Welcome to the Victim States of America.
Somewhere along the way, we stopped judging disputes based on reason and a search for the truth, and instead started basing our decisions on who can whine the loudest – and longest.
I suppose it’s easier that way. We don’t have to think; all we have to do is grease that squeaky wheel. Except, in this case, it just makes the wheel squeak louder.
In yet another byproduct of our increasingly polarized culture, we prize loyalty to our “tribe” over a dedication to truth, and never has it been more apparent than in the current impeachment proceedings.
Democrats announced they would be pursuing impeachment before they’d read the whistleblower complaint against Donald Trump. Then, when it did come out, Republicans dismissed it without even appearing to consider how damning its contents were.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, hit the nail on the head. “Democrats ought not to be using the word impeach before they have the whistleblower complaint or before they read any of the transcript. Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say there’s no there there when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there. The administration ought not to be attacking the whistleblower as some talking points suggest they plan to do.”
Sasse counseled “lots of deliberation” but also acknowledge that “this place is terrible at deliberation.”
How we got here
“This place” might have meant Congress, Washington or the nation at large, and it would have been equally accurate.
There are, of course, reasons why we’ve exchanged deliberation and reason for loyalty oaths and litmus tests.
First, as mentioned above, it’s easier. You don’t have to think. You just let your tribal leaders do the thinking for you. Of course, you shouldn’t be surprised if you find they’re picking your pocket and shackling your wrists in the meantime.
Second, those tribal leaders have succeeded in making “deliberation” look like gridlock. They’ve done this in part by stonewalling the release of information, so that the process becomes so drawn out and tedious that no one has the time or patience for it. (This is especially true in an era when people often work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and those who don’t have been indoctrinated in a culture of instant gratification.)
Third, they’ve raised the bar for independent judgment so high that it’s almost impossible to reach. Anything short of absolute proof can be debunked as “doctored” or “fake news.” The upshot of this is we stop trusting ourselves to make informed decisions, so we abdicate that power to (surprise!) those same tribal leaders who thirst for it the most.
Fourth, they deflect. Instead of defending themselves, they point the finger elsewhere and say, “See, he’s doing it, too, and it’s even worse!” (One has to wonder whether the folks who do this have ever heard the saying “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or whether they did hear it and simply don’t care.) We don’t have time to weigh charges and counter-charges, so we ignore the whole thing and retreat to our own camps and, yes, those tribal leaders.
Fifth, we rushed to judgment and cried wolf so many times that no one’s listening anymore. The media, chained to their instant-update news cycle, contributes to this. So do political spin doctors eager to take the first shot. When they’re wrong, they lose credibility. And they create a vicious circle: The lack of deliberation has made us even less inclined to engage in it.
Skepticism gives way to cynicism, to the extent that everything coming out of the “other” camp can be dismissed as propaganda, no matter how much evidence there might be to back it up. We don’t have time to sift through all that, weed out the facts from the spin, and make an informed decision when we don’t even know if we have all the information we need to do so.
Is it any wonder we’ve disengaged from politics? Who wants to spend all day listening to people whine – and deciding who’s the bully and who’s the victim?
When Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh was accused of sexual harassment, his most effective argument was a self-righteous tirade about how he was the one being harassed. Clarence Thomas had done the same thing under similar circumstances a couple of decades, when he characterized allegations against him as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
The irony is that Thomas’ argument itself didn’t involve “thinking,” but was fallacious. He was attacking the messenger by questioning motive, rather than seeking to refute the allegation itself. He made it a question of identity – prejudice against “uppity blacks” – rather than reasoned argument. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone comment on the irony of that supposed defense, but maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to people playing the victim that we barely notice it anymore.
Thomas and Kavanaugh now sit on the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the most deliberative body in the land. Its members are supposed to think, not engage in ad hominem defenses. What does it say about our society as a whole when even members of our highest court seem to rely on such flawed excuses for reasoning?
Loyalty over truth
Some people are shocked that Republicans are defending Trump in the light of what appears to be very compelling evidence against him. But they shouldn’t be, because we long ago stopped judging people based on rational argument and substituted Trump’s own standard for “truth”: blind loyalty. Trump has used this standard for his entire career, and comparisons to mob culture are entirely accurate.
But Trump recognized something he has used to his advantage: That culture was spreading. The nation was catching up – or more accurately, falling back – to the kind of tribal culture he’d exploited on a smaller scale all his life as a real estate developer. Whatever his other shortcomings, he knew how to make it work for him. And as it came to dominate American culture as a whole, newcomers accustomed to operating by more conventional political rules found themselves out of their league.
Not only does Trump know how to create blind loyalty, he also recognizes it and is able to call it out in others. He then exposes it and discredits them for the very things he himself is doing – often more flagrantly. And because that loyalty has bound so many people to him, they refuse to call him out for his hypocrisy, no matter how blatant it might be. He really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.
Nobody whines louder about being the victim than Trump, who laments “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT” in all caps and blames the media, the Democrats, and anyone else who dares to criticize him for all his woes. The only thing he seems to be more emphatic about is how great he (says he) is.
Who we’ve become
But this isn’t just – or even primarily – about Trump. He’s a symptom, not the condition. He could never have thrived if we hadn’t created a culture based on litmus tests and loyalty oaths long before he came along. Trump is Nixon redux, but in a time and culture far more vulnerable to Machiavellian bullshit. For this, we have only ourselves to blame. We began rushing to judgment long before Trump and others like him began using their cattle prods on us. We exchanged reason for outrage and humility for hubris. We ditched patriotism in favor of partisanship.
We’ve become so comfortable playing the victim and blaming others that it’s almost become second nature to us. We do it in government, in our personal lives, in our professional interactions. It’s become second nature.
But in exalting our own victimhood, we’ve abandoned what got us here: a spirit of determination that didn’t care what obstacles others put in our way. We didn’t waste time blaming the people who put them there; we tackled those obstacles head-on. We overcame them or died trying. It was what we used to call the American spirit. Flawed, yes. Cruel at times, to be certain. But we were not victims. Never victims.
Until now. Now we all want to do is play the victim – and in a sense, that’s what we are: victims of our own ignorance and stubborn refusal to face the truth.
And we’ll keep being victims until we’ve decided we’ve had enough.