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.
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"?