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Majoring in the Foreign Language of Victimhood
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Majoring in the Foreign Language of Victimhood

To get ahead, too many young people think they must find meaning and identity in some sense of powerlessness.

Hi everybody,

I’m still out in the Pacific Northwest. We had a great Thanksgiving, but I’ll be sticking around out here for a while longer. The Fair Jessica is laboring on a brutal writing deadline, and I decided to stay to keep her—and the canines—company so we can drive home together.

On that note, contrary to a lot of incorrect things people say on the internet, my going to ground wasn’t planned to coincide with my departure from Fox. We never knew when we would get the legal all-clear, and my plan to drive out here had been on the books for a long time. It was just serendipity that I had a good excuse not to take phone calls or interview requests during the craziness last week. More about that another time.

Chasing it.

I’m in a pretty great mood, but I’m not feeling particularly writerly or pundity right now. So I’m going to try to ease into this. I totally understand if you don’t want to stick around and metaphorically feed quarters into my coin-operated muse.

In the 1990s I had a contract to write a book called The 100 Most Influential Conservatives of All Time. It was a really good example of what some people call “productive failure.” And let me anticipate one objection: Just because some of the best examples of productive failure can be found in the ranks of serial killers, that shouldn’t diminish the overall concept.

Anyway, I ended up giving back the (very modest) advance because I just couldn’t get the thing done. Part of the challenge stemmed from the fact(s) that I was a very busy TV producer back then and a single dude with a single dude’s interest in a social life. The other challenge was that I didn’t want it to be a stupid book. The conceit of the book—part of a series—was that it had to be a ranking. So, for instance, Edmund Burke would be No. 2, Aristotle would be No. 3, etc. I was supposed to write a chapter on each person, explaining who they were and why I ranked them the way I did. Worse, the publisher wanted something like half of the entries to be about living people. I spent a lot of time trying to come up with an intellectually defensible formula that would allow me to claim that, say, Irving Krisol was the 17th most influential conservative of all time—not the 18th, not the 16th, but the 17th!—and that, say, Robert Taft was the 16th and, I dunno, Marcus Aurelias was the 15th.

It was a struggle. But I learned a lot in the process. That’s the productive part. I’m glad I tried and I’m grateful for the homework it forced me to do. And while I’m not proud of the failure, I don’t regret it.

When I give talks to interns or college students about career stuff, I often mention this story or my time as a TV producer. Lots of the young people I talk to are extremely privileged. They go to good schools. They can afford to take (often unpaid) internships in the first place. And regardless of their family income, they’re extremely ambitious and accomplished. They wouldn’t have gotten the internships in the first place if they weren’t really good at jumping through the hoops of what we call the “meritocracy.” One of the things I’ve noticed about a lot of these kids—not all, but certainly most—is that they are in an incredible hurry to get where they think they want to be. They’re terrified of wasting time, or falling behind their peers, or not grabbing that clerkship or fellowship or some other rung of the ladder they want to climb.

In one sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you really think you’ve got a singular calling, pursuing it with passion is entirely understandable and in some cases admirable. But in another sense, this is a bad idea. First of all, most people don’t have a singular calling. And even among those who do, they may be wrong about what it is. Mozart knew and he was right (though one wonders what history would be like if he was wrong—what if his real calling was physics or baking?). For most of us, though, finding the right fit for your life is like trying to find the right hat. You’ve gotta try on a few before you say, “Aha, this is the one!” And as often as not, it turns out the hat is right for a while and then you move on to another.

Convincing people that they will find true meaning and fulfilment from success in the right career is unhealthy. Again, for some folks, not all of them happy (read up on Vincent van Gogh, Alfred Hitchcock, Karl Marx, or Kurt Cobain), it’s possible to find your sense of identity in what you do. But finding your “identity” is not synonymous with finding happiness. I think real happiness comes from multiple identities, and I don’t mean people like Sybil. You’re only partly what you do. You’re also the person(s) your friends and family know. You’re what you do when you’re not working, too. I think this is one of the reasons I love dogs so much. The person I am to them has literally nothing to do with the person I am to you, dear reader.

Anyway, I loved being a TV producer until I realized it wasn’t for me. I’m delighted I did it for a while and I’m delighted I stopped doing it, too. I try to explain this stuff to my own daughter. There’s really no such thing as wasted time if you’re doing interesting, fulfilling, and productive things.

As I’m drifting into Hallmark card life advice territory—it’s not the destination, it’s the journey!—let me tighten things up a bit.

I started writing about that failed book project because pretty much whenever I find myself in a writer’s blocky frame of mind, I think about a conversation I had with my dad back then. I was really struggling with time management and anxiety about not doing enough homework to defend my rankings, all while doing my real job and all that other stuff. I vented to my dad about how I bit off more than I could chew and that it was all just too hard. My dad, in his deadpan way that is so hard to explain to people who didn’t know him, said something like, “Jonah, you do realize that when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in a labor camp, he managed to write a whole book. He was lucky when he could find a few scraps of toilet paper to write on. I think you can manage.”

My response: “Yeah, but dad, he didn’t have much else to do with his free time!”

Victimhood as résumé fodder.

One problem with today’s meritocracy is that it encourages young people to find their meaning or identity in a job. But when you think about it, this has been a problem with all modern notions of merit—in capitalist and non-capitalist societies—for a very long time. The new problem with today’s “system” is that it also encourages young people to find meaning and identity in some sense of victimhood. College applications and interviewers want to hear about how you struggled with bigotry or some other injustice.

A lot of this comes from the left. Whether you call it the religion of wokeness or the “successor ideology,” victimhood is a source of cultural power, and being able to talk about it is a form of currency. But I don’t want to let the right off the hook here. A lot of conservatives are drenched in their own versions of victimhood and grievance culture. It tells you something when some right-wingers are so incredibly desperate to claim that they’ve been “silenced” or “censored.” Everyone wants to be the noble rebel fighting the system.

But while both sides suffer from this addiction to victim status, it’s not symmetrical. The practitioners of wokeness have an asymmetric hold on most elite institutions, especially higher education. MIT, for instance, has six associate deans of diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s one such dean for every 755 undergrads (if you include grad students it’s one for every 1,900 students). Is this really essential to the core mission of a technical school?

As I’ve argued many times, I think one of the reasons Asian students are discriminated against in admissions at places like MIT isn’t so much that the schools are bigoted against Asians, but that they’re bigoted against kids that aren’t good at talking the language of victimology. Disproportionately of immigrant backgrounds, Asian students come from families that moved here because they like America and its traditional understanding of merit. They want their kids to become engineers or doctors for old-fashioned bourgeois reasons. And they raise them with these goals in mind.

First they came for the climate scientists.

But I’ve written a lot about that stuff, so let me give you a very specific example.

The other night, while driving back from the store, I happened to hear a podcast called Climate One that is picked up on some public radio stations. I found it fascinating, though not for the reasons the show’s producers had in mind. I tuned into the middle of a conversation with a climate scientist at Stanford. I missed the part where the scientist, Katerina Gonzales, actually talked about the science stuff, and instead landed in the middle of an amazing discussion of intersectionality, “climate trauma,” and the plight of “minoritized individuals.” Here’s an excerpt:

I try to talk about my experiences as a Hispanic woman in STEM, particularly more recently. I think in undergrad I was focused more on gender equity and didn’t have a lens of intersectionality and how all forms of oppression can intersect. And so, recently in graduate school I’ve been tackling that and examining both how I exist in the world and how comfortable or uncomfortable or supported or unsupported I am. But on the individual side also working to undo the harmful narratives I’ve internalized as a relatively light skinned woman of color for example. In the latter part of my Ph.D. I was awarded a fellowship for minoritized individuals who are seeking to pursue a career in academia. And in that they try to build a cohort of folks who are going to the same thing at the latter stages of their doctoral dissertation.  It was a fantastic, fantastic experience for me. And something I noticed when I entered that space with other bodies of color … is the way that we interact, the way that we’re embodied and how we laugh, how we talk, all of these things, right. And so, I’ve been able to find pockets of spaces in the academic environment that are curated and supportive refuges, almost, in an environment that can often be not safe for many folks like me and others of minoritized identities.

Really? Places like Stanford are often unsafe environments for people with “minoritized identities” and “bodies of color”?

First of all, who “minoritized” her “identity”? She clearly chose her identity. Heck, she’s clearly put a lot of work into that project. She’s the one who wants her identity to be “minoritized”; after all, that’s the whole point. No one gets anywhere these days boasting of their majoritized identity. As Gonzales intimates, as a light-skinned woman of color she probably could have passed for white, but where’s the benefit in that?

Rachel Dolezal was responding to very real incentives when she claimed to be black, in the same way Elizabeth Warren saw an advantage in saying she was a Native American. Jussie Smollett may have other issues he needs to deal with, but if the allegations against him are true, one motivation was clearly that he understood what kind of victimhood elite society rewards and privileges these days. 

The most striking thing to me wasn’t what Gonzales said, but how she said it. You know how people who are fairly fluent in a second language still sound a little forced or formal, like they’re still thinking in their native language and translating on the fly? That’s how this woman sounded, at least to my ear (listen for yourself here starting at around the 24:00 mark). She sounded like she needed to speak in the language of the court and was a little desperate not to give offense with a poorly chosen word or phrase. How exhausting must it be to constantly run your woke translator all of the time?

What an unbelievable waste of energy and passion to learn this language just to navigate the world of climate science. I mean, I get that you’d need to learn all of these shibboleths to get a Ph.D. in critical race theory or something. But climate science? Really?

At one point, the host explains that, “Gonzales says her peers are having a vocational crisis, tied to the upheaval of recent years and the budget cuts to climate science [sic], along with increasing occurrence of climate disasters. I asked how she’s preparing to enter the field as a woman of color, knowing that she will likely have to deal with the nasty politics, and possibly personal threats for her work.”

Gonzales returns to the concept of climate trauma and the dangers faced by her and her climate scientist peers, including “both professional or interpersonal violence.” The way to cope with this supposedly violent and hostile environment is with “deep, deep care and love. I’ll use that word, some people prefer ‘solidarity’ which is very similar. And so, yeah, probably I’m going to not have a great time all the time in my career because folks want to, well, because the world is the way it is right now.” 

I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is sincere in her concerns. But while her concerns may be genuine, I have trouble believing her facts are. Maybe living in Palo Alto studying atmospheric rivers feels like a life of struggle against systems of oppression and the omnipresent threat of “professional and interpersonal violence,” but I sincerely doubt it actually is. (FWIW, I’d be happy to compare the hate mail and death threats that come with being a mere pundit. But even if, as I strongly suspect, I’d win on points by a wide margin, I don’t see myself as a victim.)

Even if I’m wrong about all of this, there’s one last point to consider. Just as peddling terms like “Latinx” is a terrible way to reach out to Hispanics and uttering “birthing person” is a counterproductive way to win over average voters, sprinkling a lot of stuff about “bodies of color” into climate change talk is not the best way to convert the unconverted to your cause. I bring this up because the theme of this program was—I defecate you negatory—“effective climate communication.”

Thanks for your time.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.