Saturday, January 22, 2011

Claiming Victimization, Again And Beyond

It's not a joke anymore. Nor is it harmless.

Sarah Palin responded to the shooting in Tucson by claimning "especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."

But that was only the latest occasion on which Sarah Palin enthusiastically played the victim. (It is her trademark, a kind of calling card.) Nor is she the only conservative who has found victimhood politically advantageous.

Right-wing talk show host Mark Levin (think an angrier Sean Hannity, who is a big fan of his colleague). The Huffington Post reported January 14

Conservative radio host Mark Levin is threatening to sue Chris Matthews and anyone else who he feels is accusing him of having helped foment to political violence.

The impetus for Levin's threat was a statement Matthews made about him on his Tuesday show. Matthews had cited him and fellow right wing radio host Michael Savage as examples of incendiary media figures promoting ugly rhetoric--something that has come under scrutiny in the wake of the Arizona shootings.

"Every time you listen to them, they are furious," he said. "Furious at the left. With anger that just builds and builds in their voice and by the time they go to commercial they are just in some rage every night with some ugly talk. Ugly sounding talk and it never changes."

In response, Levin laid down a challenge to Matthews.

"I challenge Chris Matthews, I'll put $100,000 on the table, to find any example where Sarah Palin has promoted the murder of anybody," Levin said, though he added that calling for the killing of terrorists didn't count.

"A hundred thousand on the table if Chris Matthews can find anywhere Mark Levin has urged the murder of people who have different political viewpoints," he said.

He then threatened to sue not only Matthews, but practically all of MSNBC's biggest hosts, if he felt they had made any allegations against him.

It takes a special kind of talk show host, a special kind of whiner, to threaten to sue anyone for expressing his view of the impact of vitriolic rhetoric spewed by a public figure. But as one of the secondary leaders in the conservative movement, Levin knows his role: threaten and intimidate, always claiming that the left (Chris Matthews?) wants to shut you up.

But it has reached a new level. On Thursday, Rush Limbaugh reacted to the vitriolic comment (for which he later profusely apologized on The Ed Show) by Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn), in which the Congressman compared the GOP myth of the government takeover of health care with the tactics of Joseph Goebbels. Rush charged

If you're gonna make a comparison with Nazi Germany, isn't it clear who the new Jews are? It sure as hell isn't the Democrats. Who are the new Jews, Congressman Cohen? It's not the Democrats. It's the Tea Party. Tea Party.

Now we have Republican Party leader Limbaugh suggesting a nexus between criticism of the tea parties and pogroms conducted against Jews in Europe. The vast majority- virtually all, or perhaps all- criticism of tea party members or of their astroturf leadership is far milder and more respectful than that of Cohen. Nonetheless, it apparently reminds Rush of incidents like this:

Violence erupts in Poland. Three Jews are killed and more than sixty wounded in the town of Przytyk, Poland. In the days following the attack, the pogrom spreads to neighboring towns. Before the pogrom is ended, almost 80 Jews are killed and over 200 wounded. Violence against Jews is widespread throughout central Poland between 1935 and 1937. Anti-Jewish pogroms take place, for example, in Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, and Grodno.

It happened in Poland, elsewhere in Europe, and, yes, in Arab lands. But, apparently, tea party members by the dozens are being attacked and killed here in the United States, right under our noses, undetected by the news media, our neighbors, and even Rush Limbaugh.

As Thomas Frank noted in "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

Conservatism, on the other hand, is the doctrine of the oppressed majority. Conservatism does not defend some established order of things: It accuses; it rants; it points out hypocrisies and gleefully pounces on contradictions. While liberals use their control of the airwaves, newspapers, and schools to persecute average Americans- to ridicule the pious, flatter the shiftless, and indoctrinate the kids with all sorts of permissive nonsense- the Republicans are the party of the disrespected, the downtrodden, the forgotten. They are always the underdog, always in rebellion against a haughty establishment, always rising up from below.

All claims on the right, in other words, advance from victimhood. This is another trick the backlash has picked up from the left. Even though Republicans legislate in the interests of society's most powerful, and even though conservative social critics typically enjoy cushy sinecure at places like the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal, they rarely claim to speak on behalf of the wealthy or the winners in the social Darwinist struggle. Just like the leftists of the early twentieth century, they see themselves in revolt against a genteel tradition, rising up against a bankrupt establishment that will tolerate no backtalk.

The Republican cry of victimhood already had been established. However, references to "average Americans" and "always the underdog, always in rebellion against a haughty establishment, always rising up from below" seem to have foreshadowed the rise of tea party members, often falsely depicted as uniquely salt-of-the-earth.

With it all, though, overwrought rhetoric such as "blood libel" or "the new Jews" by conservative Republicans with a vast following suggest that we may be entering a new, uglier phase of victimhood as political strategy.

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