The new bloody shirt

Back during the Civil War and reconstruction eras, a lot of Republican politicians used a rather deplorable political tactic that quickly became known as “waving the bloody shirt.” They would give a fiery speech, and at its climax wave a bloodied shirt they said was taken from a beaten — or killed — carpetbagger by unrepentant rebels. This would inflame the crowds, naturally, and sway them to whatever the speaker was espousing.

In the last few years, a new trend in political speech has emerged, and I find myself wondering if it might be a return of that practice.

The new version of the “bloody shirt” seems to be the “cult of victimhood.” Political activists of all stripes are seeking out — and finding — victims of various problems, ailments, and circumstances to bolster the appeal of their causes.

Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox — a quadraplegic and a sufferer of Parkinson’s Syndrome — tout stem-cell research. John Walsh started a national crusade for missing and exploited children that, among its successes, started the “Code Adam” program. Laws are named for dead children. In Massachusetts, “Melanie’s Law” raised the penalties for drunk drivers. Bill O’Reilly is on a crusade to pass “Jessica’s Law” in all 50 states, which puts restrictions on convicted sex offenders. In New Hampshire, there’s “Michelle’s Law,” which would extend health insurance benefits for adult children who are attending college. “Amber Alerts” are now a part of our everyday language. And Cindy Sheehan — the self-styled “Peace Mom” who I prefer to call “Mamma Moonbat” — has built a whole life out of her son’s death.

I don’t think I like it.

The basic premise behind it is that certain people have more standing, more credibility, more authority in matters because of their personal circumstances. The facts of a matter, the merits or flaws of an argument, are diminished or even subordinated to who is arguing in favor or against them. It’s much like the “chickenhawk” tactic, where the entire subject is shifted from the topic to the character of the proponent.

Also, I don’t like the phrase — or the concept behind — “moral authority.” It reminds me of the old saying: “the more he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

One of the most valuable experiences I ever had was a creative writing course. The way the teacher taught the class was for each student to bring their work in, with enough copies for all the other students. The author would read the piece, then sit there and shut up while the rest of the class would discuss the piece. The teacher’s theory — and I subscribe to it — was that no writer can go around explaining and elaborating on their work; it had to stand — or fail — on its own.

That notion should carry over into other areas. Discussions and issues should never be about who is pushing them or attacking them, but judged solely on their own merits. Adolf Hitler is pretty much considered the epitome of evil and wrongness, but he commissioned the “People’s Car” — the Volkswagen Beetle, as designed by Ferdinand Porsche — and also ordered the construction of the Autobahns. Should we get rid of small, economical, affordable cars and highways because Hitler favored them?

William Shockley won a Nobel Prize for his work in inventing the transistor, one of the most fundamental building blocks of the modern age. He was also a racist, who uses his prestige to espouse eugenics and racial superiority. Should we get rid of our computers, our cell phones, our televisions, just because one of the men who made it possible is so repugnant?

Judging an idea on the basis of who supports — or opposes — it is one of the laziest and most dishonest forms of debate. It cheapens and degrades the whole discussion. And worst of all, some of its most noted practicioners ought to, more than most, know just how wrong it is.

The Washington Post, Caught in a Webb of Bias
10 Candidates, 10 Days


  1. Another Kevin October 27, 2006
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