“Getting Medieval” with the Presidential Debates

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Ms. Elliott is Ruth N. Halls Professor of History, Indiana University.

As a medieval historian I am sensitive to the increasing marginalization of my field of study. This is not simply paranoia speaking: confronted by a mounting number of retirements, departments are increasingly reluctant to expend their dwindling number of lines on a field that, to many, seems arcane and expendable. My anxiety expresses itself in the "real world" by a thirst for medieval relevance which often renders me shamelessly undiscriminating. I have savored the slings and arrows of outrageous stereotypes -- as when Mel Gibson painted his face blue or the thug in Pulp Fiction threatened to "get medieval" with somebody's ass. But partiality to my own particular 1000 years has not rendered me ungenerous. On the contrary, my compassion for what I perceive as other temporally challenged fields has expanded: I am extremely gratified by most references to what I have come to think of as the "deep past" -- basically anything prior to 1700.

So imagine my delight over the current media coverage for the upcoming presidential debates when I read that the Bush campaign has been touting John Kerry as a newfangled Cicero (not himself medieval, perhaps, but certainly a medieval favorite). It was the power of Kerry's debating skills which gave rise to this felicitous metaphoric bridge, spanning the centuries that divided the two senators. Nor were Kerry's supporters slow to return the compliment, graciously declaring Bush himself an adept in debate, who has never been bested by a rival. (Kerry's team seems to be at a loss to find a historical champion equal to expressing the prowess of George W. Bush. Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps? Somehow, my zeal doesn't extend to sacrificing Abelard.)

In another time and another place, one might mistake such claims and counterclaims for the preliminary exchanges of noble warriors, bent on augmenting their own reputations by stressing the worthiness of their opponent -- like Breca and Beowulf. But this creative anachronism does not apply to the present case. Instead we are led to understand that this exchange of pseudo-noble pleasantries was initiated by the Bush camp as a political ploy that somehow works in the president's favor. The underlying assumption seems to be that Kerry's ability represents something of an unfair advantage. Hence Bush's supporters reason that the more Kerry's awe-inspiring powers are invoked, the less will be expected from Bush, leaving the malleable public primed to cheer even the most pathetic performance of their president.

It is difficult to find a historical analogue to the logic implicit in this bit of "Bush think." Perhaps the medieval/early modern carnival comes closest: a community's ritual enactment of the world upside down. There is no pleasure to be derived from this parallel, however, only bitter disillusionment. Shouldn't a country want their future president to be a fierce debater, reflecting not only superior powers of argumentation but also, presumably, superior intellect and knowledge -- something of a modern day Philosopher King (to stay with the Bush camp's penchant for classical analogies)? Yet Bush's strategists seem to be banking on the assumption that this is not the case. If they are correct, there are deeper forces at work here than the American love affair with the "common man" -- which is commendable within limits. The Bush contingent presumes that the public's positive response to the common touch even accommodates common abilities: their cherished hope is that a majority of the voters will bypass a man possessed not only of superior mental capacity, but also superior military experience, bravery, and (as is becoming increasingly apparent) integrity, in favor of someone who is demonstrably inferior.

But although this reversal may correspond to the outer action of the carnival, the inner spirit is lacking. For the reversals at the heart of medieval carnival were understood to be absurd because they were temporary: the reality of a fool permanently occupying the throne is not merely stripped of all hilarity, but becomes an occasion for horror. Bush's strategists, however, anticipate a carnivalesque world in which the reversals are not only permanent but imperceptible and, hence, unchallenged: a world which consistently misrecognizes down for up, prefers incompetence to competence, and in which a fool is permanently ensconced on the throne. If their hopes are gratified, this is a world in which no one will be laughing.

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