Tuesday, October 31, 2006

grumpiness and politics

Today is the feast of St Wolfgang of Regensburg. That has little to do with what I plan to say, but the fifteenth-century painting of St Wolfgang and the devil by Michael Pacher is very cool.

I am too busy to write much and will be grumpy until election day. Just to continue with what I wrote in the last post, this "op-art" from the New York Times chronicles a number of election problems across the country. Make sure to click on the graphic. Meanwhile Hendrik Herzberg in the New Yorker, in addition to providing a scathing and correct evaluation of the Bush administration, explains some reasons why it is so difficult for massive discontent with the Republican congress to be transformed into something that is not a Republican congress.

Also, the Times reported that the interior department is not pursuing Chevron for undercharging the US government (i.e., taxpayers, i.e., us) millions for offshore natural gas production at a time in which we have troops in a war zone and the deficit is skyrocketing. You'd thing we had unscrupulous oilmen in the White House and a congress that plays dead. I wonder if we can change at least one part of that equation sometime in the next week or so.

Grump grump grump.

Friday, October 27, 2006


English parliament, c. 1300.

I don't have much time right now, but I'd like to throw something out for consideration. There was an article in the New York Times today about how some Democrats are concerned that African-American voters may stay away from the polls, discouraged by past problems when trying to vote.
"This notion that elections are stolen and that elections are rigged is so common in the public sphere that we’re having to go out of our way to counter them this year,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist.
The article refers to many difficulties black voters have had to deal with:

Long lines and shortages of poll workers in lower-income neighborhoods in the 2004 election and widespread reports of fliers with misinformation appearing in minority areas have also had a corrosive effect on confidence, experts say...

She [an African-American woman from Milwaukee] traced her own skepticism to one afternoon two months before the last presidential election when she overheard several young black men saying they were not going to vote because they feared being arrested at the polling station for their unpaid parking tickets. The neighborhood had been flooded with fliers from the Milwaukee Black Voters League, a fictitious group, saying that even minor infractions like parking tickets disqualified people from voting...

Mr. Walters said that episodes of voter suppression that were dismissed in 2000 as unfounded recurred in 2004 and were better documented because rights groups dispatched thousands of lawyers and poll watchers. In addition, the first national data-tracking tool, the Election Incident Reporting System, offered a national hot line that fed a database of what ended up to be 40,000 problems.

“All of a sudden after 2004, these weren’t just baseless or isolated incidents,” Mr. Walters said.

The type of misleading letter sent this month to 14,000 Hispanic immigrants in Orange County, Calif., threatening them with arrest if they tried to vote, was hardly a first. In 2004, similar fliers appeared in predominantly black neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh area, on official-looking letterheads. The fliers said that because of unusually high voter registration, Republicans were to vote on Election Day, and Democrats were to vote the next day.

Fliers sent in Lake County, Ohio, told people that if they had registered through the N.A.A.C.P., they could not vote.

What I always wonder when I hear these stories is whether and how seriously they are investigated and prosecuted. I understand there is a Justice Department investigation of the Republican candidate for congress whose campaign was responsible for the Orange County letters, but usually one hears of the complaints and not the investigations.

There are several things our country needs to do to make our system a true democracy. We need to address gerrymandering and campaign financing in a serious fashion. We also need to prosecute anyone who interferes with someone's right to vote and make them serve real jail time. Jim Crow should have died a long time ago.

Republicans are at the forefront of denying people -- mainly the poor and minorities -- their right to vote. Everything from requiring ID cards to rejecting voter registration cards because of the thickness of the paper they were printed on appears to be nothing more than an attempt to disenfranchise sectors of the population that, when the vote, vote Democratic. The standard conservative answer to these charges is that voter fraud is as big an issue as voter intimidation, and favors the Democrats. I have always believed this to be a red herring, but hey, I also agree on aggressive prosecution of voter fraud when it exists. Just don't use that as an excuse to keep people from voting.

Some countries, such as Australia, require people to vote by law. If they don't vote, they have to pay a fine. I have always found this to be a bit on the coercive side of things, but I must say it's encouraging to see that in some countries the political class is not actively trying to discourage the carrying out of the democratic process. We could learn from their attitude.

I'm not being partisan here. When they get the chance, Democrats are as happy to use funky accounting with their campgain money and to absurdly gerrymander districts as Republicans are. But who stands to win from disenfranchising the least powerful members of our society?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Henry IV, rock star

Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106)

There was a fair amount of discussion on my last post (with great contributions from Crystal, Gabriele, and Guillaume le Fou) about an accusation that Henry IV performed a black mass on his wife's unclothed body as well as whether or not one should trust Wikipedia on this issue. The Wikipedia article containing the salacious detail on Henry is here. I think Guillaume made a very good defense of Wikipedia, but I have to admit that I wish the anonymous editors would footnote their contributions, so one could get to the bottom of all this black mass stuff. The article did have listed as a source a book on Henry by a respected scholar of the period, I. S. Robinson.

Unfortunately the hard copy of the book in the Columbia library was checked out, so I had to rely on an irritating ebook version. Robinson does tell how Henry's Kievan wife Eupraxia (who took the name Adelheid upon her coronation as empress) broke with him and made common cause with the papal forces who were resisting him and his antipope Clement III. He does not mention the black mass accusation, but does say
According to the earliest account, that of Bernold’s chronicle, Eupraxia ‘complained that she had suffered so many and such unheard-of filthy acts of fornication with so many men as would cause even her enemies to excuse her flight [from her husband] and move all catholics to compassion for her great injuries’. The wrongs of Eupraxia continued to be recalled in Gregorian polemics for half a century.
So was it true? Probably not. As I said in the comments section of my last post, Henry IV was a good Christian, just one that believed the pope should have less power than the emperor. Gabriele mentioned that many of our sources are written by Henry's enemies. Robinson:
Her public statements at the synod of Constance and the council of Piacenza have never been taken seriously by modern scholarship, not because scholars could accurately judge the empress’s mentality or the emperor’s conduct, but because of their knowledge of the nature of eleventh-century propaganda. Polemicists were accustomed to ‘pay no heed to what was done or not done' but to use fictions in order to convince their audience.
The eleventh-century struggles between papal and imperial power that we call "the investiture conflict" was brutal and some of the fiercest battles were fought with letters and treatises. Robinson cites a number of letters and chronicles written by pro-papal writers, and if I look them up, I would not be surprised if I found the accusation that Crystal mentioned. In general, public denunciations were exaggerated and made particularly sordid in order to make a greater impression. Accusations such as Eupraxia-Adelheid's were sure to travel across Christendom, sapping Henry's power -- especially sapping him of the religious power that settled like an aura over liturgically anointed Christian kings and emperors.

Wikipedia's article on Eupraxia has another interesting tidbit:
According to the chroniclers, Henry became involved in the Nicolaitan sect, and hosted the sect's orgies and obscene rituals in his palaces. Eupraxia-Adelheid was forced to participate in these orgies, and on one occasion Henry allegedly offered her to his son, Conrad. Conrad refused indignantly, and then revolted against his father.
The fact that Henry might be accused of belonging to the second-century gnostic Nicolaitan sect rings true. Most certainly he didn't and there were probably no Nicolaitans around in the eleventh century, but that was par for the course in these type of polemics. You accuse your enemy of belonging to a long-vanished heresy. Such a crime would make a Christian prince no longer a Christian prince. Also, since Nicolaitans were thought to be antinomian -- that is, believers who are "beyond the law" and able to practice any kind of depravity without sin, the accusation would summon thoughts and images that would both horrify and titillate hearers. You can imagine how they would dwell on the subject.

As Crystal noted, politics have not changed that much in nine hundred years.

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.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I'm back

A scholar presents his work to a queen, from a late medieval French manuscript.

I have returned to blogdom after a week of wrestling with a report on my research for my dissertation advisor. He wants me to start writing and of course I feel I haven't done enough research and secondary reading -- this is why if one's advisor forgets about one, one doesn't finish one's dissertation until 2047.

This is a hard endeavor. It forces me to really confront my progress and my knowledge of the material, which in the paranoid theatre of my self-esteem is always lacking. I have the little devil on my shoulder telling me that I don't know what I'm talking about, that I can't control the mass of information (well over 1,000 charters) that I am writing about, that my Latin is poor, and that what I write when I feel most inspired is nothing more than a steaming pile of merda tauri.

The oft-feared by graduate students phenomenon known as the imposter syndrome. "When," I ask myself, "will they figure out I don't know what I'm talking about?"

I will probably never get over this. It's part of how I work. Still, I wrote up some twenty pages of whatever and will now return to my routine, reading charters and cheering for the Mets. Checking Wonkette for more bitchy and amusing political gossip. Feeling sad about Iraq. Occasionally blogging. It's nice to be back.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

more on Islam

The Courtyard of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain.

I have to admit, I'm somewhat tired of insisting on the fact that the one billion + Muslims in the world are not all bloodthirsty fanatic savages bent on our destruction, so I'm just passing on a couple of links in honor of the holy month of Ramadan.

Via Chris at Even the Devils Believe, a beliefnet story on how a Florida Muslim organization collected funds to help rebuild Palestinian churches that were damaged after the pope's remarks. The leader of the group said "these churches were protected under Islam. We were upset to see them attacked."

Beliefnet.com has a number of good articles for people who want to learn about Islam. Here's one about the concept of jihad.

Speaking of Faith has done a great program that includes interviews with several Muslims since 9/11:
Mr. Omid Safi: You still hear from a lot of people, why aren't the moderate Muslims speaking out? And, you know, at some level, you just — you feel like, you know, I've lost my voice from speaking out.

Ms. Leila Ahmed (from "Muslim Women and Other Misunderstandings"): I get constantly called and asked to explain why Islam oppresses women. I have never yet been asked, why is it that Islam has produced seven women prime ministers or heads of state, and Europe only two or three or whatever it is?

Mr. Vincent Cornell (from "Violence and Crisis in Islam"): We're faced with this crisis where we have now become the problem, you know, capital T, capital P. The microscope is focused on us, and we are now forced to take stock of what we as a community have done to ourselves.
The current Speaking of Faith, by the way, is very good, although off-topic for this post. I recommend checking it out as well. Have a blessed Ramadan, everyone.