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.

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