Thursday, October 19, 2006


When politicians were real politicians: Emperor Henry IV begs the intercession of Countess Matilda of Tuscany and Abbot Hugh of Cluny.

I have to admit, I have become addicted to Wonkette. Funny and unapologetically catty, it is the perfect medium in which to observe the Republican political class dissolve into a trembling puddle of ineffectual hypocrisy. It is much better that dailykos or a number of other liberal (whatever that word means) blogs and websites, because although it is also obviously left-leaning, it follows the common path of the satirist and gossip: to leave no fool or hypocrite standing, regardless of affiliation. Kos and friends provide a valuable service by giving activists a common ground for uniting and bitching, and sometimes even bring important information into the political sphere. In the end, however, they are partisan in the most limited way, which is that they think political parties (in their case the Democratic party) can carry self-contained within themselves solutions to society's problems and that parties are about policies and ideologies, when really they are about naked power.

I don't mean to condemn anyone who is affiliated with the Democratic party or to say there aren't still honest idealists working within the party. Still, power is a mechanism that runs politics, and when you get together an institution whose goal is to obtain power, it's hard for it to be run for other motives. Ideology and policies are tools to achieve power, not the other way around. Even fanatical ideologues in power do not realize what really motivates them.

Corruption is not related to any ideology, it is related to unopposed power. That is really the reason people should vote Democratic next month. If the Republican party has really differentiated itself from the Democratic party, it is that all their best minds were working on politics, not policy. Their machine is well-oiled and both their base and their politicians are disciplined. Their president has received almost no opposition from congress even as his administration crafts a vision of executive power that is almost limitless. The one-party system of government, however, is beginning to show its cracks. Since a main part of their marketing was a Puritan approach to morality, the parade of scandals is especially glaring. The fact that Republicans always claim that they are the party of "personal responsibility" makes their lack of acknowledgement of their failings and their effort to throw blame in the oddest directions even more pathetic.

It will be interesting to see how much the GOP implodes. The juggling act of different forces in the party has had its tensions--how long can neo-con imperialists, plutocrats, theocratic populists, and fiscal conservatives really continue to believe they all have the same ideology? For a long time, the faithful voting patterns of the religious right has been a key, but the scandals have put their leaders into something of a quandary. James Dobson has tried to downplay the Foley scandal, but Tony Perkins (not the cool Tony Perkins) after first blaming the "culture of tolerance and diversity" (i.e., it's really the fault of people on the left), began to talk about a conspiracy of gay Republican staffers (an interesting parallel to the reaction of some conservative Catholics to the clerical pedophilia scandal -- it was not the result, they claimed, of too much power being concentrated in the hands of one group of people who protected their own, it was rather the "gay culture" encouraged in certain seminaries).

Although Mark Foley's behavior was not a result of his being gay, but of his being a creep protected by his colleagues, scapegoating homosexuals will be attractive to many on the far right -- that is, to a large portion of the Republican base. This may seal the 2008 campaign. There are two possibilities: 1) the Republicans nominate an extremist like Sam Brownback, incapable of beating whatever incompetent fool the Democrats nominate, or 2) John McCain's careful act of being a maverick (which he isn't, Bush got just about everything he wanted in his torture bill) to moderates and a conservative to the Republican base (visits to Jerry Fawell's Liberty University, etc.) will fall short of the expectations of the latter who may well support a third party candidate.

Anyway, I've gone on too long. Time to finish up so I can check the latest scandal on Wonkette.


Gabriele C. said...

Ohh, Henry IV at Canossa - now that guy was a shrewd politician and pretty much a bastard. Not that pope Gregor was any holier, though. :)

I couldn't take pics at that exhibition in Paderborn and thus didn't post yet, but I should write a nice blogpost about Henry IV some day.

Liam said...

Canossa was one of the most brilliant political moves in history. But yeah, the fight between Henry IV and Gregory VII was about as vicious as the fight in American politics today. Makes one nostalgic for Henry III and Leo IX.

crystal said...

parallels between the present day sex scandals and Henry's ... wikipedia says his wife accused him of trying to celebrate a black mass on her unclothed bod :-)

Jeff said...

Great post, Liam. In this particular instance, however, I fear that money has so infested the political culture and process along with the one party rule of which you speak, that the gerrymandering that has occurred over the last decade will protect the Republican incumbents no matter how much they deserve to be tossed out on their backsides.

Interesting that you bring up the Foley scandal and the similarities to the Church's sexual abuse scandal... While I hold to the position that there should be no statute of limitations on the crime of the sexual abuse of minors by clerics, and I regret learning that Foley was abused, I find it ironic and telling that the Republicans are willing to throw the Catholic Church under the bus (and in doing so, their neo-con Catholic conservative friends who like to pal around with evangelicals in the Christian Coalition who don't even consider them real Christians) in an effort to deflect blame and save their own skins.

Gabriele C. said...

don't believe everything Wikipedia says.

If I went and corrected all the nonsense and unproven allegations presented as facts I find there, I would never get any writing done. ;)

crystal said...

Gabriele, yeah, I do rely on wiki too much, without checking out the info. So Henry wasn't into balck masses? Rats! :-)

Liam said...


Apparently incumbants have a 95% chance of being reelected, due to name recognition and gerrymandering. Still, from what I've read, the Dems have a good chance of retaking congress anyway. The fact that it is so hard to retake congress (from either party) should be a red flag for anyone who is worried about how democratic our system really is.

Crystal and Gabriele,
Yes, Wikipedia can be useful but only touched with extreme care. I don't know that particular story and I'm sure Henry never did anything of the kind -- he was a ruthless politician, but a good Christian (he just believed the pope should be subordinate to the emperor.

A story like that can come from many places. Perhaps a wikier made it up or read it in a novel. It could have been a literary invention that became attached to the history at a time when history-writing was less rigorous. Or it could well have been an actual false accusation that was made at the time against Henry by his estranged wife or someone else -- during the struggle between pope and emperor, no blow was too low. Karl Rove would have felt very much at home on either side.

Gabriele C. said...

most sources about Henry IV a biased against him and come up with the weirdest accusations to show he was unfit to be king. I don't remember any black masses on naked bodies, but the was a cooked up rape charge.

cowboyangel said...

Liam, another great post. Your comparison of Wonkette, DailyKos, etc. is right on the money. The terribly self-righteous partisanship on DailyKos has pretty much driven me away. Interesting, isn't it, that some of the best political coverage right now may be from Wonkette and the Daily Show? The total absurdity of our current political system exposed by the absurdists.

Jeff, good point about the Republicans and the Catholic Church. And I know from direct experience how many Evangelicals think Catholics are on an express train to hell.

I think you all are being too hard on Wikipedia, though. The recent peer-review study from the British science journal, Nature, comparing Wikipedia and Britannica, said: "The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three."

Wikipedia is a powerful and revolutionary tool, but like any tool, one has to know how and when to use it. Perhaps one shouldn't use it as the "last word" on a subject, but it can be an especially useful "first word," or starting point. But what single source is ever the "last word" on a subject? Scholars publish their work; arguments ensue; reviewers question certain points; another book comes out and corrects various points; the original author revises his or her work; new discoveries are made that reveal problems among all previous books; and so the cycle continues. As a History Librarian and the Editor of a PhD Musical History project, I'm very concerned about the "authority" of information. But my own experience tells me that there isn't one completely reliable authority. The Grove Dictionary of Music, published by Oxford University Press, is probably the most "authoritative" and highly regarded source for musical information. In the last year, I've sent the editor three emails about inaccuracies in their entries. And what about primary sources? Do we know that someone writing something in 100 didn't misspell names, make mistakes, wasn't hungover or exhausted and leave someting out? What of their nationalist, religious, ethnic or political biases?

I'm not arguing that Wikipedia is without problems; but many of the problems are the same ones that human beings have always had in trying to determine the "truth." If there are inaccuracies, then it's up to us to correct them or argue about them. Because, in the end, we are all Wikipedia.


Liam said...

Thanks, Guillaume. I think you're right about why Wonkette and the Daily Show are so important right now.

As far as Wikipedia goes, I have mixed feelings about it. I think in a lot of cases it is about as accurate as your average encyclopedia, and more so than the "popular" books of history that you can find on sale at Barnes & Noble, etc. All of those have in common the fact that they often accept information uncritically and outside its historical context. Real historians are very aware of the shortcomings of both the historiographic tradition and the difficulties of primary evidence -- we write pages and pages on them in the most boring prose you'll ever read this side of an economics textbook.

Wikipedia can be very interesting when reporting on pop culture phenomena -- it's made for it. I think problems come up when the articles are about either very big and/or controversial issues and suffer the continuous attacks of an army of editors, or when they are about very obscure items that people do not have the interest or knowledge to correct.

I do have a problem with the "anti-authority" chip that a lot of Wikipedia supporters carry on their shoulders -- I think that it's mistaking anti-intellectualsim for democracy and is the same reason a lot of people feel, for example, the Michael Critchon (sp?) can have as valid an opinion about global warming as the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. Stephen Colbert has taken this on brilliantly, editing the wikipedia entry about George Washington on television -- saying, "if I want to believe that Washington wasn't a slaveowner, that's my right."

cowboyangel said...

I agree that anti-intellectualism doesn't mean more democracy, just the opposite. And there's a lot of anti-intellectualism on the internet. And I don't like the "anti-authority" chip either. (Nor, however, do I like the "only experts really know" chip.) But if you look at the bigger picture, I think Wikipedia is, for the first time, perhaps, bringing some kind of order and authority to information on the internet. It's flawed, yes, and it's only one part of a larger effort to organize cyberspace, but I like the democratic and non-commerical way they're trying to do it. It's not meant to replace high-level scholarship. It's an encyclopedia, nothing more and nothing less. IMDB is another good example. You can't use IMDB for many things in terms of film scholarship (the biographical information is particularly limited), but it is probably the best reference tool available now for many aspects of film. In both cases, the sheer breadth of coverage is astounding in comparison to what we had before in print.

As for controversial entries, Wikipedia now locks some articles for immediate editing to prevent constant vandalism. And it offers a discussion section and a history of revisions section where people can battle things out. So they are trying to work on the flaws.

The George Washington article that Colbert screwed with was reverted back to the previous version only 3 minutes after he changed it. So, yes, someone can make crap up, but someone else will come along and correct it. That's the point I was trying to make about the longstanding process of scholarship. A similar process takes place on Wikipedia; it's just happens a lot faster. And, for good and bad, more people are involved. Many of them are academics.

I think you get the New Yorker, right? Did you read their article on Wikipedia a couple of months ago? It was very good, I thought.

Liam said...


I think I agree with you for the most part -- I did read the New Yorker article, and it did show how Wikipedia developed from a completely anarchic and idealistic project to a decent reference source. Like I said, it's usually better than a lot of books out there -- and the cheaper kinds of print encyclopedia. Hell, I use it all the time.

crystal said...

I like to use Wikipedia, though it isn't always the best source, because it's so general and because (I think) it's less biased than a partucular site might be on a subject and because it usually gives lots of particular links at the bottom for those who want to investigate further. If I write about a subject in my blog, I don't want my link to be so particular and one-sided or commenrcial that readers will feel like I'm trying to sway them one direction or another. Wikipedia seems like a fairly unbiased source, though not perfect. And they are good at popular culture.

Does that make nay sense at all?

Liam said...

I do think is as good as way as any to get a quick overview of a subject -- always with the appropriate caution.