I have a friend who teaches at a premier liberal-arts college in Southern California. Recently, a crusading cadre of militant feminists treated the campus to a well-publicized consciousness-raising campaign on sexual harassment. The essential message was two-pronged: 1) It is verboten for faculty members to come on to co-eds, and 2) young women who courageously step forward to report such piggishness are to be treated very, very gently.
The determined effort to ferret out victims proved an immediate success. Informed that certain kinds of behavior constituted certifiable harassment, a previously silent female undergraduate boldly emerged to testify that she had been the target of lewd, incessant, and unwanted sexual advances—by her lesbian track coach.
This may not have been the parade that was planned. But the orgy of victimization regularly yields such spectacular surprises. Because the human capacity to be offended is bottomless, there is a very healthy supply of wronged persons. Indeed, the people who tossed the victimhood political party knew they'd have more potential invitees than a Madonna dinner date.
So they shouldn't be so astonished when unwelcome guests ring the doorbell. A striking aspect of those striking Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings was the defiance of Judge Thomas, victim. He was the angry black right-wing man. (Right color, wrong wing.) The Senate Democrats, immersed in the lore of victimology, couldn't believe their eyes and ears: Did he say "high-tech lynching?" "Racist stereotypes…against an uppity black man?"
The liberals just froze up, stunned by the very idea that a well-dressed Republican could really be a victim of injustice. Confused about protocol, they dared not speak a word of this to the volatile victim himself. (You could almost see Richard Pryor, dressed up as a staff aide, whispering into Sen. Simon's ears during Thomas's testimony: "Back off. This nigger's crazy.") They backed so far off, they allowed Senate confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee who was steamed (injudicious?) enough to tell them, under oath, that he didn't care about their dumb job.
Soon after, this Democratic timidity brought a torrent of criticism from dedicated public-interest organizations that were mightily offended by Thomas's claims of victimization. The so-called feminist and civil-rights groups have come to view unfair discrimination as the unique status of their constituents; they take virtually a propertied interest in it. Who was this Reagan-appointed scam artist to believe he had been gypped by the system? A trespasser!
The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill affair is tough to beat for pure public ugliness, but examples of politically incorrect victimization abound. Victims are being mobilized by the millions across America, in ways that shake the political landscape.
In Chain Reaction, a fascinating new political-science thriller, Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall show that the Democratic Party has taken itself out of the running for the presidency because, quite simply, it has put its chips on minorities. Bad arithmetic there.
Carefully examining recent elections and extensive polling data, the Edsalls discern that the middle-class white ethnic male—Joe Sixpack—is of the opinion that, on taxes, welfare, schools, and crime, the national Democratic Party is the procurement agent for "society's victims"—blacks, Hispanics, gays, welfare recipients, the handicapped, the feminists. But Joe knows that it's his taxes, his kids, and his neighborhood that cover this agent's accounts receivable. He's a victim of the victims!
The sexual-harassment monitors talk about creating a "hostile environment in the workplace," while masses of voters see the Democrats creating a "hostile environment" in the living spaces of ordinary, middle-class people: busing their kids out of town, threatening their career advancement with affirmative-action programs, coddling criminals who make their streets—or those just beyond the urban/suburban line—unwalkable.
It's called white backlash, but only under specific circumstances is the phenomenon color-coded. In fact, the Edsalls note overwhelming and continuing white support for equal opportunity, even when it must be enforced by federal intervention (although support has actually declined since the advent of affirmative action and busing in the mid-to-late 1960s).
When the rule of law is eclipsed by bureaucrats toting calculators, directed by politicians pandering to interest groups, the impartial scales of justice are tipped. You needn't wait long for angry victims to reveal themselves.
All Americans have great sympathy for victims. That is why the plight of one aggrieved must be handled fairly and judiciously, in a manner that respects the rights of other potential victims. Law that does violence to the notion of equal justice will always engender bitterness among those against whom it discriminates.
The pungent legacy of America's great evils of slavery and Jim Crow is what powers demagogic victim exploiters like Al Sharpton today. And the illiberal responses of quotas, busing, and class favoritism can already be seen as the motive force propelling Al's lightly tanned twin, David Duke, tomorrow.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: Nobody Here but Us Victims".