Dangerous Right-Wing 'Victimhood'
The full story of the bloody Tucson, Arizona, rampage that killed six and grievously wounded a U.S. congresswoman has yet to be pieced together, but the tragedy reminds us of the risk to democracy from both violent political rhetoric and reckless exaggerations about “victimhood.”
Indeed, the wallowing in “victimhood,” especially among relatively privileged groups like white American Christian conservatives, can be particularly dangerous because these groups hold substantial political and media power. Thus, they are largely insulated from the consequences when some unstable individual carries out violence in reaction to their angry propaganda.
We saw this in 1995 when right-wing anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building. Though some on the Left linked that terrorist act, which killed 168 people, to the hateful rants of right-wing radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, the mainstream Washington press corps quickly rallied to Limbaugh’s defense.
Similarly, within hours of the Tucson shooting, which left Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition with a bullet hole through her brain, former Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was out with a commentary establishing a defensive perimeter around former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who had put Giffords’s district in a rifle’s crosshairs.
Like others on the Right, Palin also has favored violent rhetoric in discussing the need to strike back at Democrats who supported health-care reform during the last session of Congress, as Giffords had done. “Don’t retreat, RELOAD!” Palin urged her followers.
While deeming Palin’s language and imagery “highly unfortunate” and “dumb,” Kurtz absolved Palin and other right-wingers of any responsibility for the Tucson slayings and termed any linkage a “sickening ritual of guilt by association.”
“It's a long stretch from such excessive language and symbols to holding a public official accountable for a murderer who opens fire on a political gathering and kills a half-dozen people, including a 9-year-old girl,” Kurtz wrote from his new perch at TheDailyBeast.com.
We can only imagine how different the reaction would have been if a Muslim political activist had made inflammatory comments toward members of Congress and one of those targets had been gunned down. The U.S. government would be devising novel legal theories to lock the Muslim up along with many of his friends.
Yet, while right-wing commentators have often accused African-Americans and other minorities of exploiting their “victimhood,” the Right has learned over many decades the political power that comes from framing issues as “hey, we’re the victims here.” And, often the Right’s exaggerated “victimhood” has been accompanied by violence toward the supposed “victimizers.”
For instance, in the South of the 1950s and 1960s, white segregationists portrayed themselves as the victims of “outside agitators” and a “liberal Northern press” intent on destroying the South’s “traditional way of life,” i.e. white supremacy. Thus, many white racists saw the murder of civil rights workers as a legitimate act of self-defense, the protection of “states’ rights.”
This chip-on-the-shoulder “victimhood” has remained an element of American right-wing politics ever since. Whenever truly discriminated-against groups, such as blacks and women, have demanded their rights, the Right has cast the reforms as attacks on American traditions.
In recent years when gays have sought basic civil rights, their struggle has been spun as an aggressive “gay agenda” assaulting Christian values. That was the ugly climate in 1978 when a conservative San Francisco city official, Dan White, assassinated Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected public official, and his political ally, Mayor George Moscone.
More recently as gays have sought the right to marry, they are accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. A “Defense of Marriage Act” is deemed necessary to protect heterosexual couples. You see, even though the gays are the ones actually facing discrimination, they are portrayed as the “victimizers” and heterosexual couples are the “victims.”
In many other cases, the Right has found “victimhood” a powerful political motivator. For instance, the Right rallied white male college students around their “persecution” from “political correctness,” which often involved a college administration punishing boorish conduct like shouting racial slurs at blacks and yelling sexual insults at women and gays.
Similarly, George W. Bush’s supporters cast themselves as the “victims” during Election 2000 when Al Gore pressed for a fair counting of ballots in Florida.
Gore’s “offense” was so intolerable that Rep. Tom DeLay and other right-wing congressmen recruited Republican staffers in Washington to fly down to Miami and stage what became known as the “Brooks Brothers riot,” roughing up Democrats and stopping a Miami canvassing board from evaluating disputed ballots. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Conspiracy to Riot.”]
Bush’s “victimhood” further justified him rushing to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking the protection of five Republican partisan justices. They ruled that Bush’s 14th Amendment rights of “equal protection under the law” had been violated by the Florida Supreme Court which had ordered ballots to be examined to see if they met Florida’s standards as legal votes. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Justice Scalia’s ‘Originalist’ Hypocrisy.”]
A Big Payoff
The Right also has learned that “victimhood” can have a big payoff.
With “victim” Bush finally in the White House, the federal government bestowed many benefits on the GOP and its allies. Right-wing Christian groups got on the gravy train of “faith-based initiatives,” the super-rich got valuable tax cuts, and friendly corporations got government regulations eased or ignored.
That success encouraged the Right to frame more issues inside the lines of “victimhood,” even when the supposed grievances would seem ludicrous to neutral observers.
For instance, in the middle of the last decade, Fox News and other elements of the right-wing media promoted the notion that Jews, Muslims and secularists were engaged in a “war on Christmas,” denying Christians the “right” to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The Right detected this “war” in rulings by federal courts restricting displays of the baby Jesus in the manger on government property and when public schools replaced “Christmas concerts” with “winter concerts” and the “Christmas vacation” with a “winter vacation.”
Then, there were the gestures to non-Christians such as using the greeting “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In response to that particular offense, the Rev. Jerry Falwell organized conservative Christians into angry boycotts of stores whose clerks dared to say “Happy Holidays.”
Falwell also vowed to sue “everybody who tries to inhibit the liberties of our children and our families from worshipping and honoring the Lord, as we in America are constitutionally allowed to do.”
In 2005, Fox News and right-wing media personalities took the “war on Christmas” grievance to a new level. Fox News anchor John Gibson published a book, entitled The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.
Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin noticed that the U.S. Postal Service had not issued a new “Madonna and Child” stamp – though you could still buy the version produced in 2004. (In 2005, the Postal Service was trying to sell out the old stamps before it raised postal rates.)
Indeed, the absurd “war on Christmas” furor became a testament to the power of the right-wing media, which had grown steadily over several decades. With a vertically integrated media apparatus – from newspapers and magazines, to TV and radio, to books and the Internet – the Right could take a few scattered anecdotes on almost any topic and heat them up into a hot-button issue.
So, Christians were made the “victims,” beset by the American Civil Liberties Union pushing an “anti-Christian” agenda, denying American Christians their right to celebrate the baby Jesus.
However, any objective visitor arriving in the United States from mid-November to Dec. 25 would see a very different reality, a nation celebrating Christmas with an unrivaled intensity and extravagance.
Though public schools may have recognized the inherent bias toward non-Christians in holding “Christmas concerts” and having a long “Christmas vacation,” the fact remained that the concerts were still held and schools were still closed for about two weeks around Christmas.
Also, despite the U.S. principle of separation of church and state, Christmas is an official federal holiday, an exception to the rule that is afforded no other religious observance. Jews, for instance, don’t expect Christians to honor Yom Kippur by taking the day off, nor do Muslims expect the government to show undue deference to Ramadan.
Yet, the Right’s media had created another world for its viewers. America was a place where cruel non-Christians and evil secularists persecuted Christians for celebrating their faith.
As a result, when some clerk at Wal-Mart offered a cheery “Happy Holidays,” a Fox-News-watching Christian would spit out the words “Merry Christmas” as an angry retort, much as right-wingers would emphasize the words "under God" when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 2007, ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was trying to revive his political career and did so by expanding on the issue of Christian “victimhood.” Denouncing a “radical secularism” that supposedly was dominating the United States, Gingrich told graduates from Falwell’s Liberty University that “this anti-religious bias must end.”
Gingrich declared that “basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard” in America.
Though well received at Liberty University, Gingrich’s complaint flew in the face of reality. Far from having no voice, religiosity is woven into the American political landscape and culture.
Bookstores across the country sell all kinds of Christian books, including millions of copies of novels about the “end times.” TV and radio outlets, both local and national, broadcast Christian religious services and Christian Right versions of the news.
All 44 presidents of the United States have declared themselves Christians. By contrast, it’s virtually impossible for an avowed atheist to get elected dog-catcher in the United States. However, Gingrich managed to construct a faux reality that suggested the opposite.
In this upside-down propaganda world, it probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that the Right would wrap itself in the blanket of “victimhood” again when Barack Obama, a black Democrat, was elected president. The Right’s media was alive with conspiracy theories about Obama’s “Kenyan birth,” his secret “Muslim faith,” and his clandestine “communist agenda.”
So, when the President had the audacity to welcome students back to school in 2009 – with a message to study hard – he was denounced as a tyrannical despot seeking to impose communist mind control on American children.
And, when Democrats sought to reform the nation’s health care system so more Americans could obtain affordable health insurance, the Tea Partiers realized that they were the last line of defense protecting the Founders’ vision against Obama’s brutal “socialist” war of attrition.
As victims, the Tea Partiers saw nothing wrong with carrying guns to rallies, including to speeches by Obama. After all, they were just defending their American rights.
This “victimhood” boiled over as the health-care law was approved by Congress in 2010. On Capitol Hill, Tea Party activists rained insults and spittle down on elected representatives, especially those from groups the Right had identified as its chief “persecutors,” African-Americans and gays.
Though the health-care law passed, there was still a "happy ending" to this tale. The righteous “victims” – thankfully bankrolled by multi-billionaires like the Koch brothers and a myriad of corporate interests – exacted some measure of “justice” on the Democrats by vilifying them for months in attack ads and then defeating them at the polls in November.
Despite the victory, the Right’s “victimhood” continued to seethe. So, as a signal that the Tea Party was the true defender of the Founders’ vision, the new Republican leadership in the House insisted that the Constitution be read on the first day of business (albeit an abridged version that left out references to slavery and other points that might cast the Founders in a negative light.)
The underlining message was clear, however. The Democrats and “lib-rhuls” were haters of the Constitution, just as they were haters of the American flag and baby Jesus. It was finally time for the long-suffering victims of this anti-American and anti-Christian agenda to strike back.
That was the climate of anger and victimhood that Rep. Giffords returned to in Tucson on Saturday. As she was holding an outreach meeting with constituents at a supermarket, a gunman – identified as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner – opened fire. His bullets struck the congresswoman and 18 others, including six who died.
Among the dead were U.S. District Court Judge John M. Roll, who had angered the Right by allowing a case to proceed against a rancher who had assaulted 16 Mexicans as they crossed his land, and a 9-year-old girl, Christina Green.
Loughner reportedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, but authorities reported that evidence found in Loughner’s home indicated that he had targeted Giffords, a supporter of the new health-care law. One of the bullets had gone directly through the left side of Giffords’s brain, leaving her in critical condition.
Though it was clear from initial reports that Loughner was a troubled young man, it was less clear what exactly set him off. FBI Director Robert Mueller noted how threats and hate speech have proliferated in recent years especially over the Internet, and how that anger can lead to “lone wolves or lone offenders undertaking attacks.”
Another common thread in the recent history of political violence in America is how often the attackers are motivated by what they view as their “victimhood.”
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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