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Persecution Complex, Part II – Privileged Are They

This week Morning Feature looks at the persecution complex of the privileged. Yesterday we considered its roots in fundamentalist Christianity. Today we examine the persecution claims of other privileged groups and individuals. Tomorrow we’ll explore how to debunk such claims in talking with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

We’ll focus a lot today on former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who has long seen herself as victim of persecution. But the quotes in the introduction were not spoken by Gov. Palin. They were spoken by her fans, at a book signing for Going Rogue back in November, 2009. The video is worth watching:

“Q: And do you think Sarah will win if she throws her hat into the ring?” “A: Uhh, well he’s naturalizing a lot of the illegal aliens. He’s in the process of doing that. Uhh, they’re saying she’s not going to have the votes when you throw those numbers in.” “Q: There won’t be enough white votes on one side to get a candidate through?” “A: No way.” (At 4:10)

“Q: What are some of those freedoms that you think have been taken away?” “A: Well, I really think the fact that I am a Christian, I think that the government and the mainstream media has been playing a role and […] speech, not only Christian, our freedom for religion here, and the gov … it’s a slippery slope.” (At 7:08)

A “rock star” of privileged persecution.

One of Gov. Palin’s fans in the video calls her “a rock star of the conservative movement.” Perhaps, but she’s also a rock star of privileged persecution. Journalist Matt Taibbi the video to his November, 2009 column at True/Slant where Taibbi suggested Gov. Palin is:

… the country’s first WWE politician – a cartoon combatant who inspires stadiums full of frustrated middle American followers who will cheer for her against whichever villain they trot out[.]

Taibbi satirizes at length on the human folly of complaining about people we think have done us wrong, and Gov. Palin’s predilection for that:

[Going Rogue] is really about her battles with these people, how much they did and do suck, and how difficult and inherently unfair life is for a decent hardworking American gal who just wants to live life, serve God, and try to be president without being bothered all the time.

The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman also wrote about “The Persecution Complex of Sarah Palin,” in December, 2009:

[…] From the moment she was plucked from her windswept obscurity and thrust onto every television screen in the nation, Palin has spent her time needling those she doesn’t much care for – city dwellers, those with an insufficient affection for firearms, liberals in general, and of course, the media. As she continues her whirlwind book tour – feted on Oprah, interviewed on one Fox program after another, given the Barbara Walters soft-focus treatment – Palin makes sure to complain about the media at every stop.

As Jon Stewart noted on The Daily Show this week, Fox News built Gov. Palin a TV studio in her own home. She is a near daily commentator on that network, signed an $11million book deal, had her own reality TV show, and commands top dollar for her speaking appearances, and her contract demands include first-class travel, luxury suites, pre-screened audience questions, and even bendable drinking straws.

Quite an array of privilege. And if anyone criticizes her, it’s persecution.

Spokesmen of paranoia … or dominance.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Richard Hofstadter wrote on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” for Harper’s Magazine in 1964:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.

Why this all-or-nothing, Manichean worldview where every criticism is persecution, every challenge an existential threat? Its cognitive roots lie in Richard Waggoner’s words on religious freedom:

Either Christian values dominate our society and give freedom of religion to Christians but deny it to humanists, or humanistic values dominate our society and give freedom of religion to humanists but deny it to Christians. Either one or the other will prevail and thereby suppress the other. Religious freedoms for both groups cannot co-exist. [Emphasis added.]

This Freedom-As-Dominance frame exists throughout authoritarian conservatism. Last week at The Democratic Strategist, Ed Kilgore wrote on “the growing refusal on the Right to accept the legitimacy of political competition.” That’s not hyperbole:

The price of privilege:

Who do conservatives tout as persecuted victims? Christians. Gov. Palin. Glenn Beck would add BP executives, whom he likened to Christians fed to lions, and bankers, whom he likened to Jews during the Holocaust. All of them privileged and dominant in our society … but not privileged and dominant enough.

As Morning Feature reader DBunn commented yesterday, such statements are the inevitable byproduct of a worldview in which dominance is the primary organizing principal of society:

In a dominance hierarchy, almost everyone is dominated to some degree. Their freedom is restricted, they are made to do things they don’t want to do, and kept from doing things they do want. So in that sense, they really are persecuted, made to suffer unfairly. It’s natural to feel resentment.

There’s a saying, “We don’t know who discovered water, but it probably wasn’t a fish.” Those who swim in an ocean of dominance never wonder at its seeming ubiquity, or consider the possibility of an alternative environment. They can be relied upon, however, to notice the secondary effects of their organizing principle: insecurity, anxiety, envy, guilt, fear, anger, stress, etc.

If your idea of freedom is based on dominance, you can never be “free” enough because you can never dominate everyone and everything. The more privileged you are, the greater your sense of agency: a belief that you should be able to impose your choices on the world around you. And anything that undermines that is … persecution.

We’ll never convince Gov. Palin that she is not persecuted. But maybe we can convince Fred. Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to do that.


Happy Friday!