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January 07, 2014 4:04 PM The South and the Cult of Phony Victimhood

By Ed Kilgore

Moving along from ignored and often mocked victims of internet harassment to phony victims who try to turn the tables on those they would like to oppress, Jelani Cobb has a meditative post on the strangely persistent saga of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. As you probably know, Harris-Perry has made repeated, self-abasing apologies for making fun of a photo of Mitt Romney and his adopted African-American grandchild (being forgiven explicitly by Romney himself), but is in danger of becoming a sort of permanent exhibit of the supposed hypocrisy of liberal minority folk who are the “real racists,” victimizing conservatives.

This passage from Cobb naturally caught my attention:

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.

I’d go Cobb one further: the living link between the victimization complex of the secessionists and the similar breast-beating by the Neoconfederates of the civil rights era was the exceptionally pervasive revisionist take on Reconstruction. This was an era of white supremacist terrorism against African-Americans and their white northern (“carpetbaggers”) and southern (“scalawags”) supporters which was turned by its perpetrators into a tale of rebellion against a military occupation that empowered a corrupt cabal of illiterate ex-slaves at the expense of southern dignity, prosperity and self-government. As the author of a fine recent history of that period, Stephen Budiansky, acutely observed, the very term white southerners used to describe Republican post-Civil War reminders of the unfulfilled mission of that war, “waving the bloody shirt,” was itself actually derived from the savage beating of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by South Carolina’s Preston (or as he was known in the North, “Bully”) Brooks on the floor of the U.S. House in 1856. A white southern outrage was turned into a token of white southern victimization, in the kind of self-justifying maneuver that fed the Lost Cause for over a century.

I wouldn’t necessarily blame white southerners—even conservative white southerners—of being the main source of today’s increasingly reflexive “reverse victimization” habits, but I suspect it comes from the same impulse of a wounded conscience lashing out at the proximate cause of its unhappiness. Nothing assuages the oppressor, the bully, or the “winner” more than the opportunity to pose as the self-made underdog whose success is twice-earned by the struggle against those who question its authenticity. And Cobb’s right: you have to figure that was a common sentiment in the audience who heard Mitt Romney tell them they were struggling to hold onto their wealth—and to save the Republic—against the brutish hordes of losers determined to loot them via Barack Obama.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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