Every day I read another depressing news article about how the lame duck Democrats are going to cut off unemployment checks for millions of people right before the holidays and keep Dubya’s tax cuts for the super-rich intact. And sometimes I start to think, OK, maybe this does mean that we should drop our organizing for justice against mass imprisonment and AIDS, and all get together to fight back against this corporate class warfare, something almost everyone in the country could get behind if we all stood together.
But then I think, Wait a minute. How did we get in this situation? How did so many Americans get so screwed up in their thinking that we could allow the government to start dismantling social security and endlessly wage two wars (or three, if you count Pakistan) funded by devastating cuts to our libraries, hospitals, schools, everything that’s left of the New Deal? For us to roll over and take this, we had to be persuaded to blame ourselves for everything bad that happens to us. They started with blaming drug users and people with criminal records, and they really started winning when they blamed “welfare mothers.” Now they can blame the young people for all the violence in our communities, and if the parents don’t want to accept that, the parents can blame themselves and each other. If we can’t find a job, it’s our own fault. Failure and shame.
Blaming the Victim
My dear friend and study group comrade Dana Barnett turned me on to an amazing book called Blaming the Victim by William Ryan. He wrote it in 1970, but I think it’s even more infuriatingly accurate for our own times. Here’s a bit from page 5: “The miserable health care of the poor is explained away on the grounds that the victim has poor motivation and lacks health information…. The ‘multiproblem’ poor, it is claimed, suffer the psychological effects of impoverishment, the ‘culture of poverty,’ and the deviant value system of the lower classes; consequently, though unwittingly, they cause their own troubles. From such a viewpoint, the obvious fact that poverty is primarily an absence of money is easily overlooked or set aside.”
The rich, the Right, and the liberals started off by blaming the people who can most easily be marginalized, and then they came for the rest of us. This means our best hope to take apart this incredibly successful victim-blaming ideology is to learn from the movements built by the most stigmatized, the people most abandoned and hated and feared by the majority.
Re-Building Ourselves, Building Our Movements
People with AIDS deal with stigma most of us can’t imagine, the kind where your family refuses to share plates or toilet seats, where telling others your health status in prison can get you killed. How do HIV positive people get past the self-blame, too, the sense that you failed because you didn’t insist on a condom, you shared needles, or you were raped? The only way to do this is by building a movement and community based on supporting and believing in each other, encouraging each other to take on new challenges and skills and make changes we never thought possible. In the AIDS movement, a person living under a cardboard box can make a speech in front of City Hall at a rally. In the AIDS community’s support groups, domestic abusers and survivors can find themselves hugging in celebration of their newfound power to overcome and become someone new.
Any strategy to build popular refusal to pay for the corporate elite’s economic crisis has to be rooted in taking apart the ideology of blaming the victim. People cannot believe in themselves and become leaders if they are blaming themselves for their own oppression. And we can’t let ourselves take the short-cut and accept the myth of the “deserving poor,” the people who used to be middle-class and have had the rug pulled out from under them. We have to fight this thing on all fronts – for our rights to housing, education, health care, the return of our loved ones from prison, meaningful jobs, everything – but wherever we do, we have to consciously attack the ideology of blaming the victim, and not let anyone get marginalized out of the movements we are building. Those are the folks we can learn from the most.