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Saturday, November 06, 2021

Opinion | Why We Have to Wave the ‘Bloody Shirt’ of Jan. 6 - The New York Times

Why We Have to Wave the ‘Bloody Shirt’ of Jan. 6

Grant’s presidential campaign in 1868 urged the electorate to “Vote as you shot.”
Library of Congress

"Policy is rational. Politics is not. It takes a story to move voters, an emotional connection that tells them something about themselves and the world in which they live or, alternately, the world in which they would like to live.

Without a story to tell — without a way to make the issues of an election speak to the values of an electorate — even strong candidates with popular policies can fall flat. And the reverse is also true: A divisive figure with unpopular beliefs can go far if he or she can tell the right kind of story to the right number of people.

It’s tempting to treat this reality as evidence of decline, as a sign that in the 21st century we are much less sophisticated than our forebears in democracy and self-government. Somehow, we imagine that the politics of the past was more civil, more genteel, more rational. But it wasn’t. Politics has always been about passion, and the most successful parties in our history have always used that to their advantage.

The Republican Party, in the wake of the Civil War, was not as politically secure as one might think. It won, in 1860, with a minority of the popular vote and needed a unity ticket — with the Tennessee Democratic Unionist and slaveholder Andrew Johnson as vice president — to win in 1864. Republicans did win a majority in Congress that year, but only because the South did not take part in the elections.

For the first two elections after Appomattox, Republicans held their majorities, winning comfortable margins in 1866 and 1868 (and also excluding former rebels from Congress). But Democrats would soon begin to catch up. Although still in the minority, the party gained 37 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1870 midterm elections (when the House was just over half the size it is today).

Anxious to retain power in Washington, Republicans took every opportunity to pin the late rebellion on their Democratic opponents, north and south. None of it was subtle.

Supporters of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential election, for example, urged Unionists to “Vote as you shot.” Likewise, in a speech for Grant, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, referring to violence against Republicans and freed Blacks in the states of the former Confederacy, attacked the Democratic nominee, Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York, as “emphatically the leader of the new rebellion as Robert E. Lee was of the old.”

Throughout that race, which ended in a modest victory for Grant, as far as the popular vote went, Republicans invoked the memory of the war as a cudgel against their Democratic opponents. They did it again in 1870 to repel the Democratic advance I mentioned and also to help resolve emerging tensions within the party. Republicans might disagree on questions of patronage and economic policy; they could still agree at this point, at least, that the South must stay defeated.

Democrats, and conservative white Southerners in particular, would come to call this the bloody shirt strategy, after an apocryphal story in which Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts used the bloodied shirt of a wounded soldier in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. “The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era,” writes Stephen Budiansky in “The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox”: “It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had.”

If the bloody shirt enraged Democratic partisans — if the term itself became, as Budiansky writes, “a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery” aimed at “stirring old enmities” — it was because it worked.

The bloody shirt helped President Grant win his 1872 race for re-election, as his supporters and surrogates hammered Democrats as recalcitrant rebels. One cartoon, by the great Thomas Nast, depicts the Democratic presidential nominee, Horace Greeley, reaching across a barren field labeled “Andersonville Prison” — the notoriously deadly Confederate prisoner of war camp — while he makes a plea for sectional unity: “Let us clasp hands over the bloody chasm.” The message was clear: A vote for Greeley was a vote for the rebels who starved their captives to death.

The bloody shirt shaped the 1876 campaign as well. The Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, counseled his supporter and surrogate James G. Blaine, then a senator from Maine, to use the tactic as much as possible. “Our strong ground is the dread of a solid South, rebel rule, etc., etc.,” he wrote. “I hope you will make these topics prominent in your speeches. It leads people away from ‘hard times’ which is our deadliest foe.”

For a typical expression of this way of campaigning, look to Benjamin Harrison of Indiana (then a candidate for governor, soon to be president of the United States), speaking on behalf of Hayes and the Republican Party. “For one, I accept the banner of the bloody shirt,” he said to a small crowd of veterans, responding to Democratic complaints that he refused to talk substance. “I am willing to take as our ensign the tattered, worn out old gray shirt, worn by some gallant Union hero; stained with his blood as he gave up his life for his country.”

Hayes’s running mate, Representative William A. Wheeler of New York, even went as far as to urge an audience to “Let your ballots protect the work so effectually done by your bayonets at Gettysburg.”

Republicans kept on waving the bloody shirt, kept on tying their candidates to patriotic feeling and memories of the war. It was part of the 1880 campaign on behalf of James Garfield (which he won by a small margin of the popular vote), part of the 1884 race on behalf of Blaine (lost by a small margin) and part of the 1888 effort on behalf of Harrison (who lost the popular vote but won a narrow victory in the Electoral College).

There were, of course, limits to the use of the bloody shirt — no rhetorical flourish could overcome, for example, the electoral headwinds from the panic of 1873, which swept Democrats into a House majority the following year — but that is just to say that there are limits to what any form of rhetoric can do in the face of a poor economy and the pendulum swing of American politics.

What is important is that the Republican Party never took for granted that voters would blame the Democratic Party for its role in the rebellion and vote accordingly. Republican politicians had to make salient the public’s memory of, and anger over, the war. And, I should say, they were right to do so. It was right to wave the bloody shirt in the wake of a brutal, catastrophic war that according to recent estimates claimed close to a million lives. That we, as modern Americans, learn the phrase as a negative is an astounding coup of postwar Southern propaganda.

The lesson here, for the present, is straightforward. Democrats who want the Republican Party to pay for the events of Jan. 6 — to suffer at the ballot box for their allegiance to Donald Trump — have to tie those events to a language and a narrative that speaks to the fear, anger and anxiety of the public at large. They have to tell a story. And not just once or twice — they have to do it constantly. It must become a fixture of the party’s rhetorical landscape.

And yet, while emotional appeals can move voters, they cannot work miracles. Even the strongest message can’t turn lead into gold. And there’s no rhetoric that can make up for poor performance on the job. A bloody shirt won’t save a party that can’t govern.

Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington. @jbouie"

Opinion | Why We Have to Wave the ‘Bloody Shirt’ of Jan. 6 - The New York Times

Monday, November 01, 2021

Opinion | Facebook’s Metaverse Is No Replacement for the Real World - The New York Times

Metaverse? Are You Kidding Me?!

Amy Osborne/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just call me an old man, a troglodyte, a Luddite, whatever.

I have no interest in becoming part of a “metaverse.” That is the future Mark Zuckerberg’s troubled Facebook is aiming toward as it renames itself Meta. And what is this metaverse, you may ask? The New York Times explains:

“Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, hang out with each others’ virtual avatars and attend virtual work meetings.”

That sounds absolutely ridiculous. And terrible. As with all new things, they appeal to some, maybe to millions, maybe even to most. But I have had to put my foot down, and I’ve actually been doing it a little at a time for a while now.

I keep telling myself that I must live in the here and now, that social media, in many ways, poisons our capacity to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, social media has many virtues, and I have not and will not turn away from it completely. After carefully curating the people, institutions and outlets that I follow, I now encounter more information than I could ever have imagined, more information than I can process. It is an embarrassment of riches, really.

Furthermore, social media is another publishing platform, and as a person who produces content that is published, social media was another outlet for me. I could publish mini-takes, things too short or insubstantial for a column or a segment of television.

I started my career in journalism as a designer. I still like design. But it’s not a suitable topic for my column here or my television job. So I sometimes post on social media about it.

Keeping up with and connecting with friends and family has never been easier, although I must admit that the most valuable and meaningful social networks to me at the moment are simple text groups.

That said, social media has so much ugliness, so much envy and covetousness, so much misinformation and manipulation, that its prominence in my life, it became clear to me, held more problems than benefits.

I have attempted to reorient myself primarily to the real world (even that feels strange to write). To write more things that I don’t immediately share. To write for the idea and not for viral impact — things that no one may “like” but that I still want to find a way to craft into their clearest form.

I want to share more pictures with the people I love and who love me — and not with the world, to get that world to react. The mere act of considering the response of strangers to personal posts of pictures is perverse. But it begs the question: If they are personal, why are you sharing them with strangers? So I have cut back on that. And I question my intentions more when I have the urge to post.

I even believe that social media was altering my sense of people: how they looked and lived and ate. Everyone was trying to one-up the next person. People too often looked perfect. They went on amazing vacations, lived in immaculate homes and ate exquisite dinners. Some of those photos may well reflect reality. But like most humans, we have our good days and our bad ones. Social media distorts that balance.

Even what is supposed to be positive can become oppressive and annoying, like the torrent of motivational memes and affirmations. Something about it rings hollow. Something about it presents as performative.

I have been pulling back from social media for a while now, using it mostly to advertise my column, TV segments and other ventures I’m involved in.

I must say that I feel like an addict finally getting clean.

I am surprised — and embarrassed that I am surprised — at how meaningful it is to me simply to be more present, to strike up conversations with strangers, not to feel that I need to document my every moment for a voracious virtualness, not to be so immersed in a screen that I miss the sunset.

I am more empathetic and diplomatic when I disagree with someone in person. Situations that I would have breezed by online, I linger on in person. The world is not perfect. It’s not curated and filtered, and returning to the reality that that imperfection makes the world special has caused a shift in me.

I now regret, though I try not to, years of wasted time in virtual space, doing all the things people told me I should: worrying about engagement, timing posts for optimization, reviewing analytics to figure out which things resonated and which didn’t.

I was continuously carving and crafting an altered, more “likable” image of myself, that in the end I deemed too controlled to be completely true.

So, as Facebook and others move toward the metaverse, I will choose to move toward a truer version of myself, one that lives more fully in the here and now."

Opinion | Facebook’s Metaverse Is No Replacement for the Real World - The New York Times