Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaks in the Ship of State

The Great Khan sending a letter to the Pope, 1410.
How does one stop reading about the WikiLeaks? They've become a not-so-minor obsession, every revelation another wince, another stunned face, another foray into rarefied vocabulary.  Sarkozy is "mercurial" (one of my all time favorite words to use for a political ruler) - delightful! Switzerland is a "frustrating alpine democracy" (as opposed to those easy-going sea-level democracies). Berlusconi is "feckless" - do tell! Medvedev is Robin to Putin's Batman - come on, now you're making this up! Angela Merkel is apparently "risk averse and rarely creative" - who knew?  Well, now we know that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi once called the Iranian president "Hitler" (to quote Mac sitting here next to me: "If the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi compares you to Hitler, you've made a poor impression on the world.")  I know that this is serious, I know that Hillary Clinton has other problems than these.  But out here, David will take a minute to laugh at Goliath ; be (frankly) impressed by the precision of wit of the American diplomats' language (mercurial? alpine?); and wonder about how the divide between what we say and what we mean shrinks when we think no one's listening.  Plus, we get to wonder about the effect of the private conversations of a major bank organization coming to light (first democracy exposed - now capitalism!).

In the same manuscript whence the wonderful image above depicting an early diplomatic cable is pulled, John Mandeville describes a conversation he had with the Sultan, just the two of them:

Now I shall tell you what the Sultan told me one day in his chamber.  He made everyone else leave his chamber, lords as well as others who were there, for he wanted to have a private talk between ourselves alone. And when they had all gone out, he asked me how Christians governed themselves in our countries. And I said, "Lord, well enough - thanks be to God." And he answered and said "Truly, no. It is not so.  For your priests do not serve God properly by righteous living, as they should do... On holy days, when people should go to church to serve God, they go to the tavern and spend all the day - and perhaps all the night - in drinking and gluttony... Christian men commonly deceive one another... And they are, moreover, so swollen with pride and vainglory that they never know how to dress themselves... For Christians are so proud, so envious, such great gluttons, so lecherous, and moreover so full of covetousness that for a little silver they will sell their daughters, their sisters, even their own wives, and no one keeps his faith to another... Certainly it is because of your sinfulness that you have lost all the land which we hold and keep.

Pretty harsh assessment, no?  Kind of makes "feckless," "risk-averse," and "alpine" seem tame, yes?  This ought to get Mandeville's dander up - the injustice of these accusations! The cheek! But instead... 

I asked him with great respect, how he came by so full a knowledge of the state of Christendom.

Wha-? No wincing, no stunned face, no foray into rarefied vocabulary ("lecherous" counts)???  Scholars have taken Mandeville's reaction to mean that he recognized Christendom in exactly the vilifying terms the Sultan gave it.  And that's the thing, isn't it? We recognize the characterization of these political figures - the revelation is not in the knowledge itself, it's in the incontrovertible proof that the highest dignitaries criticize each other with perhaps more wit, but definitely with less dignity than we had thought.  But Mandeville is serious in his question: "No, really, how did you come to know us so well? We thought all of that stuff was only in the cables, in our private conversations, in our intimate sphere..."

And then he had all the great lords and worthies that he had previously sent out called in; and he detained four of them - great lords - to talk to me.  These described to me all the manners of my country, and of other countries in Christendom as fully as and as truly as if they had always lived in them.  These lords and the Sultan spoke French wonderfully well, and I was astonished by that.  Finally, I understood that the sultan sends some of his lords to different kingdoms and lands in the guise of merchants - some with precious stones, some with cloths of gold, some with other jewels - and that these visit all realms in order to size up the manners of us Christian men and spot our weaknesses.  

Medieval spies! Looking for leaks in the medieval Christian state and finding it in the flagging moral character of its inhabitants. Mandeville's Travels is a generally pretty astounding text, but this passage may be one of the most confounding of all, don't you agree?  What is the author doing in revealing what the Sultan really thinks of the Christians and (worse) what the Christians really think of themselves? What has been sought here with WikiLeaks? What has been revealed? Well, the diplomats' petty humanity (and there's some kind of great sympathy in seeing this - "Oh wow, that guy (just happens to be the president of Iran) got on your nerves, too?"). And the real emotions and resentments behind the fa├žade (we knew it had to be there and look there it is!).  So we have more realism - do we have more understanding? and of what?

On this night it might make sense to think of Judah the Hammer and his five sons and all the others, and of the re-dedication of the Temple and of the language of ritual supplanting that of war, and of both eschewing diplomacy altogether  - but maybe let's just enjoy the light.

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