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Embracing Victimhood

Eytan Kobre

Combating the allure of victimhood

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

T

here’s an altercation now ongoing among conservative pundits, sparked by an essay by New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari attacking what he called “David French-ism,” a reference to National Review writer David French.

Briefly, Ahmari, an Iranian convert to Catholicism, sees conservatives and religious Americans as under siege, having been “coercively squeezed out of the public square” by hostile progressive forces uninterested in compromise and comity. This requires fighting back with “war and enmity”  and recognizing that “civility and decency are secondary values.”

Much has already been written in response to Ahmari, but I want to focus on something political scientist Greg Weiner wrote at the conservative site The Bulwark. He identifies in the Ahmari approach “a foundational, and unbecoming, principle of intellectual Trumpism: the politics of victimhood.” The irony, says Weiner, is that

this is precisely the sort of siege mentality — guarding the sacralized status of victim and the political entitlements… that the right used to mock in the identity politics of the left.

The Trumpist right has apparently discovered that victimology works. Or perhaps just that it feels good. In either case, it achieves for the victimized right in politics precisely that of which Ahmari and others accuse the culture: liberation from ordinary norms.

But the irony doesn’t end with conservatives like Ahmari co-opting the left’s cherished narrative of victimhood. The irony is instead compounded by the fact that when one plays that game there’s a tendency to feel

most passionately besieged when one is most tangibly ascendant. The social status of victim is not something to be surrendered lightly. Identity politics appeared only as civil rights in America were being more comprehensively affirmed than at any point in our nation’s history.

Conservative victimhood is rising as Trumpism commands an impressive array of heights: the White House, majorities in the U.S. Senate and on the Supreme Court, most governorships and an even greater proportion of state legislatures. If this is a siege, Troy is well fortified against wooden horses.

Weiner perceptively notes that a prime motivation for “clinging to victim status, with its halo of helplessness” is “precisely because it releases one from norms of civility, which bind by tradition and habituation rather than by reflex. It authorizes the expression of our baser instincts while soothing losses incurred in the realm of representative self-government.”

In seeking to counter the victimhood of the right, Weiner highlights the current favorable political landscape. But conservatives have also experienced major legal and political success in many other areas, such as the battles for life, religious liberty, and free speech.

As David French writes in his response to Ahmari, there is “a wholly incorrect sense that the previous approach to the hot-button cultural issues of our day, centered around appeals to constitutional rights conducted (mostly) with civility and dignity, has failed…. This is false.” He contrasts the current landscape with the state of affairs prevailing at the start of the Reagan presidency, when “the abortion rate hit its post-Roe high… religious liberty and free association were at grave legal risk… [and] there existed no truly functional cultural-conservative legal or political infrastructure to counter these developments.”

But, he writes, what “happened over the course of the next generation was truly astonishing.” The courts ruled in favor of equal access for religious student groups to school facilities and funding, Yale law students founded the Federalist Society, and Christian legal organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom were established to protect religious liberty.

In society at large, writes French, the “abortion rate began to drop… throughout the Reagan, first Bush, Clinton, second Bush, and Obama administrations. It is now lower than it was when Roe was decided.” On the legal front, an “immense, contiguous American geographic region is passing the most significant wave of pro-life legislation since Roe.”

As for the American college campus, that “epicenter of illiberal leftist power, two decades ago more than 70 percent of college campuses had ‘red light’ policies that clearly restricted constitutionally protected expression. But ‘thanks to a legal and political onslaught by civil libertarians on the left and right, the number of surveyed schools with speech codes has declined for 11 consecutive years,’ ” and today, barely a quarter of schools have them and even fewer enforce them.

French concludes:

Does this sound like retreat and defeat to you?…. Yes, the Left wins many fights…. It has enormous cultural power. But the idea that the Right is weak — and that classical liberalism is a dead end, a source of that weakness — is pure fiction…. We face a challenge, not a crisis, and there is no need to turn our back on our nation’s founding principles to overcome it. By staying the course, we can and will prevail in the marketplace of American ideas.

Returning to Greg Weiner’s reflection on victimhood, it’s not easy to discuss this topic as it relates to our community, if only because we have so often in our long history been true victims in horrendous ways. And so long as the historical axiom of Eisav sonei l’Yaakov prevails, we will continue to be victimized. Just being a small, highly identifiable minority itself makes us natural targets for bias and worse.

But although the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not after you,” the converse — that even if they are after you, you may well still be paranoid — can be equally true. This is not the venue in which to be overly specific, but suffice it to say that there are all too many instances in which some people within our communities are prone to affect a paranoid style.

When the issue is that of interactions between community members and law enforcement agencies or the judicial and corrections systems, we need to be able to distinguish between legitimate claims of being pursued, and a paranoia born of victimhood. As Weiner observed, victimhood can be sweet, even addictive. And it’s worthwhile invoking, too, because it frees those who embrace it from the norms of having to act civilly and fairly, even legally. After all, they are victims and they’re just “getting theirs” and “leveling the playing field” and “compensating for endemic anti-Semitism.”

Even when there are cases in which individuals have been caught up in a blatant miscarriage of justice, too often the air becomes thick with the stench of victimhood and grievance. Certain corners of frum media coverage and everyday conversations become marinated in paranoia-tinged self-pity, as if these individual injustices taint all of law enforcement, or worse, legitimize continued outlaw behavior by our own.

So too for the recurrent confrontations that ensue when an expanding, newly muscular Orthodox community bumps up against the society beyond ours. The issues are real and difficult and the equities often lie with us, but not always. And even when they do, not always are we classic “victims” and not always must we press rights that enable us to win a skirmish but lose the larger war, and more importantly, lose sight of who we are and what we represent.

Forgotten are all the stories told of Rav Schwab and Rav Pam’s surpassing concern for upholding the law of the land and coexisting with our neighbors. Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s exhortations to appreciate the unique malchus shel chesed that hosts us fade from memory. Suddenly, we’ve left New York 2019 for Poland 1843. Only we haven’t.

The very same irony Greg Weiner observes in the current conservative milieu exists among us as well. We Orthodox, too, are ascendant. We’ve benefited from this country’s blessings of freedom and prosperity to become affluent and influential, growing by leaps and bounds in every way. Non-Orthodox Jewry is in pronounced demographic decline, their movements spiritually bankrupt. Not us.

We’ve scored legal victories and gained rights to religious observance and communal expansion. We’ve also experienced setbacks, like the New York State education crisis, that remind us of our limitations. Overall, however, the wind is at our communal back.

Yet, thinking back to our community of decades ago, when we were smaller, poorer, and less secure, I don’t recall there being the same sense of entitlement mixed with grievance, of feeling beleaguered and besieged by a variety of forces — whether by the left, legitimate governmental oversight and enforcement, or anyone else.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 764. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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