Character Assassination: The Historical Perspective [Part 1]

By Martijn Icks

“History is bunk,” American business man Henry Ford famously said. It’s a beloved quote, especially among historians, who like nothing better than arguing against it. Others have opined that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. And then there’s the sentiment that history doesn’t repeat itself, but rhymes.

CARP was founded to study character assassination from a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary perspective, bringing together historians, political scientists, political psychologists and media experts. In the past one and a half years, I’ve blogged about many historical cases, from the destruction of images of Pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten in Bronze Age Egypt to the Eulenburg scandal in early 1900s Germany.

Perhaps it’s time to step back and take a broader view. All these historical anecdotes are amusing, to be sure, but do they really add anything to our understanding of character assassination? Why study character attacks from a historical perspective at all?

Some might argue that it’s misleading to file such a broad range of actions from such a wide variety of historical cultures under one single category. The ancient Egyptians certainly didn’t have a word for character assassination. They didn’t have mass media and elected leaders, either. So can we really compare what they were doing to the actions of modern-day character attackers with their tweets, memes and cartoons?

I think we can, if we are careful. After all, the basic principle stays the same throughout the ages: deliberately damaging or destroying the reputation of some prominent individual, whether that’s a pharaoh, a Renaissance pope or an American president. We already established this point in our 2014 conference volume.

In fact, the observation that character assassination can and does occur even in societies without elected leaders, modern mass media or journalism, with a population that is for the most part politically powerless and illiterate, is one of the reasons why it’s worthwhile to look at historical cases in the first place.

Henry Ford
History just bunk? Henry Ford certainly thought so

History provides us with a smorgasbord of cultural, political and technological scenarios, even more varied than the societies of the contemporary world. These allow us to examine how practices of character assassination function in and are affected by various political systems, media landscapes and a whole host of other variables.

Take the Duke of Alba, for instance, whose character was attacked in numerous pamphlets and engravings during the sixteenth-century Dutch Revolt. It was one of the first times in Western history that the printing press was used as a weapon in a political struggle. Without this technology, and without a general public that was capable of engaging in political matters, it would have been impossible to build up such an appealing and widely recognizable enemy image of the Spanish general.

Different historical scenarios also show us how the values and taboos that fuel character attacks shift and change over time. For the Prussian nobleman Eulenburg, whose case I discussed last month, being outed as a homosexual was a political death blow. Such a revelation would hardly have the same impact in modern-day Germany. But it wouldn’t be such a devastating blow in ancient Rome either, where gender and sexuality meant different things than they do to us.

An added advantage of looking at historical cases of character assassination is that we usually have no horse in the race, which allows us to approach them more objectively. An American scholar researching the 2016 Trump-Clinton campaign might have a hard time staying emotionally detached. Even if she would succeed, others might dismiss her results as partisan if they didn’t align with their own inclinations.

Finally, a historical perspective has much to teach us about the notorious status of history’s villains and monsters. Who decided that Mary was “bloody” and Tarquin “proud”? Earned or not, such labels are applied and perpetuated because they fit a certain ideological framework and confirm a certain view of history. If we take a closer look, as Henri van Nispen has done for the “mad” emperor Caligula, we will often find that the person in question was not as one-dimensionally evil as they’ve been presented to us.

I’ll leave it here for now. In my next blog, I’ll stick to this bird’s eye view and discuss the challenges and limitations of historical character assassination research, and how it might benefit from other disciplines.


2 thoughts on “Character Assassination: The Historical Perspective [Part 1]

  1. Pingback: Can Civil Debate Save Us? – Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab

  2. Pingback: Character Assassination: The Historical Perspective [Part 2] – Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab

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