I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy.
— Howard Beale, Network (1976)
One of the fascinating things about the film Network — a cynical, satirical look at the disintegration of the news media — is how it seems to grow more prescient with every year that passes. The monologue excerpted above was delivered by the character of Howard Beale, an everyman news anchor who finally reaches the breaking point, and it resonates as strongly today as it did in 1976.
For all its foresight, Network’s once-exaggerated paranoia now feels like understatement (an actual reality TV star is headed to the White House!). It also got another important thing wrong: the rest of Beale’s speech goes on to incite his television audience “to get mad!” — to scream “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It’s a powerful moment. But it doesn’t fully capture the pervasive sentiment of today’s culture. For Beale, anger was empowering — the first step towards social change. Today, everyone — both on the left and on the right — seems more eager to assume the posture of victimhood than of rage. It’s not hard to see why.
¶ Once, victimhood was for actual victims. There was no shortage of them: entire groups of people were marginalized and disenfranchised based on sex, gender, race, sexual identity, religion, class. These groups had (and have) legitimate grievances; the bigotry they faced (and face) is a real and quantifiable detriment to their lives, as exemplified by housing and employment discrimination, pay inequality, marriage inequality, prejudicial treatment by the justice system, life expectancy, infant mortality, and on and on. It can also have subjective and immeasurable consequences on well-being, in the form of mental anguish. No wonder, then, that victimhood was not something that anyone wanted for themselves, and so the civil rights movement was established to level the playing field, and to eliminated the victimization of people based on their identities.
It can seem like identity politics emerged from this atmosphere — after all, if you’re agitating for equal access to housing based on race, or equal pay based on gender, or equal marriage based on sexual orientation, you’re necessarily placing a group of disenfranchised people under the banner of their identity as “black,” “female,” or “queer.” But, even if it was never spoken, an identity as “black,” “female,” or “queer” was singled out long before the civil rights movement began: the bigotry that incited the movement was based on these identities in the first place.
The politics of identity are a double-edged sword. They can rally disenfranchised people to agitate for change, but they also underscore the divisions that lead to discrimination.
¶ Here’s where things take an interesting turn: I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. Who is to blame for that? Us? To jump to the end of Network, to an equally riveting monologue delivered by the character of network chairman Arthur Jensen: “There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.”
Of course, as individuals, we feel helpless. We know the system is fucked. And we are all participants in this system — a system that is making the air unfit to breathe and our food unfit to eat, that is slowly sucking the resources from entire impoverished continents, that is treating living creatures like commodities, that is treating human beings like commodities, that is prepared to mow down thousands of people to keep the price of oil in check. It’s appalling. And we are all participants in it. How can we keep a clear conscience in light of the fact that we are the cogs — however small — driving a machine that commits atrocities? How can we reconcile our desire to be good people with an awareness that we, in some small way, share responsibility?
The solution, of course, is to tell ourselves — “Hey, I may be inside the system, but it abuses me, too. Don’t blame me! I’m a victim here!” And it’s true — we are its victims. Whether that absolves us of our role is another issue.
The people most outspoken in their opposition to the “holistic system of systems” were the first to attempt to place themselves outside it. That is, the young, the disenfranchised, the activists — hippies who “dropped out” to experiment with utopian communities. These communities proved unsustainable, and identity politics reared its head. On college campuses, protests among young, disenfranchised activists roiled; safe spaces were established, and triggers were warned of. Conservatives mocked safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling — and not totally without reason; the students of elite universities are endowed with privilege, and for them to demand the indulgence of their desire to place themselves outside the system (ideologically at least) gives off a whiff of the bourgeois, especially when many people are struggling just to survive. Undocumented workers, trafficked sex workers, or abused children don’t get the luxury of safe spaces.
As it turns out, labeling oneself a victim, as a strategy for washing one’s hands of the world’s problems, was a temptation too great for conservatives to resist, even the ones criticizing liberals for wanting to feel safe. Since the 1980’s, Rush Limbaugh has built his career on representing the interests of capital while simultaneously positioning himself as an outsider under attack; the United States is still overwhelmingly Christian, but that didn’t stop Limbaugh from decrying the war on traditional marriage, the war on cops, the war on Christmas. The formula worked, and throughout the ’90s, conservative talk radio continued to grow in popularity, culminating in the launch of Fox News in 1996.
9/11 changed everything. With their country literally under attack, all Americans had the fuel they needed to stoke the fires of division. People could now claim to be victims of whatever they wanted, pointing the blaming finger at a scapegoat that, while actually disenfranchised, was presumed to wield incredible power: liberals, feminists, the special interest groups that lobby Washington.
Nothing, to someone who has draped themselves in the cloak of victimhood, has been left unviolated. In the past 24 months, the man-children of the Internet, precipitated by the catalyst of Gamergate, lost their shit not once but twice as movies from their childhood (Mad Max, Ghostbusters) were “ruined” by the introduction of women characters, reducing men to background players. Forget that the overwhelming majority of movies Hollywood cranks out are targeted at men and boys; even the arrival of prominent woman-centred films on the scene was enough to make them feel under attack. Victims, in other words. How can you blame them for the miseries of the world when feminazis are taking over?
¶ Enter Trump, a man who is the living embodiment of privilege and enfranchisement. White, male, cis, het, well educated, bestowed with a fortune he didn’t earn, failing upwards on the cresting wave of New York real estate, even — it still boggles the mind — to the seat of President of the United States. There has never been a more privileged man. And yet.
Even Trump is getting in on the victimhood game. He is, arguably, personally to blame for at least some of the world’s problems; he stands accused of fraud, sexual assault, and housing discrimination. Still, even he plays the victim. His claims that the media are unfair to him are both well documented and unsubstantiated. But while Trump was quietly settling a $25 million lawsuit, he tweeted to his millions of followers that “The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” demanding that the cast of a Broadway show “Apologize!” to his running mate for being disrespectful (they weren’t). Days later, when facing criticism for assembling the wealthiest cabinet in U.S. history, he tweeted claims of massive voter fraud that robbed him of a win in the popular vote (it didn’t). Trump won the election! But even in victory, he painted himself as the victim of unseen conspirators who, somehow, have still rigged the system against him.
What kind of an example is Trump setting when even he can point to the ways the system is broken, but still place himself outside it? Days after Trump’s electoral victory, white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke at a so-called “Alt-Right” conference in Washington, D.C. In excerpts posted by The Atlantic, Spencer claims (to a crowd giving Nazi salutes) that “No one mourns the great crimes committed against [white people],” that “we don’t exploit other groups; we don’t gain anything from their presence; they need us, and not the other way around.” He says that “the press has clearly decided to … wage war against the legitimacy of Trump and the continued existence of white America.” And the kicker: “America was, until this past generation, a white country.”
It nauseates me even to repeat his words, and I’m reluctant to air them any more than they already have been, but it’s necessary in order to examine what underlies them. Once you look past their obvious falseness, the picture they paint is one of white people (generous, hard-working white people!) under attack. It is irrefutable that white people are by far the most enfranchised group in America. But if we are to believe it, wouldn’t the blame for America’s (and to a large extent the rest of the world’s) problems lie with white people? Despite the patent absurdity of his claim, Spencer is forced to contend that, in fact, white people do not run America: it was taken away from them a generation ago — and of course, everything was great up until a generation ago.
This is why the right prefers the term “cucks” to describe progressives — literally, a reference to white men who have allowed black men to impregnate their wives, supposedly diluting the purity of their master-race blood. These liberal whites, so the implication goes, have sold out their country to other races, thus disenfranchising the rest of white America. White people are no longer in charge, they’re saying; don’t blame us! We’re the victims here!
¶ Howard Beale’s story began with self-pity, but the movement he started embodied, more than anything, self-righteous rage. The people who take on the mantle of victimhood today don’t seem to be driven by self-righteous rage — at least not all of them. Victimhood, for these people who are not actually victims, is not used to justify their actions or to spur others to take up their hammers and smash the system apart. For people like Limbaugh, Trump, and Spencer, their supposed victimhood is nothing more than self-pity, a way of mentally distancing themselves from a system they are forced to acknowledge is corrupt, and whose corruption they play a role in perpetuating.
Rage is motivating. Rage spurs people to action. It leads to revolution — and, when it comes down to it, these are people who don’t want a revolution. These are the people with something to lose. Instead, their idea of victimhood is simply the removal of blame. Self-pitying doesn’t lead to change. It leads to a sense of helplessness, to passivity, and to a belief that nothing matters anyway, nothing ever changes, there’s nothing we can do except sit and complain.
Let’s not be fooled. We know who is to blame for the problems of the world. On some level, it’s all of us: the participants in “one vast and ecumenical holding company,” as Arthur Jensen described it, “for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.” We may be swept up in the system as unwilling participants, following the current only to keep from drowning in it, but we are participants all the same.
But blame scales with power. The more power a person wields — and Trump now wields more power than literally anyone on earth — the more control they have over the way things are, and the more blame they have when things stay the same. It’s hegemony that rules all our thoughts, just as it’s the makers of spectacle that try to distract us from what really goes on behind the curtain, and to convince us that nothing can change, that we’re helpless, that we’re all just helpless victims, even as the people who fill the seats of power sign trillion-dollar treaties or draw up polluter-friendly energy bills or pass laws that strip millions of healthcare — literally ensuring that people will die to preserve someone else’s bottom line.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me mad.