Monday, January 04, 2016

The Diminishing Returns of the Victimhood Narrative

There is a guy by the name of Arnold Kling who has put forth what he calls the “Three Axes Model” to explain the lens through which liberals, conservatives, and libertarians view political issues.  Liberals are focused upon protecting the oppressed from the oppressors, conservatives upon protecting civilization from barbarism, and libertarians upon protecting freedom from government coercion.  Because each group conceives of issues within differing “either-or” frameworks that are not necessarily compatible, they tend to talk right past each other. 

This is fundamentally what is occurring with the marriage debate – liberals see it as an effort to overcome the oppression of homosexuals perpetrated by the homophobic religious nuts, while the conservatives see gay marriage as potentially weakening the historical focus of marriage as a relationship that is uniquely capable of producing little barbarians that are in great need of the civilizing influence of two dedicated parents.   I’ve already discussed the issue of gay marriage ad nauseum, so my point is not to rehash that whole debate, but it is a neat little illustration of how the three axes model illustrates the reasons for a non-debate with people talking past each other. 

The three axes can of course line up at certain points – maybe all three at once on the rare occasion, but more often it is two of the three.  As an example, a libertarian concern for freedom and a liberal concern for the oppressed would lead both to call for the abolition of slavery, which we can all agree is a good thing.   The conservative impulse may be concerned with the same end, but might be against means of achieving such an end in a way that is potentially fatally disruptive to social order.  Many of the founding fathers, slaveowners themselves, were interested in manumitting their own slaves and openly wished for the long-term abolition of slavery, but saw no short-run solution that wasn’t potentially destructive.  And, of course, the short-term solution ended up being a blood bath.

The 3 Axes model explains why it is hard to predict which side libertarians or those with libertarian leanings will take when they make the calculation to not vote libertarian.  Many of them chafe at the perceived coercion of the pro-life leanings of Republicans, and choose freedom by voting Democrat; others take greater umbrage at the incessant regulation of economic life, and choose freedom by voting Republican.

One of Kling’s points is that there are certain issues where it is probably best to choose one of these axes over another, but that none of the three axes always represents the most reliable and prudent viewpoint.   I think this is my fundamental objection to liberalism – it has won the largest battles it was appropriate to fight, and rather than claim the laurels of its victory, it extends the label of oppression in ever more questionable ways.  And as each such labeling calls for ever more government coercion to redress the perceived oppression, it has become heavy-handed and onerous.
Once a victory is won, liberalism either redefines the definition of victory for an already designated victimized group, or searches hell and high water for a till now unrecognized group of victims.  

In either case, the argument gets stretched more thin, and to compensate for such thinness the rhetoric gets ever louder (think of the erudition and measured tones of a Martin Luther King speech versus the huckstering of Al Sharpton).   Slavery is abolished, and with it 100 years later the scourge of Jim Crow laws and their denial of civil rights (and note the civil rights movement was about one layer of government redressing another level of government’s unjust oppression), arriving at a point where the dream of judging a man by the content of his character rather than the content of his skin becomes a possibility.   Fifty years later, in the face of enormous economic progress for blacks in America, a liberal is forced to identify conservative talking points like “tax relief” or “deregulation” as codespeak for “nigger go home.”   

The oppression narrative is so powerful in today’s political discourse that the mere passive fact of being oppressed confers a modicum of automatic status as a measure of inherent virtue.  It is not so much a recognition of “look at what you have overcome,” but instead a “look at what you are faced with overcoming.”  The mere act of suffering with no transcendence is taken as an indication of virtue.  The compelling narrative of suffering for its own sake appears to be so important in the eyes of the voting public that white liberal male politicians feel like they have to make their own personal sufferings over the death of a sister (Al Gore), the death of a wife (Joe Biden), the fatherly abuse of a mother (Bill Clinton) a central point of their campaigns, no doubt as a way to establish credibility among other passive sufferers.  I remember thinking in the early primary debates in 2008, that as Joe Biden would wax on about the death of cherished first wife, Chris Dodd was sitting there thinking “you lucky bastard, why can’t I have a dead first wife?”

For women and minority politicians, there is no need to recount personal tragedies as a means of establishing credibility in the eyes of liberals who think along the oppressor-oppressed axis; the historic sexism and racism is sufficient.  For them, even if such hurdles have diminished enormously over time, the glass is eternally half empty, so that denial of subsidized contraception is given the same status as the denial of voting rights.   But white guys gotta establish their cred, and lacking any oppression from the man (because they are the man), they turn to the sometimes (if they are lucky) cold-hearted hand of fate.

There is no payoff to stoic forbearance of suffering a private grief, even though such forbearance is the more worthy attribute.  The political payoff is in sharing your pain, and being tight-lipped about it is taken as an indication that you are immune from personal human suffering.  For Ronald Reagan, having an abusive alcoholic father was not a fact to broadcast; it was a fact to bury.  Burying it, in today’s nomenclature, would be taken not as an indication of forbearance, but of denial, and evidence of his strangeness.  For Bill Clinton, in contrast, it was a de facto demonstration of his virtue, and later an exonerating explanation for serial womanizing.  It is now Jerry Springer’s world, and we’re just living in it.

It reminds me of that classic Saturday Night Live skit, where Eddie Murphy goes about his day in white-face, and finds to his surprise that white people never have to pay for anything.  As a white guy, absent telling people that someone you loved died, it is simply assumed that everyone around you lives forever, and so you cannot possibly have any empathy.  This leads to asinine observations, such as the one made by Obama upon the appointment of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, that being a Latina woman she was uniquely capable of compassion in her judicial opinions.  Law, to be just, requires objective administration, and so the highlighting of her subjective viewpoint is rather contrary to just law.  White men can’t jump, and apparently we also can’t empathize. 

The evidence that the oppressed/oppressor narrative has largely run its course in America is best demonstrated by a simple comparison of the two most recent events taken as an indication of a country still struggling with racism – the Trayvon Martin death and the Ferguson Missouri police shooting of the gentle giant Michael Brown– with our not so distant past.  Sixtty years ago in the south if a black man made the mistake of making eye contact with a white woman, he could end up hung.  That black man was likely to come from a very much in tact family, as the rate of illegitimacy among African-Americans at the time was very low.  Now, sixty years is a pretty short span of time, but there is no better measure of progress on racism than the material available for those who make their living by selling racism as a problem (Sharpton, Jackson, and now, regrettably, arguably Eric Holder and Obama) to sell their wares.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the first time I heard of the story there was a picture of a nine year-old happy kid on the cover of People magazine, conveying the impression immediately that he was nine years old when shot dead.  We were also told he was just buying some candy at a 7-11 like any kid, when in fact he was buying the ingredients to a homemade narcotic.  He was seventeen; had a history of trouble and marijuana use; slow-walked a one-hundred yard stretch for thirty minutes to induce a confrontation with George Zimmerman after telling a friend he was being stalked by a “fag” who he was going to beat to a pulp; and then proceeded to beat the guy to a pulp. 

That “fag” unfortunately didn’t fit the stereotype of a racist redneck with a set of balls hanging from the bumper of his truck, and a confederate flag flying from the antenna.  Zimmerman was civic minded, trying to police the neighborhood in response to rising crime.  He had also successfully confronted local police in connection with defending a badly treated older black man.  But the real problem was his race.  Zimmerman was half Hispanic, which is usually sufficient to be considered fully Hispanic (i.e., fully entitled to status as a victim of white oppression).  But the oppressor-oppressed model doesn’t do well with ambiguity, and a Hispanic murder of an African American has no historical precedent as a reference point to suggest the lack of progress on the part of the oppressors.  Which called for a simple fix on the part of the New York Times - a change in their editorial policy to henceforth call him a White Hispanic.  What, you didn’t know about the White-Hispanic branch of the KKK?

The kid in Furgeson is another case in point, with the immediate media coverage being so fawning that Rush Limbaugh referred to the kid that got killed as the gentle giant.  The gentle giant, it turns out, had that same day stolen cigars and man-handled an Indian clerk at a convenience store, and also beat the cop to a pulp.  The eyewitness account of his friend, that the gentle giant was peacefully surrendering, was contradicted by many other eyewitnesses, and unless the cop broke his own eye socket to cover for himself, his injuries speak for themself.  Being a cop can be a difficult job sometimes, and under stress people can screw up; not too long after this incident an unarmed white kid was shot dead by a black cop in Utah.  Is this evidence of racism?  Or is the far more plausible explanation simple human error under stress? 

In both cases, the black kids who got shot were either in trouble or looking for trouble.  Under such circumstances, the overwhelming statistical reality is that it is far more likely as a matter of pure statistics that another black kid will end up dead, rather than that a white cop or a White Hispanic neighborhood watch guy will take out the black kid gunsmoke style.  If you are the parent of a black kid who is on the straight and narrow, fearing his death at the hands of a racist white cop while turning a blind eye to the much more real possibility of death at the hands of a classmate, is highly irrational.  It is a sad reality that there are circumstances in which a kid in a mild amount of trouble meets an undeserved tragic death, but it is no indication whatsoever of lingering life-threatening racism.

Even as the facts emerged in the case of Michael Brown that totally disarmed the racist cop/innocent black kid narrative, we got the familiar refrain, which goes back to the time Dan Rather fell for the obviously hoaxed documents surrounding George W. Bush’s military service, that the story, while “fake,” is nevertheless “true.”  That is, while the fact pattern in the Brown case doesn’t specifically fit the narrative that liberals and the media chose to purport as the reality for a young black American, it nevertheless does happen and is a reality in America.  But if it were to happen with any real frequency, aren’t we entitled to a “real” and “true” example? If, for example, it happens 50 times a year, can’t we dispense with the “ fake” but “true” gentle giant as a kid who was clearly looking for and finding big trouble, and instead find a kid who wasn’t looking for trouble and then found it?

Two other cases have since come to the attention of the media – Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Eric Garner in Long Island.  In the case of Freddie Gray, charges have been brought against the six cops, but three of the six cops are black.  Of the six, only four have been charged with either murder or manslaughter, and three of those four were black.  In the case of Eric Garner, the arrest was supervised by a female African American.  Neither fits the racist cop narrative at all.


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