vic•tim(Continue reading below the orange fleur de lys)
- a living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite
- one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent (the schools are victims of the social system): as in
(1): one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions (a victim of cancer) (a victim of the auto crash) (a murder victim)
(2): one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment (a frequent victim of political attacks)
- one that is tricked or duped (a con man's victim)
- a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action: victims of domestic violence, earthquake victims
- a person who is tricked or duped: the victim of a hoax
- a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment: I saw myself as a victim [as modifier]: a victim mentality
- a living creature killed as a religious sacrifice: sacrificial victims for the ritual festivals
At least a billion words have been written this week about the following words uttered to a group of $50,000/plate rubber chicken eaters in May of this year by the Etch-a-Sketch candidate running for President on the Republican ticket. Just in case there is actually an American still alive that hasn't heard it yet, here is what he said:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That those things are an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax. . . "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Since these words became public, the uproar and hue and cry has been constant. Mitt Romney insulted ½ the country. Americans are not victims. They don't feel entitled to any of those things – food, housing, health care – that Romney says.
But all this hue and cry seems to have missed a very important question: Why don't they?
The answer likely lies in the fact that, despite the dictionary (and the study of various disciplines, from law to sociology) indicating that there is a somewhat fluid definition of the word 'victim', we have unconsciously settled into a pat definition of the word 'victim' that includes limiting concepts that are not an inherent part of the definition.
Such as helplessness.
Failure to take responsibility.
The by-and-large acceptance of those unstated modifiers to the word 'victim' is not neutral. It reflects a political viewpoint; a conservative one at that.
To the extent that any Americans even see themselves as victims (and far too many don't no matter what happens to them, evincing the dissonant effects of the myth of rugged American self-actualization we are all told is our legacy from birth despite our actual circumstances on the psyche), the larger culture readily dismisses them as having a 'victim mentality'. 'Victim mentality' is then conveniently defined culturally as having feelings of 'helplessness' or 'powerlessness'. Yet these concepts appear in only one of the possible definitions of the word 'victim', above. And, in keeping with our cultural tradition, we recoil from those with a 'victim mentality' as flawed. We blame their life stagnation and failure on their mental health first and the actual events in their lives only where no other explanation can be found. Especially if 'victims' actually talk about being a victim.
This is especially true when the subject at hand is economic victimization, the type of thing that often leaves people needing help with food, housing and medical care. Nobody is a victim of economic oppression in America. And, when they are, it's usually only victimization of the type that poor people most often do to other poor people. Victimization like stealing a person's color TV or iPad. Never are the economically oppressed victims of things that folks with money and power tend to do to get more money and power, even if it leaves other folks broke out of power. You know those types of things: things like the commodification basic human needs, in a society in which those basic human needs cannot be met for large swaths of that society because they lack the money and resources to pay for them.
Even worse, most Americans dismiss (and at times MOCK) those who publicly complain that they are victims of economic oppression. They need to just get a job. Or a better job. They should have worked harder. Studied harder. Or gone back to school. They should relocate to a different city or state or country. Or learn to economize. Or save. They need to learn how to budget. They have too many kids. They should never have gotten pregnant, or at least had an abortion when they got pregnant. And they definitely should not ever buy a Nintendo for their kids to play with or an iPhone. And forget about Nike sneakers. Or a car that runs more than it is in the shop. Or they have taken out a mortgage with such terrible loan terms. Or bought "more house than they could afford". At least, not unless they had first shopped around because surely they could have gotten a better deal.
Hell, everybody knows that these folks aren't really victims - they just feel sorry for themselves and their own bad choices.
(How many of the people reading this now have ever thought or said the sentence above or something similar when reading about someone down and out because of one of the many economic effects of the recession this past 5 years? Be honest.)
So, in the face of the clear cultural message disfavoring their ever really naming and claiming their victimization, victimized people in America just pretend. They work harder. They don't protest. They don't complain, no matter what has happened to them. Only victims do that, and Americans have been well-trained never to see ourselves as victims of anything. Unless it's one of those culturally authorized things, like stereotypical violent crime. Or something that nobody human can control, like chance: such as getting hit by a random bus that jumps the curb and hits you as you are coming out of the front door of the supermarket.
[For the record, the oppression (the victimization) is not just economic. Thus, in response to stories way too common, we argue with a straight face that a child should have known that wearing a hoodie in a nice neighborhood at night carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea might put him on the slab in the morgue. Everyone knows that if you reach for your wallet to show your ID to the cops you might get you shot 41 times. Or that wearing a skirt above your knees, or a fitted tee shirt, or even your hair uncovered in some places if you are female (not to mention even going to party where there are men than than women, or even just men, especially if you or they are drinking) will get you raped. Same as walking in the park by yourself. You are basically asking for it. Even if you're 75 or 85 or 95 years old.]
Our nation's demonstrably false narratives about what it really means to be a victim (demonstrably false in terms of most of the definitions of the word 'victim' contained in the dictionary, anyway) exist unchallenged. And, for the past 30 years at least, those narratives have adjusted themselves to fit our current circumstances.
Circumstances like as the current circumstance called the Great Recession, aka the Lesser Depression, aka the Global Financial Crisis aka The Second Great Depression.
These days almost nobody initially thinks about any 'victims' and 'crime' that without also automatically thinking about physical violence or the threat of it. This continues to be the case despite the fact that the rate of violent crime has been decreasing for a long time now in America.
Despite these statistics about violent crime, financial crime (also known as White Collar Crime) is an also-ran in the thoughts of most Americans when they think of crimes, and victims. Yet, ironically, it is white collar crime, not stereotypically violent crime that now affects more American households than any other type of crime. A full 25% of households had been victimized by white collar crime in the 12 months preceding the 2010 study done by National White Collar Crime Center. White Collar crime is, ultimately, one of those areas where we don't talk much about 'victims' these days – unless they are institutional investors, individual wealthy investors, and other entities with lots of disposible income who can command the attention of the courts, the media and politicians when they get pissed off that someone actually defrauded them out of some of their money.
It is inarguable that what nearly took the entire global economic house of cards down (and a lot of Americans with it, even though our politicians never think of what happened as crimes, and those who suffered as a result as victims, when on the campaign trails) was white collar crime. Crime much of which isn't even defined as criminal, even if much of it was clearly behavior grounded in fraud, deceit and breach of fiduciary duty to others. Yet if you review the FBI's statistics for white collar crime investigations contained in its annual "Financial Crimes Report" and prosecutions you see that when it comes to priorities, white collar criminals (most of who have far more resources than their ultimate victims) don't get a lot of prosecutorial or investigative attention. Not in comparison to the number of prosecutions and investigations into other types of crime, anyhow.
Consistent with this sluggish law enforcement activity surrouding the behavior that led to the current Great Recession, almost nobody in politics saw, or admits to seeing, any crime that that led to the global financial crisis (after all, so far nobody but a few fall guys have gone to prison for anything they did to contribute to it). And, thus, almost by definition, nobody is a 'victim' of what happened. Even if it means that those non-victims find themselves needing a 'hand out', otherwise known at $50,000/plate Republican fundraising events as needing to get free 'food, housing and medical care.' They may have lost their job. Their home, or all the equity in it. Their pension, 401K or other retirement savings. Their health care. They may now need the food pantry or Food Stamps to survive. Or charity hospital care. But they are not 'victims'.
In other words, although white collar crime (and conduct that should have been crime, in most Americans' minds) fundamentally changed the landscape of most Americans' financial lives, thanks to our tendency to avoid labeling 'victimization' when it is economic in nature, for the most part Americans continue to refuse to call what happened, what nearly killed the global economy, crime. And, as we all know (unconsciously for the most part), where there are no crimes there are no victims. Not in America, anyhow. No matter how homeless, hungry, uninsured and just plain old down and out the actions of others have left them through no fault of their own.
So, if someone perceives themselves as a victim when Goldman Sachs rolls the dice with their pension and comes up with craps, or loses their job to offshoring, or even just golden parachute guarantees and bonuses requiring that they be laid off summarily from their job right before year-end P&Ls are due, or discrimination gives a lesser-qualified person a promotion they've been trying to earn or pays them 27% less than someone of a different gender for the same job.........Well, admittedly, they may have a problem.
But whatever their problem is, it is definitely not that they are a 'victim.' Because in our country, if you claim that you are a victim, you are flawed. Weak. Helpless. Powerless.
Something that no real American would ever admit to being, right?
This is, perhaps, why President Obama (who to his credit did focus on what was truly offensive about Romney's May words; to wit, the mindset that a president can simply write off half the country and not have to 'worry about' everyone) responded first and foremost to Romney's unintentionally public moment of candor that there weren't a lot of people thinking of themselves as 'victims' or feeling 'entitled' when he rightfully took advantage of the windfall that Romney's being busted had given the Obama campaign:
The ultimate irony of all of Mitt's speaking to the well-heeled about the 'victims' who are going to vote for President Obama 'no matter what' is that those same types right-wing folks that complain about 'victims' feeling 'entitled' and not taking personal responsibility are more than happy to contend that they themselves are victims.
Victims of taxes, no matter how little they pay.
Victims of regulation, no matter how little or how much in the public interest.
Victims of all those folk with their hands out, asking that they share more in the wealth that (more often than not) their labor helps create through things like a living wage, or health benefits or sick days, or a pension.
And, especially, victims of the unfair Left aka the Democrats (and their devoted handmaiden, the "liberal media.")
Right wingers whinge mightily about being victims, even when their hypocrisy about victimization (and their self-serving self-pity) all while complaining about for liberals waiting for government handouts and voting for Kenyan Muslim Socialists to be President to make sure they keep coming is evident. Evident even to folks on their own right-wing side who actually believe all this hoopla about "liberals" and our big, evil, government.
This is why the knee-jerk reactions to Mitt Romney's "inartful" (according to Fox News) or "insulting" (according to everyone else) words should be examined for what they didn't discuss, as much as for what they did, about victimization. Considered for what reactions Romney's words did not evoke as much as for those that his words did.
We should all ask ourselves why, given all that is wrong with America right now, when we heard Romney's secret words the first thing that didn't come to mind was this:
Article 25.(No wonder the right wing of the past 30 years hates the UN so much that it wants America to pull out of it.)
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. . .
(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 25, Sec. 1 (ratified by the UN General Assembly on 10 December, 1948 by a vote of 48-0, including the United States)
I have found no one, yet, who responded to the secret Romney tape in this fashion:
Damned right they are entitled to food, housing and medical care! Those are human rights, you nimrod!
Nobody. Yet if you go by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights WE signed onto as a nation nearly 65 years ago, they are. You would therefore expect that in a sane society, and we claim to be one of those, the question of whether Americans are entitled to food, housing and medical care was settled. Such that anyone challenging the idea would be called the inhuman, inhuman, monsters that they are.
But all that happened, instead, in response to Mitt Romney's words was a lot of parsing of the so-called 47%. Parsing of the group to fit folks into categories that conform to our cultural narrative about what it means to be a 'victim.' Parsing to show either that (a) all but a tiny sliver of the 47% is 'deserving': working people who don't make enough money, elderly people, military people; or (b) to show the 47% includes a whole lot of folks in the world who take advantage of every opportunity not to pay income taxes all while making bank thanks to government subsidies, rebates and tax loopholes that favor them.
Now, it is clear that in the world inhabited by Mitt Romney and those who listened to him on that fateful May day, anyone who believes that things like food, housing and medical care are human rightsdeserves writing off because they "believe they are a victim" or they are 'entitled.'
But why are we also writing them off? Writing them off through our failure to acknowledge that many of the 47% (and a lot more who aren't in that group) have, in fact, been victimized and that is why they are even in the position to need free (or at least subsidized) food, housing and medical care from government? Why, for those rare few who are willing to even publicly admit that they believe they are victims, don't we feel that their assertion deserves a good-faith examination of whether their belief has a completely rational, factual foundation?
After all, in a nation where at the present time more than 16% of its people are going hungry (they are not 'food insecure' – they are HUNGRY) despite all the government assistance that supposedly they need to keep President Obama in office for, is it even rational to conclude that such widespread hunger is from a failure to take personal responsibility (or from a sense of entitlement) rather than causes that are external to them? Where our labor participation rate is at its lowest since 1980, is it rational not to look seriously at the question of economic victimization, by our society and its processes at large?
It definitely isn't rational when even the President, with completely pure (yet also completely political) motives, knows this to be true even as he correctly points out that there aren't that many Americans out there that see themselves as victims?
Our motives for reacting with derision, not to mention pure joy, to Mitt Romney's getting busted for being an asshole when it it comes to his vision of who a president must care about may be pure. They certainly are understandable schadenfreude, a legitimate celebration when we saw a soulless, unfeeling, craven politician we simply can't have as President actually tell the truth about his own ugly ways of thinking about his fellow Americans and their worth, thus helping tank his own chances to be elected.
Yet we were also a bit indiscriminate, and a bit overinclusive, in that joy. We rejected wholesale the idea that it might actually be OK for those who find themselves needing a helping hand from government in the form of housing, food and medical care, to not only accept it, not only to ask for it, but to expect it from their government when their needs arose through no fault of their own. We rejected the idea through our collective silence, a few brave voices in the wilderness excepted.
We did so because we too readily rejected the idea that they may have been 'victimized.' Despite many of the folks referenced neatly falling into one, or more, of the dictionary definitions of the word 'victim' shown above.
As I see it, the biggest problem with Mitt Romney's shockingly blunt soliloquy to his 'base' (the only folks he thought wouldn't tell—and we must never forget that) is not just that he called 47% of the American people 'victims' based solely upon their presidential voting preference and his stereotypical (and coded racist and classist) assumptions about them. It is that he like so many folks from all political quarters, so readily embraced the stereotypes of 'victim' without any examination of their superficial falsity as the idea relates to most Americans. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the majority of pundits and politicians on our own side of the political aisle, including President Obama, recoiled from the very idea that almost ½ the country had been victimised with no serious, reflective, examination of what victimization might actually look like within the context of where too many needy Americans find themselves needing today to have their government help to ensure that they have access to food, housing and medical care. For free, even.
So, we should take from Mitt Romney's statements not just horror at his dismissive insult to so many politically. We should also take from them reflection. Reflection about our collective failure on the left to loudly condemn the fact that Romney and his ilk actually believe that there is no real critical mass of victims (unless they are wealthy like them, victimized by the teeming masses wanting help and those damned regulations and taxes) that might need "food, housing and medical care". We should take from it that, too often, we ourselves don't recognize (or admit) that the overwhelming majority of those teeming masses actually have been economically victimized by the events of the last 30+ years despite their best efforts to play by the rules of America. Victimized yet for the most part beating themselves up and refusing to self-identify as a 'victim' in shame, also having subscribed to the conservative cultural myths about economic victimization that politics and politicians have.
In that, we on the Left are at least partially complicit even when well-meaning. President Obama's first reaction to Mitt Romney's words was not to say "well, to tell the truth if America the truly free nation we say it is where anyone can make it we would not have all these folks societal victimization of human capital by "job creators" over the past 5 years at least and arguably 30 years; this is why my Administration needs to be re-elected because the Mitt Romney class and the folks in the other party are going to double-down on their financial crimes and make more Americans economic victims if you let them." It was to instead point out, quite truthfully, that no matter how bad things are, nobody is volunteering for the label 'victim' and nobody feels 'entitled' to housing, food and medical care.
Even when they deserve to.
The financial machinations of the Romney/Ryan/Wall Street/elite investor class and the devastation they wrought have left 46.7 million people now dependent at least partially on food stamps to avoid hunger, a 70% increase in recipients since the financial crisis that nearly destroyed our country began in 2007. The one still ongoing that folks often refer to as the second Great Depression (when they are honest rather than political). Aren't those hungry folks, and the many Americans who are unquestionably eligible to receive food stamps but who don't take them, victims of somebody? What about those American families who, on average, lost 40% of their little accumulated wealth since Wall Street's party came crashing down upon all of us 5 years ago? Are any of them victims? If they are not, what is it that they controlled that would have avoided what happened them? Are there really no victims of a privatized health care system that ultimately kills-by-neglect more than 25,000 people a year not through medical malpractice or other malfeasance, but only because those deceased could not access sufficient medical care due to a lack of capital to spend in the health insurance marketplace?
We should ask ourselves a politically painful, yet culturally honest question: have we on the left become so beaten down from discovering that people who truly believe (and are willing to publicly embrace and repeat) that it is only moral that society makes sure that everyone is taken care of, no matter poor and 'undesirable' can't get elected to national office? Embraced it so much in the name of "winning" political power that we now too readily (albeit unconsciously) agree with our political enemies and their myths about something so fundamental as the character of those who need help from their government and fellow citizens? Embraced the myths that say that folks who don't work, or receive government assistance are lazy, spoiled, psychologically damaged people. The myths that say that government is the problem, not the culture that teaches us all that those who are poor, unemployed or underemployed, or not making it in any aspect of their lives are victims only of their own personal failures, not the failures of others?
Embraced the just world hypothesis rather than true economic justice?
Certainly, our cultural failure to embrace the definitions of 'victim' that do not require a de-evolution of a victim's human agency (i.e. the definitions of victim that don't silently graft unnecessary concepts like 'weakness' 'passivity' and 'helplessness' onto the word) evinces an unwitting, yet almost wholesale, adoption of the conservative school of thought as it relates to victimization by our culture. That school of thought teaches that unless a "crime" is something comparatively low level, one on one, and perpetrated by a "bad apple" there are no victims: it's just 'business.' The school of thought that teaches us to assume that anyone who does actually publicly consider themselves a victim of economic circumstances not in their control has a pathology, a "victim mentality" where they 'fail to take personal responsibility.' Our embrace, no matter how unconscious (and I presume its unconscious where the left is concerned) of conservative theories about victims seems accompanied by an again-unconscious rejection of other, more progressive and liberal schools of thought about victimology: the ones that recognize the centrality of the role that asymmetry in power plays in rendering someone a victim individually and, most critically where politics are concerned, collectively.
Under our current cultural agreement about who is, and who is not a victim (if I judge by the reactions to Romney's speech), the folks who were victimized by the actions that led to the financial crisis and the greed that precipitated have become the the victims we do not see.
This must be true, because otherwise, how do you explain how we on the left have spent far more time chortling about the catastrophic impact that Mitt Romney's candor will have on whether he becomes President than holding him and every other politician that supposedly represents us to a minimum standard of agreeing that "yes, people are entitled to food, housing and health care as a matter of human decency, of human rights"? How do you otherwise explain that almost no one rose to the defense of the idea that food, shelter and medical care is a human right that the United States of America agreed with 47 other nations was a human right nearly 3 generations ago?
If we ask ourselves ask the hard questions about why so many of us really recoiled so quickly from what Mitt Romney had to say to his elite donors, we might begin to understand why the loudest challenges to Romney's stereotypes about who is in the 47% that will "vote for [President Obama] no matter what" make no mention of the circumstances that have led to so many people needing to vote for the hope and change that President Obama represented in 2008, and the movement forward that President Obama is championing in his campaign today.
An examination and rejection of our unconscious, yet noticeable, recoil from labeling Americans who need government help of whatever form as 'victims' requires, in the end, a collective re-examination of some of America's ultimate cultural myths—starting with the myth that if you don't succeed, or don't make it, it stems more from personal failings than the structural requirements of unbridled capitalism that reduce human labor and needs to an expense on a balance sheet. It requires an examination of why we permit discussions that talk about the costs of labor and compliance as an interference with profit (which in our culture has itself become an entitlement, instead of the reward for risk-taking) rather than as costs needed to ensure a just, healthy, fair society. It requires examination about why the Left doesn't recoil more forcefully against the myth that government is an interference with 'personal liberty' rather than the ultimate insurer of a just society; the myth that accepts the idea that "global capital" is good for the "global economy" while in America schools, libraries, shelters, courts and other public services are closing because government no longer takes in enough taxes from the movers and shakers of "global capital" who seem to prefer bank accounts in the Caymans to those at their local, American, community bank or credit union.
Maybe after such an examination, we might genuinely ask ourselves this: are we really SURE that 47% of Americans are not victims? Victims of financial barons, like Mitt Romney perhaps?
While the short-term need, in slavish devotion to current electoral politics, may well be to keep yelling about Mitt Romney insulting 47% of Americans (and he did, but not necessarily in the same way that the pundit class is claiming) so that we can ensure that he won't occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the long-term solution to the self-serving mindset that contends that a "victim" is such a horrible thing that nobody would or should ever want to wear that label is that type of examination of the idea of 'victim', within the context of economic exploitation. The responsibility ultimately lies with us, on the Left. The solution ultimately lies in a shift of our mindset about what it means to be a victim. It ultimately lies in a rejection of the cultural codas that cause us to add, without speaking or thinking, words like 'helpless' or 'powerless' or 'weak' to the definition of 'victim' every time we hear someone use the word. Much the way that the ultimate solution to racism lies in retraining ourselves to scrub our unconscious, unspoken assumptions about overtness, deliberateness, badness and ignorance from the cultural definition of 'racist' from our thinking, so too do we need to scrub these all these unspoken, unfair, delimiters from our culture's definition of 'victim'.
If it helps us in our political rhetoric, maybe we can talk about that portion of the 47% who Mitt Romney dissed as expecting food, medical care and health care as "survivors" instead. I'm not talking about the part of the non-income-tax-paying part of the 47% that are false victims, like those wealthy right-wingers who thrive on being considered victims despite clear evidence that they are beneficiaries of government financial largesse at best and victimizers (through relentless efforts to publicize all their costs and privatize all their gains) at worst. Like the folks who engage in stuff that takes down (or tries to) world economies just to make another buck, or those folks that whine that if they don't lay off perfectly good, loyal workers they won't make as much profit for their shareholders or get a big enough bonus. Not like those who think that if there is actually a regulation making them pay a minimum wage or stopping them from dumping toxins into our air and water and land that somehow there is a war against their right to run their businesses.
Instead, the folks who are real 'victims': Survivors of Wall Street greed. Survivors of profiteering consequences-be-damned. Survivors of the cultural commodification of human rights, like those listed in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Survivors of the personal impacts of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and just plain flat out selfishness and greed that adversely impacts their day-to-day struggle to live and to provide for themselves and their families.
After all, nobody – not even Mitt Romney – appears to begrudge or disdain a 'survivor'.
While a change in rhetoric should not be necessary at all, maybe that is what it will take to make it easier for politicians and us to talk overtly about the many victims of the financial crisis without reinforcing our false narrative about economic victims. The one that looks at someone who stumbled along the way because they tripped over a landmine created by the machinations of the titans of industry, and still thinks that they are nonetheless in some way 'personally responsible' for what has happened to them whether through inherent personality flaw or bad choices, such that they are not entitled to call themselves 'victims'.
We might actually see better the victims of the greed and profit-maximizing business and investment behavior that perpetuates it, in too many. We might realize that, when someone like Mitt Romney sees only 47% of Americans as victims despite the ongoing financial crisis, maybe he's just being conservative.
Because maybe, just maybe, when you strip the word 'victim' of all its conservative cultural baggage, we might acknowledge collectively that the number of Americans who have fallen into the category of 'victim' these last 30+ years since the Reagan Revolution may be might a lot more than 47%.