First there was Occupy’s 99%, now there’s Mitt Romney’s 47%. This the 47% of the country whose mission in life, he says, is to sponge off the federal government. The 47% who believe themselves victims, entitled to compensation from the other 53% for the real or imagined wrongs they have experienced. It’s as if the black welfare recipients once scapegoated by Ronald Reagan as “welfare queens” have multiplied, under our black President, into a vast horde of dependents – nearly half the country clamoring for more taxes and more entitlements to salve their wounded psyches and fund their shiftlessness.
Last spring we heard a similar attack from Romney donor Edward Conard, except that his was directed at art-history majors – the .047%?? That’s his derisive term, according to a New York Times profile, for well-educated people who opt out of competitive capitalism and become café loungers. Add up these assaults and this poor art-history prof is feeling, well, just a little victimized.
But of course Romney’s attack on the victimhood syndrome is just another expression of his own. He and the rest of the 53% are, by implication, the real victims – victims of Obama’s legions of parasites.
Victimhood all too often has become a game of one-upsmanship, and conservatives have been in the game awhile. The Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. – sponsored by a roster of conservative thinkers and old Cold War hawks, and dedicated by George W. Bush in 2007 – was a direct response to the Holocaust Memorial, with its dramatic new accent on victimization in the landscape of national memory. We’ll see your ante of six million, the Cold Warriors seemed to say, and raise the pot to 100 million! This is the number emblazoned on their incongruously small monument, featuring a miniaturized replica of Tiananmen Square’s Goddess of Democracy. However small the statue, the number is so large that it seems meant to preempt any future competition.
In truth, we do need to have a national conversation about victimology. As Americans we often focus on our own losses and griefs as if they are exceptional, as if the rest of the world doesn’t know what it’s like to lose job, home, family, and way of life. Perhaps this is human nature: we only know our own pain, after all, and it’s hard for any of us to see much beyond our own noses. But if we want to have a politics worth caring about, and if we want to do something about the military and environmental disasters that threaten to engulf the planet, we’re going to have to try to do better. We need to try our level best to look beyond our own sufferings and honor the values of empathy and reason that should be our guideposts for public rhetoric and action.