An Overlooked Sucking Sound
H. Ross Perot did not mean the crude pejorative sense of "sucking" when he popularized the phrase "giant sucking sound." But as a species we can suck in the pejorative way on many levels. In this essay, I want to consider a large but unacknowledged form of grand human sucking. Unfortunately, it is a fact whose existence is routinely denied out of sympathy, romantic fantasy, and a politically correct desire not to enhance the rhetorical arsenal of humanity's oppressors.
The giant sound is found in this vital observation: Oppressed people suck.
A few years back in Jerusalem, prior to the latest bloodlettings, an American humanitarian who worked among poorer Palestinian Arabs made a comment to me. She said, "Those progressive American liberals who come over, who I have to work with, are always a problem. They idealistically think that they are coming to help people of similar values. In fact, Palestinian society is riddled with some of the worst sexism, racism, and classism you can encounter."
Neither suffering nor underdevelopment -- the latter being the PC word for "primitive" -- are ennobling.
Yes, oppressed people really do suck.
Before going on, however, it is important to distinguish what oppressed people sucking does not mean. It does not mean the oppressors are justified in their oppression. It does not mean the oppressed group is inferior in any intrinsic way. It does not mean they are guilty for conditions they did not set up. Nor are they guilty for having the same, if more concentrated, flaws as the rest of humanity. Nor does it mean they are incapable of "breaking the programming" that traps them.
And it does not mean that oppressors do not suck more, at least in being oppressive.
But it does mean that oppressed people typically exhibit a set of mental states and behaviors that enables their oppression. These cause at least three quite nasty results. They incapacitate the oppressed. They render the group unattractive or incomprehensible to potential supporters. And they enable the group to be portrayed as contemptible by predatory adversaries.
Ways Oppressed People Suck
Some of the more common negative characteristics I catalogue below.
Fatalistic/Self-Hating. Oppressed groups are kept down primarily by a feeling that there is nothing they can do. Nature, God, or history somehow ordains their subordinate position. Often this arises from literal superstitious-type religion. One will find among oppressed groups a high degree of belief in the immediate presence of supernatural forces controlling their affairs. Indeed, much of the "Third World" is gripped by this outlook. The idea that change is impossible is internalized, low expectations become acceptable, and apathy a way of life.
Skepticism about the current order, a vital ingredient of social development, is rare. Ignorance, already widespread through illiteracy, poor intercultural contact, and a lack of scientific enquiry, is accepted as natural and reinforces failure at every turn.
Some years back, Texas law professor Lino Graglia, a right-winger, speculated that there was a higher tolerance for failure in certain American minority groupings. He was, of course, pilloried by the Left establishment for the common crime of issuing unpalatable truths. George W.'s comment about the "soft bigotry of low expectations" was quite valid even if you don't like the man who said it, and even if we forget that the low expectations weigh down most heavily from within the oppressed group. That latter phenomenon, an offshoot of fatalism, is what is called "self-hatred.". It is very common and most debilitating.
Bigoted. The observation that groups victimized by prejudice are more prejudiced than their persecutors is actually quite true. Collectivist and tribalistic group-thinking is common to lesser-developed humanity. They don't get out much and strangers and their ways freak them out, even though brief encounters can be quite hospitable. And those less-developed (i.e. more primitive) portions of humanity are typically humanity's most oppressed, as they are vulnerable to more technologically and socially advanced groups. Once a group, already prone to primitive ignorant group-think, comes to have those same group-thought habits directed at them in the most hostile and violent manner by a ruling society, that oppressed group's susceptibility to adopting that bigoted kind of thinking in imitation and resentful response becomes extremely powerful. Bigotry becomes chronic and second nature. Group revenge and demonization rhetoric soars. Farrakhan's take root; Muslims read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, "one settler [i.e. white person], one bullet" many South African blacks would shout.
Black comedian Chris Rock has noted that no one is more racist than old black men. They didn't merely have difficulty hailing a cab that would pick them up, he observes with poignant parody, they were the cab. As a result, many can often be heard, after encountering a white person, muttering with belligerent bravado about some imaginary act of challenging a "cracker."
White supremacy in America has not been successful because it is more intense per capita, it is just that white American bigotry has simply been larger in size, and more efficient in delivery.
Boastful/Dishonest. Being demeaned, poor, and spending life answerable to arbitrary people who don't like you is not conducive to honesty. Nor does it promote the display of quiet humility that is inspired by being comfortably confident and effective. Members of oppressed groups tend to like aggressive and boastful rhetoric and can often be conspicuously dishonest in their dealings. If you do not trust and are not trusted by those who govern your life, freedom, and income, and if the truth of one's chronically humiliated position in life is too much to bear, the rhetoric of honesty and modesty will be hard virtues to sustain.
Self-Absorbed/Paranoid. Oppressed people tend to think the whole society or even the whole world is obsessed with their identity problem. "In America, it's all about color", you may hear. No, it actually isn't. It's only a deadly or cruel habit in certain times, places, and persons. White people in America, even the more bigoted kind, have more things to worry about than race and they do not typically go to bed at night planning new agonies for people of color, though a few still do.
"The whole world wants the Jews dead," raves Cynthia Ozick, an otherwise sane scholar, ignoring the obvious fact that if true, it was long ago easy to have done, especially given the numbers involved. But, when it was tried two generations ago by one very powerful regime, it met the hostile force of most of the world and that regime had to suppress information about its actions.
In the Third World especially, paranoia is everyday rhetoric. Everything is a conspiracy. Sometimes it seems the oppressors of the world waste more time conspiring than actually oppressing. "The Plot" is how otherwise sympathetic British journalist Robert Fisk derisively labeled incessant talk during Lebanon's civil war of this or that conspiracy by every power group believed to be in operation. I suspect the pathology of all this is the fact that oppression is undergirded by larger humanity's ignoring of the oppressed group as people of no-account. In response then, a weird, classically paranoid, compensation for that status as nobodies is found in the belief that one is important enough to be the focus of constant obsessive hatred.
Narrow-Minded/Back-Biting. Since oppressed groups tend to emerge from pre-existing ignorant primitive communities, narrow-minded world views worthy of backward isolated communities are common. For such groups, small things matter most, and concepts like honor, ritual, and rhetoric take on ridiculous levels of importance, far more than practical advancement. Women, and young girls especially, typically get the very short end of the stick, as in most primitive societies. Grand things, and long lasting things are not of great importance partly because of the fatalism described above. It is far more important to be the big man on the street than to cure cancer around the world, to be an obedient extended-family person than to stand out as an extraordinary individual. Or to make fundamental changes. Pettiness is everywhere and envy is a besetting vice.
Success is resented more than admired. It is thus easy to divide and conquer, and easy for the oppressor to recruit traitors. Poverty makes small amounts of cash into a powerful weapon. The successful will always find envious detractors to attack them and divide society, and thereby slow the necessary advances and united action by the oppressed group. As a member of a small Third World village once said to me, "We believe there are only a limited number of `slots' available for highly successful people, and so when one person `makes it,' it takes away from the rest of us and that creates resentment. Instead of being happy for them, we tear them down."
Self-destructiveness is not far behind. Short-term, hope-deprived solutions to suffering -- drugs, theft, fatalistic religion, financial scams etc. -- trump longer ones like education, savings, and organization.
Inarticulate. Oppressed people have a lousy time articulating their grievances. Their societies are primitive, ignorant, and physically isolated. They are often excluded from the education, socialization, and power-corridors of their oppressors. (That exclusion often results from their own fatalism and poverty as well as their oppressors' prejudices and abusiveness.) On top of that, the dishonesty, fatalism, internal authoritarianism, and ritualized rhetoric of oppressed societies work against attempting to provide realistic and enduring formulations of honest grievances and solutions. Instead, slogans ring out, accusations recklessly fly and then, just as quickly, peter out. Ridiculous demands follow paranoid and fantastic analyses of the roots of the oppressed society's troubled situation.
Hyper-reverent/Fear-filled. One of the great ironies of long-established oppressor groups is that their internal structures have often been relatively democratic, egalitarian, and liberal societies, sometimes to a pioneering degree. The Roman Empire, the British Empire, the early Muslim caliphate, white South Africa, "white America" are a few such examples.
The converse also works. Oppressed societies are internally authoritarian, ready made for the roving oppressor/exploiter. Oppressive empires rarely set up the oppressive systems they rule over; they merely acquire them the way an expanding corporation swallows subsidiary operations.
Oppressed societies are commonly ones pre-socialized from day one through fear. "You fear God, you don't love Him, just as you fear the king and other figures of secular authority," writes Palestinian author Fawaz Turki in his must-read book Exile's Return. "In Arab society, you may be expected to love your mother, but you must fear your father." Religious and family reverence, though not flaws in themselves, are super-intense, and are enforced by community pressure and outright brute force. A Pavlovian response to authority is shaped early.
This non-participatory nature of decision-making in oppressed societies also makes their members unrealistic in intelligently evaluating the nature of their oppression or in comprehending the dynamics of power exercised by the oppressor society. Power is seen as a simple top-down "hierarchical" operation, ordained by fate, beyond the reach of the ordinary individual. Power is only to be feared, so it is rarely challenged, and never with confidence. Irreverence is punished, skepticism of authority is tenuous (even in cases where the authority is despised), and the habits of a slave are internalized.
Reactionary. Oppressed societies tend to be reactionary. One can correctly say "reactionary" in the jargonistic left-wing sense of societies riddled with violently enforced sexism, racism, and classism, traits common to more primitive groupings. But here I mean reactionary in style. Hemmed in by oppression, afflicted with fatalism, attracted by short-term thinking and boastful rhetoric, members of oppressed groups rarely exhibit the slow, plodding, pro-active steps needed to obtain liberation and prosperity. Dramatic issues and persons are celebrated based upon reactive short-term confrontation value. Glamorous bullies, thugs, and non-performers get intense and even heroic attention without much attention given to their lack of actual virtues or their failure to obtain objective success. The cult of the bully leader or rogue flourishes. This happens most acutely when those figures are seen as inspiring special fear and loathing from the oppressor group (and even when the loathing they get is justified). Simplistic reactionary logic applies: if the oppressor hates him and he is strongly identified by them as one of us, then he must be good. Some examples: The intense defense of O.J. Simpson; the cults of Osama bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Mao Tse-tung; the sustained popularity of Marion Barry; the renewable popularity of Yasser Arafat.
As a result of the same reactionary process, savage events like the anarchic Rodney King riots or murderous Palestinian suicide bombings are grandly re-styled "resistance" and "insurrection".
The Advantages of Realizing Oppressed People Suck
The flaws catalogued above are actually universal human traits, both individual and communal. However, they tend to coagulate and harden at the bottom of the social (or international) order. It should be understood that members of oppressed groups do not always manifest all of the above, and that as individuals those members will display different and nuanced perspectives.
Most important, though., is the fact that they are not doomed to these mind-traps. Especially with visionaries like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi at the helm, they can prove quite capable of "breaking the programming."
Nonetheless, girding oneself with the knowledge that oppressed people suck liberates one from having to chronically defend and/or deny problems among harassed and abused communities. Or get frustrated the first time (and it will not be the last) oppressed group members fail to live up to their promises to act.
We can respond "so what?" -as the below illustrate -- to those who bring the flaws up, and then turn the discussion quickly back to the real issues:
* So what if there is a high rate of crime, drug use, illiteracy, etc. among African-Americans? *Oppressed people suck.* How does that let you Mr. White Guy off the hook for treating your fellow humans with respect? What right does that give you to make the bigger sucking sound?
* So what if Irish Catholics in the North of Ireland drink too much, cheer murderous terror groups, and think the British are responsible for all ills that rain down from heaven? *Oppressed people suck.* Where does that allow you, Mr. Northern Irish Orangeman, the citizen of an allegedly free and democratic society, to regard your neighbor as of no account, unworthy of your neighborhood, and a threat merely because of his traditional identity and faith? Why should you suck too?
* So what if too many Palestinians commit murderous terror acts, chant bigotry, and kill sexually disobedient girls? *Oppressed people suck.* Is that an excuse, Mr. Israeli, to deny forever people the right to live as free and equal people in their homeland?
* So what if Jews of early last century took over an ancestral homeland by force, dispossession, and collaboration with foreign rulers, impelled by self-absorbed self-hatred and boastful bravado, all the while decrying critics paranoiacally as bigots? *Oppressed people suck.* Is that an excuse, Mr. Anti-Semite, to deny people the right to be equal human beings above suspicion, the decency to be pitied for the horrors they and loved ones barely survived, and the opportunity to feel at home wherever they may freely choose to live?
Undoing the victimization of the oppressed, and undoing the problems within the worlds of the oppressed, are the challenges we all face. But we should not waste time denying those problems and indulging the self-righteous "politically correct" dishonesty which emanates from the oppressed, or their advocates.
Oppressed people suck, accept that. But oppression sucks more. Realize that, too. Still, some of the most giant sucking sounds will be from those of us who can make a difference, but fail to do so effectively, because our sympathy blinds us to the real forces underlying human oppression.