A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character
by Charles J. Sykes
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Summary: Conservative commentator Sykes takes aim at the Left and what became known as “political correctness.” Predictably, his book strongly criticizes the Left’s attempts to change America’s character. However, as with most political partisans, Sykes presents one side of the story.
Review: As the old song goes,
“You’re nobody ‘til somebody oppresses you.”
OK, that’s not how the song went, but – in the late-80s and early-90s – many Americans wrapped their identities in victimhood. In A Nation of Victims, Charles J. Sykes skewers the “p.c.” movement and the other excesses of the American Left.
Sykes’ America – What Went Wrong?
Trying to explain where an entire culture went wrong certainly is ambitious and Sykes deserves credit for examining America’s culture of entitlement and victimhood. As a college professor, I can relate. I have had to deal with (some) students who demand the rights of adulthood, but who refuse to assume any of the responsibilities.
In Sykes’ view, the p.c. movement arose as psychology became more prominent in post-World War II America. Psychologists despised the middle class (i.e., the bourgeoisie) and attacked middle-class values. The result is a nation of anxious, immature, entitled, unhappy people.
But the inefficacy of the Left’s programs is beside the point. Sykes holds that – after the elimination of overt legal barriers to equality – the Left came to judge social programs not on what they achieved, but on the intentions underlying such programs. As Sykes states “‘Who cares mores?’ tended to obscure ‘What works best?’” (p. 104).
One may criticize A Nation of Victims in several ways.
For one, Sykes yearns for the return to pre-1960s America when people were were tougher and less apt to complain. There is some merit to his arguments, but I do not believe that he is correct that before the 1960s people were mentally healthier than were people afterward. While older generations were less likely to complain, in my experience, this often meant that they “swept their troubles under the rug” and let them fester.
Another problem is that Sykes cites the most-egregious examples of p.c. excesses and uses them to impugn the entire idea of “sensitivity.” Originally, the p.c. movement sought to make people more respectful of each other, by any standard a worthwhile goal.
A Nation of Victims is consistently readable and Sykes tells some amazing stories about some of the Left’s most-bizarre ideas. However, Sykes provides only the conservative perspective and A Nation of Victims can be depressing in its bleak portrait of Americans as entitled whiners.
Still, Sykes’ book is provocative and a worthwhile read for anyone interested in U.S. culture.