The Labyrinth of Oppressions

When the human experience is simplistically divided into two worlds, then things increasingly do not easily fit.

Specifically, what happens when the number of victims begins to outnumber the pool of oppressors? At that point can the oppressed become victims of the oppressed?

The following news stories illustrate the increasingly incoherent world of the aggrieved and their aggressors:

Item: Nancy Pelosi is on a tour to blast the new tax reform and reduction law, whose savings often will result in $1,000 or more per annum to families. The law already had encouraged private enterprise bonuses to employees due to employer savings. Pelosi habitually scoffs that such savings are “crumbs.” At a recent speech, after she intoned that income inequality would be exacerbated, a woman in the audience shouted out, “How much are you worth, Nancy?”  

Fair question. She and her husband, a developer and property investor (with apparently good connections within the bureaucracy of federal construction, land sales, and property acquisitions) are worth over $100 million. They own more than one multimillion-dollar home. And soon the Pelosis are likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars more in California property and income taxes that are no longer fully deductible under the new law that she so energetically despises.

Could that banal fact explain why Pelosi is so heated about a reform that gives the middle class more take-home pay, and will create more jobs and bonuses from the private sector—partly at the expense of blue-state, high-income professionals like herself?

From this teachable moment, we could conclude that progressivism is so often promoted by the very rich. They are best positioned to game the system and seek exemption through virtue-signaling about the poor. The Pelosis of our postmodern world assume that they are not to be subject to the ramification of their ideologies (she dismissed the rude questioning without answering). And they so often exhibit a peculiar contempt for the working middle classes. The latter are clueless, in need of guidance, and supposedly deluded by the promise of “crumbs”—given their lack of education and sophistication, and the absence of the romance accorded to the distant poor. How did we ever get to a point where a progressive politician on the barricades, worth $100 million, lectures the middle class that their extra $200-300 a month are crumbs?

Item: Tavis Smiley is now suing PBS for supposedly “racially hostile” motives in abruptly firing him. His dismissal came in the wake of other fallen NPR and PBS kingpins like Garrison Keillor and Charlie Rose. The latter two allegedly either groped and grossed out female subordinates or leveraged their asymmetrical power to coerce sex.

As of yet, we have no idea whether PBS acted properly in firing Smiley. His severance was predicated on the results of an outside law firm’s investigation that public television commissioned. Legal eagles supposedly found Smiley culpable of numerous liaisons with workplace subordinates (“multiple sexual encounters with subordinates over many years and yielded credible allegations of additional misconduct inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS”). In the old days, he would be presumed innocent until proven guilty, or would have shrugged that two consenting adults are responsible enough to know the often-dicey parameters of either a romantic or merely carnal relationship.

But the point is that these are the new days. PBS has been extraordinary generous to Smiley in giving him show for some 14 years and showcasing his often provocative attacks on conservatives and those whom he claims manipulate to their advantage so-called white supremacy.

But Smiley should know that when one divides the human experience simplistically into victims and oppressors, a progressive hierarchy of supposed exploitation is inevitable. In Smiley’s case, he must also appreciate the always changing calibrations among the vying oppressed.

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo movement, Smiley’s own sense of victimization  for now must unfortunately come in a distant second. Indeed, racially based grievances cannot provide exemption from the present climate, in which even unsubstantiated sexual assault charges are treated as convictions requiring only sentencing.

Item: The new “Black Panther” Marvel Comics movie is hailed as both a milestone in the genre and a sign of a new Hollywood. Black screenwriters, producers, and directors not only are supplanting the incestuous old-boy network of Hollywood, but are doing so in spectacularly profitable fashion and entirely on the basis of merit, as adjudicated by profits from audience receipts.

While the film’s noble characters are predominately gifted African-Americans and powerful women, some are now irate that not only are there no gay characters, but rumors persist that an edgy lesbian scene was cut out. Or, as actress Florence Karumba put it of a few lost gay flirtation moments: “The final result that we’ve seen, there were a few scenes that have been cut. Different scenes, also. They didn’t make it into the movie for certain reasons, and at that point, I have to say: What their reason is, I can’t tell you, because nobody told me about whether it’s in or not.” In sum, are all movies supposed to find ways to proportionally represent characters on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, and national origin?

From this silly minor kerfuffle, one might infer that the core targeted audience of the comics action film may be African-American youth, males especially. If the lyrics of rap music, the sermonizing of the many of the black churches, or the riffs of African-American comedians are any indication, there is a popular perception that overt homosexuality is not really seen as a civil rights question.

So a cynic might conclude that profits outweighed progressive solidarity: the lesbian edgy parts were cut for fear of offending moviegoers—in a way that might have provoked outrage had the film been a suburban blue-state psychodrama.

Given the profits of the movie, and because the offense did not involve #MeToo and was not an overt rebuke to feminism (cf. the recent scandal over director Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”), the argument of proportional identity representation goes nowhere.

We are reaching circular firing squad moments—and a topsy-turvy world.

The concept of “disparate impact” is asterisked by the disproportional “meritocracy” of the NFL or NBA. Yet meritocratic Asian admittances at UC Berkeley are seen as some sort of unnatural “overrepresentation,” and thus in the past were carefully and stealthily trimmed. (Isn’t a professional sports billet considered far more lucrative than an undergraduate slot at Berkeley?)

Cultural appropriation aimed at whites is not reciprocal. The doctrine does not absurdly mean that Latinas should not dye their blond, or that talented African-Americans should not become great violinists or opera singers, or that Asian actors should not play Hamlet or Lady Macbeth. But strangely, it does mean that those who are not minorities should not play minority roles, or even adopt for their own the fashions and styles of nonwhite peoples.

We are told that the concealing and carrying of firearms should be outlawed. Armed guards at schools only ensure greater violence. Mace and pepper spray suffice instead of bullets.

Yet politicians, celebrities and marquee athletes require well-armed bodyguards, on the premise that in their unique cases, guns really do both deter and in extremis protect the important. Do armed guards protect or provoke?

Post-Freddie Grey Baltimore has become a far more dangerous place for African-Americans and for small business owners—even as once oppressive and supposedly Neanderthal police became more socially aware and adopted enlightened reforms.

There are a few common denominators to all these paradoxes that overwhelm the daily news.

One, people are people, unique individuals, not monolithic cut-outs of classes, races, or religions.

Two, in comparative global terms, it is hard for anyone to be oppressed in a free-wheeling, rich, and leisured 21st-century America. The efforts to appear so can hinge on the embarrassing.

Three, when movements, such as the identity politics core of progressivism, rely on shared oppressions, and when the categories of the oppressed in many demographic groups outnumber the available oppressors, we should expect a confused competition of grievances.

Four, victimhood cannot serve as the basis of a viable political movement. Contemporary oppression requires a Byzantine regulatory handbook of qualifications, exceptions, and nuances to rank competing reparatory claims on society and culture. How else to account for things like multibillionaire Oprah Winfrey being “discriminated” against in a Swiss boutique on the basis of supposedly not easily being accorded a customer’s look at a $38,000 crocodile-skin handbag? And is such a luxury even permissible in the era of PETA?

Who can calibrate the current plight of California feminist icon, #MeToo leader, and Latina assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who in the recent past has called for fellow legislators merely accused of sexual harassment to resign from office and to be ostracized by their associates?

Yet Garcia herself now stands accused of sexual assault. She is on temporary sabbatical. She insists she is innocent, won’t quit the legislature, and denies the independent allegation of four subordinates, who claim that they were groped, and propositioned by a supposedly randy Garcia. She now finds herself in a Thucydidean moment in which she yearns for the civil liberty protections that she was so eager to deny to others.

So who will police the police? Who is left to victimize the victims? Is it possible that the oppressed can oppress other oppressed?

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.