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.
The story that his shirt was retrieved by an Army lieutenant who delivered it to Benjamin Butler, who then proceeded to wave it during his speech against the terrorism, however, was a fabrication. Senator Butler did make such a speech referring to the incident, but there is no indication that he ever so much as touched Huggins’s actual shirt, let alone waved it about on the Senate floor. Still, as Budiansky makes clear, the phrase became a stock favourite in the Southern press, and it was employed ceaselessly to make, as it were, ‘a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim’.
Just as the Southerners crafted stories about how Huggins’ bloody shirt and other such tokens became the fetishes of Unionist and African-American mythologies against them, the media and the academies of the pseudo-West have crafted narratives of how ‘the Serbs’ make a mythological fetish of their own victimhood, the better to paint ‘the Serbs’ as ignorant and sub-rational.
But I also remember my mother refusing to vote for Clinton’s second term on account of the Yugoslav Wars, and my Mennonite religious upbringing always kept urging me to look at both sides, to remember that there is always a better solution than war. It was not until much, much later that I was able to take a critical look at that war and how it was waged, and how arguments from that war went on to pave the way for the murderous folly in Iraq.
Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic were familiar and ominous names to me all throughout the ‘90’s and early 2000’s, but not once did I hear a peep about Franjo Tudman and the revival of neo-Nazi Ustase ideology in his newfangled Croatia, nor anything about the genocidal Operation Storm led by Ante Gotovina (who was risibly acquitted of war crimes on appeal by the ICTY in November of last year). Never did I see a word written anywhere about the brutal crimes of the Kosovo Liberation Army against not only Serbians but also Roma and fellow Albanians, nor about their proven trade in drugs and arms (and suspected trade in human organs harvested from their victims) to finance their terrorism. (Ramush Haradinaj was also acquitted of war crimes at the same time as Gotovina et al.) Not until I was much older did I even know where to look for such accounts.
This being an age where political spin is a science, however, rather than an art, they employ much more sterile, prolix means of saying the same thing. ‘The Serbs’ have a ‘persecution complex’ and a ‘narrative of victimisation’, and the term itself is the result of conspiracy theories and nationalist propaganda. With such rhetorical tricks the victims are turned into the bullies, and all too many of the actual bullies are rendered invisible.
The healthy dose of scepticism which came from both left and right over Syria arguably prevented another outright intervention there and arguably also headed off multinational support of France’s Malian adventure, even if it failed to do so in Libya before it was too late.