Thursday, September 24, 2009

Waving the bloody shirt

In American history, the expression "waving the bloody shirt" denotes the demagogic practice of politicians referencing the blood of martyrs or heroes in order to inspire support, avoid criticism, and to lay down the gauntlet to opponents.

The phrase originated in the following context. During the period immediately after the Civil War (ca. 1865-1885) ambitious and unscrupulous politicians sought to gain advantage by fostering sectionalist animosities. The phrase implied that the Democratic Party (with its bastion in the defeated states of the South) was responsible for the bloodshed of the war and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War had indeed produced many bloody garments. Some candidates of the Republican Party as well a few candidates of other parties rivaling the Democratic Party deployed this notion to gain election.

Somewhat fancifully, the term "bloody shirt" has been traced back to the aftermath of the murder of the third caliph, Uthman, in 656 CE, when a bloody shirt and some hair alleged to be from his beard were used in what is widely regarded as a cynical ploy to gain support for revenge against opponents. In a more familiar example, the device also appears in the funeral oration scene in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which Mark Antony brandishes Julius Caesar's blood-stained toga to stir up the emotions of his fellow Romans. Shakespeare reprised the actual circumstances of Caesar's funeral in 44 BCE, when Marc Antony displayed the toga to the crowd.

In American history a similar literalism marked an incident featuring Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts (1818-1893). Making a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Butler held up the soiled shirt of a carpetbagger allegedly whipped by the Ku Klux Klan.

The concept of waving the bloody shirt also invites more metaphorical exploitation. Arguably, Michael Moore does this in his new film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which features scenes of individuals abused by their employers and threatened with loss of their homes. The strategy is familiar: to incite a vivid sense indignation among supporters and to warn opponents of the possible retribution that lies ahead. Possibly the effect of the film (which I have not yet seen) suffers from the absence of actual blood. Yet the metaphorical use does not require this element.

To skeptics this sort of thing amounts to “Victimology 101.”

Actual blood was present in the incident that may count as the first modern exemplar of the strategy. Joseph Bara (1779-1793) was a young republican soldier during the French Revolution. Having been trapped by the enemy and being ordered to cry "Vive le Roi" ("Long live the King") to save his own life, he supposedly preferred instead to die crying "Vive la République" ("Long live the Republic"). Maximilien Robespierre seized upon the boy's death as a propaganda opportunity. Praising the adolescent at the Convention's tribune, Robespierre claimed that "only the French have thirteen-year-old heroes." He then had his remains transferred to the Panthéon. There is some reason to doubt the details of this story. Nonetheless, the artist Jacques-Louis David selected the incident as the subject of a moving though unfinished painting in which the body of a delicate, androgynous youth lies prone, enveloped by the Revolutionary colors.

Not surprisingly, the motif had cross-over power. Horst Wessel (1907-1930) was a German Nazi activist who was made a posthumous hero of the Nazi movement following his death in 1930, when a Communist shot him over a trivial incident. In early 1929 Wessel had written the lyrics for a new Nazi "fighting song" (Kampflied). This was the anthem later known as "Die Fahne hoch" from its opening line, or simply as the "Horst Wessel Song." The Nazis claimed that the young man also wrote the music, but in fact the tune derives from a World I song of the German Imperial Navy. After the Nazis came to power in 1933 an elaborate memorial was erected over the grave, and it became the site of annual pilgrimages. In this way Nazi propaganda interwove the legend of Wessel’s “martyr’s death” with the song to create a bloody-shirt motif--which of course lost its cachet with their defeat in 1945.

American bloody-shirt incidents tend to involve collective victims.

The Haymarket riot was a disturbance that took place on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. The event had began as a rally in support of striking workers. An unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.

The interpretation of the Haymarket event was bitterly contested. Popular literature offered the caricature of the “bomb-throwing anarchist.” Yet the left regarded those who were convicted as martyrs. The Haymarket affair is generally considered to have been an important influence on the origin of international May Day observances for workers. Ironically, the most important events of this kind occur in Europe, with the American Labor Day observed on a different date,

In 1992 the site of the incident was designated as a Chicago Landmark. In 1997 the Haymarket Martyrs' Monument in nearby Forest Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the largest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, causing the death of 146 garment workers who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. As a workplace disaster in New York City the Triangle fire has been surpassed only by 9/11. The disaster led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better and safer working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located inside the Asch Building, now known as the Brown Building of Science. It has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.

Progressives and proponents of the labor movement often invoke the Haymarket events and the Triangle fire as bloody-shirt memes intended to indict the perceived evils of untrammeled capitalism.

Secularists and opponents of religion have their own favorite bloody-shirt motifs.

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was an Italian philosopher, mathematician, and occultist best known as a proponent of heliocentrism and the infinity of the universe. His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in identifying the sun as just one of an infinite number of independently moving heavenly bodies. In addition to his cosmological writings. Bruno also composed extensive works on the art of memory, an assemblage of mnemonic techniques and principles. In 1600 he was burned at the stake at the Campo de’ Fiori, a market square in Rome, after the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries commentators focusing on his astronomical beliefs hailed him as a martyr for free thought and modern scientific ideas. More recent studies indicate that these assessments are anachronistic. In her brilliant 1964 monograph the British scholar Frances Yates challenged the description of his beliefs as scientific, arguing instead that Bruno was primarily concerned with evolving an occultist or magical view of the universe. His world model melded elements derived from Arab astrology, Neoplatonism, and Renaissance Hermeticism. In addition he believed in metempsychosis (reincarnation), holding that human souls could be reborn in the bodies of animals. Yates’ interpretation is supported not only by Bruno’s extensive writings, but by his place in the broad hermetic tradition that stems largely, but not completely from the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Giving practical effect to his beliefs, he cast horoscopes and may have engaged in magical procedures, behavior which his opponents found threatening. In short he was feared as a powerful magician.

Despite this evidence, the conventional wisdom clings to the notion that Bruno was a "martyr of science.” This meme pairs him with Galileo Galilei. The traditional view posits that, even though Bruno's theological beliefs were a significant factor in his heresy trial, his Copernicanism and cosmological beliefs played a central role in the outcome. Thus the affair is iconic of the purported relentless Roman Catholic hostility to science. Yet according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When [...] Bruno [...] was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology."

Along these lines, secularists and humanists have summoned a whole era before the bar of judgment.

Some historians and others employ the term Dark Ages to designate a period of cultural decline that ostensibly blighted Western Europe between the fall of Rome and the eventual recovery of learning. However, growing understanding of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages in the 19th century challenged the characterization of the entire period as one of darkness. Such blanket disparagement is clearly nonsense. Some observers have adopted a compromise position, restricting the application of the DA term to the early Middle Ages. However, most scholars today hold that it is best to discard this disparaging label altogether.

The outlines of a concept of a Dark Age have been detected in the work of the Italian scholar Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca), during the 1330s. However, the application was more limited than it later become, having beern originally crafted to apply to deteriorating standards in Late Latin literature. In this rather specific context, Petrarch viewed the centuries since the fall of Rome as "dark" compared to the light of classical antiquity. Later historians expanded the notion to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the High Middle Ages, designating not only the purported decline of Latin literature, but also a dearth of objective contemporary historiography, demographic retrogression, limited building activity, and modest material cultural achievements in general. Some commentators note that it is essentially a matter of perception, for the events of the period seem "dark" to us only because of the paucity of artistic and cultural output, including historical records, when compared with both earlier and later times. Even so, many have found such survivals as the Sutton Hoo treasure, the just-found Staffordshire treasure, and the epic poem Beowulf to be of surpassing cultural interest.

Heedless of these cautions, popular culture has glommed onto the DA label as a vehicle for a free-for-all tarring of the entire Middle Ages as a time of backwardness, enhancing its pejorative sting and expanding its scope. It is this broad popular sense that has appealed to some modern secularists and humanists, who are eager to exalt ancient Greece, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment by arraigning the Middle Ages as a horrid counter-example. In this sense the term Dark Ages is not actually a descriptor but serves as a weapon in a kind of culture war.

Even with regard to the early Middle Ages, the rise of archaeology and other techniques of specialized study in the 20th century has shed much light on the period, offering a more nuanced understanding of its positive developments. Other, more neutral terms of periodization have come to the fore: Late Antiquity, the Early Middle Ages, and the Great Migrations--depending on which aspects of culture are envisaged.

During the 17th and 18th centuries--often called the Age of Enlightenment--religion was commonly perceived as antithetical to reason. As the "Age of Faith," the Middle Age was caricatured as the polar opposite of contemporary times, rather smugly viewed as the Age of Reason. Even such perceptive thinkers as Immanuel Kant and Voltaire fell under the sway of this dualistic mindset. Yet just as Petrarch, seeing himself as standing on the threshold of a "new age,” was disparaging the centuries leading up until his own time, so too were the Enlightenment writers criticizing the centuries up until their own. These extended well after Petrarch's era (the Trecento), since religious domination and conflict were still common up to the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution. Because of this extension--actually a kind of sleight of hand--events like the condemnations of Bruno and Galileo are often covertly assigned to the Middle Ages--to which of course they do not belong.

In this way a complex conceptual evolution had taken place. Petrarch's original metaphor of light versus dark had been expanded in time, at least implicitly. Even if the pioneering humanists who came after him no longer saw themselves living in a dark age, their times were still not light enough. At least that was the case for 18th-century writers who saw themselves as living in the real Age of Enlightenment, while the period targeted by their own condemnation had been stretched so as to embrace what we now call Early Modern times (aka the Renaissance and Baroque). Moreover, Petrarch's metaphor of darkness, which he used chiefly to deplore what he saw as a lack of secular achievements, was sharpened so as to take on a more explicitly anti-religious connotation. This development foreshadows the contemporary culture wars waged by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and their followers.

In the early 19th century, the Romantic writers sought to reverse the negative assessment of Enlightenment critics. The word "Gothic" had been a term of opprobrium akin to "Vandal" until a few self-confident mid-18th-century English "goths" like Horace Walpole and William Beckford initiated the Gothic Revival in the arts—which for the following Romantic generation began to take on a positive image. To be sure, this image, in reaction to a bleak world dominated by a grim rationalism in which reason trumped emotion, expressed a somewhat overenthusiastic view of the Chivalric Era as a Golden Age. Contrasting with the excesses of the French Revolution, the Middle Ages were viewed in a nostalgic light, as a period of social and ecological harmony and spiritual inspiration. There was also a widespread concern with the environmental and social upheavals and sterile utilitarianism of the emerging industrial revolution. The Romantic view of the earlier centuries suffuses modern-day fairs and festivals celebrating the period with costumes and events. However, the Romantic critique also heralded today’s Green Movement.

In conclusion, one must question whether it is possible today to use the term "Dark Ages" in a neutral way. Some scholars may intend it thus, but confusion is sown among ordinary readers. Moreover, the vast expansion of new knowledge concerning the history and culture of the Early Middle Ages, which 20th-century scholarship has achieved, means that these centuries are no longer dark even in the sense of "unknown to us." Consequently, many academic writers prefer simply to avoid the expression. That is surely the best course.

All the same, disparagement has taken its toll. Films and novels assume as a matter of course that the "Dark Ages” was a time of backwardness. The popular movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a humorous example. On the History Channel, the 2007 television show The Dark Ages called the period "600 years of degenerate, godless, inhuman behavior.” (The term “godless” is a curious reversal.)

The public idea of the Middle Ages as a supposed "Dark Age" also surfaces in misconceptions regarding the study of nature during this period. Such contemporary historians of science as David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers have targeted the stereotype that the Middle Ages was a "time of ignorance and superstition," the blame for which is to be laid on the Christian Church for allegedly "placing the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity." These scholars emphasize that this view is essentially a caricature. For example, a claim that was first propagated in the 19th century and still lives on in popular culture is the assertion that everyone in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. Lindberg and Numbers hold that this notion is mistaken: "There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference.” Ronald Numbers rightly castigates such misconceptions as "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages," "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science," and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy."

These myths still pass as historical truth. Yet they are not supported by current historical research.



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