Bill O'Reilly held an extended whinefest on The O'Reilly Factor last night about how poor Rush Limbaugh was the victim of a "witch hunt" by racial political-correctness police. For a bunch of people of pooh-pooh the "victimology" of minorities, it would be hard to find a bigger bunch of crybabies than American right-wingers these days.
Indeed, that's a key part of what's going on here: In addition to Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity later that evening, O'Reilly -- with Juan Williams chiming in with his usual sycophancy, agreeing wholeheartedly that Limbaugh is being victimized by the conservative Republicans who run the NFL -- is basically claiming that blacks and liberals who are bringing up Limbaugh's long history of racially incendiary rhetoric are "waving the bloody shirt" -- "the demagogic practice of politicians referencing the blood of martyrs or heroes to inspire support or avoid criticism."
Watch how O'Reilly and Williams focus on three apparently bogus quotes attributed to Limbaugh -- while ignoring a mountain of genuine quotes that make the point irrevocable: Limbaugh does like to play the race card with divisive and false claims, and he does it with great frequency.
The one sane commentator O'Reilly brings on -- talk-show host Warren Ballentine -- manages to make this point with a handful of counter-examples, but even that is not really representative.
For every three bogus Limbaugh quotes, it's a very simple matter to provide thirty bona-fide comments that are consistent examples of real race-baiting rhetoric from Limbaugh.
But this is an old tactic of American conservatives: Turn their own foul behavior on its head, and accuse those who would hold them accountable for it. That's what "waving the bloody shirt" has always been about, since the phrase was first coined.
... In American history, it gained popularity with an incident in which Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts, when making a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, allegedly held up the shirt of a carpetbagger whipped by the Ku Klux Klan.
The sequel was this—or at least this was the story everyone in Monroe County believed, and in time everyone in Mississippi and the whole South had heard it, too. That a U.S. Army lieutenant who was stationed nearby recovered the bloody night-shirt that Huggins had worn that night, and he carried it to Washington, D.C., and there he presented it to congressman Benjamin F. Butler, and in a fiery speech on the floor of the United States Congress a few weeks later in which he denounced Southern outrages and called for passage of a bill to give the federal government the power to break the Ku Klux terror, Butler had literally waved this blood-stained token of a Northern man’s suffering at the hand of the Ku Klux. And so was born the memorable phrase, “waving the bloody shirt.”
Waving the bloody shirt: it would become the standard retort, the standard expression of dismissive Southern contempt whenever a Northern politician mentioned any of the thousands upon thousands of murders, whippings, mutilations, and rapes that were perpetrated against freedmen and women and white Republicans in the South in those years. The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era. 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. The phrase has since entered the standard American political lexicon, a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery, any below-the-belt appeal aimed at stirring old enmities.
That the Southerners who uttered this phrase were so unconcerned about the obvious implications it carried for their own criminality, however, seems remarkable; for whoever was waving the shirt, there was unavoidably, or so one would think, the matter of just whose blood it was, and how it had got there. That white Southerners would unabashedly trace the origin of this metaphor to a real incident involving an unprovoked attack of savage barbarity carried out by their own most respectable members of Southern white society makes it all the more astonishing.
Most astonishing of all was the fact that the whole business about Allen Huggins’s bloody shirt being carried to Washington and waved on the House floor by Benjamin Butler was a fiction.
The story about Huggins being whipped by the Ku Klux was true enough. Huggins was whipped on that bright moonlit night so ferociously that he could barely walk for a week or two afterward, so ferociously that in a burning anger that overcame any fear of his own death he traveled to Washington to testify before Congress and then returned to Monroe County with a deputy U.S. marshal’s badge and a determination to arrest every man he could lay his hands on who had been a part of the reign of Ku Klux murder and terror in those parts. And Benjamin Butler—“Beast Butler,” as he was invariably called in the Southern press, the man who had committed the unpardonable insult against Southern womanhood as the Union occupation commander in New Orleans during the war with his order that the next Southern woman who insulted his troops on the street would be “regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation”— this nemesis of the South, now a congressman from Massachusetts, did indeed make a long, impassioned speech about the Ku Klux outrages on the House floor that April, and did tell the story of Huggins’s brutal beating in the course of it.
But nowhere in the Congressional Globe’s transcripts of every word that was uttered on the House floor is there any allusion to a bloody shirt; nowhere in the press accounts of the leading papers of the time is there any mention of a crazed congressman waving a blood-stained garment, on the floor or off; nowhere in any reports of Huggins’s appearances before Congress does such a story appear. That part never happened.
What was more, this was not the first time that Southerners had invented the fiction that Northerners were given to making fetishes of blood-stained tokens of their victimhood at Southern hands. The same story had cropped up fifteen years earlier in connection with another Massachusetts politician equally reviled in the South, Senator Charles Sumner.
Once again the beating was a fact, the alleged Northern reaction to it a fantasy. Furious at the insult to Southern honor Sumner had committed in a speech attacking slavery and the morality of the slave owner, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks had approached Sumner in the Senate chamber, stood over his desk, and beat him on the head thirty times with his gold-headed cane until Sumner crumpled to the floor in a pool of his own blood.
And sure enough, Southerners were soon saying that Sumner’s bloody coat had become a revered “holy relic” in Yankee and abolitionist circles. Sumner, they said, had carried his own blood-encrusted garment to England to show the Duchess of Argyle, when she invited him to dinner; had placed it in the hands of an awe-struck John Brown, before his fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry; had put it on public display in Exeter Hall. “All the abject whines of Mr. Sumner, for being well whipped,” wrote one Southerner in 1856, a few months after the event, “all the exhibitions of his bloody shirt to stale Boston virgins who, in vexation of having failed to secure a man, would now wed a Sumner, have proved futile.” Years later, years after the Civil War, scornful stories about Northerners exhibiting Sumner’s bloody shirt were still being circulated in the South. Not a scrap of it was true.
A footnote, but a telling one: To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. The outrage was never the “manly” inflicting of “well-deserved” punishment on poltroons, only the craven and sniveling whines of the recipients of their wrath. And the outrage was never the violent defense of “honor” by the aristocrat, only the vulgar rabble-rousing by his social inferior. “The only article the North can retain for herself is that white feather which she has won in every skirmish,” declared one Southerner, speaking of the Sumner–Brooks affair. Only a coward would revel in a token of his own defeat.
The bloody shirt captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction that the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence; the way it suggested that the real story was never the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of it. The mere suggestion that a partisan motive was behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.
To Bill O'Reilly and Juan Williams and the rest of the Fox crew, the outrage is never the atrocities they actually uttered, only the effrontery of having those atrocities held against them. They all want to make a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim. Their narrative is that the real story is not the atrocities that Rush Limbaugh utters but only the attempt by his political enemies to make political hay out of it.
But then, they're working out of a long and storied tradition when they do.