Tuesday, February 1, 2011


We continue reviewing the 1986 book entitled “The Politics of Victimization” by Robert Elias, then of Tufts University.*

Elias now reveals (in 1986) just how American Victimization – so largely placed at the service of a radical-feminist ‘war’ (on that other gender) through the trusty American hammer-tool of lurid criminalization and criminal-law legislation – digressed from the original postwar cosmopolitan Victimology.

He begins his section “Who Victimizes?” (p.55 ff.) with a quotation from Walt Whitman**, addressed to “you felons on trial in courts, you convicts in prison cells”, the upshot of which is that Whitman decides “who am I that I should call you more obscene than myself?”

Whitman’s point – and it is one Elias finds congenial – is that just about everybody harbors some darkness within themselves.

Elias reinforces the point by adding a second quotation, that now famous line from the old cartoon strip “Pogo” that “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

Building on that, Elias starts right off by declaring that “if our concept of criminals begins with how we define, and even how we enforce, crime”, then “under current definitions we have excluded considerable (though not all) ‘white collar’ and government wrong-doing and wrongdoers”. (p.55) Clearly, then, Elias’s large vision of Victimology would not be congenial to governments or those who hold great social position or status or wealth (two elements of society that have become only more powerful in the ensuing quarter-century).

His comments then go straight to the “class” issue: the above tinkering with definitions means that “we tent to emphasize lower and working classes as our major criminals, since we view them as responsible for most crimes, particularly as portrayed in the crime index”. (p.55)

He proceeds directly to “class”, where, he says, “there is considerably more uniformity of wrong-doing across classes and other backgrounds … than we might imagine”. While there may be a great difference between the offender in a corporate-kickback case as opposed to the perpetrator of welfare-fraud, yet, he says, “predicting the perpetrators of most other crimes is more difficult”. (p.55) He notes that one study – a self-report type, conducted primarily among a sampling of upper-class respondents – yielded the admission from 91 percent of them that they had committed at least one crime for which they could have received a prison sentence.

Further, he notes that “middle-class thefts cost far more than lower-class thefts”: three-quarters of all employees steal from their own companies and corporate criminals steal the most (this was written almost 25 years before 2008). (p.55) Further – and again this must have been a bit outré although hardly surprising in the Gordon-Gekko feeding-frenzy of the red-suspender salad days of Reagan’s Administration – “the cost of only one of many large corporate abuses each year often matches the losses from all common thefts combined”.

Shoplifters and juvenile delinquents appear in both upper and lower classes, and he considers that “white upper-class” juvenile delinquency may actually be more widespread than “black lower-class” delinquency. (p.56) (I note here that he has suddenly combined race and class categories.)

Also, he adds, the “dark figure” of unreported or undetected corporate crime (which some estimate as 100 times greater than known offenses) vastly exceeds the figures for common crimes”. (p.56) The SO community is well-familiar with “dark figures”, having seen estimates of (the already mushily-defined) ‘rape’ and ‘battering’ and (the impossibly broadly defined) ‘abuse’ that surpass official figures exponentially.

What is of interest here, I think, is that Elias – speaking more as a political ‘progressive’ than as a specifically Identity-Politics cadre – exhibits the tendency to use imagined figures to render his case more vivid and urgent. Clearly, had this more broadly defined Victimological thread been pursued here 25 years ago, the country might not find itself in the desperate and parlous economic situation that now faces it. No surprise then, that even as world Victimology started to gain some political and public traction back then, it was in the interests of many interests to see it diverted or channeled into paths that would not interfere with the status quo of the wealthy and politically-connected.

Which would dovetail nicely with the American ‘genderization’ of Victimology, creating a class of ‘sex monsters’ (almost exclusively of that non-female gender) that would then be refined – at least for publicity purposes – into the Monster Maniac Stranger Child-Addicted Sex Offender (once the slightly eccentric but hardly uncongenial Satanic-Servant bit was filtered out to keep the thing from skewing too closely toward a dark parody of both Science Fiction and Witchcraft Trials).

Americans who had reached the capacity for some skeptical reasoning back in those days of the mid-80s might also have recalled the Bomber Gap of the 1950s (the USSR reputedly had scads more and better bombers than the B-52) and then, within a few years, the Missile Gap (especially useful in JFK’s election campaign) – although it had become known that the Soviets were at the time (and right up into the early-1970s) in possession of only a tiny fraction of the number of competent ICBMs possessed by the USA (which is why Khrushchev had wanted to put some in Cuba, where they would only have to travel a short-distance up the coast to hit Washington and New York).

But I digress.

Elias continues on this so unfamiliar (or ‘defamiliarizing’) Victimological analysis that sounds so very little like the mutation that passes for the Real Thing in American politics: “Moreover, lower-class wrong-doing does not wreak more damage than upper-class crime, as we normally assume”. (p.56) He mentions the example of “upper-class and corporate property crime”, which “vastly exceed” anything the lower-class can manage. (Again, the sense of prophecy and missed opportunities intensifies as you read this in 2011.) Indeed, he observes that “corporate criminals commit crimes repeatedly” with one study showing 90 percent recidivism. (p.56)

And then, demonstrating just how broad and deep and incisive the world-Victimology vision really is, he suggests that while it does seem true that the lower-class commits more overt crimes of violence, upper-classes and corporate management may actually be responsible for more violent harm through such pathways as “workplace hazards”, which, he says, “have simply not been defined as crime, but should be”. (p.56) And in that regard, he thinks, public perception of the lower-classes as the font and origin of most violent crime “has less to do with their tendency to commit crime and more with selective perceptions and enforcement”. (p.56)

He is writing before the maturation of the first (and now subsequent) generations of youth to be raised in the ‘morality and character is oppressive’ Era, and I don’t think his thought reflects what might even then have predictably happened: as the red-suspender Gordon-Gekko types were doing their latter-day pirate imitation with the national economy, their kids were being raised with an equally mushy (though perhaps more respectably-packaged) philosophy of no-philosophy and no morality.

But then, of course, the government was on its way to plastering over that gaping deficiency with Victimization along the now-classic lines and the Manias where, the kids might be taught, the only truly evil monsters remain in the world (or at least in the country).

It seems to me, especially in light of how things have turned out, that the United States in Elias’s time was a polity whose elites would most certainly not welcome this type of analysis from world-Victimology.

And that a ‘deal’ was cooked up in the (non-smoking) smoke-filled rooms of the Beltway whereby the Democrats could keep one of its more demanding ‘base demographics’ happy, while the Republicans could keep such incisive social skepticism from being turned on the Gekko-ist business ethos of the age. And the public could be kept agitated and duped by an ongoing treacherous soap-opera such as the SO Mania and its Regime. What was not to like?


*My copy is the paperback version put out by Oxford UP in 1986. It bears the ISBN 0-19-503980-7. It will be unwieldy to include both Chapter Titles and sub-headings as well as page numbers, in case you have a different edition. I will stick to only using page references when I make quotations, but for especially important points I will do so.

**The entire section, a short four stanzas from “Leaves of Grass” is here .

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