“Mankind is tired of liberty.”
—Benito Mussolini

An acquaintance of mine, who is not particularly conservative, once heard a television newsman quack about how bad the 1950’s were. Disgusted, he burst out, “What was wrong with the 1950’s?

People were norma/then!” People certainly seem a lot less “normal” nowadays. Charles J. Sykes has written a worthy successor to his Profscam and The Hollow Men, which helps explain much of the deterioration in American life over the last 30 years. The charm of his work lies in the way it ties together many of the seemingly quite different signs of social disintegration that are such a marked feature of life in the late 20th century: political correctness; people who believe saying “hi” to a woman over the telephone is “sexist”; the jury that awarded $650,000 in damages to a man who deliberately jumped in front of a subway train; the judge who let Jeffrey Dahmer out on probation for offenses that, even under our crazy laws, should have kept him in jail for 20 years. These phenomena, at first sight, have little to do with each other, although all are familiar instances of the insanity of our age. But what they have in common is this: they are all an expression of victimology—the idea that individuals and, even more, groups are victims, and nothing but victims; and that the victim, once defined as such, no longer bears any responsibility for his actions or any obligations to society, which is the author of all evils.

Victimology is a science replete with bizarre contradictions and reversals. As Sykes notes, at some point in the theoretical process, the universal moral standard by which some groups—such as blacks, Amerinds, women—are defined as “victims” is discarded. (Otherwise, it might be necessary to admit that the “victim” has obligations, too.) And by a further transformation, responsibility for the act of victimization is collectivized and made hereditary. While no victim is responsible for his personal behavior, all of his alleged “oppressors” become responsible for crimes the existence of which they do not admit. The ultimate stage is a sort of snowball effect, as more and more groups demand to be perceived as victims and as the process of defining victimhood becomes increasingly imprecise and subjective. The victims are increasingly bogus, and real and bogus victims fall out. The confrontation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, both invoking victimological categories, symbolizes this final stage. And, Sykes notes, victimology is governed by a variety of Gresham’s Law: bogus victims tend to drive people with genuine grievances from the public arena, as babblings about “feelings,” “sensitivity,” and “compassion” replace objective standards of reason and justice.

Victimology did not develop overnight. Sykes traces it ultimately to Rousseau, whose romantic treatment of societal victims was critically transformed by the psychologization of morality begun by Freud and by the politicization of psychology, as practiced by Theodore Adorno and the other authors of The Authoritarian Personality.

In the past, many people have described their political enemies as mad, sometimes with justification; it was for Adorno and his colleagues to transform their own political views into psychoanalytical diagnoses of their rightist opponents. In purely political terms. The Authoritarian Personality was an important milestone in the progressive blurring of the difference between conservatism and fascism and in the identification of middle-class values as the roots of fascism.

The politicization of psychology and the psychologization of politics are deeply intertwined with “medicalization,” the creation of a “therapeutic society.” Every problem is elevated to a symptom of disease, and the concept of “illness” replaces “evil” or “sin.” Moreover, Sykes notes, “it is an essential part of the therapeutic culture to define normal feelings as problems.” We are all patients, or at least potential patients. (There are, however, converse developments, which Sykes fails to explore. Under the reign of the pseudo-therapeutic culture, certain types of behavior which were traditionally considered illnesses—such as voyeurism and homosexuality— have been reclassified as “normal.” Moreover, people who are clearly out of touch with reality and are at best barely able to function have been tossed out of the mental hospitals to fend for themselves.) The result, intended or not, is vast empire-building by real or supposed therapists. A notable example is the spread of the all-purpose concept of “addiction” to cover almost any sort of behavior. As Sykes points out, even honest professionals in the mental health field suffer from a deformation professionelle: they are oriented toward finding and treating sickness rather than toward understanding healthy people.

One of the chief elements in the unhinging of American society has been the shift in the civil rights movement and among its supporters to full-blown victimology. This has produced a drastic shift in the definition of racism and an all-out destruction of standards. Once defined as a form of conduct, racism is now transformed into a state of mind, which can be inferred on the basis of little or no evidence. Discrimination, the litmus test of racism, once referred to actual acts or intentions but can now be “demonstrated” by “disparate impact” or apparent results. If relatively few blacks (or members of whatever group of real or alleged “victims”) are employed in some occupation or business, that alone suffices to prove discrimination —although such a standard would “prove” discrimination against any, or all, ethnic groups, since no occupation shows a random distribution of people from all backgrounds.

It is perhaps not too astonishing that blacks should grab at such rationalizations to secure their advancement, although it is a bit surprising to see “Justice” Marshall of the Supreme Court baldly justify “reverse” discrimination with the words “Now it’s our turn.” Such justifications quickly produce claims that any and all standards applied to blacks are illegitimate—a shift Sykes delineates with great skill, and one crucial to the deterioration of American race relations and the level of public debate. As he points out, this shift was largely accomplished within a few years during the 1960’s. Most of the deformations of public discourse can already be seen in William Ryan’s classic 1971 book Blaming the Victim, which details, in hysterical style, how anyone who suggested that there was a culture of poverty, or that the downtrodden might have to change some of their own behavior, was a bigot.

The next step, however paradoxical, was also inevitable, owing to the establishment of the principle that the “victim,” once so defined, is beyond criticism. Grotesquely, the stigmata of oppression came to be identified as the chief element of “blackness,” the peculiar way of life of the black ghetto, a holy tradition. In many schools, the student who tries to succeed is scorned as “acting white.” The curious end result of victimology is actual victimization—of the young, who have never been exposed to higher standards.

There is no clear way out of this situation. Sykes points to the failures of social scientists in predicting the future and in designing useful programs to deal with its problems and emphasizes the need to insist upon good character, good conduct, and self-restraint. Unfortunately, while there are signs that even some professional victimologists and profiteers are themselves viewing the current situation with alarm, their reaction to such events as the Los Angeles riots has been to demand more of the same response, while the cowardice and silliness of many of their nominally “conservative” opponents have offered them little resistance. Unless current signs are deceiving, the full weight of official power is likely to come down on the side of victimology, at least in the foreseeable future. 


[A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, by Charles J. Sykes (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 289 pp., $22.95]