Seeking Comfort

I follow conservative libertarian Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog (subtitled “Small Steps Toward A Much Better World”). Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, has now written a book called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream and is on the interview circuit. This gist of the book (which I have not yet read) is that the U.S. has stopped investing in long-term big ideas and grand projects and is no longer a dynamic society but rather a stagnant one; it’s become complacent, medicating itself against pain, setting up “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” seeking comfort instead of taking risks to improve life. One example: We use technology to separate ourselves, stay indoors, hunker down, and satisfy a need for comfort (Facebook, Netflix) instead of to expand horizons and spur dynamism and productivity (driverless cars that will make sluggish commutes better, high speed rail, an internet of things, smart homes); or as the National Review puts it in their review headline, “When the Pursuit of Happiness Becomes the Flight from Pain:”

“Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.  Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, ‘digging in.'” (in National Review‘s review)

Another artifact demonstrating a change in attitude: Science fiction written years ago was about how much better it would be in the future; now science fiction writing is mostly dystopian, envisioning a scary, chaotic, dark future.

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Cowen spoke this week briefly on NPR’s Morning Edition and at length on WBUR’s “On Point” (and probably elsewhere; those are the two interviews I heard) and I really think he is on-target about how the U.S. has become risk-averse and self-segregated, and how this self-segregation leads to complacency but also surprise at how others think and act:

“[I]f you cease being challenged [by those whose lives are quite different from your own] and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you’re not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them. … [W]ealthier people tend to live together more than before and so do poorer people. And this is bad for the country as a whole and we see a version of this in the last election where so many people are shocked by the candidate who actually won.”

I wasn’t shocked by Donald Trump’s party nomination nor by his appeal to so many in the general election, partly because I live in a purple state and know and spend time with more than a few Trump supporters.

I’m also aware that support for the federal government has fallen precipitously in the last 50 years, and Trump  — a rich, mouthy businessman with no political experience whatsoever and who rarely spoke his lines from the teleprompter — was the ultimate anti-government, anti-establishment candidate. In 1964, 77% of Americans said that they trusted the government in Washington “to do what is right” all or most of the time.  In 2016, only 19% did. As Tracy McKenzie notes in his essay “Abraham Lincoln on the Rise of Donald Trump” (June 2016), “[p]opular trust began to fall off sharply after the Kennedy-Johnson years, thanks largely to Watergate and Vietnam, and although it has fluctuated sharply from time to time, the overall trend since then has been decidedly downward.”

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But the main reason I wasn’t shocked or surprised is that I’ve studied Rene Girard’s work with mimetic theory, his keen understanding of how populism appeals and caters to resentment, and you only have to listen to or read interviews with Trump supporters to get a sense for the high level of resentment they feel. For example, for her book The Politics of Resentment, political science professor Katherine Cramer spent a few months with rural midwestern voters and found that “politics have increasingly become a matter of personal identity. Just about all of her subjects felt a deep sense of bitterness toward elites and city dwellers; just about all of them felt tread on, disrespected and cheated out of what they felt they deserved.” (Cramer’s article about her research in Vox, 16 Nov 2016)

[To be clear, resentment of the party/person in power usually drives us to vote for the “other side,” so we typically bounce from party to party in elections, switching back and forth every 4 or 8 or 12 years. In fact, Kelly Cramer, in her interview with the WaPo, says about liberals now: “One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, ‘There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?’;” in other words, now liberals are resentful of Trump voters and their perspectives. But that said, in this election cycle I think there were deep, long-held, even existential resentments at work, and that they were stoked and played upon by Trump, rather than tamped down with calls for unity and candidate promises to work across the aisle for the good of all, as is usual.]

Cowen, in his interviews this week, mentions a few of the reasons Trump supporters might be resentful, including ongoing job losses and severe wage stagnation over the last 50 years for most men. One could also point to the loss of whole job sectors, such that some skills are no longer useful; the loss of a way of life for many  — some because of policy changes like the closing of coal mines, and some because times change and jobs change with them, which is why there’s not a thriving blacksmith trade these days; the reality that now often both partners/parents in a middle-class family feel they have to work to make ends meet, which leaves little time for a rich family life and which makes them twice as vulnerable to potential job loss; the fact that home prices aren’t rising like they used to and in fact have fallen in some places over the last 10 years, leaving the middle-class, many of whose largest asset is their house, either underwater on the mortgage or unable to move or retire; and the student loan debt burden and difficulty finding jobs that young people are facing, among other factors. (Trump voters offer a number of reasons for voting for him, at Deadspin, 3 Jan 2017.)

Strict economic resentment is not the whole story, though.  Political scientist Roger Petersen points out  that globally, ethnic conflict often stems from “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.” Petersen says that “one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.” But in countries with strong, legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group that could have turned into ethnic conflict and slaughter instead is “channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies. ‘Dominance,’ Petersen writes, ‘is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.'”

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Girard’s work in mimetic theory, and the work of others who have written on the topic, tells us that we, humans, are fundamentally imitators of each other. We imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously at times (especially when admiring celebrities, e.g.). We share desires among ourselves — desires to have things as well as more abstract but even stronger desires for status and identity — and we can either cooperate towards these desires (this is called love, and is related to a sense of abundance) or we can lock into competition and conflict with other desirers (this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity).

In the U.S. (and elsewhere) lately, there has been a sense of scarcity — arising from the recession of 2007-2009 and our extremely slow economic recovery, and actually even before that, since the 1970s when income inequality really began to increase — as well as a sense of injustice among those previously privileged in society (i.e., white men at all income levels, 63% of whom who voted for Trump in 2016, and to some extent white women, too, 52% of whom voted for him), who feel their power and privilege slipping as others in society demand more, both of which give rise to a widespread resentment among those who feel they are getting the short end of the stick, that they don’t have a fair chance anymore, that they are being treated unjustly, that life used to be better for them. Those are the people at whom Trump aimed his 1950s-nostalgic, retro campaign message “make America great again.” (Cowen has dubbed him “the placebo president” and sees Trump’s look-backward message — bridges, tunnels, and coal mining, rather than the smart grid, broadband, long-term R&D — with its emphasis on short-term results as a kind of complacency itself.) As Cowen says, “We’re seeing a political backlash, yet without identifying the target correctly.”

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I think that Eric Gans (in “Donald  Trump, Metaconservative,” March 2016) puts his finger on one key appeal of Trump to many white voters in 2016: Not only did Trump, almost alone among the Republican candidates, actually speak against “PC” values — what Gans calls victimary issues or victimocracy, and which some Girardians see as a “promotion of minority concerns not as group interests but in the guise of victimary social justice” — he also persistently embodied disregard for “PC” values:

“The term “PC,” by which conservatives refer to the victimary phenomenon when they do so at all, reduces it to a matter of etiquette, ignoring its deeper political implications. The Republican presidential candidates have almost entirely avoided victimary issues despite their preponderance in the Democratic program: reducing incarceration and criminal prosecution, restraining the police, raising women’s pay from ’77 cents on the dollar’ and granting women sex-related health benefits, granting ‘transgendered’ boys access to women’s bathrooms, identifying voter-ID laws with ‘voter suppression,’ and generally treating Wall Street, the ‘one percent,’ ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and ‘the Koch brothers’ not merely as greedy cheats but as sustainers of ‘white privilege’”—not to speak of encouraging the ‘crybullying’ about racism and the ‘rape culture’ that goes on at college campuses. Only Trump and, while he was active, Ben Carson (whose recent endorsement of Trump confirms their agreement on this point) have conspicuously denounced PC, and none have made it the focus of their campaigns, except on the point of limiting immigration, which Trump has made so to speak his trump card. … As I pointed out [previously], Trump embodies far more than he articulates resistance to the victimocracy.”

Reading Gans’s list of ‘victimary issues’ in the Democratic program, above, it’s not hard to see why white men (and many women) would either not care about these things — after all, if you already have privilege in a culture, why would you want to restrain the police, reduce incarceration, change how bathrooms are assigned, loosen voting laws, increase income for other people, etc.? — or would actively resent these commitments to groups of people who are mostly “other,” mostly people you don’t see or personally know in our self-segregated society.

Beyond the fact that the programs and issues don’t necessarily resonate for many white voters (i.e., those who don’t have to worry much about prison, cops, rape, racism, voting restrictions, and finding a safe public restroom) is the deeper anger at being perceived and talked about by liberals and in the (so-called liberal) media as unjust, ignorant, and in fact “deplorable” (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate term) because they disagree with liberals’ agenda. It’s maddening from the liberal perspective that they don’t recognise other people and groups as victims of a structurally and historically unequal, unfair, and often oppressive society; but from perhaps their own perspective, these Trump voters simply resent government interference in their lives, the coddling of weak-willed whiners, the redistribution of their hard-earned dollars to lazy/illegal and undeserving swindlers, and being told what they can say and what they can’t say by condescending intellectual effetes.

Trump’s constant rejection of the teleprompter telegraphed to his supporters and would-be supporters more than any specific words could do his refusal to be tamed and made politically correct by anyone. His crude off-the-cuff remarks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his blaming sexual assault in the military on putting men and women together, his refusal to release his tax returns, his bragging about his penis size, his calling Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas,’ his disparaging comment that men who change diapers are ‘acting like the wife,’ and so on, all convincingly signalled his rejection of the PC culture that many supporters find, variously, obnoxious, silly, undermining, blasphemous, threatening.

Gans goes on to talk about how Trump, while rarely talking about PC by name, managed to loudly proclaim by his demeanor

his rejection of White Guilt. … Trump’s unexpected staying power … reflects to my mind far more than attractiveness to the benighted bearers of poor-white resentment. On the contrary, Trump’s continual emphasis on ‘deals’ suggests a sharp intuition of how to adapt conservatism to the current victimocratic context. … The contempt of the voting public for Washington’s inability to ‘get anything done’ reflects the fact that under the current [then-Obama] administration, the shift of Democratic politics from liberalism to progressivism, from focusing on the concerns of the working class to those of ascriptive minorities, involves a fundamental change from defending interests to seeking justice. The first can be negotiated on a more or less level footing with opposing interests; the second can only be be resisted by unregenerate evil-doers, which is more or less the way [Obama] and his potential Democratic successors characterize the representatives of the other party. In this noxious context, the (meta)conservative position is not to deny victimary claims, but to normalize them: to turn them back into assertions of interests to be negotiated as political questions were in days of old — in a word, into issues that can be settled by making a deal. …

“In their preoccupation with denouncing Trump as a false conservative, the guardians of the flame forget that at a time when the victimary left seeks to portray the normal order of things in American society as founded on privilege and discrimination, Trump’s supporters turn to him as a figure of hope because his mind, unclouded by White Guilt, views the political battlefield, foreign as well as domestic, as a place for making deals. This used to be called Realpolitik.”

This assessment makes a lot of sense to me. Some Trump supporters probably just wanted to stick it to the liberals, stick it to the status quo conservatives, and the hell with the consequences; some are really racial bigots and/or misogynists who feel Trump is one of them; some just hated Hillary Clinton for what she’s actually done, said, or been, or for what they mistakenly and conspiratorially believe she’s done, said, or been, or because she’s not feminine enough or too feminine; some wildly hoped Trump would really bring back coal jobs, expel Muslims, and lock immigrants out of the country; but many others probably voted reasonably in their own interests for someone whom they trusted to effectively and palatably negotiate progressive actions away just like a civil business deal. In identifying with Trump, they were (and are) identifying themselves as on an equal footing with those who are eager to judge them; they’re affirming that they deserve to be treated as moral equals with progressives and liberals in discussing civil rights and social justice, not as moral inferiors and deplorable humans as they have been accused.

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[Added:] On the other hand, as Eric Meier notes in the comments, one could say that while Trump doesn’t articulate resistance to political correctness but rather embodies it (as described above), he certainly articulates, in his inarticulate way, that he is a victim (he claims the status both for himself and for his supporters) — and claims to victimhood are the stuff of which many conservatives would tell us that PC is made.

Anyone who follows Trump’s Twitter feed knows that he feels victimized and persecuted by the media and certain celebrities. He feels he was a victim of voter fraud (and in the primaries, that they were rigged against him), Trump yelled out at a rally in Oct. 2016 “I am a victim!” Kellyanne Conway, senior White House advisor, has explained how Trump and Trump staffers are victims of the biased media (more examples in How crybully Trump and his supporters excel at playing the victim).  Trump supporters also express outrage at their victimhood, at how the left and the media are so unfair to them, at how modern society’s too-soft, too-feminine culture causes them suffering (The Precarious Masculinity of 2016 Voters: Several recent surveys suggest that when men feel persecuted, they turn to Donald Trump for affirmation, The Atlantic, Oct. 2016;  Trump’s supporters believe a false narrative of white victimhood  : Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes, in Salon, 17 Feb 2017; and Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims. (Quartz, 11 Nov. 2016)

The Giradian point is that just about everyone and every group in our culture sees the benefit of claiming to be seen as a victim, even while diligently accusing the other group of playing the victim card. In his book Evolution and Conversion, Rene Girard notes that “Very often, Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions … You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” And in his book When These Things Begin, Girard comments that “In the United States and everywhere, a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims … It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” This is where we are today.

Dwight Longnecker talks about this phenomenon in “The Rise of the Bully Victim” at The Imaginative Conservative: “The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all. The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. … The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim.”

It sure didn’t hurt Trump’s cause, his claim to victimhood for himself and his supporters, when Clinton called them deplorables. Instant victim status there.

Gil Bailie in his book Violence Unveiled, talks about victimhood in the context of King Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. He references a 1992 essay by Robert Hughes that seems ultra-relevant today:

In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.”  In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”

“Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of ‘victim’ had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

“Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.

“Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”

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Michael Boyle, at The Sound of Sheer Silence blog, has actually (in May 2016) addressed this Cult of Victimhood, as he terms it, very articulately, and he links it to Trump’s strategy in this recent election. He goes into some detail about the Girardian take on victims, then outlines three problems that occur in society when we move from the fact of victimhood to the status or narrative of victimhood, the group identity as victims:

The first is that “the identity of the group is tied up in the status of being a victim.  Thus, perversely, there is an incentive for the minority to seek to be victimized, because it supports and reinforces the group identity, leading to counter-productive co-dependent relationships with the persecuting majority.”

The second, that “it creates a tempting platform to seize the moral high ground.  In light of the message of Jesus, we have an obligation to have special moral concern for victimsas victims.  But it does not follow that those that are victimized have some special moral qualities or status by virtue of being victims.  Being a victim does not necessarily make you wiser, or more just, or better able to discern moral realities in the world around you, because being a victim is ultimately and fundamentally arbitrary. As the great Ta-Nehisi Coates says, ‘[w]e, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving.’ … [T]his is an inversion for the old vision of the Sacred — whereas before the society explained that victims became victims through some narrative of moral failure, now the victims understand their victim status through a narrative of their own moral superiority.” This ends up dividing the world into victims (righteous) and victimizers (unrighteous), which “acts as a kind of moral shield for their own behavior.  The logical chain goes like this:  because I am a victim, I am righteous; because I am righteous, those that challenge or critique that righteousness (especially if the critique comes from those that victimized me) are per se wrong and their critique is per se illegitimate; thus, I can stay in a comfortable bubble of my own imputed righteousness. ”

And this lead to the third problem: “Because of the power of feature #1 and especially feature #2 of the Cult of Victimhood, everyone wants to get in on the action.  And, given both the pervasive nature of scapegoating and the cultural awareness of the phenomenon (even if inchoate) brought about by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian presence, everyone can get in on the action if they look hard enough.  Everyone can craft a story of why they are the “real” victims over and against some group of victimizers.”

So, Boyle concludes, to resolve this deadlock, we “try to adjudicate who are the ‘real’ victims and who are the ‘fake’ victims.  Girard would insist that this is an utterly futile activity, because all of these stories of victimhood are on some level true and on some level self-serving nonsense.  The fact of being the victim is true, but the narrative of why the victimization occurred, tied into to some group identity and moral status, is not. … Again, it’s crucial, here and elsewhere, to draw a very clear line between the fact of victimization and the status as a victim.  People get victimized, and we have a moral obligation to try to end the victimization.  But the Cult of Victimization makes that project more difficult, because it weaponizes victimization and intermixes genuine victimization with dubious claims of moral righteousness.  It also incentivizes out-and-out bogus claims of victimization, because the power of victimhood status is to enticing. ”

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One more thing I found interesting in Cowen’s comments: He suggests the idea of a coming “reckoning,” which he says has probably already started, involving 1. an external crisis (foreign policy catastrophe, pandemic, economic crash, etc.), and our government not having the wherewithal to respond effectively fiscally, organisationally, and attitudinally — due to not having fiscal freedom within the budget to gear up spending, due to our waning credibility in foreign affairs, due to our preference for fighting against each other instead of seeking a solution we can all get behind; 2. rising debt burdens that we have trouble paying; and 3. a decline in the quality of governance in decision-making and execution, which he says we are seeing already:

“When you have a growing pie, most people are happy and they’re very forward looking, and they think about a brighter future and how they can contribute to that brighter future. When you’re closer to a fixed pie setting, people fight over the scraps on the table, politics becomes more combative, more rooted in insults, social media play a bigger role … and that is to some extent the world we’re in right now.”

Cowen thinks we don’t have the ability now to respond to a new crisis, and for those who have read much about mimetic theory, loud warning bells go off.  Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2008 well-summarised what happens in a society when internal divisions proliferate, when mimetic rivalry grows to a fever-pitch, pitting those in the society against each other:

“Because we compete for the same goods and comforts, we need to sustain our competition with our rivals and maintain distance from them. But to stop this getting completely out of hand, we unite with our rivals to identify the cause of the scarcity that makes us compete against each other, with some outside presence we can all agree to hate. … It doesn’t take much imagination to see how internally divided societies find brief moments of unity when they have successfully identified some other group as the real source of their own insecurity. Look at any major conflict in the world at the moment and the mechanism is clear enough. Repressive and insecure states in the Islamic world demonise a mythical Christian ‘West’, while culturally confused, sceptical and frightened European and North American societies cling to the picture of a global militant Islam, determined to ‘destroy our way of life’.”

Williams goes on to say that our tendency to unify against an identified enemy in order to reduce internal conflict “gives a fragile society an interest in keeping some sort of external conflict going. Consciously or not, political leaders in a variety of contexts are reluctant to let go of an enemy who has become indispensable to their own stability.”

And this is true in every context, both when we mark foreign powers and groups as enemies (and in fighting them feel comforted in our own unity against them) but also before and after we focus on those external enemies, when we see some of those in our society as the enemy, the “other,” as this last election cycle has made very clear that many of us do in the U.S.  Having an enemy always gives humans the sense that what’s wrong is out there, which is very comforting, because not only can we feel morally superior but we also don’t have to change anything in ourselves (or “our group”). We can just expel the enemy from our midst (who is already seen as other) or vanquish the threatening external enemy and all will be well, we mistakenly think.  In fact, we are addicted not only to soothing opiates these days, as Cowen notes, but we humans have always been addicted to the drug (pharmakon) of scapegoating to create unity, to the poison that feels like a remedy: we expel the other, who is seen as poisonous, and in doing so we temporarily heal the group’s inner division, which feels good. Briefly.

Many on the “left” accuse Trump and his supporters of scapegoating victims, of blaming our society’s woes on Muslims, Hispanics, so-called illegals, women, welfare recipients, Obamacare supporters, Obama supporters, climate change believers, scientists, the list is long — while many on the “right” accuse liberals of blaming and scapegoating Trump and his supporters, White House press secretary Spicer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, climate change deniers, gun rights advocates, the list is long. Meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated both a strong desire to unify us against external enemies and a vanishingly slight grasp of diplomacy.

Makes you want to zone out with a good romantic comedy, doesn’t it?

 

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5 thoughts on “Seeking Comfort

  1. “these Trump voters simply resent government interference in their lives, the coddling of weak-willed whiners, the redistribution of their hard-earned dollars to lazy/illegal and undeserving swindlers”

    “the degree of economic vigor that the economy of the United States derives from its cities is unmatched by any other region of the globe. Large US cities, defined here as those with 150,000 or more inhabitants, generated almost 85 percent of the country’s GDP in 2010” http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/urbanization/us-cities-in-the-global-economy

    You are aware that large cities overwhelmingly went for Hillary, right? It is godless city-dwellers who are, in fact, subsidizing Trump voters, not the other way around. At least the left’s grievances are real, not imaginary.

  2. Yes, excellent point, Eric Meier. I should have mentioned this in my essay (and I will probably add it in to the body of the essay). Trump loves to tell us he’s a victim (just two articles on this: How crybully Trump and his supporters excel at playing the victim and Donald Trump: The Greatest Victim in the History of the World), and Trump supporters also express outrage at their victimhood, at how the left and the media are so unfair to them (Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes and Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims.

    The Giradian point is that just about everyone and every group in our culture sees the benefit of claiming to be seen as a victim, even while diligently accusing the other group of playing the victim card. “Liberals” feel perfectly justified in denouncing those who discriminate against certain groups that they feel are victims but not those who discriminate against other groups which they believe to be victimizers. Of course, they are blind to the mirror image here: While they are defending some victims, they victimise others. Trump of course does the same thing: He denounces those who discriminate against him, those scapegoat and his supporters, and in doing so he points the accusing finger of a scapegoater.

    In his book Evolution and Conversion, Rene Girard notes that “Very often, Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions … You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” In the book _When These Things Begin_, Girard comments that “In the United States and everywhere, a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims … It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” This is where we are today.

    Dwight Longnecker talks about this phenomenon in “The Rise of the Bully Victim” at The Imaginative Conservative: “The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all. The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. … The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim.”

    It sure didn’t hurt Trump’s cause, his claim to victimhood for himself and his supporters, when Clinton called them deplorables. Instant victim status.

  3. ““Liberals” feel perfectly justified in denouncing those who discriminate against certain groups that they feel are victims but not those who discriminate against other groups which they believe to be victimizers. Of course, they are blind to the mirror image here: While they are defending some victims, they victimise others.”

    So, tell me, if a woman is raped, does that mean prosecuting her rapist is tantamount to victimising her rapist? Were the Jews not the victims of the Nazis? How about the blacks in slaveholding America? “Our new government[’s] … foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” Do these words of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, not make him the victimiser? “The Sahaabah were unanimously agreed on the execution of homosexuals, but they differed as to how they were to be executed. Some of them were of the view that they should be burned with fire, which was the view of ‘Ali (may Allaah be pleased with him) and also of Abu Bakr (may Allaah be pleased with him), as we shall see below. And some of them thought that they should be thrown down from a high place then have stones thrown at them. [Hello, ISIS!] This was the view of Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with him). … Because the evil consequences of homosexuality are among the worst of evil consequences, so its punishment is one of the most severe of punishments in this world and in the Hereafter (https://islamqa.info/en/38622).” There, are the gays in the Muslim world not victims? Truly, I must know.

  4. As I explained further in the body of the essay, there are real victims, whose oppression we should work to correct (including prosecute oppressors). Then there is the narrative of the victim group, as a status, which is something else and which is what I am speaking about here.

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