Thursday, February 7, 2008

Victimology Blues Part 2: Privileged White Men as the New England Patriots



Read Part 1 here


Throughout their great run over the last seven years, the New England Patriots have sounded like a broken record: “We get no respect…Nobody believed in us…It’s us against the world.” All successful sports teams spout these clichés, but the Patriots have perfected them. The Patriots continued to play the put-upon underdog role, even as they became the first team in NFL history to complete a 16-0 regular season, and won two additional playoff games before being upset by what turned out to be the better team in the Superbowl.

Anybody with a lick of football sense knows that the Patriots’ underdog shtick is laughable. It’s clear that New England has been by far the most successful organization in the NFL this decade. They have the best offense, the best coach, the best front office, and the best QB. They also have one of the best defenses—maybe not statistically, but when the game is on the line, the Patriots’ D usually comes up with a big play. This year, the Pats were favored in every single game they played, often by more than two touchdowns. Before they lost the big game, sports pundits were talking about The 2007 Patriots’ place in history. Chauncey will disagree, but I think that the referees exhibit a subtle bias toward The Patriots. The Pats’ only credible claim is that, outside of New England, public opinion is largely against them because they win (they believe that Spygate is just the excuse). On the surface, this football talk might seem to be unrelated to victimology; however, I submit that the Patriots are like the “traditional” white American male: successful and privileged, especially in relative terms, yet committed to a narrative of victimhood. [1]

This mindset of victimology isn’t limited to the current generation of privileged white men. Throughout this country’s history, in fact, the most successful purveyors and beneficiaries of victim mentality have been elite Christian white males. Consider the American Revolution: our nation asks us to extol people who framed their taxation at the hands of the British as the greatest injustice in history (while they owned and raped other human beings and excluded from participation the vast majority of its residents.[2] Consider the “threats” posed by Bloodthirsty Injuns, Black Brutes, the Yellow Peril, the Red Scare, and more recently, Middle-Eastern terrorists (internationally) and Mexican immigrants (domestically). I don’t wish to single out white men—many people have partaken in these various forms of fear mongering[3]—but elite white males have benefited most from them.

The point is that despite what certain bloated, racist drug addicts and Easter Island-headed token negroes seem to suggest, victimology is not the exclusive domain of black people or “minorities” of any sort. To the contrary, victimology is imprinted onto the very core of the “traditional” (read: Anglo, Judeo-Christian) American history and identity favored by liberals and conservatives who vehemently oppose multiculturalism and “revisionist” history.

The strategic rationale for fashioning one’s group as victims is clear: the public sympathy gained from victimhood can mean the difference between political support and indifference or opposition. Victimology allows activists to rally the troops, to build solidarity by conceiving an existential threat from outside. This strategy is often effective in the short run. Over the long term, though, emphasizing such a strategy can only be detrimental to the less privileged and to those concerned with social progress. But this strategy has different implications depending on the status of those wielding it.

When it comes from the privileged, victimology signals one of two things about the privileged victimologists: 1) that they have no respect for the intelligence of their adversaries and the public at large, or 2) that they have a tenuous grasp on facts and common sense. Either way, their victimology both reflects and contributes to a stunning disconnect from reality. It’s both disheartening and scary to know that there are people in positions of power and authority who think that elite white men are disadvantaged. Because it helps to reinforce privilege, this kind of victimology, by default, has an adverse effect on the less privileged. To return to the original analogy, not only have the Patriots played the victim; they’ve used this perceived victimhood to fuel their dominance, as their “everyone’s against us” attitude bolsters their intensity in walloping opponents.

When it comes from those who aren’t as privileged, victimology has a more insidious result: crippling political discourse and collective action. An emphasis on victimhood leaves people ill-equipped to deal with problems that do not fit the convenient “one of them wronged one of us” narrative. Because of the lure of victimology, discussions about practical strategies to put a dent in a serious problem—such as crime, low academic achievement, teen pregnancy, and fatherless children—too often turn to slavery. Victimology leads otherwise sensible people perpetuate batshit conspiracy theories. Victimology does not simply prompt political actors to exploit symbolic victims who have been harmed by those from other groups; victimology encourages actors to crave victimhood. Every year, a few bleeding-hearts stage “hate crimes,” usually on college campuses. These actions are obviously aberrant, but the mindset isn’t. Hate crime hoaxers aren’t insane; they are merely expressing pathological victimology politics taken to the logical extreme. Relying on fear and demonization of the other in order to define and build political communities is the only mode that a number of less privileged people know.

In short, I am troubled by the extent to which victimology is embedded in our culture.[4] One need not be a Nietzschean to argue that victim mentality exemplifies rhetorical (if not psychological) weakness. While there is certainly virtue in overcoming hardship and victimhood (as the history and resilience of scores of oppressed people attests), there is no inherent virtue in victimhood. Sometimes, victimhood, while life-changing for the victim, has no broader social import beyond the person involved; sometimes, claims of victimhood are absurd, and sometimes, “victims” are idiots or miscreants who deserve neither sympathy nor millions of dollars for making the bad decisions that allowed them to be victimized. But the issue is not whether victims exist (of course they do) or whether certain figures warrant the victim label; the issue is what role victims should play in the narratives (both backward-looking and forward-looking ones) that construct our political identities and frame our political action.

Next—Victimology Blues Part 3: The Racist Duke Lacrosse Team, the Hooker, and the Suckers Who Blindly Supported Them.

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[1] The analogy breaks down once we move beyond perceptions and outcomes—more specifically, beyond the success to cries of victimhood ratio. Because the best, most deserving teams almost always win, especially in big games, the NFL is closer to a true meritocracy than America (or any other country) will ever be. But the meritocracy only applies to athletes on the field. There’s still a notable racial disparity in coaching and front office positions.

[2] This does not, however, absolve those who refuse to acknowledge the brilliance, or at least the effectiveness of the rhetoric and institutions that these elitist, racist slave owners crafted.

[3] And as Zora correctly implies, all of us, even those who are from historically disenfranchised groups, carry some form of privilege, depending on the context.

[4] But this isn’t an American phenomenon either. Pick an issue locally, nationally, globally—immigration, multicultural education, The West Bank, secularism vs. public religious expression—each side of every major conflict deals in the politics of victimhood. Victim mentality pervades all societies, garroting political discourse and identity.

5 comments:

elle said...

the Pats weren't the first, it was the 1976 Dolphins that went undefeated. great article and the weakness of victomology

gordon gartrelle said...

Elle,

The '72 Dolphins went undefeated in the regular season, but that was back when NFL teams were only playing 14 games. The Pats were the first to go undefeated in a 16 game regular season.

elle said...

ohh, I didn't know...

Anonymous said...

As a 20-something, I can see parallels of your victimology in a culture we derogatorily refer to as "emo"; privileged teenage whiners.

Mark Ganzer said...

Very insightful post. The psychology of victimology infects the national psche too. For example, the Vietnam War, from which emerged the Vietnam War Hero, John McCain, POW. Calling the Vietnam War a "quagmire" into which the U.S. got stuck manages to avoid the issue of U.S. agency. How one POW who dropped bombs on civilians becomes a war hero and goes on to become a presidential nominee while a winner of three purple hearts who engaged enemy fire at close range goes on to become a presidential nominee and comes to be called a traitor further illustrates the insidious workings of false victimology.