In the wake of the recent unsatisfying federal election, it’s clearly an opportune time to ask why our national politics are so fractured: increasingly unable, it would seem, to find broad agreement on what Canada’s priorities ought to be, to identify what actions or projects would serve the national interest or even to express agreement that Canada is and has always been a worthwhile country. Maybe the problem is an antiquated electoral system. Maybe social media are “disrupting” public discussion and debate. Or maybe there’s also something more fundamental at work, and has been over a much longer period of time.
A fascinating new book from Canadian author and public policy analyst Mark Milke – The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations – looks at how grievances and a sense of victimhood, real and manufactured, influence the way we see the world. It’s particularly relevant in the current Canadian context, with a re-elected prime minister who appears to believe that we live in a society riddled with systemic injustice and oppression and burdened with a comprehensively shameful history that must be atoned for at every opportunity.
Calgarian Milke is best-known for his trenchant analyses of government fiscal policy and the seemingly infinite creativity of governments in mismanaging our tax dollars. His last book – Ralph vs. Rachel: A tale of two Alberta premiers – used statistics to demolish the “progressive” view of the Ralph Klein years in Alberta as a time of unremitting hardship for ordinary people under a mean-spirited, out-of-touch government (that nonetheless won four consecutive majorities).
As you would expect from Milke, the arguments in his new book are generously supported by statistics. But this time the subject encompasses a broad sweep of history, philosophy and even religious tradition – from Cain and Abel to Voltaire, the Rwandan genocide and Donald Trump – in an effort to show how the timeless themes of grievance and self-perceived victimhood damage people and societies. But whereas in the past these themes were often presented as cautionary tales, were typically frowned upon and were generally seen as ruinous when indulged, the post-modern left has elevated them to positive virtues, driving modern identity politics.
It’s a lot to chew on and Milke could easily have drowned in his own ambition, but as a writer he’s no slouch and manages to stick to the point and make his arguments convincingly in around 300 pages. He does it by focusing on familiar stories, some historical and some current, some you would expect to find here – university activism and the grievances of aboriginal Canadians – and some that look at familiar narratives in a different way.
Among the more recent examples, Milke examines the obsession of student activists with all manner of alleged “micro-aggressions” and “systemic” prejudices. At a time when actual discrimination in education is at an all-time low, the bar for such victimization must necessarily be set very low indeed, or the emphasis shifted to historical discrimination that is claimed to pose “an almost eternal barrier” to success at school and in life. In which case, asks Milke, how is it that those of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian ancestry, who were discriminated against over a broad span of time, are outperforming just about everyone else at university? They are doing so, indeed, to the point where some institutions (Harvard among them) limit entry by students of Asian ancestry.
Milke doesn’t claim there were no historic wrongs, nor that prejudice has been erased, but he argues that they are problems we have been largely successful at purging from our institutions and making unacceptable in society generally. It seems odd – “pernicious” might be a better word – that after much of the heavy lifting was done by previous generations we now congratulate ourselves on how much more enlightened we’ve become and offer abject apologies on behalf of our benighted ancestors. As genuine sufferers received their apologies one-by-one, the government was forced to hunt for ever-more dubious candidates – in some cases, simply inventing events to apologize for. The Trudeau government has embraced this view of open-ended victimhood as government policy – the prime minister’s repeated past antics in blackface notwithstanding.
The same obsession with righting perceived injustice is also paramount in the current Trudeau initiative which would give First Nations collective control over aboriginal children in need of care. Enabling those kids to live with or near blood relatives and to retain connections to their language and culture are clearly laudable goals. As Milke points out, however, prioritizing the collective rights of the band or tribe over the individual rights and needs of the child has already had tragic consequences in both the U.S. and Canada. He cites the case of Baby Veronica in South Carolina, whose 1.2 per cent Cherokee heritage resulted in a multi-year court battle and separation from her non-native adoptive parents. Closer to home he notes the bureaucratic nightmare that resulted in the 2014 death of a four-year-old Alberta toddler named Serenity.
The countless failures and shortcomings of Canadian policy regarding First Nations are not Milke’s focus, but he rightly suggests that embracing victimhood is an unlikely way to escape the awful trap that successive Canadian governments – sometimes with the best of intentions, and often with the collusion of reserve governments – have constructed for aboriginal people. The Victim Cult begins with a foreword from B.C. MLA and former Haisla Nation chief councillor Ellis Ross, making just that point: “In reading this book, I saw what I had learned put into print for the first time: The false narratives or ideologies that convince people that they are doomed to fail and that someone else or something else is to blame. There is plenty of blame to go around, but I prefer finding solutions.”
Those false narratives and ideologies are not new. They have a long history, and Milke spends some time looking at how they have developed through the millennia and the role the victimhood cult played in some of the worst tragedies of the 20th century: Nazi Germany, Palestine, and Rwanda.
The notion that public support for the Nazis flowed directly from grievances felt in Germany as a result of unjust post-First World War reparations imposed by the victors will be familiar to many readers. Iconic economist John Maynard Keynes was one early supporter of this view, and it remains widespread today. The reality, as Milke details, is that the Nazi movement was an easily conceivable result of a German victim culture two centuries in the making. It was supported by generations of German philosophers, artists, composers, politicians, academics and students, with generous assists from Voltaire and other notables.
Contrary to Keynes’ view, the numbers suggest post-First World War reparations were not unjust or unbearable. But the entrenched belief among many Germans that they were routinely victimized by their Jewish fellow citizens, their European neighbours, and a liberal world order found an outlet in National Socialism and a voice in Adolf Hitler. The result was a Second World War and many millions more actual victims – a huge number of Germans among them.
Milke makes a similar case for the ongoing Palestinian tragedy: that the victimhood narrative embraced by the Palestinian leadership, most members of the UN, “progressive” opinion and many in the news media has become the cause of most current Palestinian suffering and the chief impediment to peace. He describes the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s enchantment with his worldwide celebrity status as spokesman for Palestinian victimhood growing to the point where Arafat turned down any and all offers of a settlement with Israel.
Most famously, as Milke writes, in 2000 U.S. President Bill Clinton brokered a deal that would have given the Palestinians “97 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, its capital in East Jerusalem, and control of the Temple Mount and of the Christian and Muslim quarters in the old city.” In effect Arafat was being offered the Palestinian state his people had long sought, backed by massive international aid to support it. As Clinton later recounted, the deal was widely supported by Arab leaders, by “most of the young people on Arafat’s team,” and by a majority of the international community.
Yet Arafat turned down the deal, later explaining that, “Peaceful settlement can have only one meaning – surrender.” Almost two decades later there has been no “surrender” and the chances for a peaceful settlement with Israel are more remote than ever. Palestinian victimhood, however, has undergone a significant revival in recent years, as has open anti-Semitism, becoming a popular “cause” on university campuses and among self-proclaimed progressives throughout the Western democracies.
Which brings Milke to Donald Trump. Thankfully he doesn’t spend much time on the U.S. President’s self-declared victim status – everybody’s out to get him. But it is worth making the point that Trump understood the phenomenon and its hold on many working Americans, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. They viewed themselves as marginalized and forgotten, the American Dream out of reach. As a billionaire developer and former reality TV star, Trump was hardly a member of that group but, as Milke rightly says, he understood the victim Zeitgeist and rode it all the way to the White House.
There’s a lot more to this complex but readable book. Milke’s background in political philosophy and real-world public policy allows him to weave together elements from the key disciplines to explain what we have come to think of as a singularly modern phenomenon – the victim cult – but which has deep roots in human development and has time and again proven toxic to societies ancient and modern.
That seems a particularly timely reminder in the wake of the recent divisive election following four years of relentless identity politics under Justin Trudeau’s leadership – with four more years in the offing. This is a huge and diverse country and there are votes to be had in mining the grievances and historic hurts that divide us.
But, as Milke points out, there’s a price to be paid when we focus on what divides us rather than what unites us, and our current political disunity may be only the first installment. As an alternative, Milke recommends “a statute of limitations against the past.” Not a denial of past wrongs or a refusal to reconcile our historical differences, but a sense of perspective: a recognition that our history delivered more successes than failures, and that our institutions and traditions provide the best foundation for success in the future. Milke’s proposition should naturally recommend itself to conservatives.
Paul Stanway is a veteran Canadian journalist who lives in Calgary.