**First published Chris O’Connell’s Intellectual Plane (Copyright March 2017)
I sometimes wonder if in politics (and other aspects of life) victimhood is as relevant as heroism, wisdom and knowledge. Indeed I suspect it carries greater weight than the last two.
In contemporary times the Far Right elevates victimhood to a level of an art-form. American White Nationalists complain that the domestic culture is under threat (clearly they haven’t heard of Hollywood, Disney, American Literature, DARPA, alternative energy, or the myriad of megachurches across the US). They claim their jobs are being taken by foreigners or handed out to minorities who may or may not be qualified for the role – at least according to White Nationalist rhetoric. Popular culture is increasingly representative of liberals, Jews, (insert other race or political affiliation here…) at the expense of Western Culture, and so on and so on, Ad Nauseum and without any basis in reality. Yawn.
The Liberal Left and the Centre (such as it exists these days) and other political interest groups are every bit as skilled at playing the victim card. A recent phenomenon in universities is the so-called “safe space” – areas of the campus where debate is off limits lest someone should get offended. That reasoned discussion regardless of perspective and source is key to a healthy functioning democracy is apparently secondary to catering to the emotional needs of those with thin-skins. The term “snowflake” is being bandied around a lot these days except unlike snowflakes which are complex, intricate structures, there is little behind such sensitivity other than an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for one’s opinions.
Reinforcing the unhealthy obsession with causing offense is the term “cultural appropriation”. This term is defined as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. That ideas and shared experiences between human societies are part and parcel of human experience apparently slipped the minds of those who coined this silly term. True, not all these experiences have been positive as anyone with even the briefest familiarity with imperialism can attest. However, like it or not as Edward Said so eloquently stated, we are all the products of empire.
If we were to fully resist the ideas of cultural appropriation today the individual would be trapped in a form of stasis unable to perform even the most basic activities without fear of offending someone. Let’s suppose you like pizza but you have no Italian heritage: Well too bad! That dish is the creation of Italian bakers who first developed the concept nearly a thousand years ago. Following the line of cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion eating such a meal would be offensive to Italians, most specifically Neopolitans, Abbruzzans, Apulians, Campanians and other Italian regional populations. And let’s not forget that the modern state of Italy only came into being in 1861 -so really, only Southern Italians should possess the cultural right to eat pizza and not Northern Italians from Piedmont, Lombardy and the Tyrol.
We could take the absurdity of the cultural appropriation argument further. Suppose pizza consumption was limited to Southern Italians and then suppose an individual or group of Southern Italians enjoys using peppers as a topping.
Uh-uh, no way!
You see peppers were first cultivated by South American indigenous peoples, most notably the Incans and the Aztecs who were conquered by the Spanish Conquistadores. As well as peppers, the Spanish returned from the New World with potatoes, corn and squashes (including pumpkins, but since Halloween or Thanksgiving are forms of cultural appropriation that should be resisted we won’t need those anyway) so any non-Amerindian (specifically South American Amerindians) shouldn’t eat these foods.
Granted these examples are absurd but then so is the idea of behind cultural appropriation itself. If anything, those who decry that idea are advocating an ideology that if taken to its logical conclusion would economically, morally, culturally and (needless to say gastronomically) impoverish all of human society.
Moreover, many of the cultural values which both the Far-Right and the Extreme Left are so concerned about losing, aren’t innate to the respective societies in the first place. It would no doubt surprise the average member of the far-right British Nationalist Party to learn that his or her cherished traditional Sunday dinner of roast beef was actually brought to the British Isles by the French. Or that St. Patrick who the BNP venerates as a Briton who supposedly brought civilisation to the “heathen” Irish was likely born in North Africa.
Similarly, the high-minded modern day secular socialist might be shocked to learn that most of what they espouse was first promoted by English religious sects such as the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers in the seventeenth century.
The point I’m trying to make here is that all cultural experiences are relevant. They are part of the human experience and part of who we are as human beings. Those who seek to cherry pick as in the case of White Nationalists or the anti-culture appropriation crowd do so not out a desire for social or ethnic justice but to sow division and xenophobia.
If we are completely honest there are no perfect societies nor has there ever been a society that has not at one time or another orchestrated some kind of violence against another society. The Ancient Greeks and Macedonians who founded so much of Western art and philosophy also engaged in localised tribal wars as well as genocide towards non-Greek peoples. Should we moderns forego 2,500 years of said cultural influence as a result?
Should we also forego the influences of other significant cultures such as China and the Islamic world? Perhaps Western educational institutions should remove key mathematical theorems from curricula because they are derived from the work of Islamic scholars like Ibn Ghazi? Or perhaps Christian, Islamic and Jewish theologians should halt their studies because of the influence of Zoroastrianism on the development of the Abrahamic faiths?
The potential for silliness here is astronomical.
VICTIMHOOD AS A BUSINESS
It continues today through the revival of silly extreme ideas on both the Left and Right, in particular libertarianism and anarchism.
Ayn Rand, the poster-child for amoral philosophy once wrote that people choose to be victims. Rand might have been referring to herself. Rand’s philosophical outlook was shaped by family grievances. Her father’s business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks.
During her time in the United States, Rand promoted a selfish, anti-government philosophy at odds with post-war socialist policies being adopted by the US and other countries. Later feted by libertarian intellectuals and congressmen (Paul Ryan is a great admirer) Rand never seemed to grasp the shallowness of her thinking though she did grasp at self-awareness. Her diaries are a trove of insight into her cold personality and damaged psyche.
Despite her rejection of Soviet values, her literary characters (symbolic as she claimed them to be) were little more than reflections of the Soviet Union’s “Heroes of Socialist Labour” the Stakhanovites. Though cast as the ideal symbol of individualism, John Galt the mysterious philosopher and inventor depicted in her most famous work Atlas Shrugged is an objectivist parallel to Alexey Stakhanov, the Ukrainian miner celebrated in Soviet propaganda throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Rand’s rejection of the Soviet Union and her embrace of laissez-faire capitalism was pathological in its intensity. But at the core of her zeal one can sense grief and loss as well as a profound desire to be accepted in her adopted United States. This is evident in her testimony to the House Committee of Un-American Activities and the paranoid vision of collective culture described in her novella Anthem.
Ultimately Rand translated her sense of personal victimhood into a lucrative career of writing fiction and non-fiction as well as public speaking. She also transferred her sense of grievance into disdain for homosexuals, Arabs, draft dodgers and Native Americans.
Following in a similar vein but with even less intellectual ability than Ayn Rand is the absurd Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopolous would like to claim the mantle of voice of a new rebellious conservative counterculture. Yet look past the thin veneer of pseudo-intellectualism and all one finds is a childish pretender.
Like Rand before him, Yiannopoulos is an expert at making money out victimhood. During his tenure as chief editor at Breitbart News he specialised in provoking both liberals and moderate conservatives with ridiculous and inaccurate pronouncements on subjects such as LGBTQ rights, women and minorities. That there is and was little factual evidence to support any of Yiannopoulos’s claims on any subject matters little to him so long as he generates a reaction from his audience.
Though a homosexual himself, Yiannopoulos has often stated his considered opinion that gays and lesbians should remain in the closet. He has described feminism “as cancer” and although not native to the US has argued in favour of stronger anti-immigration laws.
His contradictions and absurdities are the recognizable hallmarks of a victim. As a child Yiannopoulos was sexually abused and as an adult, he has simply transferred his anger and resentment over this experience into antagonising others. Yiannopoulos claims to be a devout Catholic which is ironic considering the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. However by engaging in bigoted behaviour, Yiannopoulos is simply acting out like many abuse victims who haven’t come to terms with their trauma. Many victims of sexual abuse will behave in a manner they feel will please their abuser or overcompensate in relationships with others. His statements against the LGBT community and women read like public cries for approval from the forces of reaction. Despite the Church’s stance on homosexuality his devout Catholicism reads like the desperate cries of child seeking acceptance.
Despite the controversy he has generated over past statements and despite the intended title of his biography (shelved by Random House due to his own childish remarks about pedophilia) Yiannopoulos is neither dangerous nor meaningful. All that he has managed to achieve is to generate an income by translating his victimhood into boorish behaviour and humourless spectacle. Were socioeconomic circumstances in a better state across the Western World, it’s doubtful anyone would have even heard of this ridiculous louche.
Sadly, the socioeconomic situation in the Western World isn’t good. Yiannopoulos has a following among eighteen to thirty five year olds who share his sense of grievance albeit for different reasons. This is a generation up to its eyeballs in university and mortgage debt and facing limited career options. As manufacturing and other high paying jobs have declined thanks in part to changes in technology and globalized outsourcing, those remaining jobs in retail, services and finance are neither well-paying nor spiritually fulfilling. The Internet, online gaming and social media serve as a steam release valve for these tensions. They also serve as a narcotic allowing the individual to wallow in their own sense of powerlessness and victimhood. Social media sites like 4Chan bring together constituencies that have been left behind by the world economy and left with few hopes or prospects that things can improve. In this environment it is small wonder that fringe ideologies such as Randian Objectivism or so the called “alt-right” are gaining ground. In an age of high personal debt, high unemployment, low rates of job satisfaction and reduced social mobility any ideology offering to change the status quo holds appeal. That any section of the society should feel impelled to support such authoritarian ideologies as espoused by Yiannopoulos – ideals that work to prop up and aggravate the status quo – is tragic.
It may seem throughout this piece that I am blaming the victims for their circumstances and that is not my intent. The point I am trying to make here is that while circumstances can be debilitating, the tendency towards victimhood without meaningful resolution is a passive response to real problems. Even worse clinging to victimhood as Milo Yiannopoulos does can lead the individual into demonising persons or structures that have nothing to do with the cause of their problems.
High indebtedness is not an excuse to hate women, yet as Gamergate showed, there is a constituency that would rather lash out at successful women than address their own personal problems. The same misogynist sentiments were heard throughout the 2016 US presidential election as were racist and inaccurate statements about immigrants and minorities. If the same level of antipathy was directed at the forces that are actually responsible for the state of victimhood faced by those eighteen to thirty five year olds, then there would be cause to be optimistic.
Despite the nonsense spewed from the alt-right, no right wing figure during the 2016 US election ever suggested cancelling the one point three trillion dollars of student debt currently weighing down the society’s youth. No figure on the alt-right has called for a reduced working week with higher wages and benefits. The alt-right is too busy doing what it does best: being a lickspittle to the rich. That alone should disqualify them from being taken seriously by any sensible person.
I’ll close this part of what will be a two part essay with some final words about feelings just in case anyone reading this is offended. These are from Gary Vaynerchuk CEO of VaynerMedia.
“Nobody gives a fuck about your feelings and you need to stop crying and adjust.”
“If you actually spend all your time doing instead of dwelling, you’d be much further along.”