The Advantages of Being Disadvantaged

Published April 3, 2015

National Review Online

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable support.
George Washington

Until almost literally the day before yesterday, it was universally acknowledged that religious faith and expression were bedrock American freedoms — enshrined in the Constitution, protected in law, and honored in custom. But now, because the Left has been victorious in convincing the elites that upholding traditional marriage is low bigotry, religious freedom will have to yield.

Not all religious freedom, though. Just last month the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Elauf v. Abercrombie, which concerned a young Muslim woman who was denied employment because she wore a headscarf. Abercrombie has a policy against headwear. The argument turned, as it should in our republic, on how Abercrombie and others should handle the delicate matter of religious garb. Should the employer ask, and possibly commit ethnic and racial profiling, or should the employee be under an obligation to volunteer that his or her appearance was dictated by religion? Such are the cases we navigate in a nation that respects individual conscience and also seeks to avoid the appearance or reality of religious discrimination.

Conservatives would probably side with Ms. Elauf because they respect religious liberty. Progressives would favor her too, but for a different reason — because Muslims are among the groups that can (at least in the liberal imagination) be defined as victims. Victim status alone determines the equities in every dispute. If a halal caterer declined to service a gay wedding (which they almost certainly would, if asked), progressives would spiral into confusion and doubt. Which victim group is superior?

Victim status is the only prism through which progressives see American life. Their intellectually stunted thinking goes like this: In the beginning there was discrimination against blacks, and we saw that it was bad. And then there was discrimination against women, and we said, “Just as it is wrong to discriminate against blacks, it is wrong to discriminate against women.” And then there was discrimination against Asians, Native Americans, LGBTs, and the “undocumented.” In each case, and God (excuse the expression) knows how many to come, the argument is that the analogy holds.

But it doesn’t. There is no analogy in American history to the treatment of blacks. No other group was the victim of centuries of slavery, abuse, rape, displacement, cheating, denigration, and legalized second-class status. As the New York Times’s Ross Douthat noted, “both Jim Crow and the means we used to destroy it are, well, legally and culturally extraordinary.” That’s exactly right. There is no analogizing the black experience to that of other groups. To extirpate the anti-black virus, we had to give enormous and even dangerous power to the federal government, trample upon people’s rights, regulate voting in all of the southern states, and much more.

The power we gave the state to fight anti-black discrimination should have been seen as a necessary evil to cope with a unique malice. Instead, for progressives, it was like sharks getting a scent of blood. With victimhood comes power!

And so they argued, ludicrously, that women were just like American blacks, persecuted for centuries by “sexism,” and needing affirmative action, unlimited abortion, set-asides, lawsuits, and a school curriculum designed to remake the male sex in a new image to repair the damage.

Sex roles changed due to technology (the Pill and labor-saving devices) and increasing wealth (which permitted smaller families). We can cheer or lament these changes, but in no reasonable universe is it possible to compare relations between men and women with the black experience — a victim class and a victimizer, discrimination and contempt on one side and suffering and humiliation on the other.

And so it went with every new victim group, though none of them were comparable to blacks. The Left decides who is a sympathetic victim (transgenders yes, Ayaan Hirsi Ali no), and in every case the opposition must be not just defeated but also crushed, silenced, and exorcized.

On university campuses, “victims” are using their status, i.e., their power, to silence the expression of differing views. Dozens of religious groups are losing their university accreditation because they choose leaders based on belief. A Marquette professor was suspended and may have his tenure revoked for criticizing a same-sex-marriage advocate’s quashing of dissent. An Oxford debate on abortion was shut down because feminists complained that two humans “without uteruses” were discussing it. Besides, they said, hearing opposing views would threaten the “mental safety” of the ladies.

The racism analogy is a loose cannon crashing around the deck of America and threatening the mainmast.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2015

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