Thursday, February 01, 2007

Spitting and baby-killing

A new story of good and evil is making its way through the right-wing blogs, and, of course, has gotten play on Fox News. It is, in essence, this: A disabled Iraq-War veteran named Joshua Sparling, who was a counter-protester at the recent anti-war demonstration in Washington, says he was spat upon, called a baby-killer, and threatened with clubs by maddened peace-demonstrators.

Some have questioned Mr. Sparling's story. He has in the past made at least two public claims--which have separately gotten into the news--of having been menaced or abused by people opposed to the war, which, combined with this, certainly seem to make him a statistical outlier. But who knows--some people get struck by lightning more than once.

What is more curious is the way this story immediately gets into print and gets air play, and becomes an issue with the right wing. It seems to have visceral appeal, as did the Vietnam era urban legends of peaceniks howling insults at returning soldiers, and spitting on them.

Spitting is interesting. Americans regard it as a sort of ritually contaminating gesture, something unclean (though, oddly enough, relative strangers in America regularly exchange spit, sometimes on the first date). Spitting on, or at someone, is not how Americans would normally disagree. And it seems to me that there is an element of unmanliness in the gesture, when and if it occurs, as well as un-Americanness. A red-blooded American man would challenge you to a fistfight, perhaps, but spitting implies, somehow, spit and run. John Wayne would not do it--it's not the Code of the West.

I have to admit that the reappearance of the Vietnam-era epithet "baby-killer" puzzles me. If I remember right, the term "baby-killer" entered public consciousness after it became known that Lt. Calley and his platoon did indeed murder about 500 civilians, many of them children. In other words, there was a historic event that led to the use of the term--and I think it was used--in some of the more extreme screeds of the SDS and such groups. Whether or not the phrase was ever actually uttered as an insult to individual soldiers in airports and bus terminals, as claimed by the right, is of course, open to question.

In any case, the present war lacks such a context. The atrocities that have entered public awareness have more to do with the torture of adults than the killing of children.

But the incorporation of spittle and supposed name-calling into stories of good and evil seem to me spring not from context or plausibility, but from a kind of psychological projection. These tales seem to appeal to people who love to hate their enemies, but do not wish to acknowledge that hatred; people who consider those with whom they disagree to be deadly enemies, not political opponents.

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