Heba Macksoud v. the Victim-Industrial Complex

I am on the verge of saying that America has a Victim-Industrial Complex. Our society teaches  how to be a victim in the same focused and careful way special teams coaches teach punters how to fall down as if they had been hit by a defensive lineman.

On January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower gave his farewell speech to the nation. The speech is famous, justly famous, I think, for his introduction of the term “military-industrial complex.” I’m going to borrow a line or so from that speech at the end. Since then, there have been as many references to an X-industrial complex as there have been to public scandals called Y-gate. [1] I am introducing “victim-industrial complex” here in an attempt to cash in on the familiarity of the phrase. I have a serious point to make, but I want this early reference to indicate just how irked I am by the whole thing.

grocery 1

Still, for as much time as I spend whining about the attractions of victimhood, it is good for me to stop and recognize someone who, in my judgment is doing it right and Ms. Heba Macksoud came to mind. I found this story in the New York Times—a Lutheran pastor provided the hyperlink in one of his blog posts. The story as writer Samuel G. Freedman tells it has a hero and a few villains. Ms. Macksoud is shopping in a Shop-Rite store, one she knows well, when this happened.

“…a couple of middle-age white men talking. One in particular caught her eye with his beer belly, tattooed forearms and large golden cross. As she neared him, she heard the word “Bible.” When she passed him, he said in a raised voice: “not like the Quran those Muslims read.” He included an obscenity to describe Ms. Macksoud and 1.6 billion coreligionists.

So there’s one of the villains—right out of Central Casting:the Bible Bigot.  BB?  And here is the obvious hero, Assistant Manager Mark Eagan, who took the trouble to find out what the issue was and to make it go away without causing any explosions.

I deplore the Bible Bigot, as I should, and I admire the Assistant Manager as I should. And now that I am done with that, I’d like to spend a little time celebrating Heba Macksoud. Here’s why I think she should be celebrated, particularly by anyone who spends as much time as I do worrying about the Victim-Industrial Complex. Heba Macksoud refused to be a victim.

First, she responded directly to the Bible Bigot—you know, the one with the beer belly, the tattoo, and the golden cross [2]. She said, “You didn’t have to say that.” It cost her a lot to hear what she heard and to regrocery 2spond as she did, but I love what she said. It doesn’t attack the man. It expresses her objection to being spoken of in that way. It categorizes his remark as bad manners (which it was) instead of religious bigotry (which it also was).  It
points out that his bad manners were gratuitous. And then she walked on.

Second, when she recognized what the experience had cost her, she didn’t try to deny it: she went for help. Think, for a moment, how much easier it would have been to leave and go somewhere she could be sure she would feel safe. Then she could write a nasty letter to the store about her awful experience. She could call it a “lynching” [3] and call for a boycott. She could make defamatory anti-Christian noises at her mosque.

grocery 6She didn’t do any of that. She identified the kind of help she needed and went and got it. The help she needed was the help that would enable her to finish her job, which was shopping at her favorite Shop-Rite store. She said, as she recalls it, “I’m not done shopping, but I don’t feel safe here.” She didn’t start with being a woman or a Muslim, surely two of the easier starting places for her.   She started with being a customer. The Shop-Rite store had made an effort to attract Muslim customers and beginning by saying that she was one of those customers, she labelled herself as the kind of person the store was trying to attract. She began by presuming her value to the store. She was someone they would put themselves out for if they really had the health of their business in mind. Note that there is nothing remotely victim-like about that.

And Ms. Macksoud didn’t say that she wasn’t safe, which might or might not be true; she said she didn’t feel safe, which was unquestionably true. She reported the facts and the manager took appropriate action. She didn’t call the cops; she didn’t threaten a suit; she didn’t threaten a boycott. She asked for enough help to finish her job.

The next day, she wrote about it on Facebook. I don’t know what she wrote, but if I base my guess on the way she handled the confrontation in the store, I will guess that she didn’t present herself as a victim. She might very well have presented herself as “one of us”—an actual or an incipient group of men and women with shared interests—who had been ill-used. I hope that is what she did. By making herself an instance of a category, possibly Unfazed Muslim Women or something, she strengthens the category. She makes it clearer for others to see. She reaches out to people who know they would have treated that event differently and who admire how Ms. Macksoud handled it.  That’s going to make more Unfazed Muslim Women and that is bad news for bullies, especially Bible Bigots.

She took several steps toward creating or strengthening a category of people who will be more inclined to sense a threat that they themselves did not experience directly.  That’s a good thing if the threat is real.  Heba Macksoud experienced it. And this category of people  were not forced to react directly to the threat, but Ms. Macksoud was.  In identifying with her, they experienced the threat indirectly and they were given the opportunity to measure themselves against it and to prepare themselves to resist both the aggression and the victimhood.

She’s my hero.

But in celebrating what she did, I run the risk of paying too little attention to the Victim grocery 4Industrial Complex and I would like to do that before I put this essay to bed. By praising what Ms. Macksoud did, I risk implying that it is what other people should do. My view is that other people should do what works for them; this is what worked for Ms. Macksoud. If an man who looked Middle Eastern and who was 6’5” and a very lean 250 lbs had been target by the Bible Bigot, it might well be that the best thing for him to do would be to stroll over there and loom over him a little. Let his presence imply the risk the Bigot is running. And then just walk away. Imagine other people with other resources, each one “doing what works.”  This looks like it worked pretty well.

I would also like to say, however, that “works for me” is going to have to include attacking the Victim-Industrial Complex. I want the result of the encounter to be that fewer people will victimize others; that fewer people toward whom victimization is directed accede to being victims; that “playing the vicim” as a passive form of accusation becomes less and less common as other kinds of resistance are modeled and adopted. In saying that I want Ms. Macksoud to do what works for her, I do not want to neglect my own interest in her doing what works for me as well. I hate the Victim Industry.

“…we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

That was what President Eisenhower said. He said it about the Military-Industrial Complex and I agree with him, but I would like to borrow his words to tar the Victim-Industrial Complex as well. [4]

[1] Education writer Diane Ravitch has referred to an “educational-industrial complex,” for instance and the use of under-inflated footballs by the New England Patriots has been called “Inflate-gate.”
[2] He probably had mustard on his beard too. What a guy!
[3] That worked for Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. That is the way he referred to his confirmation hearing in the U. S. Senate.
[4] Ever heard ads from people who will “solve your IRS issue for you,” implying that the government’s interest in your paying the taxes you owe somehow makes you a victim? Ever heard lawyers advertise their expertise in getting people off on DUII charges as if driving while drunk somehow makes you a victim? Ever heard the plea that your wife, having decided to leave the marriage, is not entitled to the settlement the law says she is entitled to and that having to obey that law makes you a victim of some sort? Those are the people I am talking about.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Heba Macksoud v. the Victim-Industrial Complex

  1. Heba Macksoud says:

    Thank you for your assessment of the situation which was spot on!

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