“You always have to play the hand you are dealt.
If you’re dealt a bad hand, you still have to play it.”
Clarence Thomas (1948-)
Supreme Court Justice (1991-)
At a panel, Library of Congress, February 2018
No person chooses their parents, their place of birth, their nationality or their color. We have no say as to whether we will be born to a rich family or a poor one, to an educated or uneducated one. We are not given options as to physical or mental attributes. As Justice Thomas said, we must play the hand we are dealt.
Certainly, some are more privileged, but that has been true throughout history. However, almost all immigrants to America, whether they came in the 17th Century or the 21st, emigrated because they were poor and persecuted. But early settlers did not consider themselves victims. They couldn’t. They would not have survived. Through belief in themselves, hard work and perseverance, they converted difficult circumstances into opportunities. In Justice Thomas’ words, they played well the hand they were dealt. Some failed, but most succeeded. Had they not, we would not now have the country we have.
Setting aside the role chance plays, success is a function of aspiration, creativity, tenacity, hard work, risk-taking and being opportunistic – a “can-do,” positive spirit. Justice Thomas grew up in the Jim Crow South, with few options open to poor, rural blacks. He never knew his father, and when his mother’s home was destroyed by fire he went to live with his grandparents on their hard-scrabble farm. Every critic of Justice Thomas – and they are legion among progressives – should read his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, so as to understand the obstacles this man overcame. A bust of his grandfather, a dirt-poor Georgian with nine months of education, sits in his office. It is inscribed with his grandfather’s favorite quote: “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.” His grandfather was victimized against but was not a victim.
Victimization has been (and is) a legitimate experience for many. Most ethnic groups (especially blacks) have been (and are) victims of discrimination. Slaves were victims of slave traders and owners. One thinks of now fully integrated groups who were once subject to discrimination, like the Chinese, Irish and Italians in the 19th Century, Germans during World War I, Jews from the 1920s through the 1950s, or Japanese who were interred during World War II. Early (and pre-union) factory workers were victimized by wealthy manufacturers. Vulnerable women were (and are) victims of unscrupulous men. The seventeen children murdered and wounded in Parkland, Florida were obviously victims.
Those who have been victimized deserve our support. But, as Arthur Brooks wrote over two years ago in The New York Times, “the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimized people and promoting a victimhood culture.” Victims and their advocates rely on free speech to relay their message, as did Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s. A culture of victimhood, on the other hand, inhibits speech; it protects the sensitivities of those allegedly victimized. The first gave us Civil Rights. The second gave birth to “trigger warnings” and “safe places” in colleges and identity politics in Washington that create feelings of self-indulgence and dependency.
Identity politics, an outgrowth of victimhood, has become institutionalized. It was described in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Edwin Meese and Mike Gonzalez: “The artificial segmentation of Americans into antagonistic groups organized along often imagined ethnic, racial and sexual categories.” It is, they assert, “tearing America apart.” A consequence has been policies that promote victimhood and discourage personal independence. Unstated, but embedded in these policies, is a rejection of virtues that lead to success: work, determination, self-reliance, responsibility and independence – characteristics that allow people to become masters of their futures.
In no sector have government policies (and cultural norms), which foster victimhood and dependency, had a more devastating impact than in the black community. In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein wrote about Chicago, where he was born in 1937 and where he grew up. He wrote of neighborhoods divided by ethnicity, of individuals and families striving for success, to become part of the American dream. He wrote of the city’s long history of violence, and organized crime that has morphed into gang violence. And he wrote of the “dismal” failure of black leadership: “…no one has emerged to organize and lead Chicago’s black population out of the wilderness of their increasingly crime-infested neighborhoods, where drug trafficking, high unemployment, and disproportionate poverty rates reign and seem unlikely soon to decline.” Blacks comprise 32% of Chicago’s population, yet 75% of those murdered are black and 71% of murderers are black. Yes, those killed are victims, but not the killers. Mr. Epstein writes that no black leaders have “stood up to ask why, if black lives truly matter, black-on-black murders have been allowed at the horrendous level they have.” Politicians find it easier to put the onus on victimhood, rather than encourage the dignity that comes from work and the acceptance of personal responsibility.
Victimhood leads to self-pity, that someone else is responsible for one’s inadequacies. This is not a new phenomenon. The author Allan Massie wrote a dozen years ago in The Spectator that Hamlet could be seen as “a mixed-up kid, immature, uncertain of himself, veering from self-love to self-lathing by way of self-pity.” It is wrong to indulge this sense of sorrow, as supporters of victimhood do. In The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope writes of Reverend Josiah Crawley, a poor vicar who has been accused of stealing twenty pounds. His poverty and pride made him unreachable to those who might help. He is in despair, knowing he is innocent, yet unable to prove it. His wife speaks to him: “I will not let you pass, Josiah. Be a man and bear it. Ask God for strength, instead of seeking it in an over-indulgence of your own sorrow…Yes, love – indulgence. It is indulgence. You will allow your mind to dwell on nothing for a moment but your own wrongs.” Victims of victimhood are entrapped in self-indulgent webs of self-pity.
A sense of victimhood is not limited to the left. In 2000, sociologist Professor Mitch Berbrier of the University of Alabama argued that behind the white supremacist movement is a carefully crafted victim ideology – victims of coastal elites. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, a demonized NRA is at risk of following the same self-indulgent path. Conservatives who are denied the opportunity to speak on university campuses must take care they do not consider themselves victims. Movements like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, which allow citizens to gather and protest, to express discontent, are the positive manifestation of a free society. But when they tilt from victimization to victimhood independence and self-respect are lost. And America loses. When he spoke of his grandfather, Clarence Thomas said:
“At some point, we’re going to be fatigued with everybody being the victim.”
Those who have experienced real victimization, the kind I never have, might consider my musings as those of an elderly, privileged white man who never suffered the ignominy of being a minority. They would be right. But, like most, I have had setbacks. I dropped out of college. I lost jobs and have gone through periods where I did not know from whence my next dollar would come. But I am an optimist who takes inspiration from Nat King Cole, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again,” and from the can-do attitude of Justice Thomas and his grandfather. My advice: don’t think of yourself as a victim. Ignore “trigger warnings” and avoid “safe places.” Life can be trying but don’t indulge in self-pity. Be responsible and self-reliant. Work hard. Be independent and, if necessary, be willing to start all over again.
This article was first published on Thoughts of the Day.