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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.


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Comments (18)

Even the people on the righ... (Below threshold)

Even the people on the right who dislike Ann Coulter must be very grateful that she brought this idea to political discussions. The first time I remember seeing it was when Al Gore highlighted someone in the audience who was in dire straights because of something or other, and used her as the reason to give more money away to people.

One 300 millionth of the population does NOT deserve special recompense from the government or it's officials. No matter how bad off they are.

If footage of Fox discussin... (Below threshold)
jpm100:

If footage of Fox discussing only the illness and its impact and even possibly what he believes is a potential cure was featured in a commercial by the politician actually running making the political claim about his opponent, that would have been more acceptable. Eventhough, he would have been exploiting Fox and likely come off that way as well which is likely why it wasn't done that way.

Instead, Fox crossed the line out of being a professional victum into making the political claims himself. Using his victumhood as a shield against criticism.

Last night on O'Reilly, Bernard Goldberg described the move as and action intended on stifling debate.

Free debate is necessary on issues like this. It is something which is integral to Determining Truth and making informed decisions.

But because some of Rush Limbaugh's remarks went after Fox, fairly or not, the media got to portray Fox as being victumized again. And any of the valid criticism of Fox's statement from Rush and Everyone else were completely ignored.

I have to say the tactic likely worked. We should expect to see even more of it in the future. Victums who will make grand political statements and attacks and be held completely unaccountable for them.

In addition, I'm not blamin... (Below threshold)
jpm100:

In addition, I'm not blaming this on Limbaugh. Because with all the pundits out there, and the fact they are only human means there will almost always be someone to say something disparaging of the 'victum turn politician' that will be used to cry foul by the side using the victum. Like I said, quite a powerful and undemocratic tactic.

For me, the whole "absolute... (Below threshold)

For me, the whole "absolute moral authority" argument used to describe Sheehan went out with the bath water when those using it decided it didn't apply to parents of other slain soldiers who didn't agree with Sheehan. The kindest word I saw for them was "misguided". There was much worse.

As far as Rush goes, I heard what he said and he criticized Fox for the tactic he used - and was very careful to be clear about it. He also criticized those who exploit him. But that's not the way some see it. There are those who will give Fox a free pass on anything he does lest they be seen as insensitive. Criticism is rarely, if ever, sensitive. But that does mean it isn't valid.

Sorry - that "doesn't"</... (Below threshold)

Sorry - that "doesn't" mean it isn't valid.

Free debate is necessary... (Below threshold)
astigafa:

Free debate is necessary on issues like this. It is something which is integral to Determining Truth and making informed decisions.

And so M. Fox should be allowed to speak: fair and balanced, as always.

Astigafa, are you really re... (Below threshold)

Astigafa, are you really reading this? No one's saying he shouldn't have the right to speak. What's happening is that, after he does, no further discussion is done by the proponents of embryonic stem cell research. They just point to Fox as a victim and..well, that's it.

It's not Fox's outspokenness that's the issue. It's what comes after that.

And so M. Fox should be ... (Below threshold)
jpm100:

And so M. Fox should be allowed to speak: fair and balanced, as always
This is a completely dishonest conclusion based on my comments.

As always, Democrats don't want to debate the issue. They want to generate emotional outrage and ride the mob into power.

I think it is very, very wr... (Below threshold)
P. Bunyan:

I think it is very, very wrong for Michael Fox to accuse people who are opposed to Josef Mengele style rearch (e.g., performing medical experiments on genocide victims- which is what is truly the issue here) as not caring about those with debilitating disease.

I feel sorry for Mr. Fox, but his disease does not give him an excuse for lying or supporting evil.

I think it is very, very wr... (Below threshold)
P. Bunyan:

I think it is very, very wrong for Michael Fox to accuse people who are opposed to Josef Mengele style rearch (e.g., performing medical experiments on genocide victims- which is what is truly the issue here) as not caring about those with debilitating disease.

I feel sorry for Mr. Fox, but his disease does not give him an excuse for lying or supporting evil.

astigafa, I know it's a cha... (Below threshold)

astigafa, I know it's a challenge for you, but TRY to think:

No one is saying that Fox has no right to speak. What I'm saying (along with others) is that he has no right to speak AND REMAIN UNCHALLENGED. That he does not have an EXCLUSIVE right to speak.

But, apparently, to you and other less-than-perceptive people, his right to speak means that no one else can.

J.

Bill O'Reilly is on a c... (Below threshold)
Paul A'Barge:

Bill O'Reilly is on a crusade to pass "Jessica's Law"

I don't like it

I hope you say that tongue-in-cheek. Sincerely.

I've said it before, I'll s... (Below threshold)
Bob:

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Celebs, actors, entertainers, etc all want us to love them, their egos demand it. All well and good, as long as they try to entertain. When they cross the line into politics, then they are going to be criticized, questioned, and yes,hated by multiple people. That is the nature of politics. Why, then are they always SHOCKED to find out that everyone doen't love them? They take it personally and cry about their free speech being violated by criticism.

Well, folks, that is the price you pay for joining into the political mudfight. You WILL be splattered.

I have to admit that it was a clever ploy to use a disabled actor as a spokes-robot, instead of an anonymous "victim". Naturally, an actor who has a dread disease is MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than a regular person who suffers as well. [rant]As you can tell, I am very tired of celebs who believe that they are sooo important and no one else is. I get pushed and shoved by these people regularly in the grocery store line.[/rant]

Actually the real problem h... (Below threshold)
seamus:

Actually the real problem here isn't that Michael J Fox speaks. The real problem is that morons like P Bunyan and pansies like Bob speak. Honestly Bob, I'm sorry you can't defend yourself in the grocery store, but stop being a sisy boy and buck up! Don't come whining about it here!

Actors in politics? Yeah, t... (Below threshold)
Gene-Gabriel Moore:

Actors in politics? Yeah, they do stir the waters don't they? Though I'm an actor, a 70-year-old professional stage actor, and one of the 56 million Americans with disabilities, I got to agree that actors should only entertain...though Ronnie R. in the WH was kind of funny and the present governor of California is, well, curious. But, hey, they don't count, right? Republican. And then there's that chap that kisses the NRA's youknowhat.

Jay Tea:I like you... (Below threshold)
ryan:

Jay Tea:

I like your last sentence, and agree with you that we should not judge ideas based upon whether or not we like the person who espouses them. Ideas, like literary works, should be based upon their own merit. Cheers for that.

I do disagree with a part of your assessment, however. You wrote:

The basic premise behind it is that certain people have more standing, more credibility, more authority in matters because of their personal circumstances.

The truth, as I see it, is that in fact some people really DO have more standing, credibility, and yes, authority, in certain matters due to personal circumstances or experience. In matters of paleontology I would say that Stephen Jay Gould held more authority than say, my mechanic. I think that it might be safe to say that Tiger Woods, for example, has greater credibility and standing regarding the game of golf than Michael Moore. Neil Armstrong might have a little more authority about walking on the moon than Michael Jackson could ever have. But then, Mr Jackson, of course, knows a great deal more about...uh...well...you get the point.

You continued:

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.

The merits or flaws of an argument CAN be subordinated to those who are in favor or against it, but this isn't some automatic process. Part of the responsibility, in my opinion, lies with the audience (us). Just because we hear that Jared Diamond is an authority on world history doesn't mean that we have to sit back and believe everything that he says and writes. Hell no. At some point we have to be critical and think for ourselves. So Michael J. Fox has Parkinson's, and goes around talking about the merits of stem cell research. Do we have to lay down and accept everything that he says just because he has some condition that we don't? Again: Hell no! We have to listen to his argument, and then decide for ourselves whether or not we agree with his reasoning. At some point we have to be able to make up our own minds.

Imagine that!

So, in my opinion, some people do have a certain authority on subjects, arguments, or ideas. I would much rather trust the military to an experienced general than I would some half-assed politician. It makes sense.

Reeve, Fox, Walsh, O'Reilly, and Sheehan might SAY that they have some kind of authority on a subject, and they might have some kind of life experience that seems to suggest that they do...but that doesnt mean that they should--any of them--be automatically granted ANY authority. Ultimately, authority, credibility, and respect are earned.

On the back of every book that's sold the publisher tells us what a genius the author is. We can be foolish and just accept that as fact, or we can read the book and make the determination ourselves.

In the end it is us--the audience--that chooses to support or reject the ideas and arguments of these folks. Too bad so many of us are too goddamned lazy to actually be discerning in any way, but that's for another time...

YES! We must all think for ourselves!


"Judging an idea on the bas... (Below threshold)
Robert:

"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."

Al Qaeda wants us to leave Iraq.
Who cares if Al Qaeda agrees we should leave Iraq?
Let's judge the option of us leaving Iraq on its own merits.

Robert, that's a valid poin... (Below threshold)

Robert, that's a valid point. I don't let myself be swayed into taking a position based solely on opposing it, but will admit to occasionally giving some slight weight to the "it will piss off people I like pissing off" and "judging something by the quality of its enemies" arguments.

ryan, you're conflating expertise with experience there. If someone is a genuine expert in the field, based on study and experience and knowledge, that's one thing. But simple victimhood seems to be the equivalent of an advanced degree in subject matters. I'll repeat my Shockley example, and point out that Noam Chomsky is a brilliant linguist -- but I consider both geniuses to be utterly unqualified and totally wrong on politics.

J.




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