Thu, Sep 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

America's hierarchy of suffering

Since Sept. 11, the US has used its victimhood to demand a monopoly on the right to feel and to inflict pain

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK


The tale of how I became a Nazi and my Nazi harasser became a Jew is as intriguing as it is instructive. Last November I wrote a column in The Guardian newspaper about a racist e-mail sent to me by an employee of an insurance company and my frustrations over the manner in which my grievance was handled. The man in question (a white, South African supporter of the British National party who complained of "undesirables flooding into Britain") was subsequently fired. His dismissal was not as a result of my column but because my original complaint had alerted the company to a previously unreported pattern of racist behavior on his part.

Of the numerous responses from the public I received, most were supportive but many were more abusive than the original message. One stood out. Incensed that something as "trivial" as racist abuse could lead to a man losing his job, one reader compared me to the person who betrayed Anne Frank. And so, through contorted metaphor and contemptuous logic, the harasser became the victim and the harassed was transformed into the perpetrator.

Victimhood is a powerful, yet contradictory, force. Powerful because, once claimed, it can provide the moral basis for redress, retaliation and even revenge in order to right any given wrong -- real or imagined. The defense of everything from the death penalty to affirmative action, Serbian nationalism to equality legislation, are all underpinned, to some degree, by the notion of victimhood.

Contradictory because, in order to harness that power, one must first admit weakness. Victims, by their very nature, have less power than their persecutors: victimhood is a passive state -- the result of bad things happening to people who are unable to prevent it.

In the past, the right has exploited this tension to render victimhood a dirty word -- a label synonymous with whingers, whiners, failures and fantasists. Revealing no empathy with the powerless nor any grasp of historical context, they wilfully ignore the potential for victimhood to morph into resistance, preferring instead to lampoon it as a loser's charter.

"The left had become little more than a meeting place for balkanised groups of discontents, all bent on extracting their quota of public shame and their slice of the entitlement pie," wrote columnist Norah Vincent three years ago. "All of them blaming their personal failures on their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, their disability, their socioeconomic status and a million other things."

Such arguments were always flawed. But increasingly they are beginning to look downright farcical. For if you are looking for someone making political hay out of victimhood nowadays, look no further than the right. The ones most ready, willing and able to turn the manipulation of pain into an art form have found their home among the world's most powerful.

Read a downmarket, right-wing paper like the UK's Daily Mail and you would believe that Britain is under threat from the most impoverished and vulnerable people in the land. Asylum seekers, immigrants, "welfare cheats" and single mothers are bringing the nation to its knees. While the country is going to the dogs, the Christians are, apparently, heading for the lions.

"We, as a people, and the government, must make strenuous efforts to promote and defend our culture, and especially the place of Christianity in it and the rights to self-expression by Christians," wrote columnist Simon Heffer earlier this year.

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