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.

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