The pious politics of victimhood

November 18, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- This is the way the world will end, not with a bang or a whimper but with the gurgle of mankind drowning in political blather. Which is to say, it may end with another Clinton press conference, or another history lesson from New York's governor.

The most recent of President Clinton's press conferences refuted the complaint that they are too rare. It also provided Exhibit A for the proposition that, regarding political exploitation and pandering, there are still new frontiers being explored.

The first question to Mr. Clinton concerned "the obsession with fund raising, especially from dubious Asian sources" and his problem with "the image, created by your opponent, that you are a president who cannot be trusted."

He was 556 words into a 766-word answer when he soared into a riff that should be preserved in a time capsule as a perfect sample of Clintoniana:

"But there was in your question, and in a lot of the things that have happened in the aftermath here, an almost disparaging reference to Asians and in the last few weeks, a lot of Asian Americans who have supported our campaign have come up to me and said, 'You know, I'm being made to feel like a criminal. All these people are calling me. I say, Why are you calling me? They say, because you have an Asian last name.'

"Maybe I don't need to do this, but I would like to remind everybody here and throughout the country that our country has been greatly enriched by the work of Asian Americans. They are famous for working hard, for family values and for giving more than they take.

"And I, frankly, am grateful for the support that I have received from them. ... but there has been a lot of disparaging comments made about Asian Americans, and ironically, I found it surprising that our friends on the other side did because, historically, they have received more votes from Asian Americans than we have."

From the priceless use of the word "frankly," to the mock nobility ("Maybe I don't have to do this, but ... "), to the portentous suggestion of irony where none exists, this is not run-of-the-mill rubbish, it is the highly distilled sort.

We are asked to believe this: Many Asian Americans "have come up to" Mr. Clinton (through a remarkably porous Secret Service?) to report that they are being made to feel like criminals because of hostile telephone calls from people who say they have called because the recipients of the calls have Asian names.

Thus does Mr. Clinton turn a question about corruption in his campaign into an I-feel-your-pain wallow in the putative victimization of Asian Americans who are suffering "disparaging comments" from Republicans.

New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki, too, has a flair for the politics of victimhood.

Hitherto, state law has directed that in order to teach "ethical and moral behavior" all schools must have courses giving particular attention to "the inhumanity of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust." Now the law has been amended to include "the mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850."

This solicitude for Irish sensibilities conceivably could have benign results. Or it might be just another exercise in therapeutic history, to assuage group grievances.

But Governor Pataki, his judgment unhinged by his compassion for a voting bloc, said this in praise of the new language:

"History teaches us the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather" -- yes, rather -- "was a result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive."

Even if, as Mr. Pataki says, more than a million people starved to death and millions more were forced to emigrate "while large quantities of grain and livestock were exported from Ireland to England," that would not alter the essential truth -- that there was a massive failure of the potato crop caused by a fungus, not of England's making.

Mr. Pataki says the new law will help New York's pupils develop "tolerance."

Well, advanced thinkers recommend "identity politics" -- you are what your group is -- and insist that "inclusiveness" means equal access to victimhood.

But Americans of Asian and Irish extraction will be forgiven for not forgiving the cynical and condescending use made of them by silly people in serious offices.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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