One must have a closed heart not to see that some minorities still are mistreated, that some women are still abused, and that some members of the gay community are harassed. But one must have closed eyes not to see how some have used the victim card for personal gain…
When I first heard Meghan Trainor’s song “All about that Bass” a few years ago, I immediately liked it—a catchy tune and clever, whimsical, mildly vulgar lyrics. And it was refreshing, at first, to hear a song that tried to make people feel better about their body image regardless their weight. After all, there are few things nastier than making people feel bad about who they are, whether it is their weight or their religion or the color of their skin. Only much later, speaking to my slender, distressingly lovely daughter did I understand a different take on the song: “Dad, of course it’s a big hit. Everyone likes to put down those they consider luckier or smarter or prettier. Change the lyrics from ‘skinny b——‘ to ‘fat b——‘ and every bleeding-heart liberal in the country would be manning the ramparts to defend the oppressed overweight among us.” Skinny people, she explained, have joined the illustrious ranks of those other infamous oppressors of the masses: the white, the male, the Christian, the cerebral, and the articulate. It’s okay to celebrate being overweight by insulting skinny people, but it is politically incorrect to ever criticize anyone considered a victim of our society. Like the ancient tribunes of Rome, all those categorized as “victims” are untouchable and their views sacrosanct. No matter how rude or imbecilic their opinions, few dare oppose them.
Weakness Is Strength
As I pondered my daughter’s comments, it occurred to me that this is a common theme in my own evolving attitudes towards various causes and people: an initial outrage at an obvious unfairness, then a deep sympathy for efforts to redress an enduring wrong, followed by a hesitation that maybe things have gone too far, and ending with me as irked and disgusted with the victims as I am with the oppressors.
This has certainly been the case with the entire civil rights movement. I still vividly recall watching on TV the 1963 March on Washington and being swept up in the call for social and economic equality. What could be nobler and more satisfying than demanding fairness and justice for all? What could be more despicable than treating anyone differently just because of the color of their skin or national origin? I felt the same as the feminist movement evolved and women finally started to be treated less unfairly and more decently. And again, the same for those struggling for gay rights. I fondly recall arguing with a high-level State Department security officer my very first months on the job back in 1980 because gays were not allowed to join the Foreign Service. Always a good cause; always a disappointing result. And the list of “victims” needing permanent special treatment rather than merely equal treatment keeps expanding: the handicapped, the aged, the sexually confused, etc.
The handicapped is a good example almost everyone is afraid to mention. The way our society had neglected the physically handicapped has been shocking and deplorable. Many talented and hardworking people were cast by the wayside as we went about our own lives indifferent to their plight. Efforts to redress this callous oversight culminated in the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)—a well-meaning, long-needed, and often misapplied effort. I am still admiring of the brilliantly conceived and orchestrated street theater of people with physical handicaps getting out of their wheelchairs and struggling mightily to crawl up the steps of the Capitol. My heart broke watching them go up those steps, even though it was obvious that it had been planned to garner attention and sympathy. Whatever it takes, I thought to myself, this neglect had to be rectified!
Much good has come from the ADA, but a lot of overreach as well. One small example: When I was stationed at our embassy in Kabul, the ADA and scare tactics by various misguided groups supporting the handicapped made it almost impossible to develop and implement standards for selecting candidates to serve in the embassy. One candidate who was over 300 pounds and was barely mobile on his own argued it would be discriminatory and against the ADA to deny him a position in Kabul, as did several others with varying handicaps. Although it was a warzone and even though other people’s lives could be at risk—one can imagine a scenario where everyone else is running to a helicopter to evacuate, but are delayed as one of their colleagues slowly trudges along. While restrictions of some sort finally were hammered out, it took an enormous amount of effort and time and the dread that gripped high-level managers as they tried to accommodate a small but increasingly belligerent group of victims was telling.
This sense of privilege seeps into all victim groups and compels role reversals that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. The gay community, which has been particularly patient and courageous in its struggle for equal rights, is another example. From being the scapegoat and a target of prejudice for so long to having among them individuals who try themselves to seek out and target those that differ. Such is the case with the gay couple in Lakewood, Colorado, employing targeting tactics used against the gay community for generations, to hound and oppress a devoutly religious baker. The only thing worse than an oppressor is when the oppressed fulfill that role and wear that mantle laden with a righteous vindication. I am often reminded of one of my favorite William Blake poems that ends with the dire observation: “The iron hand crushed the Tyrant’s head and became a Tyrant in his stead.”
The Cultural Appropriation Mindset
But the handicapped and the gay community are just two small aspects of victimology in America. Victimhood bestows upon its legions a certain cloak of inviolability. One must remember that those who wear their victimhood like a badge of honor (and their liberal enablers) only want “one” thing: to be treated the same as everyone else is treated and to be treated special. This profound cognitive dissonance pervades their lives and defines them. They are allowed to say or believe things that would cause outrage if one of the oppressor groups said or thought the same thing. The best, most famous instance of this is Mohammed Ali’s virulent opposition to mixing the races. Ali, a man of great athletic and intellectual skills and one who had enormous courage in standing up for his principles regarding the Vietnam War, was also an appalling racist for much of his adult life. But he was insulated by his victimhood and so his odious views on miscegenation were rarely ever mentioned, let alone condemned. A more recent example was Kanye West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s award during the 2009 MTV awards. Rude and inexcusable, but no one dared to chastise him for his actions even though everyone knew that no white singer could ever interrupt a ceremony giving an award to a black singer and ever hope for continuing his career.
The irony of all this, of course, is the reluctance to hold everyone to the same standard of conduct and the same rules of discourse proves that racism is still alive and well in America. We still, as a society, refuse to treat everyone equally. It is, in fact, an insult to Ali and West that no one thought them equal enough to be chastised and condemned. In our society’s own peculiarly paternalistic and condescending way, we are saying that some people must be handled differently because they are not yet quite equal.
A License to Be Shrill
This is most glaringly true in the new fad of cultural appropriation whereby every victim group can contrive insults and outrages to further enhance and burnish their victim credentials. The accusation of “cultural insensitivity” now reverberates with the same tremulous horror as if one stood accused of treason or pedophilia. It seems the ever-proliferating castes of victims are vying to see who can be more inane and absurd. While no one ever notices if an Irish-American actor plays an Italian mobster or an Arab actor plays a Russian poet, other ethnic groups are more sensitized to even movie roles being appropriated by other ethnicities. A particularly instructive example was the release a few years ago of the film, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” In Japan, many questioned whether it was appropriate for an ethnic Chinese to play a geisha, while in China many were outraged that a Chinese actress would play love scenes with a Japanese actor.
Of course, the Chinese and Japanese have no monopoly on such idiocy. A group of Latina students at Pitzer College (part of the once-illustrious Claremont Colleges) started what was essentially a campaign against white girls wearing hoop earrings on the grounds that it is cultural appropriation. They spray-painted “White girls, take OFF your hoops” on a dormitory free-speech wall. How on earth did these individuals ever gain admission to any university, let alone one allegedly so prestigious, with so little knowledge of life and history? Much more than a can of spray paint, these students urgently need a remedial course in history. Hoop earrings have been around for almost as long as there has been civilization: The ancient Assyrians certainly had them, as did the Greeks and Romans—who perhaps had themselves culturally appropriated them from the Middle East. And then there is the University of Ottawa Student Federation, which convinced the university to stop providing a self-described yoga class because “many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy, and we need to be mindful of this.”
Not to be outdone, a group of Asian students at Oberlin College stridently condemned good faith efforts to diversify the cafeteria menu, complaining these “uninformed representations of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who[m] have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.” Apparently, the most egregious offense was a sushi bar that was appropriative due to the lack of fresh fish and woefully undercooked rice. Not to be outdone, the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, removed a Seuss-inspired mural alleged to include a “jarring racial stereotype” of a “character depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat and slanted eyes.” Would anyone have been offended, or even noticed, if there had been a drawing of a stereotypical Italian chef, smiling contentedly, with a massive pot belly and pasta sauce dripping from his chin? And what of cuisine? Of course, I am deeply offended when I see “Hawaiian pizza” on a menu, but it is only my palate—not my psyche—that is offended; the rest of me couldn’t give a damn. Who can be so easily offended? As my children like to say, “Just chill!”
In the ever-widening gyre of what cannot be appropriated without causing offense, now even American heroes are off limits. Apparently, Caucasians are no longer allowed to quote Martin Luther King. While I almost sympathize with the view that too many people of all colors tend to only quote King’s more saccharine words, it is surreal that some African-Americans would be outraged that others quote such an admirable American: “MLK belongs to us. Do not dare to quote my MLK. My Martin Luther King Jr., was not here for white people. Keep his name out your thin-lipped mouth. Y’all banned forever.” Belongs? Like a possession? Is the bitter irony of talking about King as a possession—mere chattel, the private property of a particular group—lost on some members of the current generation of African Americans? I had thought that, at least since the passage of the 13th Amendment, people could not be owned.
One must have a closed heart not to see that some minorities still are mistreated, that some women are still abused, that some of the overweight are still bullied, that some handicapped continue to be neglected, and that some members of the gay community are harassed. But one must have closed eyes not to see how some have used the victim card for personal gain. In our earnest efforts to redress monstrous problems, we consistently create new monsters. Perpetual victimhood is too great a price for temporary protection. Those victim shackles are nearly unbreakable.
We are, I fear, living in a new age of tyranny, and one as sinister as many that have gone before because these modern tyrants are weak and earnest and have had legitimate complaints. The tyranny is a tyranny mostly of the mind. To use another Blakean metaphor—our own “mind-forged manacles” hold us captive and few find escape from a ruthlessly self-imposed victimhood. And the so-called privileged must cultivate a strong streak of masochism in order to cope with this modern liberal view of political reality. And perhaps we are reaching victim overload. No longer just minorities and women and Muslims and gays and the handicapped, but also the overweight and the underfed, and the homeless, the gluten-adverse, the peanut phobic, the emotionally distraught, and so forth ad infinitum. Who will be left to blame? Who will be left to carry the guilt for all these victims of society and nature?
But it is on a still deeper level that victimhood is truly disturbing for a victim is never an equal. A victim is always defined not by who they are, but by what has been done to them. While treating a group as victims is in many ways preferable to denigrating them, it has this same impact: They are not equal. They are like pets, well treated, even pampered, but not their masters equal. Victimhood is little more than a subtler, but equally pernicious, form of enslavement. The liberal enablers of this pretense should be ashamed. They would do well to remember a much less quoted warning my Dr. King: “A shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Liberals have made entire segments of society more dependent and eternally adolescent. They are never truly free because they are always defined by their limitations and pain.
Appreciating different aspects of oneself is a good and healthy thing, of course. But when the part becomes more important than the whole, when one small sliver of who you are as a unique human becomes paramount and overwhelms all other aspects of you, you need to recognize you are lost. You know you have grown up, you know you are finally free and finally yourself when you stop identifying with a particular race or gender or faith or party and see yourself as fully human. The sad, harsh truth is simply this: Once you are truly self-confident, once you are proud of your heritage and your ethnicity, once you are relaxed about your life and certain of who you are, all this pathetic pretense and nonsense fades away. No one is offended by the term “Dutch treat” or “French leave,” least of all the Dutch or the French. Even far more derogatory terms like “Kraut” for Germans or “Dago” for Italians hardly engender any reaction at all. One’s personal success and self-confidence may well be in inverse proportion to one’s hypersensitivity to jokes and imagined aspersions. We should aspire to live in a country someday when all our citizens cease these mostly self-inflicted wounds of outrage and feel sufficiently confident and proud and self-assured not to whine so much. When a particular noodle or spice or fashion is central to your self-esteem and identity, you probably need psychological intervention more than political affirmation.
Those on the Left who embrace the concept of cultural appropriation are the legitimate and rightful heirs to those who once advocated racial purity. Both are founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of race and culture, and the fact that both race and culture are constantly evolving categories. No race and no culture stands alone, isolated from the great churning and assimilation of peoples that has been going on since the beginning of human life. Assimilation and miscegenation are the strengths and beauty of our species, but the racial Nazis of yore and the cultural Nazis of today find this intolerable. Purists have always been on the wrong side of history, from the racial purists of the past on the Right to the cultural purists on the Left today. They understand neither human history nor human nature as they struggle against the cultural and racial assimilation that has been the bulwark humanity’s progress through the ages.
To assimilate, to appropriate, to recreate, and to innovate is what history teaches us, and we Americans more than any other culture instinctively understand this and embrace it. Being mutts, being mongrels, bastardizing languages and cultures and music and cuisines is what America is. It is our strength.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.