Herman Cain and the conservative victimology

Herman Cain’s claim that he’s the real victim reflects a wide-ranging conservative belief with profound consequences.

The voting law change that would come into effect in 2012 would make it harder for as many as five million voters to cast their  ballots [EPA]

San Pedro, CA – As Herman Cain’s candidacy has begun to falter – like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry before him – at least there’s an important lesson to be learned from the counter-attacks on those accusing him of sexual harassment. These come, not just from Cain itself – “the Democrat machine in America has brought forth a troubled woman to make false accusations” – but also, more extremely, from supporters in the conservative movement who have attacked victims of sexual harassment more generally, and even the very concept of harassment itself.

“I’m the victim here,” has been Cain’s rallying cry, invoking the memory of Clarence Thomas, who claimed to be the victim of a high-tech lynching. But outside of conservative circles, history has not been kind to that line of argument. Not only do most now believe that Thomas did harass Anita Hill, the over-the-top “high-tech lynching” charge never did make any sense. A lynching is a way of circumventing the legal process, ignoring the evidence, rushing to judgment and destroying a human life. But in Thomas’s case, the only threat he faced was that of not being confirmed, still leaving him on the second-highest court in the land.

What’s more, it was Thomas himself, with his dramatic, but unfounded accusation, who was seeking circumvent the standard legal process, suppress evidence and rush to judgment – one that would favour him, rather than his accusers. Yes, there were other accusers in addition to Anita Hill. And Thomas had help in suppressing their testimony, most notably from Vice-President Biden, then head of the Judiciary Committee, who was all in a hurry to wrap things up quickly. Nor were we allowed to hear about the extent of Thomas’ obsession with pornography, a pattern of behaviour that made Hill’s accusations far more credible. Nor, for that matter, did we know for certain that Thomas had already lied under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he claimed to have never really thought about Roe vs. Wade. (A sympathetic conservative biographer conclusively judged that he had a decade ago.)

So Thomas’ claim of victimhood was bogus, however dramatic it may have been. And so is Herman Cain’s. For one thing, Democrats would just love to run against him – he polls as a much weaker candidate than Romney. He himself admitted he had no proof for his accusation, the motive was completely backward and he had also blamed his Republican rivals – particularly, Governor Perry. If anyone’s story was suspicious, it was Cain’s story of being victimised by the Democrats. Moreover, Cain’s own actions helped create the very situation he railed against.

Initially, there were only two anonymous accusers and Cain made much of the fact that they were anonymous, even as his own story shifted from day to day. But those accusers were anonymous in part by Cain’s own doing. He refused to ask that their confidentially agreements be waived, even as he attacked them from his high-profile position, giving them a taste of why they might not want to come forward. Cain had 10 days to respond to the allegations before Politico went public with them, and he had apparently decided that blaming the victims – and the media – was the strongest defence he had. Certainly, stronger than answering questions directly. Evasiveness is not the way to build credibility and trust.

But Cain is a beacon of non-defensive honesty compared to some who support him. He certainly doesn’t deny that sexual harassment exists. But many conservatives do, as Media Matters pointed out within days of the initial accusations. Exhibit A was John Derbyshire, who wrote in the National Review: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination‘? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.” For talk show host Laura Ingraham, it’s all about greed: “We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends. It always ends up being an employee who can’t perform or who under-performs and is looking for a little green.”

But conservatives also see it as a political tool, Media Matters pointed out. Rush Limbaugh was a prime example of this: “You know what sexual harassment is? You know what it really is? It’s a political tool. It is a political tool invented by the left. And – for the express pur – just like political correctness is a political tool of the left to shut people down, sexual harassment is a political tool of the left to get rid of people or to score money gains, whatever is most desired.”

By the time Sharon Bialek stepped forward, a week after the initial accusations were revealed, conservatives were well-primed to attack her, and that’s exactly what they did, just as Alan Simpson had attacked Anita Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”. Yet, the same day Bialek stepped forward, the American Association of University Women released “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School”, a detailed survey report covering grades 7-12.

The survey found that sexual harassment in one form or another was extremely widespread, poorly handled and seldom reported to authorities. Nearly half of all students (48 per cent) reporting being harassed in the previous year and only 12 per cent felt their schools were doing a good job addressing sexual harassment. Only 9 per cent of those harassed reporting the incident to an adult at school – a dramatic level of under-reporting, the exact opposite of what conservatives allege. “We hope that it will be a wake-up call,” report co-author Holly Kearl told me. Indeed, the attitudes that Cain’s conservative defenders expressed – disbelief, minimisation, blaming the victim – are all part of the problem that the report uncovered.

“Nearly half of student harassers thought it was just part of student life or really no big deal, Kearl said. This includes a substantial number who said they were just joking or being stupid. Most of the student harassers have been harassed themselves, so that really suggests there’s a culture of acceptance around harassment at the schools. And so that’s clearly showing that there’s a problem.

The parallel with the attitudes of Cain’s supporters is striking. It was interesting that the study came out the same week as the allegations [against Herman Cain] being headline news, said Kearl. It really speaks to this culture of sexual harassment happening and where it’s fairly acceptable and sort of treated as joke or something people need to get a thicker skin about. It’s problematic when that’s the attitude at the school level and the workplace level.

It’s deeply troubling to think that many conservatives are so committed to their belief systems that might even ignore this study, and the potential threat to their own children that it reveals. But this is only one example out of many. Conservatives have a powerful tendency to see themselves as victims, which manifests itself on many different fronts.

Conservative victimology ratio

How powerful is this tendency? In two different areas earlier this year, I was actually able to quantify it, and come up with what I call the conservative victimology ratio. Basically, if you harass someone and then turn about and blame them instead, that’s a one-to-one victimology ratio. If you harass 10 people, and blame them all individually, that’s a 10-to-one victimology ratio. Likewise, if you actually have been victimised once, but say that it’s happened 20 times, that’s a 20-to-one victimology ratio. What I discovered almost by accident was a victimology ratio greater than 20,000-to-one.

It began with reporting on the role of leading Christian conservatives in America in encouraging and promoting the passage of a Ugandan law establishing the death penalty for homosexuals. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spearheaded reporting on it in America’s cable news universe, and it was only after she did so repeatedly that some of them repudiated their support. One of those figures was Rick Warren, whom President Obama had selected to pray at his inauguration. At first, Warren told Newsweek, “It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.” But eventually, he changed his mind and spoke out against the law. In an emailed press release, Warren denied having anything to do with the law and denied having much influence in Uganda as well, but he said he’d do what he could.

What left me thunderstruck, however, was this short passage: There are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world that kill people. (For instance, last year, 146,000 Christians around the world were killed because of their faith.)  First, I was shocked that Warren would try to minimise the appalling nature of the kill the gays bill in any way. After all, he was supposed to be taking a stand of moral opposition. Belatedly, to be sure. Under pressure? Yes. But a moral stand, nonetheless. One does not take a more stand and in the process, minimise the evil by portraying it as commonplace.

Second, I was shocked by the claim of thousands of evil laws around the world that kill people. While millions die each year, the number killed, even in wars, is a tiny fraction of that. The number of people executed under law is in turn a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction. Outside of China, which does not report exact statistics, less than a thousand people are executed every year. Third, I was shocked that Warren associated martyrdom generally with state execution. Fourth, I was utterly astonished at the figure cited for martyrdom: 146,000 Christian martyrs per year. If that were the case, the world would be awash in constant stories about them. But it is not. According to two studies cited in Wikipedia, the number of intentional homicides worldwide is under 500,000. If nearly one in three was a case of Christian martyrdom, believe me as a newspaperman, you’d know about it.

So where did this number come from, I wondered. I contacted Warren’s public relations representative, and I investigated online as well. Both avenues lead to the same place: The International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Another source claiming extremely high rates of Christian martyrdom is the World Christian Encyclopaedia, which claims there have been more than 45m Christian martyrs in the 20th century. But when I tried to find specific lists of martyrs, I came up almost empty. One place that does describe specific martyrs is Open Doors. It’s website has been redesigned since, but at the time its Christian Martyrs page announced Hundreds of Christians Martyrs around the globe are dying for their faith. Not “hundreds of thousands a year”, but “hundreds” without any given time-frame.

But even that seems like a wild exaggeration. If it were true, couldn’t Open Doors easily find five examples from the previous year? Instead, the page linked to five cases, only three of which happened the previous year, while one happened in 2007 and another in 2005. I just revisited the page. There are just four martyrs listed now. Three from 2009, one from 2005. Martyrdom is very serious matter. Wildly exaggerated claims mock that seriousness. These wild exaggerations troubled me and I went looking for insight about them. One helpful article appeared in 2008 in Christian Century, by Jason Byassee, “How martyrs are made: stories of the faithful”. He specifically talked about the World Christian Encyclopaedia:

[T]he Encyclopaedia treats every victim of Stalin as a Christian martyr and says there were one million “Jewish Christian” martyrs in the Holocaust. It also gives some problematic data in listing causes of death: between 1,000 and 10,000 martyrs may have been “quartered”, we are told; a similar number were “eaten by piranhas” and as many again “eaten alive”. Between 10,000 and 100,000 (notice the broad range) have been “frightened to death,” from one to two million “liquidated” and four to 10 million “lowered into sewage”. Even more non-specific: between 500,000 and one million were “wiped out”.

To say there’s a “credibility problem” here would be a vast understatement. And yet, this is clearly something that many conservative evangelicals believe. Even if Open Doors could find five martyrs per year, where would that leave us? Five actual martyrs compared to 146,000 imaginary ones gives us a conservative victimology ratio of 28,600 to one. That represents an extremely severe disconnection from reality. But how representative is it?

‘Voter fraud’ vs. voter suppression

Fortunately – or unfortunately – there was another field in which to gather data that I was already quite familiar with: the right-wing myth of massive voter fraud. Throughout the Bush years there had been an intense obsession over voter fraud. In fact, there was major scandal involving the firing of six? United States attorney for political reasons, most of which turned out to involve their refusal to pursue dubious voter fraud cases that Karl Rove wanted brought in order to influence elections.

For all the efforts made, however, they could only find about as many voter fraud cases as Open Doors could find martyrs. A Bush-era paper by Barnard polisci professor Lorraine C. Minnite, “The Politics of Voter Fraud”, reported, Voter fraud is extremely rare. At the federal level, records show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005, an average of eight people a year.

And yet, the myth of massive voter persists as an article of faith on the right. For example, a September 3, 2010 story in the Orange County Register, reported that former House GOP leader Dick Armey accused Democrats of widespread voter fraud, accounting for 3 per cent of elections, roughly 3.8m voters in the 2008 election.

“I’m tired of people being Republican all their lives and then changing parties when they die,” quipped Armey, 70. While many dead people do remain on voter rolls, the Bush Administration never found a single case in eight years of someone impersonating them to vote. You can’t have a ratio with zero cases, but even supposing there were one in eight years that would give us a conservative victimology ratio of 30.4m to one.

There are other ways to estimate this ratio for voter fraud claims. One can, for example, compare the actual number of voter fraud cases to the number of voters suppressed in the name of keeping the voter rolls pure. Voter suppression can be defined in a number of ways, conscious, unconscious, intentional, unintentional, etc. But in the end what really matters is how many people don’t vote compared to how many would vote, if everyone participated equally. With this most expansive conception in mind, we can look at America’s current voting levels and compare them to past levels or we can look comparatively at states with higher and lower levels. At its best, American states approach the high voting levels of other advanced nations, so this provides a credible measure of what an unsuppressed level of participation might be. This is a debated conception, to be sure, but it does provide a useful benchmark.

For historical declines in voting participation in presidential elections, taking 1896 as the base, the decline in voting percentage in 2008 amounts to roughly 38m voters. Comparing this to eight fraud cases per election, we come up with a ratio of 4.75m to one.

For contemporary cross-state ratios of voter participation rates, I used several different benchmarks for comparison. The highest one was Minnesota’s participation rate, which was very close to the national rate in 1896. The lowest one was the national average participation rate. A third one used the average state between these two measures. These three benchmarks produced conservative victimology ratios of 4.42m to one; 1.93m to one; and 633 thousand to one.

Next, I looked at state and local resistance to implementing the National Voter Registration Act, which was intended to remove barriers to voting among groups that tend to have low participation rates. Using data from the report, “Ten Years Later: A Promise Unfulfilled: The National Voter Registration Act in Public Assistance Agencies, 1995-2005” using two different methods, I obtained conservative victimology ratios of 89,360 to 1 and 98,909 to one for this measure.

Another measure of voter suppression is felony disenfranchisement – the loss of voting rights by felons. While Americans tend to take it for granted, other countries find it extremely odd. Preventing felons from voting reinforces the message that they are outsiders, that society wants nothing to do with them. This is hardly an approach that encourages felons to become productive members of society. And it’s no accident that blacks as disproportionately disenfranchised by a large margin. For black felony disenfranchisement, depending on the calculation method (state level vs. aggregate US), the conservative victimology ratio ranged from 144,797 to one to 139,191 to one. For overall ex-felon disenfranchisement, the conservative victimology ratio was 173,875 to one.

Finally, I looked at the special case of the faulty Florida felon purge list, which was deliberately manipulated to generate false positives (people with names similar to those of actual felons). This produced a conservative victimology ratio of 22,010 to one, resulting in the fraudulent election of George W. Bush as President in 2000.

This year, Republican legislatures across the country have passed a number of different bills making voting more difficult, all under the rubric of fighting voter fraud. Several of these are being challenged and more challenges will almost certainly come. But as it stands now, a study from the Brennan Centre, Voting Law Changes in 2012 finds that:

  • These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.
  • The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012, 63 per cent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

Again, using a baseline of eight actual cases of voting fraud a year, if fully successful, this would produce a conservative victimology ratio of 625,000 to one. Using the data above, it’s clear that this level is quite high compared to other voter suppression associated with direct government action or inaction.

The conventions of American journalism, as well as the culture of Washington DC, require that we believe in a myth: the myth that liberals and conservatives are basically identical, just facing in different directions, that’s all. Any hint that they are fundamentally different in any way is itself seen as a sign of bias. But the conservative victimology ratio not only shows that this myth is unfounded, it is also potentially quite dangerous to our democracy.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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