Friday, June 3, 2011

Plus ça change...

(Sorry about the missing accents in this entry; I haven't been able to find out how to include them. Can anyone help? NOTE: Done! Thanks, Richard!)

What's next? A photoshopped image of Obama with a stripper? It seems entirely possible. Any malicious person with a grudge, a political axe to grind, and minor computer skills is empowered, these days, to send out visually compelling lies to a public willing to believe anything they see and hear--and media more than happy to be complicit in their proliferation. The image of what purports to be the bulge in Rep. Anthony Weiner's underpants, purportedly Twittered to a young woman on the opposite side of the country, suggests that no one is immune from online malice. Much is made of the congressman's refusal to deny that he could be the subject of the offending picture. But that makes sense to me: as he says, pictures can be easily purloined and altered. Suppose it did turn out the picture was of him--snapped, possibly, in the gym or some congressional dressing room and altered to suit the purpose of the theft? He would then be open to public castigation for lying. Is this far-fetched?

The fact that this "scandal" attempts to implicate the most outspokenly liberal of our politicians is strongly suggestive of a smear. I suppose it's possible that Weiner would be foolish and arrogant enough to believe he could get away with Twittering an image of his discreetly-clad erect penis to a woman he does not know, and who claims not to know him, in a distant part of the country. But it does seem like a stretch--if you'll pardon the pun.

A propos of all this, I happen to be reading A Gambling Man, by Jenny Uglow--a marvelous history of the first ten years of the Restoration of the British Monarchy, from 1660 - 1670, the years immediately following the return of the decapitated Charles I's son, Charles II, from exile. It may seem like an odd choice for me. I picked it up at a friend's house and borrowed it, in part I suppose, because this Charles gave his name to the King Charles Spaniel--our George's breed--and in part because I found the Tudor series on television so fascinating. It was a chance to reconnect with some of those British genes.

It's an excellent book, anyway, and one that I'd recommend to anyone interested in 17th century European history, or the history of the monarchy in England. The reason I bring it up is that, well... it merely proves once again that history repeats itself. The politics of that distant time and place is remarkably similar to our own in so many ways--the dangerous absence of religious tolerance, the unpopularity of government and the constant tug-o'-war between the legislative and executive powers, the shifting alliances and the frequent betrayals, the tight-rope walk of the man at the top of the heap, the tense relationship between "the people" and the powerful elite, the unbridgeable (inexcusable) gap between rich and poor, the impetuous rush to war, the resentment over taxes... there's something on every page, in every chapter that reminds us of the old French adage: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more it stays the same.)

Let's talk about sex, since that's what started me off today. Sex and gossip. Sex and power. From Uglow's narrative, it seems that every man in a position of social or political power, from Charles himself on down, was busy bedding anyone who took his fancy--not just the common actresses (remember Nell Gwynn?) or the denizens of the ubiquitous bawdy houses, but even the (often married) women of the aristocracy seemed fair game. Unable to produce an heir with his wife, Catherine, Charles cheerfully spawned a whole stable of illegitimate children with a variety of mistresses, high and low. None of them was entitled to inherit the throne, of course--that questionable honor went to Charles's brother, James--but they were respected, mostly titled members of the court and high society.

Were these commonly-known affairs, not only of Charles but of other European monarchs and aristocrats, considered scandalous? Yes, and no. It was apparently accepted behavior, but it did generate reams of gossip and numerous political intrigues. Lacking the Internet, the gossip-mongers of the day wrote diaries (Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn), long poems and plays (Dryden, Marvell, and many others), and broadsheets. There was a certain risk involved in stage productions and publications, of course, since the king's disfavor could mean anything from exile from the court to losing one's head. Still, to judge from the generous quotations in Uglow's book, the writers of the day did not hold back from thinly-veiled verbal attacks and ridicule. A sample (referring not to Charles, but one of his close counselors):

This is the Savage Pimp without dispute
First brought his Mother for a Prostitute:
Of all the Miscreants ever went to Hell
This Villin Rampant bares away the bell.
Such wit abounded. Everyone, from the king on down, was expected to be able to turn a phrase in verse or pen a witty screed. Would it were so today--our pundits might be fewer in number. The tediously prosaic and small-minded political attacks from left and right that are served up endlessly on television by way of commentary pale by comparison. It would be wrong, though, to assume that our contemporary, poisonous punditry is a new phenomenon. Uglow's book provides us with a rich tapestry of evidence that innuendo, malicious gossip and self-serving lies are nothing new when it comes to the battle for power between human beings. Ah, well. Plus ca change...

1 comment:

mandt said...

Don't get too upset Peter...It's really rather funny and calls for satire. That the sight of a penis or a breast causes apoplexy in America is generally considered outside the ring of American holography to be bizarre and hysterical. Anthony Weiner is said (privately) to be quite flattered. I go back to the Congressman Wilbur Mills days and his nude drunken splash in a DC fountain with a stripper named Fanny. It was all so much simpler in those days. :)