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Welcome to the Dawn of the Age of Victimhood

IN ONE of those “new studies” that repeatedly illuminate the medical news, we learned recently that genes may be responsible for disposing some people to smoking. This is a development beyond the hopes of America’s weed addicts: Suddenly smokers are on their way from being seen as practitioners of a disagreeable vice to becoming the unfortunate victims of a genetic disorder. In America, once that kind of opinion switch is made a freshly established class of victims can start winning arguments and lawsuits. They are no longer accountable for their actions.
In the Age of the Victim, society is always wrong. Some say that a nation founded on individualism is becoming a society of finger-pointing interests, each trying to score off the whole. Actually, we still believe in individualism, it’s just that it’s an individualism of rights, not responsibilities, and, paradoxically, those rights are now the products of group membership.

For example, our tattered code of individual responsibility would have it that a chronically late employee might expect, eventually, to be fired. But, in “A Nation of Victims,” a new book by Charles J. Sykes, the case is related of a Pennsylvania school employee fired for constantly arriving late at work. It seems that the worker then sued for reinstatement because his therapist said he suffered from “Chronic Lateness Syndrome.” He won the case, too, though it later was lost on appeal.

In our moralistic past, hardly anyone aspired to victimhood; it made one seem weak. But now we not only cheer for the underdog, in the good old American way, we also establish the underdog as morally superior. We have learned that victimliness is next to godliness. And much easier to achieve.

President Bush is usually thought of as an opponent of extending victimhood claims, but at the Republican convention he could not help boasting that the newly signed Americans With Disabilities Act defines “disability” in a way that includes a population of 43 million people.

Walter Oi, the former University of Washington economist who now teaches at the University of Rochester – and who happens to be blind – protests that in the long run such sweeping definitions of disability will make people cynical about the real article, and simultaneously will increase a sense of dependency in the nation.

But the 43 million Americans automatically qualified as disabled are just the beginning. You must add layers and layers of other people categorically presumed to be victims, including numerous races, nationality backgrounds, sexual preferences, all the elderly and women.

By a process of addition and duplication, we soon reach an overwhelming share of the population that has acquired categorical victim status, regardless of personal circumstances. You name the potential victim group, we’ll organize a PAC to “empower” it politically and pass a law to punish anyone who objects.

A Wall Street Journal article by Tim Ferguson suggests that the huge and growing expense of victimhood lawsuits is one of the reasons executives at many growth companies are trying to get along without adding workers. When you consider that in the past new and small businesses have been the chief source of new jobs in our economy, the cumulative effect of today’s victimhood trend is to place a drag on economic recovery.

But the rush to victimhood status continues. There are serious and successful efforts under way in the courts to establish such categories now for the very tall or short and even for the overweight. Moreover, instruction in victimhood starts early. High school football players in Florida and North Carolina recently have won pathfinding awards against their schools because of injuries they sustained on the football field. They didn’t get hurt because football is a rough game but because of poor coaching.

The expensive and demoralizing habit of victimhood has its strongest practitioners in government, of course. Your idea of a victimized class might not be a federal employees union, unless you happened to be running one, or running for office on the Democratic ticket this year. But supporters in Congress are within a few votes of repealing key provisions of the Hatch Act which prevent (some naively would say, “protect”) federal employees from being recruited for partisan political activities. It is an abridgment of employees’ rights, you see. Therefore, assuming passage of this splendid reform in the next Congress, several million presently victimized federal employees finally will enjoy the right to be mobilized for partisan work on behalf of candidates promising new federal taxes to pay for all the new federal employees.

President-elect Clinton even believes that the group known as college students are so victimized by high tuition (heaven knows where that came from!) that they must be compensated twice: paid once through a new loan program for college expenses and, then, upon graduation, paid again for performing “National Service” jobs in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and day-care centers.

You might wonder how much more victimhood we can afford. Nonetheless, in the dawning future nearly everybody, it seems, will be demanding that they be officially designated victims of everybody else and compensated handsomely. It’s a great job, and you can get it.

Except, please note, to paraphrase the truly discriminatory employment ads of the 19th century: “Taxpayers need not apply.” If you happen to fall into that category, the victimhood trend might give you pause.

Bruce Chapman is president of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.