The Victim Thing

It finally came to me, the reason I haven’t been able to get past the middle of the second season of “Breaking Bad,” the reason I can’t abide conspiracy theories, and the reason some stories draw me in and others bring up in me a barrier of stubborn resistance.

It’s the ‘victim’ thing.

Surely there are real victims in the world, who fall to genocide, starvation, famine, war and general global neglect. These are things I want to know about, because they are part of the truth, and only when we are exposed to the truth can we take any sort of useful action.

We are all ‘victims’ of something. People cut in front of us in line, treat us unfairly, ignore our best qualities, or we are victims of our own mistakes and unrealistic expectations. Fair enough. I certainly belong to that club.

But there’s the kind of victimization that’s solely a product of the mind, which functions as a state of being, a form of self-identification. This sort of victimization has two possible outcomes, both self-reinforcing. Either we surrender to being forever the butt of some cosmic joke in which we are the eternal fall-guy and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to change the odds, or else we try to turn the tables by becoming the victimizer of others. In either scenario we find ourselves in eternal conflict with the world as it is.

An example of the former strategy is the drama queen. I have myself taken this route on more occasions than I’m proud to admit. For years it seemed that my life was a constant internal (mostly) battle with authority figures and with their ridiculous rules and regulations and unrealistic demands. My attitude was that, as the smartest person in the room, every other agenda should be shifted to accommodate my own particular modes of being. Underneath all of this, of course, was the nagging feeling that I could never be good enough, a feeling from which I could conveniently hide by projecting it onto others.

As you can imagine, this strategy gets no one anywhere useful.

Variations of this strategy include the ‘always complaining’ victim who is more and more seen as a pain in the ass and either gets shuffled out of the way or out of the organization, or else is ‘forced’ to quit, thus completely fulfilling the requirements of victimhood. More common is the ‘passive aggressive‘ strategy where one presents a minimally acceptable face to the people in charge while undermining their authority by engaging in corrosive gossip or kvetching with one’s fellow victims in the lunchroom or behind closed doors.

The other kind of victimhood is much more insidious and ultimately much more destructive. It can be indulged in by whole cultures and used as one of the most effective tools of politics and war. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” is the perfect example of this alternative. Seeing himself as having been rendered powerless by the circumstances of his life, extending to the bad faith and betrayal that he perceives in those around him, he chooses to become the ultimate victimizer, the “one who knocks” as he so aptly puts it. We’re fascinated by his every move as he descends ever deeper into a hell of his own making.

Looking around, I see Walter White in every corner of every awful conflict in the world today. Regard the recent actions of our Republican congress in its dealings with the State of Israel. We have here two political entities who draw considerable energy from their self-portrayal as victims. Republicans see themselves as the lone defenders of the ideals of white christian destiny against the rising hordes of the envious poor, the foreign invaders of our borders, unbelievers, and the practitioners of ‘reverse-racism.’ Israel, finding itself besieged on all sides by people who view it as either an illegitimate state or an undemocratic occupier finds itself caught in a cycle of increasing paranoia (the ultimate state of victimhood) toward just about everyone, even its allies. Desperately, the Israeli Prime Minister engages in the politics of its most powerful ally by appealing to those who most closely share his fearful and apocalyptic (and imperialist) view of the world.

It was the spectacle of an Israeli leader making political hay with Republicans that made me see the wide ranging implications of victimhood and to understand why I find it so repellent. The horror of it all is that those who feel the most victimized ultimately become the worst offenders against human aspiration and the most passionate advocates for war. Just ask yourselves, what nation, and what party have become the driving force toward a wider war in the Middle East?
The position of Israel is not so much different than that of Walter White, in that the more aggressive the stance the more destructive the repercussions. Here Israel has made a very bad bargain, for the people with whom it has invested its hopes are those who tend to view the world in apocalyptic terms, where only the righteous shall survive while the impure unbelievers are condemned to perdition. For them, Israel has little meaning beyond being a symbol of their own global hegemony and as fulfillment of a short-term prophecy.

For every nation and every party that exists in a world of paranoia and victimhood, the world is closing in, while the worst atrocities are committed in the name of vengeance against unbelievers. But we are no longer living in a world where one people can survive by disregarding the rights of others. Ultimately, one person, or one nation, can only make war against the whole world for a limited time, until the tide shifts and the world overwhelms both fear and hope and all of our conspiracies vanish in the tide.

…and one of these days I’ll get around to watching the next episode of “Breaking Bad.”

From Selma to Montgomery 50 Years On

I finally got around to seeing the movie ‘Selma’ and I had to drive to (of all places) Los Alamos, to see it, as it had been replaced in Santa Fe by a movie about white retirees in India. Over the past month or more the film was always on the top of my ‘must see’ list, but it kept getting shuffled to second place by something else, like the movie based on a book by my favorite author, or what turned out to be a crappy biopic about Alan Turing. The Turing movie had made me a little leery of seeing another historical biopic as that one was so absolutely formulaic and boring as a film. At any rate, a sense of urgency hadn’t come over me until ‘Selma’ had left my neighborhood for a place that’s even whiter than Santa Fe.

Partly it was hearing about the anniversary celebrations and march in Selma and partly it was watching a speech by someone I consider to be a truly great president. The film is an extraordinary document, in that it views history through the eyes of recognizable human beings. It breaks totally free of the usual revisionist image of absolute sainthood, portraying Martin Luther King as a flawed and passionate man motivated by righteous anger as much as by compassion, and as a brilliant and intuitive tactician who knows when to advance and when to have patience.

I have seen, time and again, these same qualities displayed in our president. I sensed that in his Selma speech Obama, in his always carefully modulated and tempered manner, allowed a bit more of that anger to graze the surface. This is one of his best and definitely one of his most challenging, as it pulls no punches about where America sits regarding racial prejudice and politics, as opposed to where so many people think we are. I’m sure that it’s being attacked by conservatives for its audacity, criticizing their lily white intentions or impugning their sense of christian righteousness. His characterization of Americans explicitly steers away from the doctrines of ideology that govern our oppressors:

“That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.”

Just a couple of week’s ago, when Obama spoke at the White House Prayer Breakfast he riled up the demagogues and their simpering allies with his critique of the common crimes committed historically in the name of virtually all religions. He offended some southern white christians by mentioning the truth about their own history and by avoiding their demand to continue dividing the world into waring factions of the faithful. Just last week, the Prime Minister of Isreal had the disrespect to use our congress as his platform to declare himself and his nation to be on the side of the most extreme factions in American politics. (The long term damage this has done to the relationship of Isreal and the United States – beyond the commercial interest of buying and selling weapons – is immeasurable).

The fact of the matter is that, at least since the Age of Reagan, there has been a swelling of reaction in this country against all people of color. Conservatism has become a code word for bigotry and the same sort of white crackuhs’ who for generations tortured and terrorized the black populations in the south are now the very same people making the legislative agenda in Washington. The truth is they never went away. Reagan simply got them to switch parties. Nowadays they dress better and talk better and most of the times they even manage to appear respectable. They even have their own television channels. To openly criticize them is to be accused of ‘reverse racism.’ Well, most of them happen to be white, and virtually everything they advocate reflects an underlying assumption of white supremacy so, what the hell, let’s just openly play the race card and stop bullshitting with each other.

Yes, things have improved for most people. I was five or six before I even knew black people existed, seeing one for the first time riding the bus downtown with my grandmother in my very segregated (at the time) northern city of Cleveland. I remember being threatened as a young campaigner for Louis Stokes, who became the first black mayor of a major city in the United States. I spent my high school summers in dialogue with mostly black students who were my fellows in Upward Bound, one of President Johnson’s War On Poverty programs, while the city borke out in flames all around us. When Barack Obama was nominated to run for president I had strong doubts that this country would ever elect a black man to be its leader, and I was proved wrong.

However, as Obama says in his speech, our march is not finished. How could it be? The wounds we’ve inflicted on one another don’t just go away without a long time to heal. Between the end of the civil war and the 1970’s over 3200 blacks were murdered in this country by white people, for no other reason than that they were black and somehow ‘offended.’ An enormously disproportionate number of people of color are imprisoned or excluded from the political process. As we’ve been shown, time and again, many of our communities are still governed by brutality.

In my years as an adult I’ve watched our society’s attitudes toward diversity broaden while at the same time I’ve watched the rise of political forces that seek to keep us back in the age of ignorance and intolerance. Obama’s election, perhaps more than any other single factor, served to flush much of the lingering hatred and prejudice out of the ol’ woodpile. The dawning of the Internet has accelerated this process of exposure. Talk radio and comment sections are dominated by bigotry, and ignorance has become a public virtue. While the right has organized and thrust itself into power the liberal left has acted like petulant short sighted children for the most part, angry because they don’t get the favors they demand and using this as justification for crapping out of the political process.

What I most admire in those who have been and are great leaders is the quality of patience, bred through a sense of true compassion and a willingness to take chances, risking unpopularity when the situation demands. These are the people with whom I choose to stand.

Here’s the speech:

Transcript

Video