Political smears, then and now

I’m currently writing a paper about political propaganda in the Carolingian empire and it’s getting more topical than I’d like it to be. My focus is on a chain of events between 827 and 860, which in a simplified version goes like this:

1) (827-828) Two important magnates of the Emperor Louis the Pious, Hugh of Tours and Matfrid of Orléans are accused of military incompetence and removed from office. The accusations about them have probably been trumped up by Bernard of Septimania, who then goes on to enjoy Louis’ favour.

2) (830) Bernard is accused of adultery with Louis the Pious’ wife; some of Louis’ sons stage a coup against him, with the backing of Hugh and Matfrid, but Louis soon regains control.

3) (833-834) Louis’ sons again stage a coup; Louis is accused of numerous crimes and forced into doing penance for them, with the aim of removing him permanently from power. One of the leaders of the bishops imposing this penance is Ebbo, Archbishop of Rheims. Louis, however, regains the throne  again.

4) (835-851) Ebbo is made a scapegoat for the penance imposed on Louis and forced into “voluntarily” renouncing his office on the grounds of his unworthiness. However he continues to dispute the validity of this loss of office and attempts to regain his archbishopric.

5) (857-860) Louis’ grandson Lothar II attempts to get rid of his wife Theutberga by falsely accusing her of incest with his brother Hubert and then forcing her to make a “voluntary” confession of this and ask for penance.

6) (860) Some of Lothar’s opponents ask for advice on the legal validity of this process. One archbishop writes a long text De divortio on the topic: Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, the successor to Ebbo.

What I’m focusing on in my paper, building on work by Mayke de Jong and Courtney Booker, is how the mechanisms of penance and accusations of sinfulness get repeatedly used against opponents, and how those who’ve denounced false accusations and lack of proper procedure against someone on their own side go on to use the same techniques against their opponents. How partisanship trumps principle in other words, by people who are nevertheless trying to claim the moral high ground. And the last few days have given a depressing insight into the mentality behind this.

I considered becoming a registered supporter of the Labour party and voting in the leadership election, but I didn’t in the end: there wasn’t any candidate I was positive enough about.  But though I don’t agree with some of Jeremy Corbyn’s positions, I can see his appeal, the promise of a different kind of politics. It wasn’t surprising that the right-wing media decided to attack him with repeated unfounded smears.

And now a week or so on, we have “Piggate”, and David Cameron being attacked with dubiously based smears by a right-wing newspaper. And a number of the people who’ve been talking about principles in politics are eagerly pointing and laughing (though to be fair, not Corbyn himself). It now turns out that the media lying and smearing people is fine for many people when it happens to someone whom you dislike.

The excuse for why this is OK seem oddly familiar too. There’s very little evidence for the specific accusation about Cameron and a dead pig, but that doesn’t matter. Because it’s the sort of thing that someone like him would do or the sort of initiation rite that an Oxford dining club would have and thus if it’s not true, it’s truthy. Theutberga’s brother Hubert had a bad reputation: it’s perhaps not surprising that Lothar used sexual slurs against him to justify ending his marriage to Hubert’s sister.

And then the further excuses come and more principles crumble. Many liberals and left-wingers have rightly spent years calling for a less prurient sexual morality, to treat sexual conduct as about consistent notions of harm, not just what is “normal”. And now they’re making school-kid smutty jokes about someone else’s behaviour, because he’s a Tory and so that’s OK.

It’s funny, of course, so I’m told, and he’s a powerful man, so why shouldn’t we mock him? It doesn’t do any harm. But the original accusations were clearly intended to do harm: that’s the point of making them. And humiliation and ridicule are a common part of smear campaigns. One of Louis’ partisans, Thegan, reported how Hugh of Tours’ servants laughed at him for his cowardice; as Mayke de Jong puts it (Penitential State p 252): “such mocking songs roared by one’s retainers and servants strike me as a Carolingian aristocrat’s worse nightmare. This is why Thegan integrated it into his strategies of defamation.”

Humiliation as part of a strategy of defamation: that’s what people cheering on Piggate are supporting. And then the final excuses come. Cameron’s a man who’s done evil things, so it’s OK to smear him. Or he’s palled up to a billionaire, so it serves him right when his former friend turns on him.

If the accusations were true about him, then they’d be more force to this: the equivalent of Al Capone getting brought down for tax evasion. But as I’ve said, the specific evidence for this claim is so far very weak. Swap the situation around politically. Jeremy Corbyn has associated with some unsavoury characters in his opposition to what he sees as imperialism. (To avoid confusion, I accept that there are reasons why he felt this to be necessary, such as furthering peace processes or as part of a movement focused on stopping a particular war). So does that mean that he’s fair game if one of them subsequently spreads lies about him?

So we get to the final argument. The right-wing media will smear left-wingers/Labour politicians anyhow, so why shouldn’t we do it too? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But here we get to the nub of the matter. Jeremy Corbyn and his campaign were supposed to be something new. The concern of this new politics isn’t supposed to be about popularity or electoral tactics but about principles. There are odd similarities with the idea of the prophetic voice in Carolingian politics: the man whose focus is on right and wrong, denouncing sinners and protecting the weak, without any thought for his own advantage. The truth-teller, who doesn’t care whom he offends or what the consequences are. Corbyn fits rather well into that tradition in many ways, although he’s milder in personality than your average Old Testament prophet.

But if you want to stand on your principles, as the Corbynistas do, it helps not to abandon them whenever it’s to your partisan advantage to do so. Speaking truthiness to power isn’t terribly inspiring. Hincmar poses as a man concerned only with justice, but he wriggles uncomfortably as he tries to explain why Theutberga’s supposedly voluntary confession can’t be used as evidence against her. Why? Because it was the same method used to remove his predecessor Ebbo: if he says this method of proof is invalid, Hincmar’s own hold on office is potentially weakened.  So instead we get some feeble excuses about how the situation is not the same.

In the UK, the left-wing doesn’t have the power and influence that the right-wing does, in terms of money and media access. Its key weapon is its morality: it stands for fairness and for truth, for something better. Or so it claims: unfortunately, after Piggate, it’s going to be a little harder for it to make that claim convincingly, any more than Louis the Pious or Thegan or Hincmar could in the ninth century.


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