|Jul/Aug 2007 Salon|
It's a truism and a cliché that history is written by the victors. It's probably a good idea to regard truisms and clichés with skepticism. That said, let us assume that victors do have the first shot at the first draft of their own history as well as, if they manage to hold on to power, subsequent drafts, along with most of what enters and does not enter the historical canon.
If this is true, not just the moral integrity but the mental soundness of those who create history is crucial to its veracity. The same is true for those who propagate and interpret it--our intellectuals, political and other leaders. We depend on all of them not just for our narratives of the past but for the construction and interpretation of reality itself, the facts and broader narrative of the world we live in, not so much the one we experience ourselves but the one we only know second-hand. It is they who define that reality for the rest of us. If they get it wrong, willfully or not, we get it wrong, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
But it isn't just historians who can lead us astray. TV pundits, teachers, almost anybody with any kind of audience--even friends and relatives--have the ability to propagate ideas that may be more in the way of wishful thinking, or wishful fearing, than a reasonable representation of reality. If those ideas are coupled with strong animus, they can take on a life of their own and become accepted truths.
This is pathology, not discourse. But we see and hear it every day, in the media as well as in ordinary conversation. "Race" is a good example of it. "Race" makes people crazy, not just the dominant group but all of us, so much so that we live in its thrall like fish in a sea that is so taken for granted that it goes unnoticed. "Whites" are crazed because of their fear and loathing of non-whites, combined with the guilt they feel. As a result, they become obsessed with color, speech, with anything that is an indicator of "them." Non-"whites" end up paranoid and bitter, sometimes full of hate themselves and self-hate. Jews and other non-Christians are encouraged by the media and much of their leadership to see themselves as outsiders and potential victims in their native land, never sure who they are or where they belong.
People like Louis Farrakhan and other Black Muslims of the 1950s and 1960s, already infected by the pathology of race, discovered in the Nation of Islam a rationale and narrative that gave a redeeming form to that pathology, finding a sense of dignity and purpose that had been previously denied them. Since the 1970s Jews have been exposed to a tsunami of Holocaust remembrance in the media, the synagogue and everyplace else. They have been encouraged to redefine themselves in its image, to become Children of the Holocaust, perpetually on the lookout for signs of a reoccurrence even here in the US and encouraged to support the state of Israel unthinkingly as a last haven against a global and inevitable anti-Semitism. Paranoia among Jews has increased even as all indications grow stronger each year that Jews in America are less at risk than they ever have been in any place in the world.
Who stands to gain from fears like these? The leadership primarily, whether political, religious, or "racial." Does this mean that these leaders have consciously created paranoia and alienation? Probably not, though they certainly capitalize on it and are not beyond stoking the flames to keep fear alive and contributors contributing. Most probably believe what they say and write, no matter how divorced from reality their ideas may be, whether the cause is that of the Neocon crusade to make the US the unassailably dominant power of the world, the Jewish establishment's hysteria of anti-Semitism, or those who wildly exaggerate the number of African slaves who died in the Middle Passage for the sake of asserting their own ancestors' suffering against that of other persecuted groups.
All of this would just be material for academic chatter were it not that bad things happen when crazy people define reality for the rest of us. When obsession, whether self-generated or the result of exposure to real oppression, becomes normative and any objection to its excesses is seen as racist, unpatriotic, or evil, we have abandoned rationality in favor of folk myth and propaganda.
This is how we ended up in Iraq. We played follow-the-leader, accepting that Leader's assertion that war is peace and God is with US. This is also why we have become a culture of victims--we play follow-the-leadership of those who are afraid to see any other identity for themselves or find it too advantageous not to, making what is productive for them and their organizations or party paramount over the welfare of the people they are supposed to serve.
But when it gets to the point where everyone is infected with the same craziness, what does sanity mean? To those in power it means insanity or, put in moral terms (always the preferable intellectual coin for those who admit no justification for criticism) racism, anti-Semitism, at best self-hatred.
Americans of African descent and others really do suffer from "racism," or prejudice, as it used to be more accurately called. But obsessing about past wrongs and vying with other victim peoples deflects attention from real, present-day injustices. And mixing present prejudice and discrimination with past horrors, whether they are the atrocities of slavery and public lynchings or the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, may elicit sympathy in the short term but deflects much needed attention from issues that need to be addressed in the here and now.
Also, making an industry out of victimhood, constantly memorializing it, not only risks compassion fatigue, it invites resentment, especially when the victims are perceived as not only not now suffering but doing as well if not better than the average American. Conversely, perennial victimhood can mean presenting one's group as eternal losers, always rejected if not persecuted, worthy only of pity or contempt. For, the question must inevitably arise in the minds of their fellow citizens: Why are they always victims? Is it something about them, something that no amount of sympathy or legislation can change?
The worst aspect of this craziness is what it does to the people it is purported to help, causing them to see hate and conspiracy everywhere, and for others to live as if it were not 21st century America but some other place and time entirely.
This is not just bad policy on the part of the ethnic, religious, and political leadership who promote these obsessions; it is cruelty verging on sadism and should be labeled as such. Getting past an obsession is no easy matter, but there is no good reason for the rest of us to cooperate with it, especially when it is ultimately harmful to everyone.