Are you a victim yet? Is not, get in line

June 18, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Victimhood is rotting the woof of America's social fabric. No, not victimization. The disease has nothing to do with offenses that produce legitimate victims: murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, smoking in public places, extortion, embezzlement, bad manners, burglary.

Victimhood, rather, is the malady that insists every imaginable human circumstance is an assault on every person in that circumstance. Thus to be poor is to be a victim of poverty. To have an average annual income is to be a victim of denied aspirations. To be Concorde-flying, gold-wallowing rich is to be a victim of mean-minded jealousy.

To reject, ridicule and rail against the victimhood plague is not to deny the genuine suffering or righteousness of many actual or designated victims. Poverty is hell. Blindness is so terrifying I cannot bring myself to imagine the experience. And so on.

Thus "The Rage of a Privileged Class," by Ellis Cose (Harper Perennial. 192 pages. $12) was a compelling, important book - not because it identified successful African-American professionals as enduring victims of a resolutely racist American culture, but because it explored vividly the experience of their unhappiness, to which Mr. Cose brought insightful, instructive understanding.

Now comes Mr. Cose's sequel: "A Man's World, How Real is Male Privilege - and How High Is Its Price?" (HarperCollins. 259 pages. $22)

Not You, Rush

The core of the book: "In short, the ranks of aggrieved men is large and apparently growing. 'Whatever women have to put up with,' they are saying in effect, 'we don't have it so good either.' . . . An increasingly vocal group of activists are making that argument - and not all of them are feminist-bashing Rush Limbaugh clones."

Mr. Cose is writing about all men. Or anyway all American men. Or anyway enough of them to constitute a general, inclusive class: aching victims all.

Of course, some ache more acutely than others. Witness this quaint lament from Mel Feit, one of Mr. Cose's most-quoted sources and executive director of the New York-based National Center for Men:

"Earning money means getting out of a warm bed when it's cold and snowing outside and going to a job you hate so you can pay the rent, so you can feed the kids. Earning money is not an empowering thing. It's spending money - that's where the power lies. And it turns out that women spend most of the money."

Mr. Cose has a fine commitment to research and digestion. For this book, he did lots and lots of interviews, intelligently. It is clear he has read everything in sight.

(Lest somebody else bring it up, after I resigned as editorial page editor of the New York Daily News some years ago, Mr. Cose followed me into the job, but we have never met nor been involved professionally.)

The trouble with "A Man's World" is that, taken as a whole, it succumbs to the central fallacy of the victimhood disease. It perpetuates the pandemic.

Mr. Cose's subjects are unhappy. But throughout the book, I was overwhelmed by an image of small boys in short pants climbing to a treehouse and putting out their sign: "No gurls alloud."

It may be facile to dismiss the "men's movement" as a bunch of dysfunctional and immature men going out in the woods and beating on drums, borrowing shreds of tribal ritual from primitive cultures they know little or nothing about, but nothing Mr. Cose presents in this book convinces me otherwise.

Typical of what bedevils these "victims" is that even within a society that is astonishingly productive and provident there are ever-fewer slots that betoken great success. Bigger ponds mean fewer outstanding fish. Victims of this diminishment of showcase opportunity confront the question: "How can I create a convincing sense and image of purpose and achievement?"

Fright and Flight

Mr. Cose explores and analyzes the experience of such aching. His males respond to commonplace life challenges in proper victim fashion, with fright and flight: "Run for shelter! Gimme restitution!"

When I finished reading, an inner cry of "enough already" sent me back to "Culture of Complaint, the Fraying of America," by Robert Hughes (Oxford University Press. 210 pages. $19.95): "The self is now the sacred cow of American culture, self-esteem is sacrosanct, and so we labor to turn arts education into a system in which no one can fail. In the same spirit, tennis could be shorn of its elitist overtones: You just get rid of the net."

The plaints Mr. Cose elaborately records are those of people who curse the net rather than trying to jump or play over it. They are people bereft of competent personal resources.

Thus "A Man's World" becomes a victim - and carrier - of the victimhood disease. It acquiesces to the idea that masses of people, simply because they cannot or will not achieve engagement or commitment are victims in essence. This dangerously confuses them with victims in fact, people damaged by real and specific crime or injustice.

It is the lack of personal engagement that is the root of that sense of victimization. And there is only one sensible response:

"Hey, buddy, go get a life."

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