More MS news articles for April 2001

I Left the Left Behind, and the Politics of Victimhood

Friday, April 13, 2001

"I get two kinds of patients," said a specialist I once consulted, "the ones who get upset when I tell them they have multiple sclerosis, and the ones who get upset when I tell them they don't."
Every year at this time, when the MS Society holds its annual fund-raisers, I remember that doctor, not so much because I've since been diagnosed with MS, but because I've stopped being secretly happy about it.
The doc had been right. I saw my diagnosis as an opportunity. A juicy, Jesse Jackson kind of event, supremely exploitable for all its tragic worth. Not only did I have a degenerative disease; I also had one that would disable me. What could be better? After all, it's not every day that you get to join a protected minority, to call yourself compadre to a whole new cadre of the oppressed.
Naturally, at the time, I'd never have admitted as much, not even to myself. But back then there was a lot I wouldn't have admitted, for the simple reason that I was a registered Democrat. That was six years ago.
Since then, I've learned a thing or two about myself and about the pitfalls of identity politics. Because for me, and I suspect for many people, one of the hardest things about coping with MS has been resisting the temptation to use it as an excuse.
The first thing most people say to themselves when they're diagnosed with a serious disease is, "Why me?" It's a knee-jerk human response, and I was no exception. It was the easiest way to make the best of a bad situation--the idea being that if I had to be sick for the rest of my life, I should at least get a little martyrdom out of it. That, and a trump card in every argument I'd ever have with anyone, and a turbo guilt trip for my parents when it was convenient and a cause for everything that had ever gone wrong in my life.
At the time, my career was in the toilet. I was languishing in a menial desk job, blaming my lack of advancement on everything from the corporate system and spiteful bosses to fluorescent lighting, instead of blaming it on my own laziness and lack of initiative.
When the doctor told me I had MS, I suddenly felt the weight of my own and everyone else's expectations lift off my shoulders. So this was why I hadn't done better on the SATs, I thought. This was why I'd dropped out of grad school. This was why I'd been passed over for a promotion. I was handicapped, and for people like me, the world was a hostile place.
Hence the beauty of support groups. I went, and suddenly, I belonged. Sympathy abounded. Solidarity took me in. I understood why people dug being marginalized. You got a gripe and a cheerleading squad in the bargain. But after hearing everyone's sob stories about how their lives had been ruined by fate, I started to feel like I was at a "Take Back the Night" march or a "Fat Is a Lesbian Issue" meeting. I began to understand the common denominator of identity politics--empowerment through victimhood--and why so many people were attracted to it. It was so easy, and it felt so good.
Over time, I realized that neoradicals were cheering this on for political gain. The left had become little more than a meeting place for balkanized groups of discontents, all bent on extracting their quota of public shame and their slice of the entitlement pie. All of them blaming their personal failures on their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, their disability, their socioeconomic status and a million other things. Everything but themselves. Their refrain, too, was, "Why me?" And the more I heard it, the more I started to think: Why not you? Everyone has problems, and this is yours. Now get over it and get on with it. When I learned to say that to myself, I left the left behind.
It took MS to teach me an invaluable lesson, one that many people think has made me a conservative, but which I think has simply made me an adult: The personal is not political. Quite the contrary, the political is personal.

Norah Vincent Is a Freelance Journalist Who Lives in New York City

Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times