The Magazine

Rebirth of a Nation

Valor and victimhood after September 11.

Mar 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 24 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The victim is the supreme authority on his own grievance. Others with something to say on the subject of the grievance in question must defer to the victim, whose unique experience as victim lends him an unimpeachable righteousness, which he does not hesitate to assert. Thus, one may be told that until one has gone through what the victim has gone through, one cannot really know what it's like to be victimized in this way--until one is black, a rape victim, gay, disabled, a war veteran, a cancer survivor, a family member of someone who died in a massacre, and so on, one cannot know what it is like, and so one ought to defer, if not shut up. It's worth noting that the appeal of victimhood transcends political divisions in the United States. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been tireless champions of "victim's rights" where the victimization is due to crime. And I have been at more than one black-tie Washington event in which a roomful of people including current and former senior government officials have stood up to cheer a conservative who has just finished describing victimization at the hands of the Left.

Victims come in groups, and typically these groups are minorities as against a majority that is responsible in some collective sense for the victims' unjust treatment. But this is not necessarily so. Women outnumber men, but it is no rebuttal to the claim that women are the victims of men to cite the greater number of women. The essential element is an imbalance of power, as perceived by the victim.

The paradox of victimization is that claiming this status is actually an assertion of superiority. Whatever handicap one suffers as a result of victimization, because the handicap is unjust, it cannot be said to diminish one. When a victim claims a right to fair treatment, those who have already been treated fairly (or better)--those with greater power--are called upon not only to treat the victim fairly but also to acknowledge the victim's status as someone who has been treated unfairly. This status is permanent, quite apart from the remedy of fair treatment, even if the latter is forthcoming. This status thus confers a permanent claim to speak with righteousness on the subject in question. And it will be up to the victims themselves to decide whether and when and to what degree the underlying power relations that gave rise to their victimization have really changed. This is what Bill Clinton means when he says African Americans are the conscience of the United States.

Yet the group character of expression of a sense of victimization is misleading. Regarding oneself as a victim is a fundamental expression of self. This is not to say that one has a choice; a woman who has been raped is a rape victim and is going to regard herself as such. But it's the rape of the individual that makes the victim, not the relationship between this rape and other rapes. Obviously, the fact that suffering is individual, even if more than one person suffers, is all the more important to cases in which a sense of oneself as a victim is, so to speak, more optional. Although I have ridden bicycles, I have never felt myself to be a victim of "motorism," as one professor quoted by Sykes claimed to be. That someone else should feel himself to have suffered this injustice does not enable him to arouse, against my wishes, such a feeling in me (although he is welcome to try; the activity goes by the name of consciousness-raising).

THE DANGER in making generalizations about victimhood is insensitivity. The conclusion that victims' claims ultimately amount to an assertion of superior status tells us nothing about whether they should be taken seriously as victims or in what way. Sykes, in "A Nation of Victims," has an answer to this, juxtaposing the newer "victimism" with an older "American character" whose ethic is personal responsibility; he finds the latter to be in a state of "decay," the result being a profusion of bogus "rights" claims.

But it's here, I think, that we meet another character of recent times, inversely related to but less recognized than the victim. He is the "unvictim." At his extreme, he sees himself as "a Master of the Universe," in Tom Wolfe's unforgettable phrase from "The Bonfire of the Vanities." He is personal responsibility in flesh and blood, in that he believes himself to be something very close to the sole agent of his own achievement. The unvictim sees his success as the product of his hard work, his persistence (especially in adversity), and his determination.