HOW ABOUT A
MORATORIUM ON BLAME?
by: Charles J. Sykes
H owever much it may have elaborated on the idea, the notion of the morally potent victim is not an invention of the twentieth century. (Not by any means.) In its religious formulations, this idea is as old as Western civilization, but its modern incarnation can be traced to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Throughout the nineteenth century, the moral imagination of American society was increasingly focused on the downtrodden and the oppressed, both foreign and domestic. Indignation at the wrongs suffered by Greek, Polish, and Russian peasants was matched by growing horror over the condition of the urban poor, malnutrition among the young, child labor, and the abuses of the working class in the nation’s factories.
Society could no longer regard such conditions as givens; nor was it in any mood to approach suffering with an attitude of resignation. Neither God nor fate provided a credible explanation for human unhappiness. In the increasingly secular nineteenth century, such explanations came to seem archaic and beside the point, if not crass and unfeeling. Suffering no longer seemed the inevitable lot of man. The mastery of nature by modern society and the advance of technology and science made these conditions all the more intolerable. Indeed, the seemingly endless train of human progress made the persistence of such misfortune appear increasingly outrageous. If a later age would see landing on the moon as a sign that society could solve any problem, the nineteenth century regarded as its own achievements with no less triumphalism.
Sewerage Systems were improved, nutrition enhanced, and diseases ranging from tuberculosis to typhoid fever and cholera were attacked with vigor and success . Disease, sickness, an pain,” writes Joseph Antato in Victims and Values, were no 0 longer accepted as a mater of fate. They were now understood to be problems to be broken down, analyzed, arid solved.’’ If man could wrestle with and defeat disease and death, if he could begin to erect battlements against chance and disaster then, all things were possible. Progress in medicine appea red to matched stride for stride with advances in economic and political enlightenment; mastery of nature Seemed to lead ineluctably to man’s mastery over his own fate. The nineteenth century’s optimism and compassion inevitably turned to the problem of suffering.
Intellectually, the culture had long been prepared for this embrace of compassion. But here we come to a source of confusion and misunderstanding. More than one tradition claimed compassion as its legacy, even though each represented a different world-view. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Christian tradition provided much of the moral vocabulary for social improvement and reform. But the rise of what would become victimism paralleled the gradual decline of specifically Christian faith. Perhaps this was a sign of the secularization of Christian ethics; the injunction to care for the poor survived the loss of its metaphysical basis. But to understand the cultural impulse that would later become victimism, we need to recognize the anti-tradition of secular compassion that arose not out of Christian bourgeois culture but as part of a bitterly hostile attack on that ethos.
ROUSSEAU AND THE ROMANTIC VICTIM
The impressive intellectual armory of the Enlightenment was first turned on the bourgeoisie by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was to do so much to transform the middle class into an object of derision and hatred for both the right and the left. For Rousseau, the bourgeois was “unpoetic, unerotic, unheroic, neither aristocrat nor of the people, he is not a citizen and his religion is pallid and this-worldly. He was, in short, despicable and embarrassing at the same time. Culture, liberation, and dignity all required that man cast off the shackles of the philistine interlopers and their vulgar morality.
Rousseau did much more, however, than simply hoist the banner of anti-bourgeois passion. He was the first to link the assault on middle-class culture with both the championing of the untrammeled self and the call for compassion. This trinity of attitudes-hostility toward the bourgeoisie, faith in the self, and the embrace of compassion—was to be the formula for modernity’s attitude toward culture, society, and politics. Allan Bloom argues that Rousseau “single-handedly invented the category of the disadvantaged.” Before Rousseau, Bloom writes, “men believed that their claim on civil society had to be based on an accounting of what they contributed to it. After Rousseau, a claim based not on a positive quality but on a lack became legitimate for the first time.” Rousseau’s approach to compassion bore little resemblance to that of the Christian tradition. Of course, given Rousseau’s emphasis on the liberation of the self, the two views could hardly be compatible, even though the rhetoric would often seem indistinguishable.
In Christian bourgeois society, charity, like work, was an opportunity to win salvation or (depending on the tradition) to demonstrate that one had already been saved. A mother of illegitimate children, a drunkard, the chronically unemployed, and the bankrupt spend-thrift all had a moral claim on those who were better off to the extent that they were in need. But it would have seemed incomprehensibly alien to the religious middle class to suggest that such misfortune conferred a special moral character on the downtrodden themselves. Still less would they have seen a remedy for the plight of the needy in efforts to raise their self-esteem. And all would have regarded as madness an ideology insisting that the avoidance of pain was the preeminent obligation of society. Although Nietzsche would later argue that Christianity had inverted the healthy moral order by exalting the meek over the strong, martyrdom was a status reserved for the morally strong. The saint suffered for his faith, and such suffering was redemptive. Like Christ, he offered himself as a victim, one, it was to be hoped for, without spot or stain. But the saintliness of these victims did not thereby make all victims saints.
Rousseau-and the Romantics after him-saw compassion very differently.
Compassion, in their view, was seen not as a sacred duty owed to God or man but as a way of refining one’s sense of self-identity and self-awareness. Self-satisfaction of egalitarian man is what Rousseau promotes,” notes Bloom. The sense of moral satisfaction that concern for the downtrodden engendered was, for Rousseau, an essential element in the development of amour propre, and thus had to be cultivated. Rousseau was actually rather pragmatic in the matter. If men were to think themselves worse off than others, they would develop base and vindictive passions. The only way to avoid this debasement was to find others who were more wretched. This would engender pity, and a sense of moral freedom and satisfaction to boot. Compassion and pity were not, however, absolutes for Rousseau. They would never, for example, stand in the way of self-preservation. Rather, they were passions meant to counterbalance each other, more ugly, passions. To the extent that man sees that he potentially shares the fate of the more wretched, his compassion develops a social bond with the less fortunate. Rousseau imagined that such compassion would “dampen the harsh competitiveness and egotism of egalitarian political orders,” and that such amiably sentiments, rather than self-interest, could bind society together.
But his approach, which Bloom calls “a hardheaded softness, could (and did) lend itself to self-indulgent posturing. For the Romantics of the early nineteenth century, concern for the downtrodden and with human suffering became not only fashion-able but a form of self-therapy and elaborate self-indulgence. Abstracted from the moral order, pity became contagious, turned first on a lengthening and shifting list of putative sufferers but ultimately back upon the self. Goethe’s Young Werther was only the first among many Romantics to throw himself upon the thorns of life and bleed. “Suffering itself became a vehicle for self-identity and expression” among the Romantics, notes Joseph Amato Sorrow, misery, and suffering provided fertile material for self-dramatization. Identifying oneself with suffering was a way to. assert one’s own sincerity and profundity. It served many as a. shortcut to “originality.” To suffer, as Jean Jacques Rousseau. founder and master of the art of self-cultivation, taught, made one sensitive, serious, interesting, something other than a superficial, materialistic, and vulgar member of the middle class,.whom artists and bohemians from Baudelaire’s time on condemn with such righteousness and spleen.
From the beginning, then, obsession with the self and compassion for others had been inextricably bound, and confused, in the modern sensibility. This linkage did not in any way detract from the moral weight and authority of genuine concern for the downtrodden; nor did it discredit real empathy with the unfortunate. But it did mean that what had once been a path to salvation was now also a means to self-realization; genuine moral concern had become virtually indistinguishable from aesthetic posturing. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a revolution of sensibilities had occurred. Through much of the previous century, James Turner wrote, “sympathy was a tenuous, fitful, and often superficial response to the distress of others. By 1900 compassion for suffering was second nature.”. Describing what he calls the “expansion of the human heart” in the nineteenth century, Amato remarks:
By 1900, great numbers of the Western upper classes took the possibility of the elimination of suffering to be a moral imperative....... By 1900, an awesome horizon of problems and victims, on the one hand, and possibilities, and dreams, on the other, had been assembled before the Western conscience for deliberation and action..... . .People now felt responsible for more than they ever had before. This new sensibility exceeded any specific form of conscience, any particular claim to justice, any special cause, movement, or program. Dominating so much of the Western conscience, rhetoric, and politics, this sensibility determined the moral assumptions of a whole civilization.
THE NEW MARTYRS
This new sense of moral obligation provided the moral and emotional basis for the metastasis of victim politics in the twentieth century, beginning with the proletariat and spreading outward, ultimately embracing the civil rights movement.
But the ethos of compassion had little patience for the counsels of caution and moral restraint advanced by leaders like King and Niebuhr. In part, the change in the moral compass of the civil rights movement can be traced by its shift in emphasis from seeking equality under the law to a focus on the vague and volatile concept of racism. In its original form, civil rights had guaranteed legal protections and had barred specific acts of discrimination. Antiracism, however, goes much deeper. “To fight against racism,” notes Julius Lester, “divides humanity into an us against a them. It leads to a self-definition as ‘victim,’ and anyone who defines himself as a victim has found a way to keep himself in a perpetual state of righteous self-pity and anger. . . .“ But the shift to racism had other advantages, which Lester recognized. The buzzwords of racism and victim were “designed to make blacks feel self-righteously indignant over real and imagined wrongs, designed to make whites feel eternally guilty as the perpetrators of those wrongs.
With passionate eloquence, author James Baldwin endowed victimization with the mantle of both moral power and transcendent insight, arguing that the oppressed actually had a clearer, purer vision of the world. They saw more and their testimony was incontrovertible. That man who is forced every day to snatch his manhood, his identity out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth, and, indeed, no church can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable.
The victim-as-martyr theme proved so potent that it transformed the rules of victim politics. “One no longer had to fear the charge of self-pity when detailing the suffering of one’s group,” critic Stanley Crouch recalls. “Catastrophic experience was elevated. Race became an industry. It spawned careers, studies, experts, college departments, films, laws, hairdos, name changes, federal programs, and so many books. Blessed are the victims, the new catechism taught, for their suffering has illuminated them, and they shall lead us to the light, even as they provide magnets for our guilt.” Victimism obviously worked. But it worked not merely because of guilt or fear. It worked because society needed victims. They had become the irreplaceable currency of self-identity and self-justification.
THE IDEOLOGY OF OPPRESSION
The impulse to regard society as a series of oppressions required more than the mere disposition to be outraged. Although the impressive armory of the therapeutic culture was at hand, an ideology was required. As the civil rights movement relocated from South to North, Gandhi, Christ, and Niebuhr were replaced by theorists of a radically different bent. Black-power advocates turned instead to Frantz Fanon and the French writer Albertn Memmi to provide the intellectual apologia for their undertakings. Fanon was to become a counterculture pinup and a mainstay of victimist university curriculums into the 1990s, while Memmi created a universal theory of “total” oppression that argued the existence of a privileged revolutionary morality.
What made Memmi’s contribution so valuable was his radical modification of Marxism’s insistence that class was the only relevant division of society and that the primary sources of oppression were economic. Memmi took a far more expansive view of oppression. He added to the list of certified oppressed victims blacks, Jews, colonials, French Canadians, the proletariat, women, and domestic servants. He was also a harbinger of the crucial shift from material to psychological measures of oppression. “Oppression,” he wrote, “is like an octopus; it is hard to tell which of its arms has the tightest stranglehold. Injustice, insults, humiliation and insecurity can be as hard to bear as hunger.”
Victimization could not be judged by any objective standard, he insisted, because even the apparently well-off could claim victim status. “It is clear that no one is oppressed in the absolute, but always in relation to someone else, in a given context. In such a way that, even if one is fortunate in comparison with others . . one may perfectly well be living in a state of domination.......” Meinrni’s second contribution was to blur the distinctions between these forms of victimization. All victims, he insisted, look essentially alike. “Their own peculiar features and individual history aside, colonized peoples, Jews, women, the poor, show a kind of family likeness,” he wrote; “all bear a burden which leaves the same bruises on their soul, and similarly distorts their behavior.”
And finally, Memmi presented the doctrine of universal guilt. He declared: “Everyone, or nearly everyone, is an unconscious racist, or a semiconscious one, or even a conscious one.” [Emphasis in original.] Racism was spread by literature and religion, and was “as intimate a part of the child’s familial and social upbringing as the milk he sucks in infancy.” Put in this light, racism was a charge that could never be disproved; it had been endowed with an immanent and metaphysical quality. Racism was also different from overt and provable acts of discrimination. Racism did not necessarily refer to behavior, but to a state of mind. Equitable conduct was no longer enough to prove one’s innocence; one’s innermost thoughts could now be brought to trial. Memmi was ready with the guilty verdict.
Memmi seems to have been something of a late convert to the recognition that American blacks deserved to be classified with other victims of oppression. If this lag seems surprising, it is perhaps well to recall that Memmi’s attitude was informed by the comparative sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust and colonials who lived in abject poverty and were denied even basic human rights. Writing in 1963, Memmi confessed a “slight hesitation” in placing American blacks among the ranks of the genuinely oppressed. But he made up for his slowness with incomparable zeal. Writing the introduction to the French edition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Memmi rejected all half measures. “It is the whole of American society that excludes, martyrizes and kills the black man,” he insisted. American blacks were the subject of “total oppression,” which Memmi defined as “a state which affects the human being in all aspects of his existence, in the way he sees himself and in the way others see him.....” There was “no one aspect of his life, no single action of his, that is not thrown off balance by this fundamental aggression.”
As if this might not be sufficiently persuasive to his French audience, Memmi went even further, drawing a direct link between the Holocaust and the treatment of American blacks. “In the final analysis what the white hopes for is the annihilation of the black,” Memmi wrote. [Emphasis in original.] “There is no reason why the Americans should not one day attempt against their blacks what the Germans, another white, Christian nation, attempted against the Jews.”
Not surprisingly, such views would lead Memmi to reject Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, conception of American society and his tactics. By 1965, he could scarcely conceal his contempt for King while penning tortured apologias for Malcolm X. Memmi saw King’s pacifism as a mere way station on the road to the inevitable “total revolt embodied in Malcolm X’s militarism. King, Memmi wrote, was pursuing a “restful,” feel-good approach, “a kind of collective Yoga, a lesson in relaxation and self-control. ... . .“ Memmi all but called King an Uncle Tom, adding that the civil rights leader was, deep down, “still the victim of oppression who persists in wanting to resemble his oppressor.” Memmi also noted that King “no longer has any authority in the North.” In sharp contrast, Memmi was fascinated by Malcolm X, whom.he portrayed as the inevitable successor to King. “The one is called forth by the other, follows on from it and rounds it off,” he wrote. In the rise of Malcolm X, Menimi detected “a new and fascinating chapter” in the history of oppression. He took note of Malcolm X’s demagoguery, his bizarre racist mythology, and even his anti-Semitism. But though he recognized Malcolm X as “the poisoned fruit of the black’s hatred,” Memmi shrugged off his shortcomings (he dismissed his anti-Semitism as an “illogicality”), insisting that “Malcolm is a genuine revolutionary, and the true spokesman of the black American revolt.” Memmi believed that the righteous rage of the oppressed permitted the suspension of morality and, apparently, of logic. Even as he denounced Malcolm X’s demagoguery and rejected his reliance on “scandalous” and “incredible” myths of black racial superiority, Memmi asked, “But where could a better source of self-respect be found than in these folk fables?” Fully recognizing the falsity and potential evil of this new pantheon of white devils and black angels, Memmi embraced the mythology of victimism. “The greater his past wretchedness, the more the black’s negritude must now be made to appear desirable,” Memmi wrote, adding that the “myth-image of negritude is a driving force in this revolution.” If we are less charitable than Memmi, we might imagine that he is proposing the doctrine of the Victim Lie-a falsehood that advances the cause of the oppressed no matter how scurrilous it might be.
These are myths, to be sure! A sort of mass delirium, as disastrous as those of the oppressor! That much is certain But if we are dealing with myths, they are more correctly counter-myths, the crazed reaction to the accuser’s own folly. Thus, if whites had turned blacks into monsters, Malcolm X was only returning the favor. After all, what choice did he have? Memmi denied that King’s approach was a real alternative. “King’s policy of love is scarcely less myth-inspired than Malcolm’s open violence.” Memmi’s counter-reality was also a counter-justice, in which the retaliation and violence of the victim “must transcend all justice.” Having relativized truth for victims, Menimi proceeded to relativize all morality. “Total revolt,” he wrote, “means also immoral, or rather amoral, warfare, fought under the one standard left: that of liberty, It is an unprincipled war, for principles have too long been used to mystify and grind down the oppressed.”
Even the “most evil deeds” are allowed to the victim. “For what is the meaning of ‘evil’?” Memmi asked. “The underdog was never asked his opinion of these fake definitions. The search for new standards and for a new order can begin after the cataclysm.” Here memmi echoed Frantz Fanon, who was an even more explicit and enthusiastic advocate of revolutionary terrorism. The victim of oppression, Fanon wrote, “is ready for violence at all times.” Fanon had also rejected the moral order of society for its creation of “an atmosphere of submission and inhibition” among colonized natives. The victim of oppression “laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him.....[ The masses.] insult them, and vomit them up. ‘‘
The first value to go in Faiion’s world was individualism. “Henceforth,” he declared, “the interest of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will he discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred-or everyone will be saved.” He drew no distinction, for instance, between the official roles of the colonizers and the individuals themselves. All were marked for death. “As far as the native is concerned, morality is very concrete; it is to silence the settler’s defiance, to break his flaunting violence-in a word, to put him out of the picture.”
But if all principles are discarded, all morality scrapped, on what basis can new standards ever be found? This is a question neither Fanon nor Memmi addresses. Nor do they explain how liberty can survive the wreckage of values (including justice) to retain a privileged status in the victim’s universe. But the rejection of any appeal to shared values or accepted notions of justice is one of the central tenets of victimist politics. The victim defined by Fanon and Memmi disdains all use of reason and persuasion; he employs only the weapons of demand and force. He is entitled to whatever he can grab. But if the victim is beyond all moral judgment, he is equally beyond moral appeal. Having condemned “principles” as an agent of oppression, he cannot then invoke the principles of equity or fairness on his own behalf. Nor, having adopted the immorality of his oppressor, does he seem to have any other fate than to become an oppressor himself. This is precisely what Niebuhr had warned against, also noting that dehumanization was an inevitable part of victim politics.
Memirii insisted that one’s status as a victim must transcend all other human characteristics and loyalties. Victimhood must define one’s humanity as totally as the total oppression one sees everywhere. Memmi chided author Richard Wright for insisting, “I am first of all an American!” and condemned Wright’s declaration of a nonoppressed identity as the embracing of an illusion, an aspect of “self- hatred.” But as one critic noted, seeing oneself solely as a victim-irrespective of other identities-changes one’s “victimhood from accident to essence. It expands the category of victim until it swallows the whole person.” The countermorality of Fanon’s and Memmi’s victimism begins by taking away the humanity of the oppressor, and ends by denying it to the oppressed himself.
The Revolt of The Kids.
B y almost any measure, the generation that came of age in the 1960s was the most pampered and doted upon in history. Its economic advantages had been extraordinary, its prospects exceptionally bright.
The children of the baby boom were raised with scientifically approved methods, dressed with care, and educated far beyond the dreams of any previous generation. They were rewarded for their precociousness with the adulation of their elders. Even after some of them trashed Columbia University, a committee headed by Archibald Cox extolled them as “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic [generation] this country has ever known.” So it was both striking and puzzling when this golden generation descended into a decade-long funk from which they would never fully emerge. It was equally remarkable that this privileged generation would so emphatically declare itself a victim of social, familial, governmental, and educational repression. There was no shortage of explanations.
American society may well have been on the verge of becoming the “affluent society,” argued Abraham Maslow, but the young suffered from what he portentously called “intrinsic-value starvation.” Their basic physical needs had been more than met, but the new generation now craved “self-actualization” and needed to become “more fully human.” “How could the young people not be disappointed and disillussioned?” Maslow asked. “What else could be the result of getting all the material and animal gratifications and then not being happy, as they were led to expect, not only by the theorists, but also by the conventional wisdom of parents and teachers~, and the insistent gray lies of advertisers.”
True to the tenets of the therapeutic culture, Maslow declared that the failure to achieve self-actualization and full “humanness” was not merely unfortunate, it was an illness. This “illness,” Maslow declared, was a “metapathology.” Maslow made no attempt to hide his medicalization of an essentially existential problem. The “illness” was the deprivation of “the spiritual life, the highest aspiration of mankind.” But he dismissed organized religions, as well as most spiritual traditions, as “non-human, non-natural sources” and a “denial of human nature.’’ In Maslow’s view, then, the “frustrated idealism” of youth was the result of a psychologically sick society. Maslow’s place in the pantheon of the therapeutic culture was assured by his insistence that the “value life” of humans was actually rooted in their biological makeup and that medical science could annex the entire area of spiritual crisis as a “hot research topic.” Since existential doubt was now sickness, the role of the priest could be assumed by the psychotherapist. And, perhaps, by the political activist.
LIKE PARENTS, LIKE CHILD
At least originally, the campus upheavals of the 1960s were very much an elite affair. The struggle against the allegedly repressive social order did not arise from students whose families were disadvantaged or poor. Protestors were often the most gifted and successful students. “The higher the student’s grade average,” wrote Kenneth Keniston, “the more outstanding his academic achievement, the more likely it is that he will become involved in any given political demonstration.” The revolutionaries were overwhelmingly “recruited from among those young Americans who have had the most socially fortunate upbringing.“ But their identity was not simply a matter of economic or social class. Many of them were the children of what could be called the New Class or the Knowledge Class-they were the heirs to the adversary culture, distinguished not so much by their financial status as by their cultural impulses. Dominant in the arts, literature, academia, and heavily represented among the opinion-making elite, this New Class tended to see liberalism less as a matter of political principle than as a collection of cultural and psychological positions, all of them in tension with the dominant (as they saw it) bourgeois ethos.
Describing the New Class, Daniel Bell wrote: “They function institutionally as a group, bound by a consciousness of a kind.“ For counterculture guru Charles Reich, this consciousness was “not a set of opinions, information, or values, but a total configuration in any given individual, which makes up his whole perception of reality, his whole world-view.” [Emphasis added] Reich was setting a remarkably high standard for political/cultural/psychological health and conformity. Reich insisted that it was easy to determine any individual’s “total configuration” simply by knowing his position on a single issue. “Ask a stranger on a bus or airplane about psychiatry or redwoods or police or taxes or morals or war,” Reich argued, “and you can guess with fair accuracy his views on all the rest of these topics and many others besides, even though they are seemingly unrelated.” [Emphasis added] If, for example, someone favored developing wilderness areas, Reich took that as a reliable sign that “he is quite likely to favor punitive treatment for campus disruptions.” Following the same logic, Reich insisted that anyone who “is enthusiastic about hunting wild animals” could reliably he counted as someone who “believes that the American economic system rests on individual business ac- tivity.” And anyone who believes these things, opined Reich, surely also “has an aversion to people with long hair. “ Reich could justify such non sequiturs by asserting that “an individual’s opinions, understanding, and values are all part of some invisible whole” that apparently could be readily discerned only by the politically/culturally/psychologically enlightened. Despite his lack of any empirical evidence to support his position, Reich was describing a genuine cultural reality-at least for his own cultural milieu. One’s opinions were a constant barometer ofnioral and political rectitude, and the slightest deviation could be taken as a sign of corruption in the ‘‘invisible whole’’ and the total configuration’’ of the individual. The Sixties counterculture was the high-water mark of other-directedness, as well as a precursor of what would become known as “political correctness.
While the counterculture encouraged every sort of idiosyncracy, it left remarkably little room for individual thought or dissent from the cultural “consciousness.” Fail to show sufficient sensitivity to redwoods and you were the moral equivalent of the National Guardsmen who gunned down four students at Kent State; hunt deer on weekends and you became the cultural equivalent of a redneck or a hard hat. Reich acknowledged the implicit absolutism of his position. “An argument between people who are on different levels of consciousness often goes nowhere,” he wrote; “there is no common ground on which they can meet.” Absent any rational grounds for resolving disagreements, the demands of this consciousness led to the development of an increasingly rarefied aesthetic built upon a complex range of sensibilities finely attuned to the merest shades of injustice.
Writing in the early 1950s, Randall Jarrell captured some of the anxiety of liberal cultural conformity in his novel Pictures From an Institution. Most of the faculty members of Jarrell’s fictional Benton College “would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men.....” This baroque aesthetic of compulsory progressivism also helped to refine perceptions of the crudity and insensitivity of the nation’s culture. Such infra dig embarrassments as LBJ, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower not only conjured up images of banality and hypocrisy but also symbolized the barrenness of the middle classes, who were tone-deaf to the complicated symphony of grievance around them
John Updike recognized an element of cultural snobbery in the passionate antiwar sentiments of his East Coast intellectual acquaintances: “Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than” Lyndon Johnson----”this lugubrious bo-hunk from Texas.” This privileged class, he wrote, “was full of disdain” for its own defenders. Such disdain was not easily contained. The 1960s was to witness a constant jockeying for moral superiority and for sneering rights in the elaborate hierarchy of moral righteousness.
Crucially, the younger generation had inherited from its parents the same nagging anxiety about psychological and political health that was making life miserable for so many aging liberals. The notion of a “generation gap” tends to obscure this vital continuum. Many of the activists of the 1960s, Kenneth Keniston argued, did not reject their parents’ values at all, but rather were “concerned with living out expressed but unimplemented parental values.” [Emphasis added.] They were taking their parents’ political and cultural subversiveness at face value; what Mom and Dad had only talked about, their children acted upon.* As Daniel Bell noted, the radical movement of the 1960s “found the values of the adversary culture---the attack on society through such themes as mass society, anomie, alienation---as the Ariadne’s thread which allowed it to emerge into a new radical period.
Because of their privileged status, the militant young did not expend their passions in fighting injustices that they themselves felt. “For example,” Keniston pointed out, “one of the apparent paradoxes about protests against current draft policies is that the protesting students are selectively drawn from the subgroup most likely to receive student deferments for graduate work.” Instead, theirs was a sort of proxy outrage in which they appropriated the grievances of eminently draftable blacks to strike a moral pose of their own, one that became an essential part of their identity and was all the more gratifying since they could then imagine themselves sharing in the oppression and struggle of their brothers. Undoubtedly, blacks were genuine victims of repression; and the moral duality of their struggle with the white racist establishment inspired the response of the affluent young radicals. Because the issues were so clear, the black struggle also provided the long-sought litmus test of moral correctness. Much in the same way that Calvinists once sought means to give outward proofs of their salvation, the children of the fading adversary culture needed to prove their political rectitude. And in the 1960s, the stakes were constantly being raised. Ratifying the demands of the civil rights movement, and later of the black-power movement, provided the proof positive of psychological/ political health. Solidarity with black militants (along with opposition to the Vietnam War and support for sexual liberation) became a metaphor for the rejection of society’s values and the idealistic basis of what was, by now, a generalized grudge against the social order.
However much the elder generation celebrated their children’s outbreak of idealism, what followed was not necessarily what they had had in mind. While the acolytes of modernism had prided themselves on their outrageousness Daniel Bell pointed out, their insurgency, “no matter how daring, played out its impulses in the imagination, within the constraints of art.” Their children recognized no such limits, trampling over the barriers that had separated art from life. In this postmodern world, Bell said, ‘Impulse and pleasure alone are real and life-affirming; all else is neurosis and death.’’ James Q. Wilson was to describe the difference between traditional liberalism and the new revolutionary faith as the tension between justice and benevolence. Clutching their totenis of idealism and embracing a politics of sincerity, right feeling, and compassion for society’s victims, the young radicals had little patience for the liberals’ faith in the bloodless ideals of “justice—the rule of law, equality of opportunity, democratic voting.” None of these, Wilson wrote, could “easily or for long withstand an aroused sense of benevolence.” Too long out of the habit of insisting on fixed standards of moral judgment, the liberals put up only a feeble resistance against the forces that Sidney Hook was to describe as the “barbarism of virtue. “
“Sincerity” had its own rules, and idealism conferred its own immunities; neither suffered delay or opposition. It was a powerful and heady brew, because it conferred an undeniable moral authority that justified the most outrageous self-assertions. Wilson noted the paradox at the heart of what would become victim politics. When frustrated, he wrote, the politics of benevolence “often turns to rage and those who celebrated the virtues of compassion may come to indulge sentiments of hatred.” The transition from the liberal faith in justice to the barbarism of virtue was captured in the devolution of the Students for a Democratic Society, which declared in 1962 that it regarded “men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love......” “Within a few years, Wilson would write, “this organization, including many of those who signed this statement ..... were attacking universities, harassing those who disagreed with them, demanding political obedience, and engaging in deliberate terrorism. Nothing could have been more liberal than the 1962 statement of the SDS; nothing could have been less liberal than its subsequent history. “ Their elders were not very far behind
A MORATORIUM ON BLAME
W hat, then, are the prospects for a society that has emphasized rights over responsibilities, refused to hold individuals accountable for their own behavior, and made a natioiial industry out of the manufacture and elaboration of grievance?
There is a shortage of easy answers.
The culture of victimization is deeply entrenched. Powerful groups continue to have a vested economic, social, and political stake in extending the boundaries of the society of victims. And the impulse to blame others seems to have become an integral part of the American personality, almost as a reflexive response to adversity. So dominant is the therapeutic/victimist ethos that its overthrow may require an entirely new vocabulary-or, perhaps, a very old one.
We can start with the notion .......................”
This history has been most interesting and informative - - - really good, true information. However, your Editor happens to have lived through this period of our history and has NO interest in the solution. If you have and are willing to participate in such a worthy cause you can read on by yourself.
A NATION of VICTIMS, The Decay of The American Character.
Copyright @ 1992 by: Charles J. Sykes
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Above excerpts: (pgs. 75-93)
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