The Magazine

Whose Fault Is It?

Laying the blame for blame.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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This might have been a funny book if it hadn’t tried so hard to be serious. It might have been a serious book if it hadn’t strained so hard to be funny. It might have been witty, it might have been clever, it might have been profound—it might even have been good. If it weren’t so bad.

Picture of a goat

No, not bad, exactly. Lord knows, there have been thousands of worse books published. But Scapegoat is so relentlessly mediocre, so uncompromisingly second-rate, that it might as well stand in for all that’s wrong with publishing these days. It’s a little sad, I suppose, to take Scapegoat as our scapegoat, the outward and visible sign of the true inwardness of our printed woes, but there it is. Somebody has to take the blame.

Campbell’s subtitle is A History of Blaming Other People, and if you’re actually interested in the topic, you could dive straight into the deep end, weighting yourself down with Rudolf Otto’s 1917 classic Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen or René Girard’s provocative study Le Bouc émissaire (1982). Or, if you prefer to lounge in the shallows of comic sociology, you could paddle around with something like Peter and Hull’s 1969 bestseller The Peter Principle or even Stephen Potter’s The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (1947).

The trouble with Charlie Campbell’s Scapegoat is that it’s afraid to wander much in either direction. Scapegoat is like a middle-aged guy standing by the three-foot marker in the country club’s blue pool. Over on one side, the serious folk practice their pikes and tucks off the springboard. Over on the other side, the children laugh and splash in an endless round of Marco Polo. And there in the middle he stays, slapping his belly from time to time—watching the pretty girls as they stroll by on the patio and wondering when they stopped noticing him. 

This book seems to have been relatively well received when it was published this past fall in Great Britain. Of course, that may be because, in British literary circles, Charlie Campbell is very definitely one of the boys: He is an agent for Ed Victor’s literary agency and the former books editor of the Literary Review, where (to his eternal credit) he ran the “Bad Sex in Fiction” prize, awarding annual nods to the most cringeworthy scenes of fornication in contemporary novels.

In Scapegoat, Campbell walks through various famous blamings: the Western world’s history of scapegoats, whipping boys, sin-eaters, and fall guys. William Tyndale gets a write-up, after his 1530 English translation of the Bible (which brought the word “scapegoat” into the general language) helped contribute to the upheavals of Protestantism. Sigmund Freud, Campbell somewhat strangely thinks, blamed everything on sex. Philip Larkin, Campbell even more strangely thinks, blamed everything on parents. Karl Marx put the world’s crimes on capitalism. The Elizabethans knew the Catholics were behind it all.

It all. Campbell is on the edge of understanding the key element of scapegoating, although he never quite crosses over into comprehension. He does have a moral impulse in his desire to get readers to “think more about the issue of blame and responsibility.” For that matter, he grasps the extent to which those who toss around the accusation of scapegoating are often themselves playing the blame game—a kind of meta-scapegoating of scapegoaters. It is, as he says, “a pattern of behavior that has always been with us.”

And yet, scapegoating as the great immoral phenomenon of human interaction—the often bloody act by which we use Satan to cast out Satan—does not always require that the person or group blamed for our woes be entirely free of guilt. Jesus as the model of scapegoats was, in fact, innocent; but those who saw Tyndale as a disturber of public order were not wrong. One of the reasons Tyndale translated the Bible was that he thought the public order needed some disturbing.

No, the key element in scapegoating is not that those blamed be innocent but that their guilt be taken as the great explanatory key: the magical evil that, once removed, will make all that was wrong cease to be wrong. Typhoid Mary wasn’t a scapegoat; people blamed her for spreading typhoid—quite rightly, as she refused to stop working as a cook—but they didn’t blame her for the existence of typhoid. The trouble with Campbell’s theory that we’re all scapegoaters whenever we blame is that it eliminates the possibility of blame. It’s a council of quietism and retreat.

Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning of the troubles here. Campbell’s description of the Dreyfus case is somehow both overdetailed and unclear, and the woolly section on psychology wanders through psychic structures, cognitive dissonance, and Carl Jung without ever convincing us that the author understands any of it.

Even the clearer parts of the book have a taint about them. Witch-dunking, Jew-baiting, McCarthyism, the king’s favorite. They all read like potted history: mugged up bits of almost-learning, plundered from standard secondary sources. When How the Irish Saved Civilization moved onto the bestseller list in 1995 it became publishers’ favorite model for how to write popular history: Throw a bunch of swotted-up facts together in a small narrative with a big thesis, and there you go. 

Lightweight as How the Irish Saved Civilization was, its epigoni have slipped further and further down into mediocrity. Not bad, exactly, but not good. How Blame Almost Wrecked Civilization—that’s what Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People is, in essence. Not the all-explanatory key to what’s wrong with books today, but a pretty good symbol.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.