Our virtues lose themselves in selfishness
as rivers are lost in the sea.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 she will not only be the nation’s first woman president but our second affirmative-action president. By affirmative-action president I mean that she, like Barack Obama, will have got into office partly for reasons extraneous to her political philosophy or to her merits, which, though fully tested while holding some of the highest offices in the land, have not been notably distinguished. In his election, Obama was aided by the far from enticing Republican candidates who opposed him, but a substantial portion of the electorate voted for him because having a biracial president seemed a way of redressing old injustices. They hoped his election would put the country’s racial problems on a different footing, which sadly, as we now know, it has failed to do. Many people voted for Obama, as many women can be expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, because it made them feel virtuous to do so. The element of self-virtue—of having an elevated feeling about oneself—is perhaps insufficiently appreciated in American politics.
How have we come to the point where we elect presidents of the United States not on their intrinsic qualities but because of the accidents of their birth: because they are black, or women, or, one day doubtless, gay, or disabled—not, in other words, for themselves but for the causes they seem to embody or represent, for their status as members of a victim group? It’s a long but not, I think, a boring story.
In recent decades, vast numbers of people have clamored to establish themselves or the ethnic group or sexual identity or even gender to which they belong as victims of prejudice, oppression, and injustice generally. E. M. Forster wrote of “the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” Owing to the spread of victimhood, we have today a large aristocracy of the suffering, the put-upon, and the unlucky. Blacks, gays, women, American Indians, Hispanics, the obese, Vietnam veterans, illegal immigrants, the handicapped, single parents, fast-food workers, the homeless, poets, and anyone else able to establish underdog bona fides can now claim to be victims. Many years ago, I watched a show on television that invited us to consider the plight of unwed fathers. We are, it sometimes seems, a nation of victims.
Victims of an earlier time viewed themselves as supplicants, throwing themselves on the conscience if not mercy of those in power to raise them from their downtrodden condition. The contemporary victim tends to be angry, suspicious, above all progress-denying. He or she is ever on the lookout for that touch of racism, sexism, homophobia, or insensitivity that might show up in a stray opinion, an odd locution, an uninformed misnomer. People who count themselves victims require enemies. Forces high and low block their progress: The economy disfavors them; society is organized against them; the malevolent, who are always in ample supply, conspire to keep them down; the system precludes them. Asked some years ago by an interviewer in Time magazine about violence in schools that are all-black—that is, violence by blacks against blacks—the novelist Toni Morrison, a connoisseur of victimhood whose novels deal with little else, replied, “None of those things can take place, you know, without the complicity of the people who run the schools and the city.”
Public pronouncements from victims can take on a slightly menacing quality, in which, somehow, the roles of victim and supposed antagonist are reversed. Today it is the victim who is doing the bullying—threatening boycott, riot, career-destroying social media condemnation—and frequently making good on their threats. Victims often seem actively to enjoy their victimhood—enjoy above all the moral advantage it gives them. Fueled by their own high sense of virtue, of feeling themselves absolutely in the right, what they take to be this moral advantage allows them to overstate their case, to absolve themselves from all responsibility for their condition, to ask the impossible and demand it now, and then to demonstrate virulently, sometimes violently, when it isn’t forthcoming.