October’s already half-forgotten “government shutdown” was universally credited as a major defeat for the Republican party, and above all, as a tactical error that kept attention away from the administration’s botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. After the Syrian demonstration of Obama’s fecklessness in international diplomacy, the revelation of his administration’s incompetence in implementing his signature law (“Obamacare”) despite three years to prepare its Internet presence has raised serious doubts in the general public about the “big-government” philosophy that Obama, in contrast to Clinton, has been eager to put into practice. Given the system’s need to bring together data from several sources to compute premiums and subsidies in a context not of mere punctual sales but of long-term contractual obligations, its difficulties are not easily resolvable by mere hi-tech competence of the kind team Obama wielded so skillfully during the last election campaign. Yet with their shutdown theatrics, the Republicans played into the hands of the liberal media and of Obama himself, who became the “adult in the room” simply by refusing to attach strings to the continuing resolution. Meanwhile, “neutral” TV journalists were able to inflict damage on the Republicans for half a month simply by airing federal employees’ takes on how given portions of the government, the economy, and the nation were being injured by the shutdown.
Yet “establishment” Republicans, some solidly conservative, were cowed by the fear the Tea Party strikes into the heart of primary-averse incumbents. My purpose is not to defend the Tea Party, even less its recent strategy, but to explain its existence. I find that the characterizations of this group offered by friends and foes alike miss its central motivation, one that by its very nature cannot be expressed openly in our political culture, and which for that very reason augments the frustration that is at the core of the movement.
The Tea Party’s rhetoric and the focus of its activism is on limited government. The Obama administration unapologetically encourages government dependency and caters to really or imaginarily vulnerable client populations. As the proportion of the population in the workforce declines (and Obamacare makes employers reluctant to hire or to keep workers on the job for more than 29 hours a week), food stamps and often dubious disability benefits proliferate. But focus on the size of government and on its fostering of dependency leaves out what I believe is the most anthropologically significant feature of Obama’s big-government operation: its advancement of victimocracy.
The argument currently before the Supreme Court that an anti-discrimination amendment to the Michigan state constitution is by its very nature discriminatory is an emblem of this. This argument, although self-contradictory on its face, no longer sounds scandalous; indeed, it is used all the time. When I was a college student, I worked a couple of summers in the Post Office. Hiring was based on an examination, a kind of postal aptitude test, and since I was able to score 100% (not a particularly difficult feat) I was hired right away. This test, along with many similar ones, has long been defunct; its results produced “disparate impacts.” Given the common practice of eliminating such tests without any other proof of bias, how can we allow a constitutional amendment that presumably makes taking account of “disparate impact” itself a form of discrimination? Indeed, is it clear that the polity was damaged rather than improved by diminishing the role of measurable intelligence in hiring for the Postal Service? Did I deserve to be chosen over people for whom the job would have been a real career? Maybe “disparate impact” is in fact the best policy. I am not presenting my personal opinion on these matters, nor on the rightness or wrongness of the views of the Tea Party membership. My point here is simply to explain the specific nature of their frustration.
I think the simplest way of looking at the Tea Party is that they are the party of embattled normality. (I use the term “normal” here in the sense in which Edmund Burke refers to “custom” in reaction to the radical rationalism of the French Revolution, not in the more problematic sense given to it by Michel Foucault, for whom it is the product of the normalization process that marks the transition from traditional society to modernity.) The old normal corresponds to the world I was born into, the “middle American” culture nostalgically celebrated in the opening pages of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, where the (moderately) rich and poor smoked the same cigarettes, drank the same coffee, watched the same movies and TV, and owned more or less luxurious but similar (American) cars and homes. It was a time when children—including those in the African-American community, whether in the North or the segregated South—were generally born in wedlock, attended public schools, and were taught both not to take candy from strangers and to respect the admonitions of respectable adults other than their parents, when marriage was what it had been for millennia, and when the professed ideal of the Civil Rights movement was race-neutral integration, judging people by the “content of their character,” an objective that, taken at face value, is diametrically opposed to the current insistence on “diversity.”
For better or for worse, and ultimately as a result of the Holocaust’s demonstration of the horror that can arise from de jure discrimination, throughout the postwar era the old normal has been eroded by the victimary well beyond its overtly discriminatory elements. At the moment of 9/11, I over-optimistically predicted that a “post-millennial” age would succeed the victimary era, whose decadence that catastrophe seemed to demonstrate. Alas, this was not to be. The election of our first African-American president, although surely both a product and a source of long-term improvement in race relations, has given rise to a newly aggressive pursuit of race- and gender-oriented policies, policies which, as I pointed out in Chronicle 442, justify speaking no longer simply of “the victimary” but using the term, proposed by Adam Katz, of victimocracy.
The Tea Party groups the partisans of the old normality, which has not been replaced by a stable new normality but is constantly eroded by a victimary epistemology that attacks the “oppression” of normality and its accepted norms of firstness. The other day when filling out a form online, under “sex,” I was given the choice of male, female, and “other.” The consecration of a category that responds to the presumed need of a tiny fraction of the population to identify to the point of biological denial with the opposite sex is emblematic of what offends the sensibilities of the Tea Party. Perhaps they are “narrow-minded” not to accept gay marriage and racial preferences and three-gender online forms. But I think they are offended less by such things in themselves than by the sense that they are merely the latest victories in a systematic, ongoing victimary war against the normal.
I have never attempted to formulate explicitly the tenets of this victimary position; the following is a preliminary attempt at such a definition:
- No notion of normality, however venerable and apparently reasonable, is acceptable when it is felt to stigmatize behavior that some identifiable group of individuals find essential to their identity, so long as it does not explicitly damage others.
- The sense of victimization aroused in the offended party is accepted as prima facie evidence of such stigmatization; that is, the burden of proof is on the “normal” accused rather than the accuser.
- Conversely, any principle or behavior that can be claimed to risk damage to others and that no group considers essential to its identity should be strictly forbidden, even when the risk from such things as “secondary smoke” is vanishingly small. Potential victims here explicitly include the realities of “nature,” animate and inanimate; sentiments of outrage at the “desecration” of nature are considered as of similar nature to resentment of personal injustice.
Victimocracy as thus described is less a doctrine of positive morality than a discovery principle for violations of it. Since the victim’s resentment is conceived as justified until proof of the contrary, there is an increasing disdain for the traditional requirement of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” as a means for determining guilt (see Walter Olson, “Sentence First, Verdict Afterward,” Commentary July-August 2013). This resentment is precious because it allows us to discover the oppression masked by discriminatory norms inherited from the unenlightened past. “Enlightened” victimary thought denies the Burkean wisdom of normality as a model of conduct. Once victimization is discovered either in relations between humans or in their relationship with nature, the urgency of its mitigation and eventual elimination trumps any broader social considerations. Firstness is subject to what in constitutional terms is called “strict scrutiny”: it must be shown to be of immediate value to all concerned.
The recent government shutdown and Obamacare are monitory examples of the dangers of both sides of the current debate.
The Tea Party, unable to attack victimocracy save in marginal and incremental ways, focuses its attention on government expenditure as both a metonymy of governmental expansion and its means of implementation. Thus it reacts to the impossibility of defunding Obamacare by “shutting down” the government or refusing to raise the limit on its indebtedness.
The chief significance of Obamacare is not that it implements the program of the left—in fact, it sought a great compromise between the welfare state, the insurers, and the medical community—but that it is meant to demonstrate the viability of vastly increased government control of health care. We were told it would expand choice, insure the uninsured, bring relief to the already ill, allow the happily insured to keep their insurance, and lower costs into the bargain—little of which appears to be true. I do not think Obama and his cohorts were merely cynical in their promises. They assumed that in whatever domain, the more the federal government is involved, the better things will be managed. Where I differ with most conservative analyses of this hubristic faith is in focusing on its victimary aspects. The superiority that the Obama administration attributes to the government over the private sector, and to the federal government over its more local forms, is less a technocratic than a moral superiority, a superior concern for victims that makes the government the privileged engine of “fairness.” Requiring men’s insurance policies to cover female contraceptives, pregnancy, and childbirth might be called pandering to the women who form part of Obama’s “base,” but I think his operatives see it rather as just compensation to an “oppressed” group.
Hence the fiasco of the ACA rollout and the headaches it has created for users and insurers alike is no mere tactical blunder. If, as is far from unlikely, Obamacare fails, independently of its Internet problems, to provide the general public with attractive insurance options at reasonable premiums, this failure will provide strong evidence that the victimocracy has exceeded its capacity to preside over the national economy.
(I had completed a first draft of this Chronicle when I saw Daniel Henninger’s “Progressive Government Fails” in the October 30 Wall Street Journal. Henninger refers to “progressivism,” but his main point is that the term “progressive” denotes something different from, and far more coercive than, traditional post-war liberalism—something close in spirit to our category of victimocracy.)
Another important, although less politically salient, part of what offends the Tea Party is the disregard for the old normality embodied in such things as the ever-increasing percentage of out of wedlock births and disinclination for marriage among the non-college-educated: sexuality detached from marriage and child-making detached from parenting. The enforced tolerance of such practices is an example of “soft” victimary thinking that tends to escape attention because it is not focused on the purported oppression of one group by another. In the past, illegitimate children were stigmatized, even if people realized that the stigma should attach not to the children but to their parents. One of the most striking features of the victimary era is the fouling of public space as a result of the defeat of the principle of public respectability by the rights granted the unrespectable. We must bear with the strong-smelling man sitting opposite us at the library, who a few decades ago would have been asked to leave. Mental patients too were at one point granted victimary status and released from confinement, and a vast street population has been the result. Nor has replacing the “unwed mother” by the “single mother” made life better for the vast proportion of children they produce—some 70% in the black community, and over 40% among high-school-educated whites. The most hopeful analysis of the decline of respectability may well be that of “Spengler” (David P. Goldman) in How Civilizations Die(Regnery, 2011): family-oriented religious people, since they have more children than less traditional groups, will dominate the world population of the future; Goldman includes Israel as well as the United States in this optimistic forecast.
A final example, minor but surely not trivial. At the beginning of 2013, UCLA, along with the other campuses of the University of California, distributed to faculty and students a “Campus Climate” survey requesting respondents to reveal incidents of discrimination against minority groups. In reaction to the lengthy report issued as a result, a write-up in the October 19 LA Times reads “UCLA faculty survey cites racism.”
Although I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the contributors to the report, I think I can say with some authority that such incidents of discrimination are far from common. I have taught at UCLA for over 40 years and have not witnessed a single incident where a “minority” student, let alone a faculty member, was singled out for (negative) discrimination of any kind. On the contrary, I have observed the expenditure of a great deal of effort and money on promoting the interests of minorities, and on seeking to create, despite policies that officially make racial considerations illegal, a more “diverse” campus. Above all, whatever the substance of the complaints contained in the report, one cannot miss the irony that a critical mass of racism is being discovered at the heart of this ostensibly ultra-liberal institution just as we enter the second administration of our first African-American president.
Some of my happier memories of the Bronx High School of Science were my occasional exchanges with Victor S., one of the few black students at the school. We would bump into each other in the hall or lunch room, and got a special thrill from calling each other “n…..” and “k…,” with a select choice of adjectives. Vic was the only person who signed my yearbook. I didn’t ask anyone to sign it, but he just grabbed it, wrote a friendly little blurb, and signed his name. He was that kind of guy.
This was a dozen years past the Holocaust, and only a few after Brown vs Board of Ed. As I was to discover another few years later, cities as far north as Baltimore were still racially segregated. Even in New York, Blacks and Jews were not on an altogether equal footing. Yet in these encounters, for a few seconds, Vic and I were brothers. Not so much both victims, as both members of groups that had known persecution, but who were satisfied enough with their lives to smile about it.
I was’t really close to Vic, and I never saw him again after graduation. Vic, if you’re out there somewhere, let’s exchange insults again. Nobody has called me a “k…” in a very long time.