Sunday, January 25, 2009

Victimizer complex

Several countries are routinely said to have a "victim complex." Top among these are Russia, Israel and China.

I wonder if the phrase is misplaced. A more accurate substitute might be "victimizer complex." Putting the emphasis on countries' overreactions to difficult circumstances (i.e. victimizing someone else) rather than their feelings about the past would, first of all, take away the snide undertone of the current expression, which dismisses Russia's suffering under market "shock therapy," China's century of foreign domination, and Israel's memories of the Holocaust with a curt "that's all in the past; get over it." Instead, old pains would be dealt with on their own terms, as real--but not as an excuse for the present.

Second, "victimizer complex" would draw into the same rubric a wide variety of countries that share key traits with the three mentioned above, but that are usually not cited in the same breath--Turkey and the United States, for example.

What traits exactly are we talking about? Basically, an attitude of, "Yes, I am taking tough measures with X, but I am against the wall and that's all X understands--wouldn't you do the same? Who are you to judge, anyway, as you didn't go through Y like I did? Get out of the way."

The frightening thing about this attitude is that it is gaining currency among young people.

Chinese barely old enough to remember June 4, 1989 are confident that the students and workers in Tiananmen Square (and elsewhere) were not only wrongheaded--they surely were about at least some things, as participants in any movement are--but required a full military clampdown. Tibetans are similarly seen to be resistant to reason: "Why do they stray from cute religiosity to messing with politics and questioning China's obvious generosity?" As a country that has long dealt with foreign interference, the reasoning goes, China must respond in a tough manner or fall apart... "Wouldn't you do the same? Didn't the U.S. do just this in [insert an inner city race riot or battle with Native Americans]? Don't judge us."

In Israel, the Palestinian resistance, in its many forms, is not just a reminder of Israelis' past victimhood. To say so is to cheapen a very real victimhood and to confuse the mentality behind the IDF's recent, bloody assault on Gaza. Palestinians are, rather, seen to require tough measures almost genetically. And the defense of this idea, the defense of the ability to be a righteous bully, has become something of a badge of pride for the country, at least in international relations. You hear it, again, not only from hardened generals but from otherwise optimistic liberals in their 20s who are excited about "change"--but supportive of Israel, whatever it does, maybe especially if it is bloody.

Youthful Russians rally to Putin, meanwhile, arguing for hard measures, extra-constitutional measures, to be taken against sinister civil society groups and against Jews and against those stubborn partisans of Chechnya. The same goes for Turkey and its treatment of the Kurds. Again, young people are at the forefront, waving Turkish flags in the streets, angry at a new Turkish leader who is judged to hold an insufficiently hardline attitude toward minorities. And, of course, we all witnessed a "victimizer complex" in the U.S. after 9/11, when sympathy for bombed Afghan villagers was regarded to be only a few shades distant from treason. It was a matter of faith--and one that more than a few college kids propounded to me--that a scorched earth campaign against bin Laden was a duty. And a duty that was almost relished.

The hopeful note in all this is that those with a victimizer complex feel the need to explain themselves. In fact, the whole thing is about explaining oneself.

This points, naturally, to a deeper discomfort. And it is better for someone to be right-wing, maybe, in their youth and to work through it, to turn around, than it is to settle into a satisfied nationalism at the age that a person normally enters policy-making.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration II

It's been easier for me to say I "love" other countries--I don't know how many times I've said "I love China" and meant it--than saying I love the United States. The phrase has always stuck in my throat because it has seemed to stand in for a denial of the deep problems in the country: its imperial role in the world and its contradictions of class and race at home.

But today, walking and waiting and listening for ten hours in the cold, I got a lot closer to that commitment. Obama has put things back on track, allowed caring about a place where I've grown up to be a struggle, not a done deal--and celebrated that struggle.

The sign in the crowd on the Mall that brought me closest to tears was one that read, "Martin!! We've made it to the top of the mountain."

We may not have quite made it there, but this campaign and the courteous, excited, open-hearted crowd that has descended on Washington, DC give me some hope. And make me think that while allegiance to one nation-state over another is, from a long view, ridiculous, investing in something local, in the ins and outs of making somewhere you, well, love what it should be is a pretty noble cause.

Monday, January 19, 2009


DC is once again filled with excitement--a wonderful rush of humanity that I associate more with New York than Washington. Buses from out of town are dropping off crowds of excited but solemn school kids. Older black women are taking in the city in small, talkative groups. MLK Day volunteers, inspired by Obama's call to service, fill care packages for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and hand out energy efficiency kits and install solar panels in struggling neighborhoods (I got to see Steven Chu that way!). Troops closer to home guard intersections around the Mall, drawing the most appreciation (and impromptu group photos) that a domestic deployment has probably ever felt.

I've been taking pictures of all the Obama images and slogans about the city. There are stencils of "No Drama Obama" with his face on telephone poles (probably dating from the campaign), invitations to a national "hip hop caucus" during the inauguration weekend, a neon "Obama '08" design on an old firehouse, an all-Obama souvenir store on U Street that is absolutely packed with people, an "OBAMA" ice sculpture in front of Uncle Ben's Chili Bowl, Obama flags hanging from some stores and cars, cardboard Obamas for picture poses everywhere, guys hawking blinking Obama gear out of vans, and, of course, thousands of people festooned with Obama buttons and with a certain design of Obama stocking caps in black with red, white and blue writing.

For a little bit, I was starting to feel uncomfortable with it all--personality cult, drifting away from policies, etc. But now I'm cool with it. On a practical level, this thing has to take on the feel of a national, historical event for the president to pull off all he needs to pull off in the next years. The big inaugural concert yesterday, with its sea of upbeat people laughing and dancing as easily to Garth Brooks as Usher felt like what it was: an American celebration. That Franklin Mint TV ad for an Obama commemorative plate seems like as good a campaign ad as any, with its waspy white father proudly adding the plate to a bookcase full of military histories and a model cannon (at least I think there's a model cannon in there).

And old blocs have to be broken and realigned. That's why I don't feel as angry about Rev. Warren speaking tomorrow as some. We have to mix up the Christian right, harness its redeeming qualities, restart discussion---OK, we don't agree on abortion, but how will we reduce teen pregnancies?---and let the diehard rightists skulk away. If we don't, our national discussions will forever be sidetracked.

But, more importantly, it's fine to celebrate. It was a long campaign and we pulled of something unexpected and incredibly good. Really, really good---a candidate we're actually excited about, who has brought out tremendous good in people.


I do need some sort of understanding that progressivism lies behind all this. Biden gave as good of a reassurance on that front as anyone could give when he simply reminded the crowd at the inaugural concert that DC's architecture was built with the skill and sweat of workers and that work must be respected. That's it. He gave no context, no mushy stuff about all getting along. He just said that. It matched his pick of Jared Bernstein of EPI for his economic advisor. It also matched Hilda Solis for DOL, of course. It didn't match Larry Summers (though he has come a long ways on income inequality since the Clinton years) and I need a reassurance that Summers' outlook won't dominate that of the Bernsteins and Solises of the administration.

Labor will be where the Republicans, dazed by a total defeat, try to rally. They've already done so on the auto bailout and the confirmation of Solis. At their heart, Republicans agree with each other on employer-employee relations more than they do on just about any other issue. And they still think collective bargaining is, basically, foreign, sneaky, frustrating. Workers' rights seems like as good a place as any to tell them we're ready to talk, that we can hear them out on their values rhetoric, that we have an inclusive, forward-looking idea of America---but that they are no longer boss and that, for that matter, bosses are no longer boss. It should be where bipartisanship for its own sake ends.

But, for now, we can celebrate.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Cluster bombs

There is mounting evidence of cluster bombs being used by the IDF on Palestinians. This is far, far beyond the pale, especially in Gaza, one of the most crowded places in the world. As Gideon Levy writes, "Nobody is coming to the rescue - of Gaza or even of the remnants of humanity and Israeli democracy."