and memoirs such as Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and Ella Lingens-Reiner's Prisoners of Fear were published on the subject. But this small collection of gems is better than the
shelves upon shelves of shlock that now line libraries and bookstores.
I cannot agree with Finkelstein. A lifetime of "brooding in private" hardly seems healthy or reasonable. Our society has greatly benefited from an intense and ongoing discussion of Nazi barbarity, and I certainly would not restrict the literature to a mere three books.

And yet...

I had a Jewish stepfather and thus can claim to have spent the 1960s and 1970s growing up in a family that was at least partly Jewish. My stepfather came from New York and had no relatives (at least no close ones) who suffered during the war.

He was the first to tell me about the extermination camps. Although he emphasized (correctly) the tragedy of the Jews, he also made very clear that Hitler had many other victims. In fact, he used to do a grimly comic impersonation of Hitler celebrating his ultimate triumph -- delivering a speech to an empty stadium echoing with recorded Seig Heils.

"I think that's what he wanted in the end: Everyone gone but him."

The lesson my stepfather took from the Nazi era was simple. The world is mad. He repeated those words like a mantra.

During the 1970s, many Jews came to a subtly different conclusion: Not "the world is mad" but "they are out to get us." The problem is not humanity; it is non-Jewish humanity. The presumed Gentile desire to kill Jews -- to kill for the sake of killing -- is considered preternatural, inherent and ineradicable.

Finkelstein seems to link this attitudinal shift to the 1973 Yom Kippur war. I think he's wrong.

That shift within the Jewish community occurred at the same time fundamentalist Christians began to spread bizarre stories about the coming "one world gummint" crackdown on Christianity. Feminists began spreading the myth that All Men Are Born Rapists. Anti-feminists began spreading myths about a non-existent conspiracy of man-hating radical liberals. A resurgent Nation of Islam under Farrakhan revived the myth of the insidious Dr. Yakub. (Farrakhan, Falwell, Kahane: Same guy, different names.) Conservatives spread rumors of Soviet troops massing at the Mexican border, just waiting for the order to invade the United States. (Those rumors continued to circulate as late as 1995!) During the Carter administration, talk radio started to blare warnings about the Bilderbergers and the Illuminati and other scarecrows which continue to haunt our landscape.

The "Satanic Ritual Abuse" frenzy exemplifies the phenomenon. Arguably, the aliens-raped-me fad of twenty years ago was simply the most outre symptom of this cultural disease. The madness continues with allegations of a "war on Christmas."

To give our lives meaning, we need The Other. To make our failures comprehensible, we need persecutors. To make our sins bearable, we need Radical Outside Evil. To define us, we need them.

I'm a victim; you're a victim; wouldn't you like to be a victim too?

Or, to phrase the question another way: Are we all victims of "victim chic"?
I'd gladly trade my trendy and chic "victimhood" for the right to marry my partner of 19 years. There's nothing glamorous about not having the same rights as others. It's simply ugly and stressful. I think a lot of people who embrace a victim identity are really quite comfortable in their lives and don't actually have any idea what it's like to have a second class status.

But then it's human nature to discount the suffering of others. Look at how many stigmatized groups have absolutely no empathy toward other stigmatized groups.

Humans are kind of pathetic.
To anonymous, in baseball, there is an american league and a national league, and each plays the game differently. It's still baseball, but one league has a Designated hitter, the other does not.

If somebody could come up with a different word besides marriage, but meaning marriage nonetheless, over time, every right a married couple has would probably be afforded to the new word for marriage.

Eventually, all rights afforded to married people would be afforded to those using the new word to mean marriage.

Find a word, and they will come.
Anonymous: I am not sure that Alessandro is right, but I am also not sure that he is wrong. As I've said before, I don't feel comfortable advocating gay marriage when I'm not in favor of heterosexual marriage. I suppose that, in an abstract sense, gay people should have the right to marry, but only in the same abstract sense that they also have the right to eat ground glass.
Long-term societal trends - they're often too large or pervasive to see clearly and make sense of.

Just looking back over the last several decades...
I think there is more emphasis on victim status now. And along with victims, there necessarily have to be victimizers. And there's something related - something about people feeling good about themselves by supporting victimized/oppressed people or groups. In a way, I think Anglachel alludes to this (particularly with regard to the Obama election).

You see it a lot on the left, with politically correct politics. It's not that the "politically correct" positions are wrong in my opinion. I think they're actually largely right. But the motivating impulse for many often seems substantially about feeling good about yourself - maintaining a positive self-image and a good image in the eyes of the community. And there's often a disconnect between real lived experience and the PC positions (especially when the latter start getting very "heady" and theoretical). There's also a lot of self-righteous anger (I don't know if this is related - but I have a sociological book that looks at how self-righteous anger and resentment tends to be highest among the middle class). And there seems to be more tribalism (Arthur Silber's posts are interesting in this regard) - people aligning more strongly with their self-identified groups.

As you note - there's something new and a bit odd with the shape of the current Holocaust industry. And it's not alone (it's just one such phenomenon among others). Injustice (e.g. oppression of/discrimination against groups based on race, gender, sexual-orientation, etc.) must be rectified. And actual victims exist in abundance. But...some of the emotional constructions - including some of the victimization emphasis - feels odd these days.

Blue Lyon has an interesting post about how empathy has dropped over the last 30 years (and narcissism has increased). I somehow think there's some kind of connection.
Relating to my comment just prior...

There was something that really struck me a while back in the Holocaust documentary Witness to the Spirit. A woman had taken in Jewish refugees, even though her own family had minimal food, faced punishment if discovered, etc. In the documentrary she was asked "Why did you take these pople in?" She seemed puzzled by the question - as though it didn't make sense, and replied "What else could I do". There was an immediacy. It wasn't about "doing the right thing". No "headyness", no calculation, nothing about self-image, etc.

BTW - personally, I feel strongly about the right to gay marriage (though I'm straight myself). IMHO it comes back to justice/equality for all.
50k is far too low for centuries of murder & torture. If I remember correctly the French government owned up to more than that. Anyway, I'll nominate a related phenomena-- boomers pretending to be former POWs.Surely all this victimhood is more than sympathy gleaning? Is it a offshoot of Munchausen (sp?) syndrome? Whatever, the Tea People ceertainly have been infected,
Marriage as a sacrament or as a blueprint for the passing of wealth from parent to (legitimate) child?

Here's one question that I would start with when exploring this topic. Beginning with the idea that the last several decades have generated a victim culture of sorts, is mass media a direct cause, and does the phenomenon's growth match the penetration of mass media in our daily lives?

Following that notion, there's something that I've been thinking about a bit over the last month. Does our perspective as individuals in an age where communications throw us into a much vaster pool of humanity than people have ever had to deal with at any other time in human history cause unprecedented occurrences of existential crises (of a sort)? If there's any merit to that, then I'm not surprised that some people will take the shortest path to finding some feeling of purpose.
Kissinger once said of Nixon, 'just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.'

I'd parallel that idea to say that just because people cry 'victim' doesn't mean they aren't being victimized.

History shows that Jews were completely and serially expelled from every country in Europe at one time or another, upon pain of death if they stayed and didn't convert to Christianity under threat of execution.

That's unique, leading to another Kissinger quote that since they've been persecuted for 2,000 years, maybe they're doing something wrong?

Sometimes, the 'other' one views as the source of all problems does indeed become victimized thereby.

The conditions in our angry country and world are ripe to place blame on 'others,' and those 'others' (like immigrants here) do indeed bear the brunt of victimization, even if they say so themselves.

I have respect for Norman, generally, and if the 'Samson Option' came out of the Yom Kippur war, then he may be right about the timing and cause of the shift.

--> XI : Wisely spoken, "(kinder, gentler appearing fascism)" .
Brand it "Fascism LIGHT" ?
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