Politics as Usual

     Leave it to the professors to explain something by talking about something else. Human nature doesn’t change, so find a true expert on something – anything human – and the farther away you get, the closer you are to home. For the student of ancient things has no reason to distort his investigations to gratify today’s prejudices.
     Suppose you were curious to know how it is that the Disney Co. can make Congress tap dance, curtsey and bend over. There is no need to investigate Disney, or today’s Congress. “Authors, Publishers and Politicians: The Quest for an Anglo-American Copyright Agreement, 1815-1854” (London, 1974) will tell you all you need to know.
     Congress has always been for sale. And the big money comes not from paying Congress to do something: it’s in paying it to do nothing.
     See: Financial Regulation.
     I have just read two splendid volumes by professors who are experts in things far away in space and time. Yet the books explain today’s U.S. politics far better than anything you will find in daily, weekly or monthly journalism.
     They explain, particularly, how it is that Republicans continue to be the dominant voice in the United States today, though they are the minority party.
     The books are about sodomy and slander.
     “Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400-1600,” (2003) is by Professor Helmut Puff. “The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon,” by Robert Darnton, an expert in French history and the director of the Harvard University Library, is hot off the press.
     Professor Puff wanted to know why sodomy was criminalized as “sexual heresy” in Germany in 1532 – even between men and women. After all, the Renaissance was a time of rediscovery of the glories of Greece and Rome, and the old Greeks and Romans liked a bit of sodomy after dinner as surely as the Renaissance popes did.
     It turns out, Professor Puff tells us, that sodomy was criminalized for political reasons after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, and set off the Protestant Reformation.
     Luther’s followers found it convenient to denounce sodomy as “the Roman sin.” The Romans responded, so to speak, in kind. Then as nationalism raised its bloody head, Frenchmen called sodomy “the Italian sin,” Italians and Germans called it “the French sin,” and so on.
     In other words, neither the Lutherans nor the Catholics nor the French or Germans really cared about sodomy – except, perhaps, where to get some. They just wanted to use it for all it was worth. And between you and me, sodomy is worth more in and of itself than it’s worth for all the reasons the Lutherans and Catholics used it.
     Criminalizing sodomy made it slanderous to call someone a Sodomite, though it did not make sodomy or slander any less fun.
     This brings us to Professor Darnton. He tells us that slander, or libel, was not just name-calling to the French of the Ancien Régime – it was an early form of investigative journalism.
     The libelle was a literary genre. Generally issued as pamphlets, libels contained real news about illustrious and powerful people, mixed with licentious anecdotes, slander and phony moralistic pontifications. It was a lot like Fox News.
Libels too were issued for political reasons. Darnton says they had great influence in undermining the French monarchy before and during the Revolution.
     “When I waded into the texts,” Professor Darnton writes, “I found them to be slanderous, tendentious, wicked, indecent, and very good reading: that is why they sold so well.”
     Libels were written because Jacques Six Pack did not understand foreign or domestic politics. But he understood sodomy and slander. And he’d read about them.
     That is the situation we have today.
     None of the huffing and puffing Republicans in Congress have ever coherently explained what they think socialism is. For them, it’s just a slightly more polite way of saying sodomy.
     As proof, consider that for decades the Republican Party denounced Social Security and Medicare as socialism, and did everything it could to prevent both programs, which are, let’s face it, socialistic.
     Now the Republicans tell us they’ll fight to their last noisome breath to defend Social Security and Medicare, but the latest health-care reform is socialism.
     The Republicans not only do not know what they are saying, they don’t care what they are saying.
     They’d call health-care reform sodomy if they thought their followers knew what sodomy is.
     All the Republicans know for sure is that socialism and sodomy sound like bad things. But after a while, most normal human beings – even Republicans – have to admit that they like it.

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