Friday, 1 November 2019

Un-Minced Words and Plain Speaking

The Passing of  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

In recent days we have seen the hand of divine judgement fall upon Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi.  Doubtless  there will be those Islamic folk who will see the death of a great Caliph in Bagdadi's demise.  That is, they will interpret it as the passing of great and noble man.  They will see someone who will have doubtless passed into the presence of Allah and the 72 virgins, and the rest.

But Donald Trump wanted the world left in no doubt that he, along with (we presume) the vast majority of people in the rest of the world, sees his demise as the execution of a violent, bloody and cruel tyrant.  Trump therefore declared that Bagdadi "died like a dog".  Whilst everyone would doubtless get the point, it none the less remains a strange simile--particularly because dog-lovers are legion.  What are we to make of it?

It turns out that "to die like a dog" has pedigree.  Here is a much earlier use of the phrase  [1864] which we find striking.

Barbara Frietchie

By John Greenleaf Whittier

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland. . . .

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said. . . . 

The poet is about an alleged historical event set in the American Civil War.
  In it we find General Thomas E. Jackson commanding his men to respect and preserve the life of one of the citizens of Fredrick.  She was found patriotically waving "Old Glory" as Jackson and his troops marched through the town he had recently conquered.  If any of Jackson's soldiers were to harm this elderly, courageous woman, despite the face that she opposed General Jackson and the Confederacy, they were to be executed on the spot.  They were to "die like dogs". 

The events described in the poem almost certainly never occurred, but they make a ripping good yarn. 
And so, the saga ends with Barbara achieving a moral victory. It is a truly inspiring poem—alas, without the least grounding in historical fact. There are only a few elements that bear any resemblance to reality: There was a Barbara Frietchie—actually spelled “Fritchie”— living in Frederick at the time, she was in her mid-90s and she did own a flag. Old Stonewall, however, never saw it, since his route of march brought him nowhere near the Fritchie house. While many of the troops did, in fact, walk down Barbara’s street, Jackson took a different route, hoping to find a relative of his wife. It is unlikely Fritchie saw Jackson at all.

Nor did Barbara unfurl her banner until the following week, when she reportedly waved it in support of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Union forces as they marched through town after the Confederates left. According to her niece, Barbara was standing on the porch, watching the troops pass, when her cousin advised her to wave a flag, and handed her the banner that had long been folded in the family Bible. Barbara feebly waved the flag at the soldiers, who responded with emotion. “Some even ran into the yard,” her niece reported “‘God bless you, old lady.’ ‘Let me take you by the hand,’ ‘May you live long, you dear old soul,’ cried one after the other.”  [Ron Soodalter]
The idiom "die like a dog" was used by Donald Trump in the same way the poet described the meeting of General Jackson with the elderly patriot.  Anyone who harmed her was a die in a degraded, rejected, and demeaned manner.  They would die in shame and in pain. 

The use of the simile, then, by President Trump is appropriate and powerful.  Bagdadi was not a hero, he was not a martyr. He was without honour.  He had left a trail of evil deeds, acts of histrionic cruelty.  He died like a savaging, wild dog--morally and ethically no longer  fit to remain upon this earth. 

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