Presented at Text & Talk with Dr Patrick – Saturday, 17 June 2023
Oppression and its victims are not to my knowledge topics heavily canvassed in Hebrew culture, classical or medieval culture. It is remarkable that in the Old Testament God is the defender of the poor and the judge of usurers and oppressors, the poor, we would say economically disadvantaged, the vast majority of the population, were not conceived to be victims. In the New Testament, not only the poor in spirit, the humble, but the poor generally were considered blessed, and the entire moral apparatus of the Gospel of Matthew is directed toward the ultimate reward of those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Wealth, on the other hand, is seen as a stumbling block, a frustrum, capable of keeping souls out of the kingdom if they became attached to it and confident in its safety. As far as I know, neither the slaves who threatened Rome with servile rebellion nor the peasants who revolted in the fourteenth century were considered victims of an oppressive system.
The absence of the categories victim and oppressor is due in part to a deep seated belief ensconced in a hierarchical society that the order of things in the world, down to and particularly including every man and woman, was the result of God’s providential will.
The makers of Upstairs, Downstairs depicted the butler Hudson offering evening grace in the servants hall of Eaton Place recognizing that God is to be thanked for putting them in the place they occupy as servants of the Bellamys. That represented, about 1900, the end of something. The undermining of these ideas had deeper roots. There was that contemporary of the Bellamys Hudson, one Karl Marx, who thought that “oppression largely involved the consciousness of being forced into living an undesirable life.” By which standard most of the world was oppressed.
For Lenin, “the key was for the Great Russian working class and the revolutionary party to make clear their unequivocal opposition to every manifestation of Great Russian oppression, privilege and racism. The party had to be the leader in fighting for equality of language rights, equality of education and of cultural rights.” One wonders how many of the millions who died at the hands of Russian Marxism shared these concerns.
But something happened along the way to the twenty-first century. And what happened was rationalism, the popularity of the conviction that the knowledge could be gained and the condition of mankind ameliorated by reason alone. Rationalism and revolution are twins. The philosophers of the eighteenth century, determined to philosophize without God, wrote as though a perfect world, hitherto fore obscured by the fraudulent claims of the Church, was now within reach. Voltaire so despised the Christian dogma of the Original Sin that he actually wrote one long treatise dedicated to this, which he titled Pache Originel.
This doctrine, according to Voltaire, is an insult to God. [Here one might remember the revolutionary attempts to make a religion out of worship of the goddess Reason.] Rousseau was not quite so vehement, but the Christian doctrine of original sin could not survive in the context of Rousseau’s theory of original goodness.
But this doctrine, far from being a mere ecclesiastical footnote, is the lynchpin of Christian thought and practice, the first presupposition of a system that requires a Savior for a race caught inescapably in a condition that as it justifies the necessity for punishment of the great rebellion explains the conditions of partial achievement and partial discomfort and dissatisfaction in which ordinary people live. It is the doctrine of original sin that explains what is to contemporary Christians a scandal: Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which Paul advised a beloved servant to be a good slave to the glory of God. What undergirded this view was the belief that slavery was emblematic of the condition of every man, with slavery to sin seen as worse than bondage.
Without recognition of the fact of original sin philosophy enthusiastically opens upon a utopian world and it follows that the often unsatisfactory conditions of human life must be the result of human failure, although since that failure cannot be personal it must be political, and if it is political it ought to be set right through reason itself. What followed was the abolition of feudalism, the remnant of the dying system of promises and obligations that had provided social stability for about a thousand years, with its own set of securities and injustices, in favor of the new industrial system that Marx so much hated. [In this forum we have often pondered: why did so many leave the gentle hills of the Cotswolds or the lush terrain of the Midlands for Leeds or Manchester?]
Chronologically, the first opportunity to test the new theory of the perfectibility of everything came just as the marriage between rationalism and revolution was consummated. Slavery, which had all but disappeared in Europe, made a dramatic comeback when the plantations of the British and Spanish empires needed cheap labor, slavery being the least expensive. The system, the evils of which will not be cataloged here, offered an ideal opportunity to test the theory that all men should be free in the modern sense. Thus for about a century, until 1865, those parts of Europe that were involved in the settlement of the new world fought a war against the oppression of slavery. Who was the British critic; was it Samuel Johnson, who pointed out the irony of the eighteenth century American defense of freedom in a social context that tolerated slavery? It had to go. What went with it were many very bad things, but also something good: the acceptance of the truth that in a fallen world there will for most of mankind always be bondage of some kind.
Naturally, in a new world that did not labor under the disabilities previously attributed to original sin, in which no one was responsible for the vast cavalcade of human follies that characterized human society, in which the world if it could be perfected should be, other victims of oppression were identified. Patriarchy had been considered normal and inescapable, established by divine revelation in the third chapter of Genesis, which had pronounced as Eve’s punishment difficulty in childbearing and this: your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you. [The same text condemned the descendants of Adam to labor against a resistant nature, and punished the entire race with death.] Although Christianity transformed Genesis 3 with Ephesians 5, the ideal of mutual obedience, patriarchy survived and flourished.
In 1793 William Godwin published Political Justice, arguing that “humanity will inevitably progress: it argues for human perfectibility and enlightenment” Political Justice is … first and foremost a critique of political institutions. Its vision of human perfectibility is anarchist in so far as it sees government and related social practices such as property monopoly, marriage and monarchy as restraining the progress of mankind. “Godwin proposes a society in which human beings use their reason to decide the best course of action.” From Political Justice to John Stuart Mill’s 1861 “The Subjugation of Women,” through the novels of Thomas Hardy to Betty Friedan is a straight line arguing that women have been victims for millennia and must now be freed.
It is part of the perfect world theory that progress requires the dismantling of every law, form, tradition, manners and custom, and finally of nature itself, which in giving form to human life is seen as oppressive. Having done away with acknowledging the imperfect form of human life as of divine decree, it is now loudly proclaimed that oppression is simultaneously everybody’s’ and nobodies’ fault . It is built into the system and until consciousness is reformed to see oppression for what it is, there will be near-universal victimhood.
This is an aspect of oppression that is largely missed in popular culture when we consider whether we or others are being oppressed. Indeed, when living day to day in concert with the constraints of a given cultural milieu, we seldom consider whether we are actually being oppressed. Instead, we tend to think that one who wants to live according to the constraints of her culture is making a free choice.
Here is a different concept of oppression in contrast to the Marxian one, that of “willing” rather than “forced” slavery. Indeed, a significant number of women living in the United States today (those who have what social workers call a “victim mentality”) still believe they are lucky to be under the control of men who treat them abusively or like possessions. (Wikipedia)
An African who is reasonably content with his or her situation is, under this paradigm obviously oppressed, a victim of systematic fascism which is no one’s fault but is pervasive. Obviously these oppressed victims must be liberated. So must those enslaved by heteronormativity, by the belief that anything is normal, or tending to reflect the norm or rule.
Since the pervasive oppression that threatens universally is nobodies’ fault, the fault must lie in the political system, which must be seen as itself oppressive and against which on a certain day violence of any kind is justified. The failure of the cultural ability to accept the brokenness of nature and human nature, the project to remand all evil, even all discomfort, to the faults of political society has created at center the culture of grievance and disappointment and at the margins the culture of the enraged.