In an important book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, which appeared in 1992, Charles Sykes speaks of “victim chic” and deplores its “catalog of immanent grievance and infinite self-assertion.” Sykes quotes former Assistant Education Secretary Chester Finn, who had it exactly right: “In our no-fault society, it is acceptable to be a victim but not to be held responsible for one’s own situation or for that of one’s children.” We have, Sykes argues, torn up the moral contract underwriting “shared middle-class values” and installed a “victimist” ideology in its place, eliminating social distinctions “based on individual success.” We all experience unfairness and injustice, he concludes, “but that does not mean we need to turn them into all-purpose alibis.”
The confirmation of Sykes’ thesis is all around us. It seems as if we now live in societies filled mainly with victims: victims of mainstream culture, victims of exclusionary daycare policies, victims of transfats, victims of the schoolyard game of tag where some poor child is made to feel “it,” victims of secondhand smoke, victims of the tax system, victims of anti-terror laws, victims of those who pose as victims, victims of state lotteries, victims of potentially lethal glass mugs in British pubs, victims of our genes, victims of “puritanism” (i.e., moral propriety), victims of this and victims of that — those who make up what Bruce Thornton in Plagues of the Mind has aptly called “the conga line of victimhood,” to which the nanny state materially contributes.
And this new class of victims is abundantly complemented by an army of “survivors,” cashing in on what they regard as the prestige of those who have experienced real, historical calamities. Once we were content to say, as in the title of a famous poetry collection by D.H. Lawrence, “Look! We have come through,” and leave it at that. Now we are driven to proclaim our newfound status. We are survivors of this phobia or that phobia, survivors of one or another disease, survivors of tenement life, survivors of reality TV shows, survivors of the free market and corporate industry viewed as a great and oppressive structure of domination, survivors of brutal parents, survivors of feral children, survivors of workplace humiliation, survivors of scalding cups of McDonald’s coffee, survivors of what-have-you, all clamoring for attention, recognition, sympathy, and compensation.
But survivors are only victims by another name, for their “survival” depends on the acknowledgment of their suffering, that is, on what we might call an Asclepian concern from those who have not yet joined this therapeutic category. The flaunting of debility is their greatest strength. They own their victimhood and will not be deprived of it. Radio host Larry Elder, author of The Ten Things You Can’t Say In America, has coined the term “victicrats” to apply to African-Americans who profit from the bogey of white guilt, but it could apply equally well to the entire commonality of professional victims who make their living off the cult of entitlement that has sunk its roots deep into the Western psyche. In a culture that has scrapped natural endowments in favor of artificial entitlements, nothing succeeds like failure.