The Rise of Victimhood Culture makes the case that incentives at the modern American university have created a new moral culture, one where victimhood is granted a special moral status. Awarding status to victims has in turn led to hoaxes, false accusations, and, in some extreme cases, moral panics. The diagnosis is put forward by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, and they make their case convincingly. The argument is that college campus is ground zero for this new culture, but its rules of conduct are starting to leak into mainstream institutions.
Campbell and Manning did not start their careers investigating microaggressions and trigger warnings. Campbell had been studying the sociology of genocide at California State University, and Manning had been studying suicide at West Virginia University. They came together to consider the questions of how groups manage conflict and how grievances are handled in different cultural contexts. In The Rise of Victimhood Culture, Campbell and Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today: “dignity,” “honor,” and “victimhood,” and the various behaviors associated with each.
A dignity culture, they explain, has a set of moral values and behavioral norms designed to promote the idea that each human life possesses immutable worth. If an individual has been brutalized or exists at the bottom of a social pecking order, she still has human worth. In a dignity culture, children are encouraged to try their best and are taught aphorisms such as “sticks and stones make break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
By contrast, in an honor culture, being on the bottom of a social pecking order is associated with great shame. Victims are tainted and often punished for bringing dishonor to their families. In some extreme circumstances, they may even be killed.
A victimhood culture departs from both by inverting their norms. On a university campus, for example, victims are not shamed but are instead fiercely protected, and now awarded status. This dynamic could be observed as early as 2015, in the reception to Emma Sulkowicz’s protest against a sexual assault she alleged had taken place. It consisted of her carrying her mattress around the Columbia University campus, including to class, under the condition that her accused rapist needed to be expelled in order for her to stop. For this performance, she was widely criticized, but she was also heralded as a feminist hero. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called it “succinct and powerful” and added that Sulkowicz has “set a very high standard for any future work she’ll do as an artist.” Although Columbia University and the New York Police Department failed to establish any wrongdoing on the part of the student Sulkowicz had accused, for art critics such as Smith, the accused student’s guilt was a fait accompli. That such awards and accolades might incentivize vexatious or false complaints in a student body seemed not to matter to adults in charge.
In the most disquieting chapter, Campell and Manning predict that victimhood culture will eventually spread from elite colleges into the mainstream. In making this prediction, they note the significance of the fact that victimhood culture has emerged among the wealthiest schools in America. Oberlin and Brown, for example, have led the microaggression movement, while Claremont has been a pioneer in safe-space demands, microaggression protests, and the banning of speakers. They point out that the median family income at Middlebury College—where Charles Murray was shouted down and where his sponsoring professor, Alison Stranger, was given whiplash injuries in a parking lot—was $240,000 per year. That income level is double that of Saint Louis University, where Murray spoke to an attentive audience. The book thus highlights a peculiar fact: The students most obsessed with their own oppression are some of the most pampered individuals in the world.
Unlike victimhood culture, dignity culture did not arise from pampered pupils at American schools and universities. It did not even originate with the upper classes. Campbell and Manning explain that it was first established in the class of yeoman farmers, master craftsmen, and artisans of Northern Europe. Since its members had goods to sell, they had a lot to gain from general tolerance of the foibles of others and a lot to lose from engaging in reckless violence. While the nobility continued to duel with swords, Europe’s growing middle classes developed cultures of commercial interdependence. When institutions such as courts matured and the authority of nobles was weakened, the upper classes adopted dignity culture as well. So while dignity spread upwards from the middle classes to the social elite, Campbell and Manning warn, victimhood culture will likely spread downwards from the social elites to the middle classes—as those wishing to be upwardly mobile will try to emulate upper-class moral norms.
While the culture is likely to spread downwards, it is also likely to inspire resentment. Campbell and Manning warn that the narratives of privilege deployed by the culture, which target white men in particular, are just as likely to inspire hostility as deference, especially in those who feel that they are unfairly targeted as oppressors:
If whites and males increasingly face a moral world divided between those who vilify them and those who glorify them, we should not be surprised if many find the latter more appealing than the former.… Here again, the backlash against victimhood may not necessarily advance the ideals of dignity, such as the moral equality of all people. Victimhood culture deviates from this moral equality by producing a moral hierarchy with white males at the bottom; the reaction it provokes may be the resurgence of a moral hierarchy that places them at the top.
Paradoxically, the backlash against political correctness is likely to make the situation worse. Conservatives are quickly learning to ape victimhood, too. The authors note that professional provocateur Milo Yiannopolous “thrives on causing offense and controversy,” neither of which promotes a culture of dignity.
When Kevin Williamson was fired from the Atlantic, Erick Erickson tweeted, “Kevin Williamson’s firing is a reminder that there are two Americas and one side will stop at nothing to silence the other.” Kurt Schlichter took it up another notch:
Never Trump, the public humiliation of Kevin Williamson demonstrates the indisputable fact…
You can side with the left and hope to be allowed to exist like a domesticates [sic] lap dog like David Brooks or Bret Stephens…
Or you can accept this is an existential fight and join us.
The logic of victimhood culture, then, is escalating grievance and retaliatory aggression. When slights cannot be neutralized with a dignified turn of the cheek, the prognosis looks grim.
What the purveyors of victimhood culture do not seem to grasp is that in weakening dignity, and in undermining the principles that deem all men and women to be moral equals, they unwittingly destroy the safeguards that prevent bad actors—such as hoaxers and narcissists—from climbing the social hierarchy through dishonesty and manipulation. In incentivizing weakness and reliance on third parties to intervene in disputes, students invite a paternalistic authoritarian apparatus to develop. While they seem comfortable with an authoritarian apparatus on their university campus today, we should not be surprised if they demand an authoritarian state to police the citizenry tomorrow. The logical endpoint of a victimhood culture will not be a progressive utopia. On the contrary: The further this culture radiates outward, the more likely it will make victims of us all.
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The War on Dignity
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A call for honesty.
Does liberal opinion permit Europeans to discuss the burka openly, honestly, and fearlessly?
The answer is almost certainly “no,” judging by the furious reaction that greeted Boris Johnson’s recent remarks on the full face veil donned by many fundamentalist Muslim women. “If you tell me that the burka is oppressive then I am with you,” the former U.K. foreign secretary wrote in a recent column for the Telegraph newspaper. “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes.”
The left and much of the right assailed him, including his ex-boss, Prime Minister Theresa May. The main charge was that Johnson suffers from a dangerous and likely incurable condition: “Islamophobia.” Few of his many critics bothered to note that Johnson was writing in opposition to a Danish ban on the burka. Johnson is unquestionably burka-phobic, but there is scant evidence, either in his column or his long public career, that he is any sort of anti-Muslim bigot.
The column was classic “BoJo.” Johnson is the jocular type—Britons would say “cheeky”—perhaps to a fault. But more than most of the dullards who rise to the higher echelons in Europe, he has his finger on the popular pulse. Johnson knows that anxiety over the burka courses through the whole European body politic.
Few native Europeans dare voice it honestly. If a former top diplomat is raked over the intersectionality coals for doing so, imagine what would happen to Average Joe. But the anxiety is real enough. And it is legitimate, because the sight of the burka in the public square crystalizes the sense that European immigration and assimilation policy has gone horribly wrong. Concluding that this is so isn’t tantamount to hatred.
Constantly bottling up anxiety, moreover, is no less unhealthy for a collective psyche than it is for the individual. Allow me, then, to voice my own burka-phobia as a former resident of the U.K., who had grown accustomed to, say, landing at Heathrow Airport and finding myself surrounded by fully veiled faces on the express train to central London.
Actually, “accustomed” isn’t the right word, for I never quite got used to eyes without a face—to the encounter with a hidden subject, who was free to gaze into my features but who deflected my attempts to reciprocate her gaze. Eyes Without a Face, incidentally, is the title of a chilling cult horror flick from 1960, which attests to the fact that most people find free-floating, disembodied, faceless eyes deeply disturbing. (Sometimes even the eyes were hidden behind a thin mesh screen, a mechanism that completely erased the individuality of this Other.)
So, no, I never got accustomed to the burka. But it was an encounter that I had no choice but to tolerate. I was born and raised in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muslim veiling was thus not alien to me. Imagine, then, the discomfort of the plumber or electrician from London’s more blue-collar precincts. Now add to that cultural discomfort a prohibition against expressing any discomfort, enforced on pain of social ostracism and joblessness. It’s a recipe for populist backlash.
Does all this mean that I would support a blanket ban against the full-face veil? Probably not. As much as I fret about the incohesive society bred by the burka’s presence in Europe, I also worry about the Continent’s high-handed secular progressivism. I wouldn’t want to give state agents the right to regulate religious practices in Europe, because I’m sure that those agents would go out of their way to target faithful Jews and Christians, not least to shield themselves from the same charge of Islamophobia that they casually hurl at the likes of Johnson.
But I do think that Europeans have a right to deplore the burka. Western civilization locates the dignity of men and women in their individuality, including in their facial features. The liberal reflex to silence, in the name of tolerance, those who insist on the real virtues and character of European civilization will only further radicalize the opposition. Such liberal illiberalism is not a little like a vast burka forcibly wrapped around the European mind.
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As the saying goes, you can never put the toothpaste back in the tube. Donald Trump is setting a number of precedents, many of which conservatives and Republicans will come to regret when they are cited and expanded upon by the Democrats who succeed him. But Trump’s status as a figure of cultural gravitas is not one of those precedents. Trump is only building upon a legacy that was bequeathed to him by his predecessor.
New York Times opinion writer, author, and Columbia University Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan has authored a thoughtful essay on the nature of fame. As a transgender activist and a former reality television star, she knows what it is like to be famous. She’s written a valuable exploration of a sought-out status that once achieved is often regretted. But her jumping off point—presidential fame, as opposed to influence and authority—deserves more attention.
“In considering the question of fame, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the current occupant of the White House is less interested in the good works he might bring about than the fame that comes with the position,” Boylan writes of Donald Trump. Fame is a condition that comes with the oath of office, but Trump secured his fame long ago and took it with him into the White House. That kind of fame—fame for the sake of personal aggrandizement and not toward some noble end—tends to be corrupting, Boylan writes, and is often a source of regret for those who achieve it. Though she might believe the fame that Barack Obama achieved in office was a burden he bore in service to the greater good, Boylan nevertheless notes that the 44th president came to regret his notoriety. At least, that’s what he claimed.
“Barack Obama, appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s show ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ a couple of years ago, seemed to regret being one of the world’s most famous people,” she writes. A world-famous comedian’s comedy talk show is an odd choice of venue for confessing one’s discomfort with the spotlight. “In particular,” Boylan continues, “the president lamented, he missed the ability to just walk down the street talking with a friend unnoticed.” If Obama truly lamented his celebrity, he would have performed a more thoughtful audit of its effects not just on his life but on those around him and the country he led. It would be interesting to probe the former president’s thoughts on the matter today, particularly given his unique successor.
Barack Obama and his allies chafed at a 2008 campaign spot that implied he was more of an empty suit than a candidate of substance, but none could credibly deny the president sought out and achieved “Celebrity.” Obama made numerous appearances on non-news programs like “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert and David Letterman, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “American Idol,” “MythBusters,” “Ellen,” “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” and so on. The president gave ESPN exclusive broadcast access to his NCAA brackets and joked with his favorite FM radio hosts. “People get their news in many different ways,” Obama’s campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told Politico. “Sometimes it’s turning on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and seeing what the latest news is out there.”
He was described as “too good” at social media. The former president demonstrated a knack for engaging with the young and hip on platforms that reward brevity and platitudes and punishes depth and sincerity. The first family mastered tweeting gifs, Snapchatting playful family moments, and Instagramming impromptu White House dance sessions and presidential posing sessions alongside George Clooney.
Obama’s appearance with Seinfeld occurred in 2015, and it was hardly the first or last time the president sought out forgiving alternative media venues. The former president’s IMDb page lists the accolades more often associated with a teen heartthrob than a commander-in-chief. The president received two Grammy awards and an Image award before he assumed the presidency, nominations for Teen Choice Awards, Kid’s Choice Awards, Mashable’s Tweet of the Year, and, of course, winner of the 2014 Streamy Award for best collaboration (with comedian Zach Galifianakis). The White House communications team deserved that honor more than the president. It was the White House Office of Public Engagement that organized a series of presidential sit-downs with the friendly and unchallenging young hosts of online media outlets, deliberately bypassing the legacy press in the process.
Republicans sneered at all of this, and many civically minded conservatives were sincere. But many more Republicans were envious. They wanted a Republican president who could avoid hard news interviews and press conferences and be praised for his media savvy. They wanted a Republican president who could lob tweets over the heads of the press. They wanted a Republican Obama—a president with universal cultural cachet. And they got it.
There will be some Democrats who refuse to recognize how Trump is building on Obama’s expanded definition of what it means to be presidential because they like Obama’s tweets and celebrity friends and dislike Trump’s. Raw partisanship and motivated reasoning will get you far. But no one could honestly deny that Obama’s warm embrace of celebrity helped deliver us into a new era of political reality television. To quote the former president, one of our biggest collective challenges “is the degree to which we do not share a common baseline of facts.” At least, that’s what he said on David Letterman’s new show on Netflix.
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This is yuuge.
Beginning January 1, 2019, the Trump administration will require hospitals and outpatient clinics to publicly post their prices for surgeries and other medical procedures, according to the Washington Examiner.
Nothing will help rein in ever-rising medical costs more than the kind of price transparency that has been almost wholly absent from American medicine since the coming of medical insurance in the 1930s. Once prices are known and can be compared, competition–capitalism’s secret weapon–will immediately begin to drive prices towards the low end, draining untold billions of dollars in excess charges out of the system. It will also force hospitals to become more efficient and more innovative to stay competitive at the lower price range.
Some hospitals already post prices. The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for instance, does. Knee replacement? $15,499. Rotor cuff repair? $8,260.
Undoubtedly, insurance companies and large corporations that self-insure will find this information useful. But they already negotiate prices to levels far below the nominal price, just as Medicare does. Those without insurance, who get stuck with the often outrageously high nominal price, will benefit most. With the new transparency, they will be able to compare prices and bargain. “Why are you charging $2X, when the hospital across town will do the same procedure for $1X? Will you match that price?” The Surgery Center of Oklahoma reports that many uninsured patients are already using their prices to get their local hospital to charge less.
(Obviously, this doesn’t apply to emergency care. But that makes up only a small part of total medical costs).
Indeed, Medicare should also be required to post what it actually allows for the various medical procedures it covers (there are over 7,000 in its list), giving non-Medicare patients even more bargaining ammunition. For instance, a recent visit to my back doctor resulted in a charge for $159. Medicare allowed $79.65, slightly over 50 percent, and paid 80 percent of that. My supplemental insurance paid the rest. If the doctor was willing to accept $79.65 as full payment, why was the nominal price $159?
American medicine has a long way to go before its economics are totally out in the open and thus subject, in so far as possible, to market forces. But this is a very big first step.
Chalk up yet another major reform to the Trump administration.
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A bunker mentality without the siege.
If the “blue wave” that Democrats see building ahead of November does not arrive with the ferocity they envision, the political left can still take solace in some of the victories they’ve already won. In that event, the Republican Party would have narrowly escaped losing a national referendum, but that doesn’t mean that Republicans have escaped defeat. Even today, the GOP is a broken husk of its former self.
Over the weekend, progressives and liberal populists gathered at the annual Netroots Nation conference to revel in their ascendancy, but their confidence is not unjustified. One after the other, Democratic presidential hopefuls flattered the crowd of activists and, more important, professed their shared policy preferences. A single-payer health care system estimated to cost $32 trillion over a decade, expanded social security, tuition-free college, the forgiveness of student-loan debt, a $15-per-hour national minimum wage, a federal employment guarantee, a dramatic paring back of the nation’s immigration-enforcement agencies; these and more formerly radical ideas are gaining real purchase. Even the centrist Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan swore requisite fealty to the progressive agenda.
Anyone with a sense of modesty and frugality will find this reckless profligacy appalling. Even the immodest possessed of a passing familiarity with unintended consequences must concede, for example, that a massive minimum-wage hike amid a wave of automatization might not be so compassionate after all. But the point of these ideas is not that they are especially feasible—they’re not. The point is just that they deserve to be called ideas. Democrats who dismiss the innumeracy and toxic racial obsession exhibited by their party’s left flank as passionate fringe elements are making a big mistake. The fringe is where the energy is. It’s where the canvassers and the small-dollar donors are. And it’s where the coalition’s ideas are conceived. As such, the fringe doesn’t stay fringe for long.
Republicans know that all too well. At the dawn of this political moment—one that would culminate in the kind of Republican domination of state and federal government unseen in nearly a century—the GOP, too, had its wacky fringe. But the margins weren’t merely sources of embarrassment. They were fonts of enthusiasm and intellectual vitality. The libertarian-tinged conservatives who spent the Obama years organizing, strategizing, and pitching sweeping legislative reforms at CPAC may not have overtaken the GOP, but no one could convincingly argue that they did not have a serious influence on the Republican Party.
Today, that vibrancy is gone. The conservative movement in and out of Congress is not dedicated to the advancement of its ideas but to preventing the other guy’s ideas from coming to fruition.
From the confirmation of judges, whose chief qualification is their opposition to bizarre new readings of the Constitution that justify sweeping liberal policy objectives, to the non-enforcement of onerous regulations by the executive, the stuff that energizes the Republican Party’s activists and intellectuals is utterly unambitious. Gone are the days when conservatives promised to overhaul the nation’s health-care system, devolve federal powers back to the states, scale back the IRS, and render the nation’s ballooning entitlement programs sustainable. Gone is the CPAC that served as an arena of competing ideas. The desire to out-compete the left has been replaced by the fleeting satisfaction of triggering liberals’ gag reflexes on Twitter.
According to Cory Bliss, chief strategist for a PAC dedicated to preserving the GOP’s House majority, the messages that really jazz Republican voters are entirely negative. “If the choice is, ‘Do you want to raise middle-class taxes? Do you want to abolish ICE? Do you want Nancy Pelosi as speaker?’ That’s a debate we’ll win,” he told the New York Times recently. A Republican voter in Ohio’s 12th congressional district summed up the GOP agenda more succinctly: “We’ve got to protect President Trump.” But for what? Republicans asked the public for prohibitive political power and got it, but now that power is dedicated solely to its own preservation.
There’s a lot to be said for running block. William F. Buckley distilled the conservative ethos in National Review’s mission statement as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” and the bulwarks that Republicans have erected in the effort to impede the advance of cultural and economic liberalism are impressive. But there is a concession in all this negative partisanship, and it’s a sad one from the conservative perspective. It is that the legislative phase of this period of unique Republican dominance is over. The ball is not going to advance. The GOP is already on defense.
This strange bunker mentality is entirely unjustified. The appeal of a persecution complex notwithstanding, Republicans are still the masters of their destiny. There are no observable conditions that have forced them into a position of servility. With 92 days to go before the midterms, this docility on the part of the party in power is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.