The Value of Victimhood

Kay Le Clair is a con artist. Le Clair is also an artist.

The Madisonian, who grew up in Sussex, claimed to be Native American and lived off that identity for years. Le Clair got an appointment at the UW and an exhibit at the Overture Center. Le Clair also was acknowledged as an expert, an intellectual and a spokesperson on Native American issues. It’s not clear how much money Le Clair may have made off the scam, but Le Clair certainly reaped a whole lot of status and attention.

As you’ve guessed by now, the trouble is that it turns out Le Clair isn’t Native American at all. That came to light recently and the controversy was covered in a lengthy article in the Wisconsin State Journal. There is a lot of hurt feelings and embarrassment and outrage directed at Le Clair, and rightfully so.

But Le Clair’s not alone. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also claimed Native American heritage, which turned out to be false as well. This all begs the question: why would somebody claim to be something they’re not? Especially something as intimate and personal as one’s own identity?

Kay Le Claire

The answer is that in America today victimhood has currency. On the left there is no status so exalted as that of victim of oppression from colonization, the patriarchy, racism, ableism, etc. On the right Donald Trump exploits the sense of oppression felt by conservative white Christians who think it’s only their country. There’s so much juice that comes with being a victim that there’s a strong incentive to invent victimhood cred.

But while the celebration of victimhood happens on both left and right, I will say that the hard-left has taken it to the next level. A favorite phrase in that world is, “looks like me.” You hear it in all kinds of settings, but the basic idea is that politicians, jurists, actors, CEO’s, any person in a high profile or powerful position should literally look like people in the victimhood group. (But there are limits. For instance, a conservative Black woman does not look like a Black woman.) That always struck me as a pretty low bar and anyway, does it mean that I should only vote for balding, middle-aged white guys? Should I have voted for Ron Johnson instead of Mandela Barnes? After all, Johnson looks more like me. Is it irrelevant that he doesn’t think like me?

Le Clair certainly went out of the way to meet the “looks like me” standard. Le Claire dressed in over-the-top Native American clothing and even used sprayed-on skin darkening. Le Clair looked like a Native American, but wasn’t.

And there is a related problem. It is an article of faith on the left that members of historically victimized groups should be compensated whether or not they experienced any discrimination as individuals. That is fraught with problems, one of which was made obvious by the Le Clair episode. How do we determine who is eligible for compensation as a member of one of the designated groups? There will certainly be more scam artists like Le Clair but there will also be people like Sen. Warren who probably really believed she had Native American blood based on family stories, but not backed up by DNA.

All of which leads to my basic point: it’s time to get back to judging people based on the content of their character and not the sprayed on coloring of their skin. It’s a mistake to see people as members of groups and to divide the world so neatly into the privileged and the oppressed. Nothing’s that simple. We should view people as individuals with their own talents and failings and personal histories. And we should encourage forgiveness and perseverance instead of scapegoating and excuse making. The culture of victimhood encourages the worst human traits.

Le Clair needs to take personal responsibility for this and it appears that is being done. But the culture of victimhood that made all this an attractive option is the root of the problem. And maybe Le Clair became a victim of that.

Editorial note: Le Clair prefers they/them pronouns. I don’t use those here at YSDA when referring to one person because that is grammatically incorrect. My view is that I make enough inadvertent grammatical errors without going out of my way to make them intentionally. But to honor the request of Le Clair and others to not use gender specific pronouns to identify them I simply avoid using pronouns to reference them. That can make for some slightly clunky sentences but not nearly as awkward as the incorrect use of they/them.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

21 thoughts on “The Value of Victimhood

  1. Agree with the Warren assessment. She took at face value what her parents told her and later it was just too damn convenient. Le Clair seems to be a mental illness situation, IMHO.

    BTW my pronoun is jesusdiedformysins. Clunk away.

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  2. The other thing is why can’t she/they/it be a Native American?

    We have women that are men, men that are women, men and women that are wolves, men and women that are (fill in the blank). Seems odd that people wouldn’t accept someone who identifies with a heritage other than the one they were born into.

    As far as we know she/they/it are a reincarnated Native American.

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    1. Yes, race is an artificial concept. I urge those that believe themselves to be White to abandon that belief. I don’t say this in jest. Literally stop being White, stop thinking of yourself as White. It has to start with Whites because this whole racial situation was created by Whites. Give up on Whiteness, this belief will not lead you anywhere good. When the historical actions of Whites are criticized you don’t have to identify with those people and defend them.

      But what are you then… Do you have to be anything but yourself?

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  3. We can and should divide the world into oppressed and oppression, but it’s always a blend of both and is not perfectly correlated with race or ethnicity. Most things we do involve acts of oppression of others, and most of us are also ourselves being oppressed by someone. It is incredibly fruitful and clarifying to view the world through this lens. All of world history is defined by the tensions of those being oppressed against those doing the oppression.

    The search for freedom is the effort to escape oppression. Those that see themselves as victims are victims. It’s lazy though that they so often will not reflect on how they themselves also victimize. Their oppression is tied up in all of ours, and if they will not reflect on how they oppress others they will never be freed of their own oppression.

    Media will always highlight people that don’t articulate the nuance of the concept in order to discredit the viewpoint. I encourage a reading of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed if anyone is interested in a thoughtful analysis of human oppression. While it’s a popular book to name-drop in the intellectual left, few really READ it and seek to understand what is being communicated. There’s a phrase “dancing along the words” for people who “read” books but don’t take in the actual communication of the words. This was quite popular among the intellectual left during Black Lives Matter; many books were purchased, many pages were turned, fewer were truly read.

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    1. I couldn’t disagree more, Rollie. But thanks for your perspective. It always adds to the discussion. My fundamental disagreement here is that the way we choose to look at the world is just that — a choice. Oppression exists, but I think it’s a mistake to focus on it as the animating force behind everything. The truth is that there is probably less oppression right now than at any time in human history and the trend is in the right direction. By focussing so much on oppression we encourage people to think of themselves as helpless victims instead of powerful actors in their own lives.

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      1. “My fundamental disagreement here is that the way we choose to look at the world is just that — a choice.”

        Yes, it is a choice. You choose another way.

        “Oppression exists, but I think it’s a mistake to focus on it as the animating force behind everything.”

        It depends on one’s goal. If freedom for all is the goal, it’s not a mistake to think of oppression as the animating force.

        “The truth is that there is probably less oppression right now than at any time in human history and the trend is in the right direction.”

        That there is less oppression now is proof that thinking of the world in this view is effective. All the gains were made literally because people identified sources of oppression and fought against them.

        “By focussing so much on oppression we encourage people to think of themselves as helpless victims instead of powerful actors in their own lives.”

        The opposite is true. Identifying the source of oppression is liberating. It is a call to action. It is the animator of all who seek freedom. It calls people to be powerful actors. Believing to be not oppressed leads to no action at all. The only reason to seek to quiet those that identify oppression is to benefit from the oppression.

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  4. Speaking of identities…who the hell is “One Eye”? (Or any of the other alias contributors to the “Leave A Reply” section?) He/she/they/it all have some pretty strong opinions on stuff (some good, some not so). How’s about using your real name so we can take those opinions/comments a little more seriously?

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      1. Your blog so of course it is up to you. But I don’t see what difference it makes if commentators are making logical arguments (vs. “Well I heard so and so public figure say this in private”).

        It’s interesting that others are more interested in who I am vs responding to my argument that a white person should absolutely be able to identify as a Native American. I disagree with Rollie most of the time but never once thought it would make any difference if I knew their true identity. I definitely wouldn’t want to know at the expense of him self-sensoring here.

        Lastly I’ll point out THE Ohio State University is grammatically correct so I hope you get a chance to use it in your column someday.

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      2. Not sure if this will get to you One Eye, and yes I’m with you in not begrudging Dave for doing whatever moderation he wishes on his blog, but…

        I appreciate your perspective and that you are willing to engage on the merits of logic and fact, I don’t care if you’re a janitor or a senator. I bet we’d really like each other if we worked together.

        One reason I keep my identity obscured is because I don’t want to be targeted by fascists, and I imagine others don’t want to be targeted by the woke mob. People with moderate views, especially those in retirement whom don’t need to do business with a diverse audience to make money, are obviously much more insulated from that risk.

        I appreciate all the conversation in this comment section. One Eye, even though you and I disagree philosophically I’m proud to be an American with you. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me because I want them to allow me to think my own way as well. I want all of us to disagree, debate, and yet still be in solidarity with each other and work shoulder to shoulder with each other. With love to all.

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      3. Note to readers. This week we established a new rule here at YSDA requiring that commentators list their real full names. Rollie and One Eye have been valuable contributors to the discussion and I hope they will continue without the aliases. As Rollie notes, some comments can subject the writer to criticism from right or left. I take that criticism from both sides under my own name. I think others should as well. Dave

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  5. Again, I agree with everything that you wrote in this blog. Kay LeClaire is an embarrassment. She’ll never work in Academia again, I assume.
    The pronoun thing drives me nuts when I read an article about one person who uses a plural pronoun. It’s both confusing and inaccurate to this son of an English teacher.
    Speaking of victimhood, I am interested to know where you stand on Poland’s demands for war reparations from Germany, who refuses to discuss it. The German army destroyed Poland, killed, maimed and raped its citizens and set it back decades. Have they already paid their debts or do they still owe and if so, where does that end?

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    1. Thanks, Matthew. I wasn’t aware of Poland’s demands against Germany. It seems to me they could make the same demands against Russia. On the other hand, I believe Poland won a war against Sweden and I don’t hear the Swedes demanding compensation. Crippling reparations against Germany after WWI led to the rise of Hitler and another world war. On yet another hand (how many hands you got?), when there is a negotiated settlement (as I assume there will be) in Ukraine I hope Putin and Russia pay reparations. All of which is to say I think it’s complicated. I suppose I’d be for two general rules: 1. The compensation should be just and lead to long-term peace, not be a cause for further hard feelings; 2. The compensation should happen in the same generation as the offense. That’s one of my problems with reparations for slavery.

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