Magazine | January 26, 2015, Issue

The Grievance Game

Bernie Bernbaum begs for his life (Circle Films/Twentieth Century Fox)

Before Christmas break, law-school students at Harvard, Columbia, and other prestigious institutions insisted that they should be allowed to postpone their exams. Outrage over the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases simply made it impossible to study for a mere test. The dog of racial injustice ate their homework.

“In being asked to prepare for and take our exams in this moment, we are being asked to perform incredible acts of disassociation that have led us to question our place in this school community and the legal community at large,” proclaimed one letter, written to the administration of Columbia Law School and echoed in a similar letter sent to the Harvard Law School administration and signed by the entire coalition of the oppressed, including but not limited to the Harvard Law student associations for Asian-Pacific Americans, blacks, Middle Easterners, Muslims, Native Americans, feminists, and Hispanics, as well as the Harvard Law Students for Reproductive Justice and — of course — Harvard Law School Justice for Palestine. Because who has a better appreciation for the rule of law than apologists for the PLO?

The earnestness of the appeal was demonstrated by the letter’s emptying of the rhetorical cupboard.

“Your silence denies humanity to the lives lost and minimizes the gravity of the palpable anguish looming over campus,” the signatories told the Harvard Powers That Be. “Like many across the country, we are traumatized. Just because this racial terror is systemically reproduced and normalized through repeated fidelity to the so ­called rule of law, it does not mean the disruption is any less traumatic than a tragic bombing. The fact that you refuse to openly acknowledge this adds to our distress . . .”

The letter goes on — and on — but you get the point.

Naturally, the effort invited ample and deserved mockery. Even supposing that the facts of Garner’s and Brown’s deaths fit the students’ theory, if the legal larvae at America’s foremost shark hatcheries can’t keep their heads straight for finals, what good will they be when they have skin in the game? I don’t recall Atticus Finch weepily demanding a delay in the trial so he could have some me-time.

Harvard Law Review editor William Desmond didn’t like the mockery and tried to turn the tables on the hard-hearted cynics. “The hesitancy to recognize the validity of these psychic effects demonstrates that, in addition to conversations on race, gender and class, our nation is starving for a genuine discussion about mental health,” Desmond wrote in the National Law Journal. “Speaking as one of those law students, I can say that this response was misguided: Our request for exam extensions was not made from a position of weakness, but rather from one of strength and critical awareness.”

He continued: “Where some commentators see weakness or sensitivity, perhaps they should instead see strength — the strength to know when our cups of endurance have run over and when the time for patience has ended. Perhaps they should instead see courage — the courage to look our peers in the eyes and uncomfortably ask them to bear these burdens of racism and classism that we have together inherited from generations past . . .” Sing along, you know the words.

But what if the cynics were right? What I mean is: What if our mistake lay in not being cynical enough? What if Desmond & Co. are a bunch of Bernie Bernbaums?

In the Coen brothers’ masterpiece Miller’s Crossing, John Turturro plays Bernie Bernbaum, a seedy grifter who’s always looking for an angle. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has been ordered to murder Bernie. Out in the woods, at Miller’s Crossing, Bernbaum begs for his life. “You can’t kill me. I’m praying to you! . . . Look in your heart!” he says over and over. Reagan relents. He shoots his gun into the air so that those listening will think he’s done the deed. He then tells Bernie to scram: “You have to blow, for good. Nobody can see you, nobody can know.” Bernie gratefully agrees.

 But later — spoiler alert! — Bernie returns to work an angle. Reagan is furious. But Bernie now has the upper hand. Besides, Bernie says, “what were you gonna do if you caught me? I’d just squirt a few [tears] and then you’d let me go again.”

There’s a very simple reason we have so many victims today. You get what you reward. And in America today, particularly on university campuses, we reward victimhood with enormous emotional and political prestige. This simple insight explains why there are so many hate-crime hoaxes on college campuses. It probably explains at least some of the motivations swirling around the bogus University of Virginia rape story and the fraudulent statistics therein. It certainly partly explains the rhetoric and policies of the Democratic party (and of too much of the Republican party).

Victim status purchases special privileges. There are real victims, because that is the nature of things. “You’re on earth,” Samuel Beckett explained. “There’s no cure for that.” And no doubt there are many, many others who believe themselves to be greater victims than the truth warrants. But the fact remains that our good and decent society is in the midst of a kind of auto-immune crisis in which victimhood demands an exaggerated response. And in such a society, the very smart and very ambitious will exploit this fact as best they can.

In a more truthful, Bernbaumesque moment, young Desmond might have said: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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