What does a decent society owe to the victims and survivors of major disasters and mass violence?
That’s the question posed by the Parkland massacre and the emergence of the March for Our Lives movement in its wake. For too many liberal activists and their media allies, the answer has been to instantly elevate victims and survivors to the status of civic or secular saints, whose victimhood supposedly renders their opinion on public affairs unimpeachable. This is a grave injustice—to the victims themselves and the rest of us.
In an online essay Monday, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead compared Emma González, the Stoneman Douglas senior-turned-March for Our Lives leader, to Joan of Arc—a literal saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Mead reflected on the facial similarities between Gonzalez and Renée Maria Falconetti, the actress who played the French saint in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent-film masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s Saint Joan, Mead argued,
has the privileged knowledge of the inspired, not the earned knowledge of the experienced. The young people of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have already experienced more than their elders would wish upon them; their innocence is lost. Yet, like all young people, they’ve retained faith in their generation’s unique ability to challenge and rectify the failures of their elders. . . . Our urgent need for the illumination that [such youth] seem to offer—for the blunt, righteous conviction they uphold—is another indication, were it needed, that a new kind of medievalism is upon us. Our potential saviors gleam all the more brightly against the pervasive political and civic darkness of the moment.
Mead’s was only the most extreme (and wild-eyed) example of such beatification. Most mainstream outlets didn’t go nearly as far. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the coverage was reverent, full of awe and piety and sacred devotion—the kinds of emotions that used to be reserved for, well, religious subjects.
To be sure, secular beatification isn’t reserved for school-shooting victims alone. America has long maintained its own litany of civic saints—from the Founders to Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks—and these men and women, for the most part, deserve the homage we pay them in history books and public memorials and the democratic imagination.
In a disputatious and essentially irreverent political culture like ours, the beatification process, and eventual canonization, takes a long time. MLK is MLK, and Rosa Parks is Rosa Parks, because no one but the vilest racist would deny their role in expanding the constitutional promise of equal opportunity and colorblind justice to millions of formerly excluded Americans. Abraham Lincoln is the Lincoln of reverent memory because he was prepared to wage total war against his own countrymen to end slavery and save the Union.
Victimization alone, however, doesn’t make someone’s views automatically correct. Victims and survivors can alert us to injustice. They can awaken our moral imagination. But victims can also be wrong. They can get caught up in mass enthusiasms like anyone else. They can say or do rash things. Even some bona fide religious saints make mistakes, let alone average Americans whom unhappy circumstance has thrust into the national spotlight.
Which brings us to today’s media saints. In recent years, progressives have taken to instantly beatifying certain categories of victims in service of immediate partisan ends. The Stoneman Douglas survivor-activists are only the latest example. A few years ago, there were Cindy Sheehan and Valerie Plame. Both turned out to be cranks—and anti-Semitic in Plame’s case—and their respective cults faded once they had outlived their usefulness to the media campaign against George W. Bush’s post-9/11 wars.
The goal in these cases is to short-circuit debate about matters over which reasonable Americans might otherwise disagree. The victim-saint carries such emotional and symbolic weight that the other half of the national conversation—usually but not always the conservative half—is forced to shut up and concede.
Except we won’t. Because most Americans believe, rightly, that anyone who puts himself or herself forward in the democratic public square deserves scrutiny. We believe in argument and counterargument, not least when liberties explicitly protected under the Bill of Rights are at stake and the victims are traumatized minors. Victims and survivors should, and do, command our respectful hearing and our solicitude. But they can’t demand uncritical devotion.