Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Warning. This essay by Momus introduces the concept of the Supervictim. I understand that defining my life in these terms may change me. I hereby agree that if my life should be thrown into a new light as a result of this concept, or if this essay makes me decide that I may myself be a Supervictim as defined here, I will hold Momus harmless against all legal redress. If, however, my newly-assumed identity as a Supervictim wins me large compensatory sums in a court of law, I will pay 20% of all such sums to Momus.
The Manufacture Of Victimhood
On the plane to New York I was reading a front page article in USA Today, the closest thing this sprawling nation has to a national newspaper. It said that there was still institutional racism in US education, according to a new report which showed that not all ethnic groups were represented amongst college students or on the teaching staff of universities in the same percentages they had in the general population.
Now this struck me as a strange argument. To my European meritocratic mindset there's nothing iniquitous about the idea that there might be more jews than blacks on a university teaching staff, even if the university is located in a black area. I would find this no more disturbing than the likelihood that, no matter how much positive discrimination you try to enforce, the best basketball players will probably always be of African descent, or office workers will always use fewer Macs than creative professionals.
But I may have misunderstood the purpose of the article. Maybe it was a coded way of saying what The Onion said in a recent spoof: 'Shocking new figures reveal that the wealthy typically command at least five times more disposable income than the poor'.
Or maybe what was happening in that article was something else again: the manufacture of Victimhood. It's one of America's fastest growing industries. In this case some people who had little interest in college were being told that they were victims because they weren't represented there. Their lifestyle choices were being given the spin required to make them into noble and blameless victims.
Stop Wasting Our Time!
I had another chance to witness this peculiar American industry, the creation of victims, on my first weekend in New York. I sat on a panel about music and the web at the New York Expo, held in the imposing art deco conference rooms of the New Yorker Hotel. Fellow Analog Baroque artist Mister Swenson was also on the panel, along with three very eloquent women. At one point, when Eric was making a point and passed the baton to me, saying 'I know Nick has something to say about this,' a woman in the audience shouted out 'Let the women on the panel say something!' This surprised a lot of people, because everyone on the panel had been getting their say irrespective of gender. A woman two rows behind the first woman shouted at her 'Stop wasting our time!'
When I spoke to chairwoman Jenny after the panel, she said 'That was embarrassing. It's weird when someone tries to cast you in the role of a victim, when you don't feel that way at all.'
When we make it comfortable or advantageous or profitable for someone to continue to think of themselves as a victim, we waste everybody's time.
Superman Or Supervictim
America. Here you can be someone. Here you can invent and re-invent yourself. Here you can slip from one identity to another. Anyone can get rich, anyone can get famous, and anyone might become the president. If you don't get rich as a Superman, there is another way. You might get rich as a Supervictim. Ask the woman who sued McDonalds for spilling a cup of their hot coffee over herself: even losers here can be millionaires.
Daytime TV is full of Supervictims. They're the people on Springer and all the Springalike shows who stake out identities as obsessive eaters, cheated wives, or victims of their own uncontrollable rage.
If, disgusted by these braggards, you switch off daytime TV and scan the radio for something more aspirational, you might stumble on National Public Radio.
On an NPR book programme today I heard a woman novelist being interviewed. She was introduced as a journalist who'd written for Vogue, Spin and Cosmopolitan.
The interviewer was talking about some outrageous acts committed by the novel's narrator heroine. 'She has sex with... should we talk about who she has sex with, or will that spoil it for the readers?' he asked. 'I don't think we have to talk about it,' the author answered, saving us the embarrassment of undescribed indelicacies whilst at the same time whetting our appetite to buy the book and find out about them in private. For some reason I immediately jumped to the conclusion that it had something to do with the heroine seducing her own father.
'Have you had criticism from feminists or others for the sometimes irresponsible behaviour of your heroine?' the interviewer asked. 'Yes,' replied the author, 'but you know these are things that everyone thinks but no-one dares to talk about.'
Universal And Unspeakable
How many times do we, as artists, claim that our insights are at once universal and unspeakable? And how important does it make us feel to be the only ones bold enough to say what is universally considered unsayable? I know I've claimed the same thing, and felt very important.
In the battle with Betty Page, the feminist critic who awarded my 1991 album 'Hippopotamomus' nul points in the NME, I went down on film (in the documentary 'Amongst Women Only') as saying 'I don't think my records are pornographic. I think they're just showing, in greater detail of X ray, my inner life'. Since then I've often portrayed bad reviews in the NME as some sort of victimisation. (Oddly, though, the one victim-like thing in my life, the semi-blindness of my right eye, never made me want to claim victim status. To me it was just a technological malfunction.)
The NPR author continues: 'I think a lot of women will recognise this situation. And I think reading about it will make them feel less alone.'
I have visions of large numbers of irresponsible and politically incorrect women getting together in support groups, reading this novel, recognising themselves and feeling better about things. Every loser wins, and every transgressor can also be a victim. Proclaiming your Supervictim status is a way of registering solidarity with people who will never otherwise understand your desire to be different. It is, therefore, a populist gesture made by privileged people. It's a way for winners (and every American is a winner just by being an American) to pose as losers.
Birth Of A Supervictim
One person who has eaten a lot and inflated like a balloon may start to claim that this is not gluttony but a misfortune. It was society's fault! Advertising made me do it! My problem is not the fat, but your attitude to the fat! Another may decide that his nationality is to be considered a disability. He may hijack a plane and, when tried, claim in his defence that he was traumatised by being born in the wrong country. It's getting more and more difficult to predict exactly where a person will locate their own particular Victimhood, but one thing is for sure: we are all learning to slip into the role from time to time. Just when it suits us.
Victims who are genuinely trying to construct a way out of victimhood and become agents, balanced and rounded individuals responsible for their own rise and fall, are always going to be trumped by the Supervictims who have found that the emotional power of a proudly-proclaimed victimhood is just too compulsive -- and too lucrative -- to leave behind.
And so the ladder to self-improvement, which leads a person away from the comfortable and popular category of 'Supervictim' and towards the more lonely category of 'Superhuman', gets kicked away from the bottom as well as the top. Instead of just getting on with improving their lives, these Supervictims are encouraged, in the US, to get increasingly arrogant about their Victimhood. They beat their breasts about it, and they find this earns them lots of sympathy and, sometimes, pots of money. Rather than slimming, they stay fat only to grouse slickly about it, and maybe even make feisty rap records about how their weight is something we all have to deal with. Whoops of applause all round.
The Meek Shall Inherit
Just as in Christian dogma, where the meek inherit the earth, this league of Super-Victims is, at least in capitalist America, becoming the most powerful group there is. In a society where everybody has at least one victim identity standing by for legal or commercial use, Supervictims are the single biggest special interest lobby, with a combined spending power of billions. Their voice is loud, and they make their presence felt across the cultural spectrum. Victim television in the Jerry Springer mode dominates the airwaves and victim-friendly cultural products proliferate. Art and academia get clogged up with cultural reparation, whereby cultural activity is no longer seen as a way for one individual to communicate insights to another, but as a way for society at large to acknowledge and repair social wrongs by putting new spin on old relationships.
These disabled sumos, these braggart Supervictims are a danger to anyone who runs a business or provides a service, because their image of themselves as 'the losers who win' makes them very litigious. Their tendency to sue gets factored into the prices we all pay for services, just as supermarkets put up prices to cover shoplifting.
In this sick and over-cautious society you have to sign a contract before getting your hair cut (believe me, this happened to me the other day at a hairdressing college off 6th Avenue) absolving the shop from blame in the event that your ear gets clipped and you become 'differently eared'.
Americans have always had a different concept of risk than Europeans. They stay away from Europe when there's a war in the Gulf, they bomb Belgrade from 15,000 feet and are surprised when they hit the Chinese Embassy. They don't smoke because smoking makes you die. But, as Bill Hicks pointed out before illustrating his point with a practical demonstration, we all die anyway. Sometimes avoiding all risk is the riskiest thing you can do.
Think it's cool to pose as a Supervictim? Stop wasting everybody's time. Get out there and achieve something you can be proud of.
Terrified of the idea that life can be unpredictable? Get used to it: life is full of risks. Like your personal destiny, and like your death, they're something that only you can assume responsibility for.
Have a nice day.