Home inFocus Agenda: America (Summer 2024) The Victim Hierarchy

The Victim Hierarchy

James Kirchick Summer 2024

As a gay, Jewish man (consider privilege duly checked), I am not unfamiliar with, or unsympathetic to, the idea of highlighting the problems faced by victimized minorities. Earlier this month, for example, I came across a story that made me want to mount the barricades in righteous indignation. Images circulated by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights showed a group of Islamic State thugs in the city of Tal Abyad shoving an elderly, blindfolded man from a plastic chair from the heights of a seven-story building. Nothing special in the land of the Islamic State, except for the “crime” that the man was accused of committing: homosexuality.

Here is an instance when identity politics, put into practice, could be eminently useful. Islamists kill homosexuals for something they cannot change: their sexuality. It’s the same reason they kill Jews, by the way, and the motive is quite clarifying, or it at least should be. Indeed, the recent spate of attacks against Jews qua Jews in Western Europe ought be a wake-up call to that segment of the global left that insists there exists some sort of quasi-moral license for Arabs who kill Israeli civilians because of the existence of settlements. Those who obsess over identity politics—who believe that every political and social question can be reduced to somebody’s skin pigmentation or what’s between their legs—ought to realize that there is no truck with people who kill people precisely because of their immutable traits. When it comes to fighting violent Islamist supremacy—theocratic, sexist, genocidal, homicidally anti-gay—the identity politics brigade should put warmongering neocons to shame.

Yet just at the moment when we need our identity-politics warriors to be most outraged, they are notably silent. Why?

Many progressives would claim that they believe in “intersectionality”: that aspects of an individual cannot be separated out to highlight the oppression associated with that group. And so we cannot understand Muslims killing gays without first understanding the effect of Western colonial power on the peoples of Muslim lands. The embrace of insersectionality by progressives is ironic in that it has undermined one of the left’s greatest (and most fundamental) attributes—universalism—and replaced it with a myopia that obsesses over the minute concerns of ever-narrowingly defined minority groups, rather than those of broader segments of society, like, say, the American working class. Traditional liberals committed to addressing widespread disparities related to class, race, and gender become enemies of the intersectionalists because they fail to pay sufficient obeisance to the grievances of each and every imaginable minority amalgamation.

But while intersectionality goes some way to explaining the penchant for moral equivalence that has overcome much of the online left, even that’s just a cover. The truth is simpler, which is that there exists, in the progressive universe, a victim hierarchy. It used to be quite fashionable to root for the gays, but that was back in the 1980s when they were dying of AIDS, and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were arrayed against them. Today, HIV is a manageable disease, gays can get married, and many of them are white, live in the suburbs, and sometimes even vote Republican. Same with Jews.

The discussion of vital issues today has been reduced to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in which the validity of one’s argument is determined not by the strength of your reasoning but by the relative worth of the immutable qualities you bring to the table, be it skin color, sexual orientation, or genitalia (or, in the case of pre-operative transsexuals, wished-for genitalia). In the game of Race, Gender, Sexuality, black beats white, woman beats man, trans beats cisgender, and gay (or, preferably, “queer”) beats straight.

In the progressive imagination, the perceived plight of Muslims now trumps the sufferings of all other groups.

What makes this current cultural moment so depressing is that both identity politics and the preferred tool of enforcing its precepts—social media—are so easy and widely available to use and are being used in regressive ways by people who claim to be promoting social justice. What they are actually doing—quite deliberately—is making themselves social despots by driving out everyone who lacks the taste or the ability to shout angry slogans and personal accusations through the social media megaphone… (It) puts the burden of proof on the defendant, making it very hard to defend oneself against the eight-word tweet that uses a hot-button word to slime whoever becomes the target of the mob’s ire. It’s Salem, with 21st-century technology. And sooner or later, we will all become witches.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. Adapted with permission.