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Charles Sykes
Charles Sykes
A Nation of Victims
ISBN: 0312098820
A Nation of Victims
Charles Sykes discussed the ideas behind his book, "A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character," published by St. Martin's Press. He said the main concept of his book involves the increasing decline of personal responsibility and the use of alibis and blame for personal advancement in American society. He also discussed his research for the book, and the implications of his main premise concerning "victim groups."
A Nation of Victims
Program Air Date: November 29, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Charles J. Sykes, author of "A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character," what is character?
CHARLES SYKES, AUTHOR, "A NATION OF VICTIONS: THE DECAY OF THE AMERICAN CHARACTER" I think character is the traditional notion that we ought to engage in self-restraint; that we ought to practice moderation, the values of honesty and probity, the sense of responsibility and duty to other people. A culture of character is one that basically says that what happens to you is basically your responsibility; you are reliant on yourself. It tends to be a very archaic notion that I think is making something of a comeback, both in politics and in public policy.
LAMB: A nation of victims -- what kind of victims?
SYKES: Well, all kinds of victims. What I argue in the book is that we've become a nation of people who say, "I'm not responsible. Don't blame me. I'm a victim" -- that when anything bad happens to individuals, they quickly turn to somebody else to blame, whether it's turning to a therapist who will explain that you're not bad, you are merely the victim of a syndrome or a dysfunction, or you find a lawyer who will find somebody else to sue to put the responsibility on someone else, or a political demagogue who will say, "You're not responsible because you have been oppressed and victimized by others." So I'm describing the phenomenon of our society in which more and more groups seems to want to get in on what they see as a good thing -- to define themselves as a member of an aggrieved group and a member of a group that has been oppressed or victimized in some way and to demand the moral innocence of victims and the moral authority of victims and perhaps even the entitlements and benefits of being a member of a victim group.
LAMB: Have you ever felt like a victim?
SYKES: Not lately, no -- and if I did I wouldn't admit it. I think that one of the things I get to in the book is that we need a moratorium on blame. We all suffer from injustice. There are always things that are going to happen to us where we feel we've been treated unfairly, but perhaps it's time to stop focusing on that, not to use them as alibis, not to use them as excuses, not to build their identity around blaming other people and to take some sense of responsibility for yourself. So I certainly don't.
LAMB: Who do you blame for us becoming a nation of victims?
SYKES: I don't think it's a matter of blaming other people. It's all of our responsibility. It's a fact that we've always been a culture built around the concept of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is obviously a basic idea in American culture, but I think Americans have gotten the notion somehow that happiness is not something that you need to work for or win or struggle for or strive for; that it's an entitlement, that we deserve it, that we have a right to it, and if we don't get all sorts of self-realization, self-fulfillment, good sex, perfect jobs, everything, that somehow we are disappointed that we have been deprived, and that it's somebody else's fault for that. So to look around and say that it's our government that has done it or it's the lawyers or it's any other group, I think misses the point. This is a fundamental cultural phenomenon in which we all participate to a greater or lesser extent.
LAMB: You're the author of "Prof Scam." What was that?
SYKES: That was a critique of American higher education that talked about the flight from teaching on the part of academia, the whole notion that many young people go to colleges, spend a lot of money under the impression they will be getting professors in the classroom. In fact they don't. Martin Anderson has written a book that really follows up on that theme quite well. But that was a critique of the whole academic culture; the culture in which research, often abstract and pointless, was considered more important than teaching and the decline of liberal education that flows from that.
LAMB: Who got the maddest at you for writing that book?
SYKES: The people who got the maddest were the practitioners, the academic gurus, the tenured professors who felt that I was challenging the dearest values of it. On the other hand there were a lot of academics -- I think a surprising number of people -- who teach in universities and in smaller schools who are genuinely committed to teaching, who really see their role as teaching and who saw that book as helping them in their effort -- people who were troubled by the emphasis on bogus scholarship, who are troubled by the political pressures that they face to get out of the classroom. One of the reasons that book was so successful was because it spoke to the needs of that kind of faculty member as well as students and parents.
LAMB: Where do you live?
SYKES: Milwaukee.
LAMB: What do you do?
SYKES: I write books like this. I am a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Institute where I edit a public policy journal, among other things.
LAMB: What is the Wisconsin Policy Institute?
SYKES: It's a public policy think tank.
LAMB: Headquartered where?
SYKES: In Milwaukee.
LAMB: Who pays for it?
SYKES: I think a lot of donors. It gets significant foundation support. I think the Bradley Foundation has been very supportive of it.
LAMB: What's the Bradley Foundation?
SYKES: The Bradley Foundation is a very, very large foundation involved in public policy issues that was basically funded from the sale of Allen-Bradley to the Rockwell Corporation, but is one of the, I think, leading foundations in the country in terms of funding academic and policy undertakings.
LAMB: How many people work there?
SYKES: It's relatively small. There is a handful of senior fellows, of which I am one of two, I think.
LAMB: Do you have a certain political bent?
SYKES: I try to avoid being labeled. I generally deny that I am a conservative. I describe myself as a recovering liberal. You can interpret that however you like, but I tend to find that labels are more misleading than they are helpful because I think they tend to pigeonhole. In this book I try to draw from people from a wide variety of political perspectives, and I think that the critique applies to people at both ends of the political spectrum. I think conservatives often play the blaming-other-people game just as much as liberals.
LAMB: Where's your hometown originally?
SYKES: I've lived in Milwaukee for quite a long time. I was born in Seattle and spent some of my younger years in the New York area.
LAMB: Have you ever been involved in politics?
SYKES: Yes, sort of tangentially. But my wife is the officeholder. She's an elected official in Milwaukee. She's a criminal court judge.
LAMB: Is it a partisan job?
LAMB: When you were involved tangentially, who did you work for?
SYKES: My first campaign as a teenager was in 1968 for Eugene McCarthy. My father was the campaign manager for McCarthy, and I was a page at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that nominated Hubert Humphrey.
LAMB: Your father was the campaign manager in Wisconsin or the nation?
SYKES: The campaign for Wisconsin, the Wisconsin primary.
LAMB: How did he get to that position?
SYKES: He was active in the anti-war movement back in the '60s. He was a 1960s liberal, and he contacted the McCarthy campaign and said, "I want to help. I want to do this, and I have this teenaged son, and he and I will set up the campaign for you, if you like," which is what we did.
LAMB: What happened to Eugene McCarthy in Wisconsin?
SYKES: It started off small. It started off my father and I in one little room in the Wisconsin Hotel, and by the end, of course, it became the children's crusade and Eugene McCarthy, of course, won, which was helped by the fact that two days before the primary Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the campaign. My father and I were traveling with Eugene McCarthy that weekend when Lyndon Johnson pulled out of the race.
LAMB: What did you learn from Gene McCarthy?
SYKES: What I learned from Eugene McCarthy was that Eugene McCarthy was one of the most decent, honest, eloquent men ever to seek office. I've learned how far short so many other politicians fall from that. But he was a man of principle, a man who I think genuinely was concerned about dealing with social problems rather than striking a moral pose. I don't think Gene McCarthy had the idea that he wanted programs that would make him feel good and compassionate. He wanted things that would actually work.
LAMB: Did you work for anybody else after that?
SYKES: Not that I can recall, no.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
SYKES: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
LAMB: What did you study?
SYKES: English literature.
LAMB: When you started to get this book together, how did you go about it?
SYKES: This book sort of grew out of some of the research that I had done on higher education. I had written Prof Scam and The Hollow Men, The Hollow Men dealing more with the politics of higher education. I was struck by how much the politics on campus had become kind of a victims' olympics -- who was the biggest victim, who was the most oppressed, and the way in which that was driving the political discussion and the debate, how the various groups tend to bulkanize themselves as they slice themselves up into narrower and narrower interest groups defined primarily by their status of oppression. As I looked around I realize that this was hardly confined to the campus, hardly confined to the inner city, that, in fact, it seemed to be something that more and more Americans -- it was like watching ripples in a pond. The middle-aged decided they were victims, too. Millionaire artists decided they were victims. To the lists of racism, sexism and homophobia you were seeing talk about ageism, lookism. So when I started working on it, I started from what was happening that I'd seen on campus, but then tried to make it a broader cultural phenomenon. I tried to determine where this would come from and where it came from. One of the first things that I determined was that, to look at this strictly in terms of politics, to say that it's left versus right, misses, I think, the underlying cultural phenomenon that we're seeing, that something deeper in the American character is going on, and that drove the research from there.
LAMB: Let me pull a bunch of stuff out of here, especially when it comes to universities. You write, "At the University of Michigan students face discipline for suggesting that women were not as qualified as men in any given field. One student was actually brought up on charges of sexual harassment for suggesting that he could develop a counseling plan for helping gays become straight."
SYKES: The point is not to endorse those comments or that program. What I thought was extraordinary about that was that in an institution built on the concept of intellectual freedom and academic freedom you had these gag rules. The point was that the issue of women being qualified was not to be subject to debate. They didn't want arguments pro and con. It was banned on the grounds that it would, perhaps, hurt someone's feelings. They would be insensitive. This is one of my starting points, which is that if speech is only as free as the most hypersensitive group on campus will permit, you're not going to have very much free speech, particularly as the climate on campus was that more and more groups were becoming more and more hypersensitive. What I saw was that you would see these invisible trip wires of grievance being spread all over the campus with rules like this: The University of Connecticut banned inappropriate laughter. You have to ask yourself, what's going on here? One of the things that I concluded was that the whole therapeutic culture of our society that says we're not bad but we're sick had somehow taken on a political tone, that we no longer engage in a debate of ideas but that we use the sensitivity training model to govern speech. The sensitivity training model basically says, "We're not going to argue and discuss something. I'm going to cure you of attitudes that are by definition inappropriate." To me I thought it was a tremendous departure from the university, but again it would not have been possible unless you didn't have other millions of Americans who, in fact, were going to self-help groups, learning to be sensitive and defining behavior in these medical therapeutic terms. But this is basically where it leads to.
LAMB: "At the University of Minnesota, for example, cheerleaders have been banned from performing at sporting events on the grounds that their routines foster sexual stereotypes demeaning to the dancers." Still?
SYKES: The dancers, by the way, did not feel that they were victims. They felt they were performers. This was part of the extension of victim status where people were out there looking for groups that ought to feel they were oppressed even if they weren't oppressed, and so these women were banned from it even though they signed a letter saying, "We don't feel demeaned. We don't feel victimized." So it was sort of an outreach effort to convince more and more people that they are victims. This is quite a phenomenon on university campuses.
LAMB: "William & Mary insisting the term 'kingpin' be changed to 'key person' and that 'unwed mother' be replaced with the non-judgmental 'mother.'"
SYKES: I think there's a whole list of words and phrases that have been deemed to be inappropriate. The University of Missouri School of Journalism came out with a rather famous list of politically incorrect terms, again trying to sensitize language to the point where it would be totally inoffensive. Now, there's nothing wrong with sensitivity. We all want to be sensitive. Sensitivity is the mark of a civil and civilized society, but at some point a culture built on hypersensitivity will be one in which we're not asked to adhere to mutually agreed upon standards of justice and fairness. Political sensitivity means if I'm a victim, you must attune yourself to all of the shifting shades of emotional grievance that I might feel, and because only a victim can understand a victim's pain, only I can define it. So you have this rolling standard of sensitivity that became -- I think quite ironically -- that sensitivity became the banner under which there was a good deal of brow-beating going on and, I think, has contributed to this tone of intolerance on many university campuses.
LAMB: Donna Shalala, who is the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison -- you went to Milwaukee. You quote her as saying, "I would plead guilty to both racism and sexism. The university is institutionally racist. American society is racist and sexist." She's also been in the middle of a controversy about politically correct speech and all that. Explain that.
SYKES: Donna Shalala is representative of a certain kind of academic that engages in that kind of self-flagellation -- you know, feeling guilty all the time and using that as an excuse, for example at the University of Wisconsin, to impose a gag rule, limits on free speech, that were in place until a federal judge reminded Donna Shalala and other officials of the university that they were not exempt from the First Amendment. There is an inherent contradiction in some of these policies because the assumption of gag rules and of sensitivity training is that while you and I, for example, can sit here and engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas and debate and perhaps disagree with one another vigorously, that certain victim groups, either women or minorities, are to be considered frail psychological groups -- so frail that they could be blighted or their self-esteem destroyed by the slightest word or expression or idea that they might find uncongenial.

Now, the problem with that is the people who are pushing that line will sometimes argue that it's necessary to do that in order to build or enhance the self-esteem of these victim groups. Well, I'm not sure how you can build self-esteem by starting off feeling that the members of these victim groups are so disabled that they need to be protected against all of that. You can't somehow go from feeling frail and psychologically vulnerable to somehow getting to the point of empowerment and self-esteem that people would claim for it. So that's what I call the double-edged sword of victimization in which you are trying to enhance the self-esteem or the stature of someone while simultaneously explaining all the ways in which they are unable to function in a normal environment.
LAMB: "According to Professor Robert Rabin, 'Whites do not need any protection from abusive language because they do not have a history of being discriminated against. Only those who have been victims of oppression need to be shielded from offensive words.'" Who is he?
SYKES: I think he is a professor at Stanford. This is one of those arguments that would argue that in fact only whites can be racist. There is no such thing as black racism, so, therefore, when you have a speech code, only a white could violate it. No black students can. This is a very good example when you start to have the politics of victimization because rather than have rules that insist upon fairness, that have a level playing field, you get into the categorization of individuals on the basis of their status. For example, a member of this group cannot be charged with it, so what I suggest is you get a sliding rule of victimization. If blacks cannot be racist, what about Italians? What about Irish? What about the Hispanics? Do you have to have a gradation of who is the most victimized, and if you are victimized who can you slur or not slur? It's perhaps time to get back to a more fundamental basis that Martin Luther King talked about, that we ought to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, which is the title of Shelby Steele's book. Once you get away from dealing with individuals as human beings and what we have in common and you start apportioning rights and benefits on the basis of who is the most victimized, you're going to have quite a rush to determine who is the most oppressed, and you get rather absurd arguments that sometimes occur on campuses about who can be racist and who can't be racist.
LAMB: You also quote here a professor, I believe, from Brown, Donald Kau.
SYKES: He is a sensitivity trainer hired by Brown.
LAMB: "... who openly acknowledged that his goal was to convince his audience that American is a racist society in which privileged whites have established arbitrary norms of acceptable behavior."
SYKES: Right. This is part of the outreach program that you often find on campuses which is that students may come to an elite university like Brown, thinking, "Life is treating me pretty well; I'm at one of the finest universities in the country," and extraordinary steps are taken to convince them that, in fact, despite perhaps their middle-class background, despite having scholarships, despite being at this wonderful place in Providence, R.I., that, in fact, they are victims, that they are oppressed. That's one example.
LAMB: Let me just quote this. He says, "We probably won't rid out society of racism until everyone strives to be abnormal."
SYKES: I think in the previous sentence he says that if you are behaving normally, you're probably oppressing somebody. Unfortunately, that creates the hypersensitivity. Once again, though, I sympathize with minority students on campus because I think you need to imagine if you were sent to a strange environment and you were told, "By the way, Mr. Lamb, everyone you're going to meet dislikes you. They are prejudiced against you. They don't think you're very good, and you're going to find it in all sorts of subtle ways. They may act nice to your face, but really they think you don't belong here." Now, if I put you in a room of people and you believe that, you would look around, you would feel very uncomfortable, and you would begin to interpret all sorts of very subtle signs as confirmations, perhaps, of this. So I think it becomes kind of a rolling system of victimization where you convince people they are victims, and when they begin to feel victimized you can demand specific protections. But as Shelby Steele pointed out ...
LAMB: Who is he, by the way?
SYKES: The author of "A Content of Our Character." The problem with this sort of thing is that there is a certain power to being the victim -- the sense of moral innocence and moral authority. There are certain political benefits to being a victim these days, but ultimately it is a victim's power, and there's a real problem with yoking your identity and your power to your status as a victim because you are also then yoking it to your sense of disability, to your sense of being left out. If you constantly tell young minorities that they are in a world that is inhabited by invisible demons that are always out to get them, that, in fact, the deck is stacked against them wherever they turn, that people are always going to undermine them, this is going to have a self-fulfilling prophecy in some way, which is not to deny that racism is not a problem. It's not to deny that there's not discrimination. It is to suggest that perhaps it is not always helpful to emphasize the oppression and racism to the exclusion of all other factors.
LAMB: Who's John Bradshaw?
SYKES: John Bradshaw is one of the gurus of, I suppose, the recovery movement, best known for his public television broadcasts and his books where he talks about the injured inner child within all of us. The other category besides the political ones we've been discussing has been, as I say in the book, the rise of the therapeutic culture -- the sense that depending on how you define behavior and the normal problems of life, we can all be considered dysfunctional. Now, Bradshaw is more aggressive about this than almost anybody else.
LAMB: Let me just add some things that you write about him here. You say, "As recipients of Bradshaw's 'treatment' grown men and women sit around holding teddy bears, listening to a maternal heartbeat while Bradshaw urges them to imagine themselves back in the womb as infants. His message is whispered to the inner child over and over, 'You are perfect in every way. We love you just the way you are. Welcome to the world. I'm so glad you're here. I've been waiting for you, and I've prepared a very special place for you. I love you just the way you are. You have all the time you need to have your needs met.'"
SYKES: Now, wouldn't that be great if that was the case? Wouldn't that be great if every day when we went to the office we had that sort of thing?
LAMB: How does a man like this, John Bradshaw -- and maybe you know a lot more about him -- get a program on public television, and what's the purpose of it?
SYKES: Because he does touch a deep need in people. One of the things that Bradshaw says is that something like over 90 percent of all families can be considered dysfunctional -- he's been quoted as saying that -- which basically means that all of us in some sense can blame somebody else for our problems. Mommy and Daddy are a good target, but also we all want to be loved and we would wish that everything was suited for us, that all of our needs were taken care of. That's what it was like when we were babies. Part of the problem in American culture is that Americans are very ambivalent about growing up. We know that we have to do it, but we don't necessarily like it. What somebody like Bradshaw says is not only are your needs more important than anybody else's needs, but the needs of your injured inner child should come first. For a society that has extraordinary expectations and thinks that happiness is an entitlement, this definitely touches a chord, although I'm not necessarily sure, again, that the road to full self-esteem is really appropriately reached by thinking of oneself as an infant.
LAMB: Do you know anything about John Bradshaw?
SYKES: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Where does he come from?
SYKES: Oh, you mean about his biographical background? No.
LAMB: Do you watch him?
SYKES: Yes, I watch him.
LAMB: Does he have an impact?
SYKES: He has a tremendous impact. It's interesting. Americans seem to have a tremendous capacity to feel sorry for themselves and to parade their injuries. This is, again, perhaps part of the therapeutic culture.
LAMB: Let me read a little bit more here. "On his TV show he gets one of the biggest laughs when he ridicules the nuns who instructed him in grade school who claimed to have 'an actual picture of hell.' However amused they may be by such religious flummery, Bradshaw's audiences nonetheless accept without question his equally mystical vision of the womb and of infancy in which all needs are met, all demands satisfied, all anxieties allayed."
SYKES: That's right.
LAMB: Is he making fun of the religion?
SYKES: There's no question about it that the therapeutic vision of society tends to be a substitute religion in some sense. As I said, he gets a laugh by talking about the vision of hell, and he creates this equally mythical vision of what the womb would be like when everything was perfect.
LAMB: People like Joseph Campbell, who used to be on public television, and I think you still see him although he's deceased, and Robert Fulghum, who you can see there -- what are their messages? Do you follow them?
SYKES: Well, no. They're not exactly along the same lines. They use myths in different ways. When I say that Bradshaw's approach is mythical I'm saying that basically he's making it up, that he's creating a sense of absolute innocence. Europeans often think of Americans as suffering from radical innocence, and I think that John Bradshaw is that latest exemplar of that.
LAMB: You mention Michael Deaver and John Hinckley and San Francisco Supervisor Dan White and Robert Alton Harris. You mention, though, that in Mr. Hinckley's case it was insanity, in Mr. Deaver's case alcoholism, in Mr. White's case Twinkies, and in Mr. Harris's case fetal alcohol syndrome. What are you getting at?
SYKES: I think that's from the chapter called "The Abolition of Sin." We're not guilty; we're just sick. You go into any courtroom in the country, and people say, "I'm not responsible for my behavior. This made me do it." Fill in the blank -- X.
LAMB: Does it work?
SYKES: It sometimes does work because, again, we as a society are much more comfortable saying that someone is sick than with saying they are evil or have done something bad. The whole concept of sin has been replaced by these medical complexes. So in every courthouse in the country, you'll find someone saying -- in my hometown of Milwaukee, for example, a teenage girl shoots another teenage girl for her coat. The lawyer comes in and says, "My defense will be cultural psychosis; that because she grew up in the inner city and in poverty, she should not be held responsible for her behavior." This is part of the flight from responsibility in American society.
LAMB: Now, Jeffrey Dahmer is from Milwaukee. You bring him up in your book. Who did they blame in that situation?
SYKES: Jeffrey Dahmer was before a judge in Milwaukee two years before his ultimate arrest. He was charged with sexually molesting a young Laotian boy, and the D.A. said, "This is a dangerous person who shows no remorse who ought to be sent to prison." The judge said, "Well, I know you want me to send him to prison, but I want him to get therapy. I want him to get help," and as a result gave him a very light sentence and, of course, everybody knows the rest. I guess it's part of the readjustment that we need to make; that there are people who suffer from genuine mental illness, but that tends to be trivialized when you have people who say, "Well, the reason I murdered the mayor of San Francisco was I ate too many Twinkies." "The reason that I made obscene phone calls was because I was abused as a child."

We can come up with an almost infinite variety of excuses to basically get away from the point that we ought to be held accountable. There's a certain dignity to this, by the way. If we assume that people do act on the basis of free will, freely chosen decisions, we may come to the conclusion they've done something bad, but we've at least given them the dignity of human beings; whereas by saying, "No, it's not your fault. You can't be blamed. You are sick. This was not something that you did but that happened to you," we tend to reduce people to something less than human, I think.
LAMB: You mentioned both Gov. Donald Schaefer in the state of Maryland, right close by here, and former Gov. Richard Celeste in Ohio who both commuted sentences for what reason, and why did you bring it up?
SYKES: This is, again, the multiplication of therapeutic categories to explain behavior. In those two gentlemen's cases it was the battered-woman syndrome -- women who had murdered their husbands and are arguing that they should not be held responsible for it because they suffer from this new syndrome which is very fashionable and popular these days. Unfortunately, after the commutations, in some cases, it came out that one woman, I think, had hired someone to murder her husband for the insurance money. Some woman had not seen her husband for a very long time between the last contact and the murder, and I think that we ought to be a little bit skeptical of that. There's a very dramatic case since then down in Tennessee where the police went to a woman's house and found a 13-month-old baby in the early stages of decomposition, the other children starving in the household, and arrested the husband and the wife. The woman writes love letters to the husband while she's in jail, describing various sex acts they would perform. But when she came to trial, what the defense used was the battered-woman syndrome. In other words, at some point you get excuses on excuses where his woman's child abuse, and perhaps the willful causing of her children's death, now is being explained by something else. Again, I think it would be very helpful for society to keep in mind that you ought to act as if we are responsible for our behavior because only in that way can we uphold some sense of what's right and what's wrong and some sense of moral order, which is there's really no excuse for women to let their children starve to death.
LAMB: "The Rights Revolution: E Pluribus Victim" is the title of one of your chapters. You quote someone by the name of Fred Siegel. Who is he?
SYKES: He's a well-known historian who's written extensively on the 1960s.
LAMB: "More and more dependent on the courts, liberals forgot how to talk to most Americans," you quote Mr. Siegel as saying. How come?
SYKES: I think that part of the shift after the civil rights movement was instead of seeking to build a coalition, instead of relying on the tremendous moral force that had been built up in the '60s, was the choice to use litigation as the tool of choice in order to advance causes. The rights revolution is basically, again, a very American phenomenon. Americans believe that if some rights are a good thing then more rights must be a better thing, and that the louder and more uncompromising we are in demanding our rights must be the best of all. As a result, what we've seen is the proliferation of rights that are not necessarily linked with responsibilities, that are demanded in a very uncompromising fashion. I quote a Harvard law professor, Marianne Glendon, who talks about the new language of rights which she calls "rights talk," which she says tends to be shrill and absolutist insistence on all of our rights, with a near aphasia concerning personal responsibility. That is clearly one of the major factors in developing the culture we have today.
LAMB: To what do you ascribe the success of Susan Faludi's book "Backlash"?
SYKES: I'd hate to speculate on that. Feminists face two very difficult problems. One is that most women in this country don't support their agenda, so therefore when they talk about the women's agenda and the women's standpoint, they have a built-in political problem. The second major problem that they have to deal with is to continue to insist that women are victims in the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary. For example, the massive changes -- doors opened for women in the media, in politics, in law, in engineering and in business over the last 20 years, which have been really extraordinary, those developments. So there is a very shrill attempt now, which I think is somewhat paradoxical given the political successes of women to insist that despite all of this women are still oppressed, they are still victimized, there are all kinds of plots and counterrevolutions going on that will keep you in your place. So, again, it's part of the politics of victimization where you become yoked to your victim status and you have to cling to your victim status and believe in your victim status even when it looks like the world is rolling out a red carpet for you. I think her book is a perfect example of that.
LAMB: What kind of a judge is your wife?
SYKES: I hope a very tough one.
LAMB: What kind of cases?
SYKES: A criminal judge.
LAMB: State?
SYKES: Right.
LAMB: Run for it?
SYKES: Yes, elected.
LAMB: Is she a feminist?
SYKES: You'd have to ask her that. I don't know how she would describe herself.
LAMB: Do you ever talk about this stuff about victims?
SYKES: Oh, yes.
LAMB: And she sees a lot of that. You have a whole chapter on "So Sue Me."
SYKES: Well, she's in criminal cases. Yes, the litigation explosion in this country -- there's no question about it that lawyers play a significant role in that.
LAMB: When you talk about it, does she hear a lot of blame from the victims or the people that come before the court?
SYKES: Yes. I think it's become reflexive, that even people who may lack high school educations, people who we would think are barely literate, can explain in great detail all of the ways that they should not be held responsible for their behavior. It seems to be the one thing that we have succeeded in transmitting to all classes of society.
LAMB: Your book, and of course the one before it, "Prof Scam," takes you around the country, I assume?
LAMB: Is there any difference in other parts of the country from Milwaukee in the attitude on these issues? What do you find as you travel around?
SYKES: I haven't done much traveling on this particular book, but American society is becoming far more uniform than it used to be. I would say that there's no part of the country that's immune from this. There's no part of the country in which there is not a proliferation of new therapies. There's no part of the country in which there is not an explosion of litigation, and there's no part of the country in which you can't find groups that are really absolutely convinced that they, too, are oppressed and victimized.
LAMB: You've got some statistics here. In 1970 the EEOC -- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- received 15,000 complaints, and in 1973 the number had risen to 48,900. In 1977 the number topped 79,000. When did it start?
SYKES: I think the rights revolution began in the late 1960s and extended through the 1970s, and really didn't catch fire until the 1970s when it became acceptable. Again, this is a cultural shift because discrimination did not get worse. In fact, there's probably some evidence that it got less bad. It became more acceptable, in fact, even correct, to file lawsuits, to blame other people for the situation. This is not to deny -- I understand that discriminations are reality, that racism is a reality. The point to be made here is that at some point there's a Gresham's law of victimization, which is that bogus victims drive out real victims. If everybody's a victim, nobody's a victim. So not only do you have people who are genuine victims of racial discrimination, but you have, for example, the case of the flasher, which I describe, in Wisconsin. A man who is convicted of flashing or exposing himself more than 30 times, and by his own admission had done it about 10,000 times. He applies for a job as a park attendant. He's denied the job based on his arrest record, and he sues saying he'd been illegally discriminated against because he'd never actually exposed himself in a park, only in libraries and laundromats. The Equal Employment Commission in Wisconsin found that, indeed, there is probable cause to believe that he had, in fact, been discriminated against. So, again, we have a dramatic expansion of our definition of discrimination as well as a greater willingness to litigate it.
LAMB: You say that there will be 40,000 graduates of law schools this year?
SYKES: I think that's true, yes.
LAMB: Let me read that again. In the 1990s law schools will turn out 40,000 new attorneys a year. There's over 600,000 attorneys in the country. Why does this country have more attorneys than anybody else?
SYKES: There is some debate, of course, over the number of whether we really have 70 percent of the world's lawyers or not. That's really not important. That number is not terribly important. One thing I think is quite clear is that we are not deprived of lawyers. Some people would blame what I've been describing on lawyers. They clearly have a good deal of responsibility, but I think they're also responding to this cultural impulse. I think it was the English magazine The Economist that said that Americans acts as if they should receive a life-long indemnification against anything going wrong, that any time anything bad happens to Americans one of the first things they do it call up a lawyer. So in a sense, the lawyers may be encouraging the flood of litigation, but they're also responding to something in American society. If Americans really felt that litigation was the court of last resort, if it was something that they looked upon with disdain or distaste, I don't think even having twice as many lawyers would result in the flood that we experience today.
LAMB: You mentioned television, and you quote Louis Sullivan as saying that the three major networks will depict more than 10,000 sexual incidences and 93 percent of them outside of marriage. What impact does that have?
SYKES: Of course it's debatable what impact it has, but I don't think there's any question that television tends to both reflect, but primarily shape, social attitudes. I think that sex is obviously far more common on-screen than off-screen. No wonder people feel that they're not leading fulfilled lives because they're probably not getting as much as they see on prime time. But I think the context that he said it is that we need to get back to a culture of character where we need to emphasize responsibility as much as self-gratification. We really have emphasized gratification, that anything you want to do, if it feels good go ahead and do it. There shouldn't be any consequences to it. For all those sex acts that you see on television, how many result in pregnancy? How many result in children being born out of wedlock? How many of them do we see being dealt with, Murphy Brown aside? For example, in Wisconsin 80 percent of the black children this year will be born out of wedlock. This has contributed drastically to the rise of inner city poverty, to the development of the underclass and to the breakdown of the community. Again, I think that we need to begin to emphasize the fact that personal responsibility and accountability have to factor in this, and we ought not to look for a lot of excuses for this sort of behavior.
LAMB: When did the nation of victims start? Can you go back and put a date on it?
SYKES: No, I can't.
LAMB: Thirty years?
SYKES: I think it's really picking up. It's clearly something that's occurred after the 1950s, but even Alexis de Tocqueville 100 years ago wrote about the "vague dread" among Americans who were constantly brooding over the advantages that they didn't possess, even though they were in much better shape than their European counterparts. Americans have always had a certain level of anxiety, have always kind of worried about not getting everything they possibly can out of life. But I think you have four factors that have occurred, really, since the 1950s and the '60s.

The first is, as I describe, the extraordinarily heightened expectations that Americans have -- that we moved from emphasizing self-control to emphasizing self-realization, self-fulfillment and the belief that we could have it all. Number two would be the rights revolution that we've just talked about -- the more rights the better. Third would be the depersonalization of blame, whether it is to say, you're not bad, you are sick -- the rise of this therapeutic culture -- and at the same time the shift of blame from the individual to society.

The fourth would be a very specific thing that happened in the late '60s and the early 1970s, which was, through the courts and through legislation, the practice of giving specific entitlements and benefits to people if they could identify themselves as part of a victimized group. In other words, the entitlements did not necessarily go to individuals but to members of groups, therefore providing an incentive for individuals and groups to say, "We are also victimized." One result of that is, and I quote one expert or pundit as estimating that if you add up now in 1992 all of the groups that now feel they are oppressed and victimized, it would come to 374 percent of the total American population.
LAMB: In the preface of your book you name a number of things. We talked earlier about the Wisconsin Policy Institute. You also received support from the John M. Oland Foundation. Who is John M. Oland?
SYKES: The John M. Oland Foundation is, again, a foundation involved with public policy and a variety of issues. Its president is William Simon, the former secretary of the treasury.
LAMB: Do you go to them personally and ask for money? Is that how this works?
LAMB: What do they want from you? Is there are a certain point of view they demand?
SYKES: No. Actually, that's the wonderful thing about dealing with them. I wrote them a proposal and said, "This is the book I am interested in writing, and I would appreciate your support," and they were kind and generous enough to provide that support.
LAMB: When you get support, like from them, do they give you money to get the book written, and then do you also write a contract with somebody and then you get the proceeds from that?
SYKES: Right.
LAMB: They don't get involved in the proceeds?
SYKES: No, not at all.
LAMB: You also mention here the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. What is that?
SYKES: It's an organization that deals with college campuses. They had arranged for a tour of college campuses to discuss some of my previous books, "Prof Scam" and "The Hollow Men," and they enabled me to go to various colleges and to talk and to get some sense of what was going on. They provide speakers and publications for students and faculty members on a variety of issues on college campuses.
LAMB: When did you do this?
SYKES: About a year or so ago.
LAMB: How many schools did you go to?
SYKES: For ISI, I think probably about a dozen.
LAMB: What kind of reaction did you get from the students? This was for "Prof Scam"?
SYKES: This was more for "The Hollow Men," so this was talking about more of the political aspect. The people that generally showed up for those speeches were generally sympathetic. This was during the period where political correctness was very much in the news and public consciousness was heightening to it. The points that I was making were basically that it's a mistake to see this as a liberal or a conservative issue because what's at stake here are the values of liberal education, free speech and tolerance. I said this is what's at stake, and I think there should be common ground for people of a variety of ideologies. So I think that people who might have thought that I was coming in to deliver a conservative critique of left-wing politics were surprised and perhaps disappointed, because I think that this was a rather more basic issue than that.
LAMB: Let me go back and get the dates correct. "Prof Scam" was written in what year?
SYKES: It was published in 1988.
LAMB: "The Hollow Men" was published in what year?
SYKES: 1990.
LAMB: And this one was published this year.
SYKES: Right, 1992.
LAMB: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute -- who supports that, where is it headquartered and what kind of people do they send all over the country?
SYKES: That's a good question. They're headquartered in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvannia. They're supported by -- that's a good question. I'm not sure. I imagine that they get foundation support, and I think they tend to be very, very specifically conservative.
LAMB: Do they pay you to go to the campus or do the campuses pay you to go there?
SYKES: Usually they have a grant. ISI had a grant from the Oland Foundation to send me to the campuses.
LAMB: You mention "my friend Attorney Julie M. Buchanan who unselfishly opened her files to me." What files? Who is she?
SYKES: She is an attorney who deals with issues like employment discrimination and sexual harassment, usually on the defense side, and helped walk me through the nightmare of litigation that I think is bizarre for most lay people like myself and was quite helpful in pointing out what was going on in the law -- the way that there were more and more frivolous lawsuits and the cost that that imposed on the economy and on business.
LAMB: Speaking of lawyers again, early in the book you say that in 1991 the United States had 281 lawyers per 100,000 population, that England had 82 per 100,000 population, and there were a mere 11 per 100,000 in Japan. In this country 281, in Japan 11. What's the difference? Have you studied the difference between the societies and why so few lawyers in Japan?
SYKES: I think there's a very different attitude towards litigation in those countries. There's a very different attitude towards the relationship of individuals and the relationship of groups to one another. Let's face it, the Japanese have a culture that really still emphasizes communal purpose, that emphasizes self-control and self-limitation. It would be very hard, for example, to imagine the case that occurred in New York happening in Japan -- the men who engage in the refrigerator races that I talk about in the book, that carry refrigerators on their backs in races. A couple of them hurt their back and they turned around and they sued the manufacturer of the refrigerator for failing to have warnings that you're not supposed to do this. Now, it's kind of hard to imagine that happening in Japan.
LAMB: Did they win?
SYKES: I don't know if they won, but there is another case where a guy did win in New York. He gets drunk, jumps in front of a subway train and is mangled. When he sobers up, he sues the subway company for failing to stop in time and wins a $650,000 judgment. Again, I think the Japanese still have a culture based on shame, where I think they would be ashamed to do it, whereas we in this country have learned that we shouldn't feel guilty, we shouldn't feel ashamed, we should get in touch with our feelings and realize that in fact we're okay -- I'm okay and you're okay.
LAMB: You choose a quote from the British magazine The Economist. The Economist noted with bemusement that "in the United States if you lose your job you can sue for the mental distress of being fired, if your bank goes broke the government has insured your deposits, if you drive drunk and crash you can sue somebody for failing to warn you to stop drinking. There is always somebody else to blame." Do they not have this problem in England?
SYKES: Abroad, people look at the Americans and they're really struck by it. You asked about Japan before -- to get back to that. The Japanese really do have a sense that Americans are whiners. Look at the auto companies, for example. When you talk about the nation of victims, it's easy, of course, to focus on politically correct groups and members of minority groups, but I think it's also interesting to look at the way American auto manufacturers deal with their problems. The first thing they do is, they begin finger-pointing and blaming somebody else. "It's not our fault." The Japanese, the British, the French and the Germans, they've picked up on this. They recognize this. It is one of the most common complaints that you'll hear abroad about Americans. I think they're more sensitive to it than we are because we've sort of gotten used to the finger-pointing.
LAMB: The New York Mets have hired a psychiatrist?
SYKES: They did in the late 1980s.
LAMB: Why?
SYKES: Apparently they decided it wasn't enough to have coaches deal with the fundamentals of hitting and pitching and running the bases. They apparently thought that it was important for players to get in touch with their inner selves or for the coaches to be able to relate to them. I use that as an example of the triumph of the therapeutic culture in this country, the way that we have turned over larger and larger spheres of life to the psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, where we have redefined behavior, what used to be thought of in terms of normal behavior and character, in medical terms. So, for example, we've developed therapies for everything from procrastination, overeating, overwork. People who spend all their money are no longer merely wasteful and irresponsible. They can suffer from something called compulsive shopping syndrome, for which there are therapies and self-help groups. If you gamble away all of your money you're no longer a bum. You may suffer from compulsive gambling syndrome, complete with therapies and self-help groups. Again, it's part of a transformation of society in which all of us can find a couch to lie on to explain that we're not bad, we really are misunderstood.
LAMB: If you had to pick a period in history that you could live in where there was not much blame and people didn't feel like victims, what would it be?
SYKES: I'm not trying to be nostalgic here, to say that there's some golden era in the past. I think the important thing is to find some way of blending together the genuine understanding and compassion for the disadvantaged and people who need it, which I think we have now, with a more traditional notion that we ought not to throw out concepts of accountability and responsibility. Perhaps we ought to emphasize things like self-restraint, moderation, duty, responsibility -- not simply 19th century Victorian ideas. They could be very valuable today. But I think it would be naive to suggest that there was some great golden age in the past.
LAMB: You say, "Black Americans are now beginning to understand the price they have paid for adopting the values of a cultural and intellectual elite, an elite that has not always shared with them the tragic consequences of their ideas." What do you mean?
SYKES: I think it's very interesting hearing people who regard themselves as compassionate, explaining, for example, why it is that minorities should not be held to the same standards as other people, why you can't expect young, black men and women to stay in school, why you can't expect them to stay off of gangs and things like that. They make these sorts of excuses that they would never make for their own children, that they would never in their own lives provide that kind of a standard where they have, for example, glorified the culture of self-fulfillment -- do whatever feels good. But they lead their middle-class lives. They can go off to Harvard and Stanford, whereas in Anacostia and Watts the same sort of moral values have a much more tragic consequence. In the 1960s we got away from the notion that there should be certain social stigmas. Now, that plays one way in the suburbs. It plays very differently in the inner city because the poor have traditionally had very few weapons against social disintegration, and one of the most important weapons was the social stigma that said it's wrong to drop out of school, it's wrong to father children which you don't take care of, it's wrong to disdain taking a job because it's only minimum wage, it's disgraceful to become dependent. Those were social stigmas. They had a sense of shame to them. But in the 1960s we convinced one another that the only great sin was to be judgmental, and we must not in any way be judgmental. As Christopher Jenks says, a very prominent sociologist, once you take away that form of judgment, in effect you're tearing up the moral contract and you leave the poor almost defenseless against the normal centrifugal forces of disillusion that they face.
LAMB: You write about Martin Luther King. You say you changed.
SYKES: I write about him with great admiration because I think that he, at least in the beginning, understood very clearly that you could fight for the fight against injustice, you could fight for human rights without playing the victim card. He said, "Listen, really because we have been the object of injustice does not mean that we can abdicate responsibility for our own lives to be self-reliant." He tried to avoid assuming a moral tone that basically said we are innocent and everybody else in guilty. He was trying to build a moral consensus. I think that reflected the middle-class value system of the Southern black leadership, and the theology -- the sort of Gandhi-like philosophy -- that said that we're not going to morally browbeat our foes; that we're going to emphasize our common humanity, and again, that famous phrase, "We look forward to the day when his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." That vision, I think, came as close as this country ever came to binding us together in a moral community. Tragically, I think that was lost as the emphasis shifted from that moral leadership to the sense we are victims and we don't want equal rights, we want reparations and the classification of people by skin color.
LAMB: You cite a poll in 1966, and you say, "While white radicals were already declaring King an anachronism, the preacher received an approval rating of 88 percent of the black Americans. In contrast, black power advocate Stokley Carmichael won the approval of only 19 percent." What's your point?
SYKES: That is a real paradox because I think the black community in this country tends to be much more socially conservative than they are given credit for and often the media and experts like us tend to turn towards certain designated black spokesmen who are supposed to speak for the black community, but they don't always speak for the black community. For a while there the black power advocates were much more fashionable than Martin Luther King, but Martin Luther King's mixture of faith and moral commitment and his commitment to those values, I think, always represented the average black community far better than the radicals.
LAMB: Why do we see such a resurgence of Malcolm X in popularity among the black community?
SYKES: Again, I'm not sure how much of a resurgence that is. We see movies made about it, we see spokesmen who have embraced it, but I'm not sure if you really did a survey of who represents the values most closely of American blacks, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, my bet would be that Martin Luther King would win that overwhelmingly.
LAMB: Do you have another book in you?
SYKES: I certainly hope so.
LAMB: What's it going to be about?
SYKES: I don't know. I'm interested in exploring the issue of the way we raise children more in depth.
LAMB: Do you have kids?
SYKES: Yes, three.
LAMB: Hard thing to do today?
SYKES: It's extraordinarily hard to do, and I think that anybody that's talked to parents understands the pressure that it is to try to raise children with a certain set of values, a certain set of beliefs, a certain character when faced with all of the various pressures of society around them, and I certainly don't have any easy answers for that.
LAMB: Are you happy the way this book is being received?
SYKES: It's just published very recently. Thus far I'm quite pleased. It got a very nice review from the Wall Street Journal, and one hopes that it will spark a thoughtful debate about these issues because I think it raises and touches on a number of crucial points that have been in the news quite a bit and hopefully will shed more light than heat.
LAMB: Charles J. Sykes of Milwaukee, Wis. This is the book, "A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character" by St. Martins' Press. Thank you.
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