The cultural shifts that made blatant bigotry less acceptable have brought with them new–and newly frustrating–dynamics. Some cling to colorblindness and ignore institutional racism, pointing only to the lack of overt, verbalized discrimination. People use the phrase “reverse racism” non-ironically. Opponents of gay marriage use exciting (though still limited) gay rights victories as “proof” that LGBT people are no longer vulnerable.
When taking on the frenzy around Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology for mocking Mitt Romney’s grandson, Jelani Cobb has a great take on an interesting aspect of these shifts: bigots taking on the role of oppressed minority. He points out that this “appropriation of victimhood” isn’t new, but it certainly has been on the rise with the harsh and overwhelming internet reactions to offensive behavior:
Like so many of our current maladies, the culture of reverse victimhood finds its origins in the Civil War, during which a region devoted to human bondage wrapped itself in the garb of an oppressed people shrugging off tyranny. A century later, in the civil-rights era, the South imagined itself besieged by “outside agitators” disrupting the heretofore amiable relations between the races. Conservatives, then as now, simultaneously denounced “victimology.” But in the decades that followed, conservatives came to believe that the problem was not the pronouncements of victimhood from the afflicted groups—blacks, women, gays—but that they had a monopoly over the matter. Their cause became an equality of grievance. Thus we have a Tea Party movement, whose members are sincerely terrified by the prospect of government stealing their individual liberty, while utterly unmoved by the concerns of those whose history is marked by the literal rather than figurative experience of enslavement. The truly damning facet of Romney’s infamous “forty-seven per cent” remarks wasn’t that he called half the country freeloaders; it was the concurrent implication that members of the extremely wealthy audience before him were the real exploited toilers.
The appropriation of victimhood isn’t confined to issues of race and class. Last November, Guns & Ammo magazine fired a longtime columnist, Dick Metcalf, for tentatively suggesting that the government has the authority to regulate weapons. (After sacking his writer, the magazine’s editor naturally delivered a profuse and unconditional apology to his readers.) Metcalf may have been fired for violating the orthodoxy of Second Amendment fundamentalism (though he described himself as a believer in that creed), but his real offense was challenging the canard, deployed so profitably by the N.R.A., that gun owners are victims-in-waiting, soon to be targeted by a government crackdown on their weapons. The singular innovation of American gun culture, in fact, is the idea that he who is most heavily armed is most vulnerable. George Zimmerman, and not the teen-ager he shot, is, for them, the model of victimhood.
Michelle Malkin imagines decent Americans under assault by equality bullies—what she calls a “tolerance mob,” enforcing political correctness with Gambino-style brutality. Last week, Steve King, the Republican Iowa congressman—earlier pilloried for claiming most undocumented immigrants were drug mules (whose calves, he memorably declared, were sized like cantaloupes)—sent out a fundraising e-mail proclaiming himself “the last one standing” against the intolerant liberal jihad that had driven fellow truthsayers like Allan West and Michele Bachmann from Congress. The problem here is not hypocrisy—the charge typically brought by the likes of Steve King, who writes that “Conservatives are to be tolerant of liberal ideology; however the left need not be tolerant of conservative Christians.” The problem is narcissism: that of those who feel besieged by protests against ethnic slurs, undisturbed by any real understanding of the history, or humanity, of others.