Still from "Nancy Johnson Caught-Red Handed" television advertisement, May 2006. Produced and funded by MoveOn.org.
My Congresswoman is Nancy Johnson, a twelve-term Republican from Connecticut. Despite reasonable positions on the environment and stem-cell research, I will not vote for her because of her unwavering loyalty to the policies of this Bush administration. As chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, she is a co-author of many dreadful "21st-century modernizations to Medicare." Fortunately, she is being challenged in this election by 32-year-old Christopher Murphy, assistant Democratic leader in the State Senate and chair of the Connecticut legislature's Public Health Committee. He's a great opponent to Nancy Johnson because of his expertise in health care, and her "safe" seat suddenly looks vulnerable.
MoveOn.org has targeted Nancy Johnson, along with three other powerful Republicans. (Disclosure: MoveOn.org was a client in 2004 when we created print ads with Errol Morris.) Their campaign, titled "Caught Red-Handed," states that "Congresswoman Johnson has been caught red-handed, protecting oil company profits while we pay more at the pump," and associates her with indicted Congressman Tom Delay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff (and an unindicted Vice President Dick Cheney). Another ad attacks her links to defense contractors, again with the caught red-handed language. The highly-respected FactCheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has criticized these ads for implying criminal activity where none has been suggested or proven.
What's with the red hand? Where did this graphic metaphor come from?
FactCheck.org quotes the Oxford English Dictionary which "defines the term 'red-handed' as being caught 'in the very act of crime.' In fact, one meaning given by the OED is, 'fresh from the commission of murder or homicide; having the hands red with blood.'" MoveOn wants to play the dictionary-game and "cites a definition of 'red-handed' that is milder, saying Merriam-Webster defines the phrase as caught 'in the act of committing a crime or misdeed.'"
Caught red-handed is usually associated with crime, or at least fingers in the cookie jar. There's also the proverbial "fingers in the pie" version of being caught red-handed. Then there's just recent news: getting caught censoring email or manipulating terror alert status or spying on U.S. citizens. Occasionally, the hand is even dripping blood.
But the red hand has so many other meanings. It means stop, don't litter. It means stop, as in halt. Or it can mean "the jagged edge between the mainstream and non-existence" in Latvian traditional music. For children, a red-hand can have other meanings. It can also be the result of mixing iron oxide, or trying to enter forbidden areas. In war zones, red hands have their own poignancy. There's even a board game where "green with envy" you "cut through the red tape" and "roll out the red carpet" to sharpen your "gray matter;" "given the green light" you'll be be "tickled pink" to play Red-Handed®.
In history, the red hand can be a warning, such as the one issued by John Brown to Governor Henry Wise in 1859: "Thy doom is sealed! Beware of the 'Red Hand'!" It was a symbol for a Black regiment that fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in World War I. In the same war, it was a mark of the "Hun" in anti-German posters. It is also the symbol of Ulster in Northern Ireland, where legend has it that a Chieftain cut off his hand and hurled it forward to win a race, his bloody hand touching the shore before his opponent landed.
Recently, the red hand has been a symbol of political activism, whether for the plight of child soldiers, the dump-Karl Rove movement, stopping local vehicle theft and crime, or protesting against terrorism and violence. Occasionally, it is a plea for help. But it's also been the symbol of radical movements. During the Vietnam era, it was a symbol calling for strikes against the war.
These many uses of the red hand its metaphorically rich and graphic history remind me that symbols do have meaning. Whatever I think of Congresswoman Nancy Johnson here in northwestern Connecticut, I don't think she got caught red-handed, whether in a cookie jar or pie or pool of blood. This is a bad use of an historical symbol, and trashy politics as well.
(Note: Thanks to Steven Heller for advice and some of the references used in this essay.)