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Book Review: A Nation of Victims

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A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character
by Charles J. Sykes (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992); 289 pages; $22.95.

One of the reasons that socialism came to have such a great appeal to many in the 19th and 20th centuries was that it offered a powerful rationale for an individual to avoid responsibility for the consequences of his own actions. The capitalist system, said the socialists, was a rigged game. The rich and powerful in society were rich and powerful because they exploited others through private ownership of the means of production. And that class of rich and powerful people used the coercive powers of the state to prevent the underprivileged from improving their economic and social situation. Failure was not the individual’s fault; rather it was caused by the institutions of the economic and political environment.

While socialism has fallen into disrepute politically, the psychology and ideology of socialism remains intact. We are burdened in our society with the idea that the individual is not responsible for his actions because what he is and does is not the result of individual choice and fire will, but instead the cultural environment in which he has been brought up and which made him what he is. This has been reinforced by the idea that an individual’s sense of identity and self-worth is defined for him by the race, class or sex into which he happens to have been born.

Charles Syke’s recent book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, describes and analyzes the new rationales and consequences relating to America’s decline into this “no-fault” and “no-pain” society. Crucial to the cultural decline in America, Sykes argues, has been the revolt against bourgeois values. Another way of saying this, is that there has been for a long time a revolt against the ethics of personal responsibility.

A healthy society of free individuals will have at its foundation the following concepts: first, self-restraint, or the idea that an individual must control his passions and his emotions. The individual should resist immediate temptations and desires and instead think of the morrow, with examples of this being the acquisition of education, the discipline of deferred consumption through savings, and commitment to goal-oriented behavior for an improved future. Second, self-responsibility, or the idea that the individual generally takes the view that “the world doesn’t owe him a living.” He should accept the responsibility for bad decisions and mistakes he makes, just as he wants the rewards from his own successes. Third, respect for others, or the idea that a good and civil society requires that the individual respect the rights of others and participate in the voluntary activities of the free society that serve to maintain and improve the quality and character of the community in which he lives.

Center to the antibourgeois revolution has been the emergence of “the therapeutic culture.” Self-restraint, a deferring of pleasures and satisfactions, a sense of personal responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings of voluntary obligations towards others have all been attacked as demonstrations of severe mental neurosis. The liberated individual is one who is freed from these social and cultural inhibitions that prevent the person from discovering and expressing his “true” self. As Sykes explains, an entire profession and industry have developed devoted to explaining why the individual should free himself from these psychological chains and rationalizing why the professional therapists should be the engineers of the liberated society.

Next in importance has been the emergence c the ideology of victimization. If the individual is neurotic and psychologically repressed, there must be some person or some group that has imposed the repression and created the neurosis. And as one discovers that all the unpleasant things in life an caused by others, it, at the same time, frees the individual from all responsibility for those unpleasant circumstances and to demand that those who have created them bear the cost and accept the burden to rectify them. Even those who have physical or mental disabilities that cannot easily be claimed to be caused by the actions of others now demand to taken cared for and pandered to. Their victimization is the result of the non-disabled making them feel “different” and, therefore, psychologically victimized.

So what to do about the victimization of America? Sykes argues that the state has become the vehicle for the politicization of victimization in the form of taxpayer-financed and increasingly state-enforced “politically correct” thinking, actions, and institutions. And if self-responsibility and individual character are to be revived in America again, it can only come through the actions of individuals. “Aristotle’s answer was simple,” says Sykes. “Men do not become virtuous simply by precept but by ‘nature, habit, rational principle.’ ‘We become just,’ he wrote, ‘by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control.’ . . . Recognizing our own responsibility and the need to stop blaming others is the first step toward dismantling the culture of victimization…. It is time to drop the crutch.” Through the actions of self-improvement, Sykes argues, the next generation may be saved. “Put simply, character is formed by placing examples of virtue in front of young people.” And through this, America over time may be culturally saved.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).