Monday, November 27, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Cult of True Victimhood"

Alyson M. Cole is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Queens College, City University of New York.

Her new book is The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror.

I asked Alyson to apply the "page 69 test" to her book; here is her reply:
Comedian Stephen Colbert dedicated a recent installment of his hilarious mock-cable-news show -- The Colbert Report on Comedy Central -- to saluting the “American Lady.” The host explained that the tribute, which featured Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem baking apple pie (“Cooking with Feminists”), was forced upon him after several female employees made allegations of sexual harassment. As Colbert reasoned, he, much like other Americans, “fell victim to the pervasive victim mentality of those who were victimized.” In addition to his pitch perfect delivery, the semantic circularity of victim-talk was part of the joke. Beneath the humor lay a rather poignant remark on the warped way we have come to think about victimization and to treat victims.

Why have victims suddenly generated so much attention and public consternation? In turning ‘victim’ into an epithet, an anti-victim campaign profoundly altered our conceptions of victimhood -- namely, what society owes victims, and who may rightly claim that status. Being a victim no longer depends upon harms or injustices endured, but rather on the victim’s character and purity, what I call “true victimhood.” This transformation, which has gone largely unnoticed, had profound consequences on law, social policy, and popular culture.

By page 69 the reader will be in the middle of the third chapter, immersed in an examination of feminists’ deliberations over how best to politicize women’s oppression. I show that since its inception the modern women’s movement has struggled to balance accounts of past oppression and future liberation, and hotly debated the risks involved in defining gender or feminist identities around static notions of domination and subjugation. The chapter is representative of the book to the extent that it takes up one of several case studies to show how the (anti)victim grammar warps the manner in which we debate and address matters of personal identity, collectivity, and injustice. The material, and even style, differs in other chapters, where I delve into topics such as Black/Jewish relations in the post-civil rights era; a genealogy of the concept of “blaming the victim,” which runs from critics of the culture of poverty argument, to defenders of rape victims, and from there to recent victim rights advocates; and the political consequences of 9/11 (i.e., viewing the nation as a victim).
Many thanks to Alyson for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Cult of True Victimhood, and here for the Table of Contents.

Among the praise for the book:
“Alyson M. Cole provides a remarkably original analysis of a profound transformation in the cultural values informing public discourse in the United States. By tracing the underlying logic of the ‘anti-victim campaign’ over several decades, she illuminates dimensions of privatization that operate well beyond explicit neoliberal arguments to roll back the state. Most importantly, Cole deftly demonstrates how this new version of individualism effectively curtails the possibility for social justice.”—Mary Hawkesworth, Rutgers University
“An engaging and provocative book, historically grounded, theoretically engaged, and pertinent to an understanding of today’s American political culture. Cole argues persuasively that we live in an era of ‘anti-victim’ politics, in which the campaign against victims has had a profound impact in re-orienting our political and social life, making it harder than ever to address injustice and inequality. This book will surely command widespread interest and generate the best kind of debate.”—Austin Sarat, Amherst College, Editor of Law, Culture and the Humanities, Editor of Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
Previous "page 69 tests":
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue