January 9, 2022
by Stephen Stofka
A 63 year old man came into a hospital because of a heart problem and found out that his condition was aggravated by Covid. He had not gotten the vaccine because he was fed some incorrect information, he said to a reporter. He was not on a ventilator yet but regretted not getting the vaccine. He was not to blame. One of the many rioters on January 6th a year ago cried that his intentions were honest – a protest against what he had been told was a stolen election. As the riot turned violent, he was swept up in the motion of the crowd. He was not to blame. In the song I Shall Be Released Bob Dylan wrote about a man who also was not to blame. We want others to take responsibility for their actions but are reluctant to shoulder responsibility for our own actions.
In the middle of the 20th century, many psychotherapists took a mechanistic approach to explaining behavior, helping their patients understand that their actions were the result of environmental and genetic factors (Maddison, 1959). Therapists wanted to avoid moral labeling because it did not present a constructive way to help a patient manage their behavior. Scholars like Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky argued that the mainstream media shaped public opinion to conform to corporate and institutional norms. When Noam Chomsky (1988) co-authored Manufacturing Consent there still was a mainstream media. Now we select the media that we want to listen to. We are the curators of our own information stream. Still we blame a conspiracy of misinformation for our own misfortune.
The formation of social media happened in America because it gave us an opportunity to form impromptu victim communities based on race, sexual orientations, political, economic and religious ideologies. We have become communities of umbrage, rallying in opposition to a stream of offenses. We form credential communities who challenge the right of others to call themselves victims.
We are drawn to conspiracy theories because there have been many of them throughout history. A small group of men – it is usually men – conspire in secret to pull the levers of power and affect the lives of many. Price fixing and asset bubbles are two examples. In the 19th century, Cornelius Vanderbilt busted up a cabal of New York politicians who kept railroad rates high and profited handsomely at the expense of merchants and consumers (Stiles, 2011). There was so much political corruption in America that taxpayers no longer trusted politicians with money. There was more transparency if the politicians contracted out the work to publicly held corporations, who had some accountability to their shareholders. By the dawn of the 20th century, corporations ruled America.
America has long been a country of victim communities. In the 18th century, colonists complained of British persecution while they persecuted black slaves, Native Americans and anyone thought to be a “loyalist.” In the Virginia colony, James Madison defended the Baptists who complained of religious persecution by the Anglican majority (Klarman, 2016, 566). Farmers complained of being exploited by “the rich and ambitious,” particularly northern bankers who seized upon every opportunity to repossess their land for failure to meet a payment deadline (Klarman, 2016, 385). In 1783, Pennsylvania farmers surrounded the statehouse demanding relief from their debts. In 1786-7, several thousand armed rebels occupied Massachusetts’ courthouses in an attempt to nullify tax liens and private debt contracts (Klarman, 2016, 88-90). This uprising, known as Shay’s Rebellion, showed a lack of respect for authority and the sanctity of contract that alarmed many leaders of colonial governments. The rebellion prompted the adoption of a stronger central government embodied in a new Constitution. The participants in the rebellion were dealt harsh sentences.
More than 200 years later, a former President, pampered since he was in diapers, claimed that he too was a victim. Like his predecessor, Richard Nixon, he claimed the role of Victim In Chief. He goaded his supporters to storm the Capitol building to deny the certification of an election which he had lost. One supporter carried a Confederate flag into the halls of Congress, a gesture of defiance and a repudiation of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox almost 150 years earlier. More than 700 of those who participated in the riot have been charged. Their leader, a man who has persistently avoided responsibility for any of his actions, faces no charges yet. He is the Victim, the Man Without Blame.
Klarman, M. J. (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press.
Maddison, D. C. (1959, August 15). The doctrine of “diminished responsibility” in the Criminal Law. The Lancet. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673659922159
Stiles, T. J. (2011). The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Alfred A. Knopf.