The seductive appeal of “victimhood”

SUFFRAGISTS parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917. Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. (The New York Times Photo Archives).

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

– Patrick Henry, 1775, from his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech.

“You can’t live in memories of your golden yesterdays

Or spend your whole life grieving for the one that got away …”

– Don Henley, “The Cost of Living.”

One of the most pervasive, seductive and negative habits that hinder us in our daily lives and in our national consciousness is living in the past.

Certainly, as Patrick Henry said, knowing our history is useful. But as Don Henley sings, dwelling on things and people who happened years and years ago can stop us from growing and facing the present and future squarely and fruitfully.

The issue is prominent nationally and locally. It’s a difficult “vice” to avoid; nearly all of us have a tendency to dwell on our “glory days” or nurse the wounds from an old defeat or insult.

Recently, certain candidates for political office have raised the issue of reparations for slavery and some of the Jim Crow policies that followed it. There is no question that many – if not nearly all black Americans – suffered from these vile practices.

But reparations are an issue as complicated practically as it is philosophically.  All of the former slaves are gone from us. Most African Americans have grown up in the post-segregation era. Indeed some African–Americans – such as Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya – aren’t descendents of those held in bondage.

Is there lingering prejudice? You bet. If you don’t believe me, take a trip down to old Dixieland, as I did a few years ago. A lot of the white folks down there are still clinging to the myth of the “noble lost cause.”  The war’s been over for a century and a half, and you get the impression that a lot of the people in Alabama are just a biscuit away from grabbing a rifle and trying to get even with Abraham Lincoln’s descendents.

But how do you quantify the value of that? Do we institute some kind of criteria for who deserves what? How do you prove disadvantage?

You could also make a pretty good case for the deaths of 300,000 Union soldiers – most of them white – in the Civil War that ended slavery as a morally righteous repayment.

Some reparation advocates suggest that rather than a cash payment – such as was done for Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II – the way to balance the ethical scales would be to provide certain opportunity benefits to black people in the form of low-interest home loans and free or reduced cost college education.

Even that more moderate approach is fraught with stumbling blocks. Black Americans got the vote in 1870 under the 15th Amendment, but women were not extended the same Constitutional privilege until 1920. Native Americans were not considered American citizens until 1924.

How do we satisfy the losses of every class of people who were wounded by the past? If you set out to do that – adding together blacks, women, tribal peoples, Hispanics, homosexuals, the disabled, etc. – you end up with a majority of the population qualifying as victims.

The list of those in some way disadvantaged by history is endless … it stretches back deep into the centuries and will probably be added to for eons to come, if we survive that long.

The attraction of “victimhood” is seductive. It clothes some people in the cloak of purity and casts everyone else in the role of the oppressor. It gives power to the complainant and can be manipulated by people for personal reasons.

Locally, we have our issues with living in the past. In the Little Saigons of Orange County, the Vietnam War that ended in 1975 is still alive as if the NVA tanks rolled into Saigon just last week.

Local offices which are normally concerned with school lunches or street repair sometimes find elections turn instead on who can appear the most “anti-communist” or accuse the other of having a picture of Ho Chi Minh hanging up in the garage.

I’m not above turning nostalgia into policy. I suspect that some of my foot-dragging on the city moving from the Garden Grove Fire Department to the Orange County Fire Authority stems from a fourth-grade visit to the old station downtown and the chance to climb into a fire engine. I think – in my imagination – I even petted a Dalmatian.

Old grievances, like lost loves, have a strong grip on our hearts. But a crippled heart can keep us from moving forward and making up for past reverses with new successes. You spend too much time looking backward and you’re sure to smack into something hard or fall into something dark and deep.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on most Wednesdays.


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