From Koinos Magazine #22
THE PAMPERED VICTIM
The Dubious Legacy of Martin Heidegger
by G. G.
For quite some time now in Western intellectual circles there has been a certain fascination with victim hood. Several items published recently in Dutch have subjected this fascination to critical scrutiny. In doing so, they also take a first step toward an explanation for it, by pointing to the influence -- via representatives of postmodernism and feminism -- of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. It appears that in this also lies a possible explanation for the resistance on the part of academic and policy-making institutions to some new insights -- for instance, to insights about youth sexuality which reduce the supposed victim hood to more realistic proportions.
In a review (NRC Handelsblad [Dutch newspaper], September 8, 1998) of two biographies of Anne Frank which appeared last year, Hans Goedkoop poses the following question: why, more than half a century after the fact, are there still new biographies being published of someone who led a life which was wholly defined by circumstances over which she herself had no influence, dying, as a result, at the age of fifteen? His answer is that Anne Frank became a symbol that set obligatory testimony to positive qualities (optimism, hope, innocence, courage and a zest for living) over against the absolute evil which would destroy her as soon as it got a chance. This image persists, in the new biographies as well, and does so, if necessary, at the expense of the reality of the historical Anne Frank, should this not 'fit the image'. The biographers, the American Carol Ann Lee and the Austrian Melissa Müller, end up in a sort of intellectual straddle. They stand with one foot in their historical facts but with the other in the symbol. Müller defines her motivation as 'the search for the circumstances under which people were able to display such unbelievable inhumanity'. But, suggests the reviewer Goedkoop, in doing so she reveals a fallacy in her noble ambition. Anne Frank's persecutors simply do not appear as characters in her famous Diary. How, then, can one understand the motives of the perpetrators by studying the victim?
Goedkoop goes on to say that for more than half a century now books about Jewish vicissitudes during World War II have been reaching a massive audience. This audience is entirely ready to sympathize with the victims, but prefers to keep its distance from the perpetrators. That is to say, those who would confuse sympathy with the victim with insight into the perpetrator can spare themselves a painful discovery -- namely that they themselves possessed all the qualities and means that would be necessary for the crime. Think, as one example, of the bureaucratic structures in which no one seems to be personally responsible for what he does. In place of such an insight, those who identify with the victim give themselves a warm and fuzzy feeling. After all when you condemn the persecution and acknowledge the suffering of the persecuted, you are becoming a bit better. This self-deception, 'a moral feint' (the title of Goedkoop's review), explains the continuing rummaging around in the simple, short and orderly life of Anne Frank. It is like a ritual, an exorcism of evil and a cleansing of a bad conscience, an alibi. Thus Anne Frank becomes a symbol for an unwillingness to look at that which destroyed her.
Rights of the Child
It was probably unintentional, but what the columnist Beatrijs Ritsema has to say when she discusses 'victims' rights' (NRC Handelsblad, November 25, 1998) links up with this. She too discusses -- in relation to specifically designated days such as the 'Day of the Chronically Ill' -- this fascination and identification with victims. The status of victim, suggests Ritsema, brings with it some social advantages: for instance, compensation, redress of justice, money, help, sympathy. Being a victim is associated with rights, which imply obligations that non-victims must fulfill. This all goes well so long as the status of the victim is uncontroversial, as in the case, for instance, of those confined to wheelchairs. But the pinch begins to be felt if the opposition that has been seated between the powerless victim and their power-holding fellow citizens cannot be logically preserved. Ritsema subsequently works that out on the basis of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child, now two decades old. According to her, it states, for instance, that every child has the 'right' to good health, a carefree life and to an appearance 'as it wishes'. In the first place, this testifies to arrogance to demand things to which no one in the world has any claim. Good health care would have been more realistic. But the writer also finds it rather artificial to proclaim separate tights for children, when they are equally important for adults. For the rest, Ritsema fails to mention -- something against which the Kindervuist (Children's fist) Committee had agitated in the early 1980s in The Netherlands - that the Rights of the Child are exclusively formulated as passive: nowhere in the UN document are children allowed the fight to undertake something, or speak up for their own interests. Children are treated as objects: first victims, now a protected species.
Thus the status of victim doesn't have only advantages. From the collection of articles Met Omstreden Slachtoffer (The controversial victim; published 1996 and reviewed by myself in De Nieuwe Sekstant, Summer, 1997), it would seem that this insight is also gaining ground among behavioral scientists of the feminist persuasion. In her introduction, editor René R discusses the problems in second-wave feminism surrounding the stereotyped role of the woman as victim of masculine violence. In practice, that works as a stigma: if you are a victim, you are automatically 'helpless' and 'pitiful'. In the long run that is a heavier burden than the advantages of being a victim which were also noted by Ritsema. It also doesn't ideologically mesh with the presupposed militancy of the emancipated woman; the same problem, in other words, that Kindervuist encountered. You cannot emancipate yourself and remain a victim.
In the same collection, Nicolle Coenen provides insight into the way in which, since the middle of the 1970s, collective conceptualization within feminism has shut out sensory perception. She demonstrates that this is linked to the very spacious definitions of terms such as 'abuse', 'violence', 'rape' and 'victim' becoming widespread. According to Coenen feminism has developed into a closed system of thought whose theories cannot be subject to discussion. In this process she also refers to the influence of postmodern philosophers (in particular the Frenchman Jacques Derrida), of Sigmund Freud and of Michel Foucault. It would be going too far in this context to get into this deeper, but I will be returning to Derrida below.
Contributions by René R on partner murder and José Rijnaarts on incest subsequently, on the basis of concrete examples, illuminate how feminism has gotten itself straddled (as Goedkoop might put it): one foot in its ideology, the other foot in stubborn reality. In this, both writers also arrive at the painful analysis that the press, media, judicial system and social workers and other professional 'helpers' have run away with the process of shaping the myths around victims, discussed above. Each of them has given it their own slant.
How relevant this all is for the socially imposed victim role of minors, however, was made clearest to me in the article by Petra de Vries that closes the collection. She focuses her discussion on the battle against prostitution waged by first-wave feminists, together with fundamentalist Christians, about a century ago. This alliance, as De Vries shows us with considerable finesse, constructed a false image of social evil: the bogeyman of the 'white slaver', often suggested to be a foreigner, generally an Arab. In contrast to him, prostitutes were depicted as unresisting and innocent victims who must be saved. On the one hand, this produced one of the most stubborn myths of the 20th century, that of a trade in 'white slaves'. At the same time, on the other hand, the evil closer to home, namely sexual violence within the family, was totally ignored. To my mind it is not difficult to see a parallel here with the contemporary creation of myths about the sexual abuse of youth outside the family. Does this not entirely overshadow attention for incest, aside from the most extreme cases of it? As a paragon of evil threatening from outside, the 'pedophile' has silently replaced the 'white slaver'. Certain feminists have thus, like their predecessors of a century ago, succeeded in transferring victim hood to others, in this case minors. In this way they can free themselves of the disadvantages of victim hood while still maintaining their ideology. In doing this, like those who wallow in sympathy for the Jews of over a half-century ago, they make a moral feint.
In his Lionel Trilling Lecture at Columbia University (November 5, 1998), the Dutch-born orientalist Ian Buruma, like Nicolle Coenen, makes a connection between victim-thinking and postmodern philosophy. What Buruma finds alarming is the connection between a 'relative understanding of truth' and the way nations and minorities seek to take on the role of victims. Buruma argues that the idea of truth as a relative, subjective concept is among the central doctrines of postmodernism, especially as propounded by Derrida. Others, for example Coenen and also Hans Bertens in The Idea of the Postmodern (Routledge, 1996) argue that prominent postmodernists such as Derrida do not so much relativize truth, as challenge the view that language reflects reality 'like a window on the world'. According to them, Derrida replaces this with the proposition that 'language constitutes the world'. But the point on which all agree is that less metaphysically disciples of postmodernism, such as the feminists about whom Coenen is writing, have interpreted Derrida's rather opaque philosophy in the way that Buruma has noted. In Enlightenment thinking, which had dominated intellectual discourse since the 15th century, Bururna continues, 'truth' is an absolute concept. The conditions for making a positive judgment are that you can provide evidence for its content, that you do not contradict yourself and that you have considered the matter independently. According to Buruma, postmodernists, on the contrary, argue that 'truth' is relative, that is, it is dependent on someone's person and feelings. If, for instance, a girl in hindsight, after an ill-fated sexual encounter, 'feels' it as a rape, then for her that is the 'truth' if she later says she was raped. In his lecture Buruma flays the degree to which everyone, whether consciously or not, cries to compete with the historic victimization of the Jews during the Holocaust In this context he speaks of an 'Olympics of Suffering'. One can think, in this connection, of the ideologizing of the history of the American Indians, or Afro-Americans. Group identity rests mote and mote on a pseudo-religion of victim hood, as real religion is too demanding and difficult. Historical research deals less and less with what really happened, or with explaining how things happened. It is not that historical truth is just irrelevant; the very existence of something like 'historical truth' is simply denied. In its place, people study 'memory', that is, history as it is felt, preferably by the victims. 'By sharing the pain of others, we learn to understand their feelings.' That is as far as we need follow Baruma's thesis, but this final quote, it seems to me, does not differ essentially from the motive of Melissa Müller for writing still another book on Anne Frank, cited earlier.
The Dutch literary figure Rudy Kousbroek, from whose presentation on November i6, 1998, in a recent series of topical lectures at the University of Utrecht, I have extracted Buruma's remarks, goes on to make the surprising -- for me, at least -- connection with the philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger. That Heidegger was a dyed-in-the-wool National Socialist is something that his admirers don't want to admit. But he was really a prominent member of the Nazi party. In 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, Heidegger became Rector of the University of Freiburg, and declared his belief in the success of National Socialism. Because of his support for the Nazi regime, he was dismissed as a professor immediately after the capitulation in 1945.
Now it might, at first sight, seem completely illogical that those who model their victim hood on that of those who were victims of the Nazi regime would be fundamentally basing themselves on the thought of a Nazi. Nonetheless, says Kousbroek, the idea of the relativization of phenomenal truth into something subjective, to a 'sociopolitical construction', is pure Heidegger. It fits perfectly too, I would want to add, into Nazism in its anti-rationality. After all, more than other totalitarian ideologies, Nazism made a point of pronouncing feeling and willpower emphatically superior to rational understanding, and even openly rejected the later. More, too, than other political systems -- except possibly Stalinism and Italian Fascism -- Nazism used pseudo-religious means (symbols, rituals, cleansing and expiation) in order to get the general public into one certain mental attitude, and keep them there. It was a state of mind in which reality could be warped by the use of language into a subjective universe in which Hitler was a savior, and the Jews were the epitome of evil.
Kousbroek cites Barurna, including his verdict on Derrida, with agreement. He then refers to similar remarks from the American mathematician/philosopher Thomas Nagel, from his book The Last Word. Nagel, 'one of the most spiritual and subtle philosophers in America', apparently sees the decline of the classical concept of truth as so disturbing, according to Kousbroek, that he had devoted a whole book to it. What it ultimately comes down to, says Kousbroek, is the 'disingenuousness' on the part of all of those who, generally without being aware of it, are indebted to Heidegger Disingenuousness, because where feelings become the criteria against which everything is judged, all rational debate becomes impossible.
When you try to make cleat that someone demonstrably is maintaining something that is untrue, you get in response the accusation that you are not respecting their feelings. This leads to a form of 'political correctness' which comes down to 'don't disagree with me, because I have suffered so much', or, at a remove, because those with whom I feel solidarity have suffered so much. Anyone who repudiates the idealization of the victims (alleged or not), or exaggerations of the atrociousness of their fate, or even tries to reduce these to more realistic proportions, is accused of insensitivity, of lack of respect or of 'not being open to other truths'.
Kousbroek demonstrated how that works in practice by referring to the reactions some years back to his own statements about life in the Japanese interment camps during World War II. That could not, he wrote at that time, be compared with what went on in German concentration camps. For this, his opponents not only judged him unworthy of an honorary doctorate he had been awarded, but were also of the opinion that he should be denied space in the newspapers. This, despite the statistical fact that those interned in Japanese camps had ten times the chance of surviving as those in the German camps; and also notwithstanding the generally known (in The Netherlands) fact that Kousbroek had himself spent part of his childhood in such a Japanese camp. Kousbroek argues that the concept of truth is being employed as a tool of power, a means of muzzling others, to push through one's own interest or get one's way, to provoke others, or simply 'out of pure bloody-mindedness'. After all, he concluded, nobody can really believe that two mutually contradictory things can both be true, and that the reality surrounding them does not exist independently of themselves.
I am writing this shortly after a conference in Rotterdam, discussed in Koinos 21 by Bob Ferguson, which was completely subject to the silent treatment by the Dutch press and media, aside from a few sneers. That has led me to the conclusion that what happened to Kousbroek has now also happened to the results of scientific research presented there by Robert Bauserman and Philip Tromovitch. What they, and especially their senior associate Bruce Rind, have established, convincingly, with hard statistical evidence, is nothing less that a Copernican revolution in the thinking about sexuality between adults and youth. But that emphatically pats paid [sic] to the ideologically determined assumption of the natural victim hood of young people. Thus the new, realistic image runs into irrational resistance. It is not challenged for its content, but is simply ignored, or its defenders portrayed as suspicions characters. Their predecessors, such as Constantine and Sandfort, might have something to tell about this. Brongersma, driven to his death by his ideological opponents, alas cannot join the conversation any more.
In 1939, as an exile, in flight from Hitler's Germany, Bertolt Brecht wrote the play Life of Galileo. He has a friend of the naive, optimistic scholar say that the great majority of people will believe what they want to believe, and shut their eyes to what doesn't suit them. The established scholars don't want to see the reputations of their predecessors -- or their own -- destroyed by the new insights, and thus reject them. The church is, of course, afraid that the people will begin to doubt everything that they have always been spoon fed and swallowed whole. Thus everyone denounces the man who tells them how things really, demonstrably, work -- precisely what happened to Brecht during the rise of the Nazis - because reality doesn't suit anyone. I suspect there will be many more Galileo's who will be muzzled, while they mumble 'and yet it moves' under their breath, before the average intellectual -- and the people behind them -- will accept that the earth is round, and goes around the sun.