February 26, 2003

The Decline in the Art of Political Invective

I'm reading Procopius's Secret History of Byzantium, and thinking how far the art of political invective has declined since the sixth century. Mind you, someone like Andrew Sullivan on Bill Clinton at least gets the ball in the ballpark, but there is nothing to match, say:

Well, then, this emperor was dissembling, two-faced; a clever fellow with a marvellous ability to conceal his real opinion, and able to shed tears, not from any joy or sorrow, but employing them artfully when required in accordance with the immediate need, lying all the time; not carelessly, however, but confirming his undertakings both with his signature and with the most fearsome oaths, even when dealing with his own subjects. But he promptly disregarded both agreements and solemn pledges, like the most contemptible slaves, who by fear of the tortures hanging over them are driven to confess misdeeds they have denied on oath. A treacherous friend and an inexorable enemy, he was passionately devoted to murder and plunder; quarrelsome and subversive in the extreme; easily led astray into evil ways but refusing every suggestion that he should follow the right path; quick to devise vile schemes and to carry them out; and with an instinctive aversion to the mere mention of anything good. How could anyone find words to describe Justinian's character? These vices and many yet greater he clearly possessed to an inhuman degree; it seemed as if nature had removed every tendency to evil from the rest of mankind and deposited it in the soul of this man...

Posted by DeLong at February 26, 2003 08:41 PM | TrackBack


I read some parts of the Secret History a few months ago. It reminded me of Russ Limbaugh.

Posted by: Bruce Ferguson on February 27, 2003 07:11 AM

Which Justinian is he discussing here?

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on February 27, 2003 07:36 AM

As I understand, it is the most famous Justinian, who is generally regarded as quite an effective Emperor. His Empress, as I remember, was quite the slut though.

Writing about an earlier period, Suetonius dished out some snarky, nasty gossip about Tiberius and others of that time. The tabloid mentality was not a recent invention.

Posted by: zizka on February 27, 2003 08:42 AM

The first Justinian, the sixth century Justinian, not the Turtletaub "utter bastard" Justinian. (Mind you, the first Justinian was also a winner of the "utter bastard" sweepstakes.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 27, 2003 09:26 AM

The writing, as you say, is enjoyable, but the substance is so exagerrated -- as Louis Menand noted about Orwell a few New Yorkers ago -- as to be meaningless. The passage could easily have been written about any Roman emperor, as Zizka noted about Suetonius (but see Tacitus on Tiberius for true transcendent hatred along with scurrilous rumors). Not that Justinian wasn't a bastard, but so what?

Posted by: Max on February 27, 2003 10:00 AM

Justinian was indeed an utter bastard, but also an utterly fascinating man. Cold, ruthless and intolerant, this son of illiterate peasants fought his way to the top of East Roman politics, partly through the use of street gangs to intimidate and kill rivals. He married an ex-prostitute stripper and together they launched impossibly ambitious projects to reunify Christianity, restore the Roman empire and codify Roman law. Byzantine aristos like Procopius loathed him because he made them pay taxes and shut them out of leadership in favor of talented outsiders.

To put in today's terms, imagine a politician who is a combination of Richard Nixon, Pope John Paul II and Lenin, who openly uses the Crips or Bloods to beat up or assassinate rivals, and marries a famous porn actress just before running for president.

And we'll never know what would have happened had he not been sideswiped by the Plague of Justinian, which killed about a third of the Mediterranean population.

Of course, we have to remember that his grand vision was quite totalitarian. If you did not adhere to a particular variation of Christian theology, you were guilty of thoughtcrime and were subject to ruthless punishment. He was very modern in this way.

A sympathetic fictional treatment of Justinian and Theodora (and harsh treatment of Procopius) is found in the excellent "Sarantium" historical fantasy novels by Guy Kay. Unsympathetic treatments can be found in Robert Graves and of course "Prince Valiant".

Posted by: Mike on February 27, 2003 10:35 AM

I think that Paul Veyne said that one of the most difficult things about studying Roman history is getting used to how strange the Romans really were. Latin and Greek literature and culture have been used for so long as a model for what "we" really are or should be like that the actual Greeks and Romans have been obscured and misrepresented. XIX c. Christian non-discussions of the role of pederasty in Greek and Roman life are just one example.

We also tend to think of the Emperor as a hereditary King, but he seldom one was even in the great days of the Empire. This continued to be true during the Holy Roman Empire, I think.

Posted by: zizka on February 27, 2003 11:28 AM

From, "The Decline in the Art of Political Invective":

"...it seemed as if nature had removed every tendency to evil from the rest of mankind and deposited it in the soul of this man..."

Sigh. Brad, Brad, Brad! :-( ;-)

Ann Coulter can do alot "better" than this! Probably James Carville can too, though I've heard and read less from him.

But surely you see that Coulter and Carville are the problem, not the solution? (I have such a hard time telling tongue-in-cheek from written material...)

Remember the presidential debates? They were soooooo bad, that I couldn't stomach more than about 10 minutes, total, of all the debates. From what *I* heard, there was nearly universal agreement that the best debate was among the vice-presidential candidates. Everyone was so relieved that there was at least one adult on both the Republican and Democratic tickets!

To borrow a line from a Smothers Brothers skit, not once in the entire vice-presidential debate, did Cheney or Lieberman say, "Mom always liked you best!"

It is soooooo incredibly childish, and sooooo completely wasteful of everyone's time, when people try to make disagreements into some sort of moral issue. Democrats aren't immoral. And Republicans aren't immoral. They're both simply wrong.

Mark (Libertarian) (We may be wrong--it's theoretically possible, anyway ;-)--but that doesn't make us bad people.)

P.S. Now, Progressives and Belgians... ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 27, 2003 03:30 PM

I thought the guy was talking about George W. Bush 'till he got to the end.

We live in "dumbed down" times and it's not surprising the debate level has headed that way either.

Posted by: Greg on February 27, 2003 04:01 PM

For corollary phun, see:
Bloggus Caesari (http://www.sankey.ca/caesar) -

Julius Caesar updates this blog when he can while putting down rebellions in Gaul.

Posted by: Pwylla on February 27, 2003 04:43 PM

"We live in "dumbed down" times and it's not surprising the debate level has headed that way either."

The example Brad DeLong gave wasn't one of "intelligent debate." It was basically an example of someone calling a person who he disagreed with a bunch of names. Hardly "intelligent debate!"

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 27, 2003 05:24 PM

Paul Keating, former PM of Australia, used (somewhat less stylish) invective in the heat of political debate. Samples:

"I am not like the Leader of the Opposition. I did not slither out of the Cabinet room like a mangy maggot..."
"He has more hide than a team of elephants."
"...You stupid foul-mouthed grub."
"I was implying that the Honorable Member for Wentworth was like a lizard on a rock - alive, but looking dead."
"..old dozy over there, the Honourable Member for Wentworth.."
This is the sort of little-boy, stamp your foot stuff which comes from a financial yuppie when you shove him into parliament. (In reference to former PM John Hewson, a former university economics professor)
"You've been in the dye pot again, Andrew." (in reference to former opposition leader Andrew Peacock's dyed hair)
"We're not interested in the views of painted, perfumed gigolos." (in reference to Peacock again)
"It is the first time the Honourable Gentleman has got out from under the sunlamp." (..and again!)
"Fucking animals!" (In reference to the Press)
"Laurie Oakes [is] a cane toad." (Laurie Oakes is a journalist)
"Codd will be lucky to get a job cleaning shithouses if I ever become Prime Minister."
"It must get right up their nose, quaffing down the red wine at these fashionable eateries in Bent Street and Collins Street, with the Prime Minister calling them donkeys - but donkeys they are." (in reference to AMP management)
"These dummies and dimwits"
"Those opposite could not operate a tart shop"
"These intellectual hoboes"
"This rabble opposite"
"...for the benefit of the blockheads opposite..."
"If the dummies opposite will just shut up"
"These dummies and dimwits"
"The Opposition crowd could not raffle a chook in a pub"
"The animals on the other side"

Posted by: Michael Harris on February 27, 2003 05:25 PM

>>P.S. Now, Progressives and Belgians... ;-)<<

Are double-memberships allowed? :)

You won't draw me into this, Mark, however. Last time I dared to label Dubya a right-wing populist -as a matter of purely objective description on my part, I must say,- I almost got lynched on this forum... Beam me back to the Roman era!

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on February 27, 2003 06:29 PM

P.S. which is not synonimical to asking to be bombed back to the pre-Industrial era. :-7

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on February 27, 2003 06:36 PM

I think part of it is there is just so much politics-related media, so you tend to miss most of it.

For example, in A Slate article relating to the question of who is the civilian who will run Iraq after the shooting stops, there is this crack - "Henry Kissinger, a former diplomat who has a lot of experience running client states, could be a good fit if he could be convinced not to plot to assassinate himself."

Now that is some pretty damn fine political invective ...


Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on February 27, 2003 07:40 PM

Well, okay maybe Justinian deserved the obloquy, but there is a good deal more to it. He is about as talented an emperor as Byzantium ever produced -- evidenced not least by his capacity to surround himself with people of talent comparable to his own.

HIs empress, Theodora, was one of those talented susporters. Her detractors said that she had danced naked on the Hippodrome with s snake between her legs. Not everyone would regard that as a slander or even a disqualification for high office. Gibbon says she decried "the parsimony of nature" in that "she wished for a fourth altar on which she might pour libations to the god of love."

Justinian built the Hagia Sophia according to principles set forth by the best academic mathematicians. It fell down. They rebuilt it on principles recommended by the best non-academic master builders, and it is still standing.

Posted by: jda on February 27, 2003 08:52 PM

I suppose if I knew more about Keating I'd find out something bad about him, so I'm not going to go looking. If I say stuff like that I get lectures aboute "civility", whatever that is.

Posted by: zizka on February 27, 2003 10:05 PM

While it may or may not be political, there's some mighty fine invective in "Gargantua and Pantagruel." Many years ago, an old friend extracted the
cake peddlers insult section from four different translations. Since I can't get the URL to take, I'll repeat them here. I've always preferred Urquhart, for both quality and quantity.

Samuel Putnam:

The cake-peddlers were by no means inclined to grant the shepherd's request, but (what was worse) proceeded to insult the latter terribly, calling them `scum of the earth, toothless bastards, red-headed rogues, chippy- chasers, filthy wretches of the kind that dung in the bed, big lubbers, sneaky curs, lazy hounds, pretty boys, pot-bellies, windjammers, good-for-nothings, clodhoppers, bad customers, greedy beggars, blowhards, mamma's darlings, monkey-faces, loafers, bums, big boobs, scoundrels, simpletons, silly jokers, dudes, teeth-chattering tramps, dirty cowherds, and dung-dripping shepherds,' with other defamatory epithets, adding that it was not for the likes of them to be eating these fine cakes, but that they ought to be satisfied with coarse, lumpy bread and big round loaves.

John M. Cohen:

The cake bakers, however, were not at all inclined to accede to this request and, what is worse, they heaped insults on the shepherds, calling them babblers, snaggle-teeth, crazy carrot heads, scabs, shit-a-beds, boors, sly cheats, lazy louts, fancy fellows, drunkards, braggarts, good-for-nothings, dunderheads, nut shellers, beggars, sneak thieves, mincing milksops, apers of their betters, idlers, half-wits, gapers, hovel dwellers, poor fish, cacklers, conceited monkeys, teeth clatterers, dung drovers, shitten shepherds, and other such abusive epithets. They added that these dainty cakes were not for their eating and that they must be satisfied with black bread and whole-meal loaves.

Burton Raffel:

The bakers were not particularly receptive to the shepherd's request. Worse still, they proceeded to give them, instead, a stream of gross insults, calling them toothless beggars, redheaded clowns, drunken bums, bed shitters, thieves, pickpockets, cowards, sweet little morsels, big bellies, fat mouths, slobs, clodhoppers, patsies, bloodsuckers, saber rattlers, pretty-boys, practical jokers, shovel watchers, boors with big mouths, fat-heads, jerks, fools, sharp-tongued bastards, fops, motor tongues, turd herders, shit shepherds, and assorted other unpleasant names. And they added that good flatcakes of the kind they were selling weren't for the likes of them: they ought to be happy with half-baked crumble cakes and peasant's bread.

Sir Thomas Urquhart:

The cake-bakers were in nothing inclinable to their request; but which was worse, did injure them most outrageously, calling them prating gablers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roysters, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly louts, cousening foxes, ruffian rogues, paltry customers, sycophant varlets, drawlatch hoydons, flouting milk-sops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvey sneaksbies, fondling fips, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggards, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, slutch calf-lollies, grout-head gnatsnappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slagams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddipeak simpletons, turgy gut, shitten shepherds, and other such defamatory epithets, saying further, that it was not for them to eat of these dainty cakes, but might very well content themselves with the coarse unrauged bread, or to eat of the great brown household loaf.

Posted by: skb on February 28, 2003 12:11 PM

Ian Whitchurch relates, "Henry Kissinger, a former diplomat who has a lot of experience running client states, could be a good fit if he could be convinced not to plot to assassinate himself."

And comments, "Now that is some pretty damn fine political invective..."

I call that "teasing"...not even "invective." Quite within the acceptable bounds of political discourse...especially when directed at a former, and unelected, political figure.

What I'd call "invective" is what we need less of:

"...easily led astray into evil ways but refusing every suggestion that he should follow the right path; quick to devise vile schemes and to carry them out; and with an instinctive aversion to the mere mention of anything good."

Or, apparently from Paul Keating, "The animals on the other side."

Let me take a wild guess, and guess the "animals" weren't too interested in debating various courses of action with coarse Mr. Keating.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 3, 2003 03:37 PM


Posted by: Name on March 12, 2003 05:50 AM
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