A 16th Century Political Meme

Lucas Cranach the Elder, German peasants farting at the pope, 1545

16th century anti-papal political meme by Lucas Cranach the Elder: German peasants farting at the pope (1545).

The whole fake news phenomenon is big and complicated and covers everything from the advent of social media, which took over distribution of news while discarding the editorial function, to the decline of post-war laws and policies that specifically encouraged integrity in journalism.

However, just keep in mind that yellow journalism is not new. In fact, in the West, it’s been the norm since the press was invented circa 1440.

Cranach’s woodcut is not simply a crass political cartoon, although that too. It was meant to be printed and passed around. It was meant to offend the papal authority, then an austere religious and political institution, and to encourage anti-papal resentment among Cranch’s reformist cohorts.

At nearly 500 years old, the woodcut no longer conjures the disgust and disrespect it would have at the time it was created. We’re no longer arguing the Reformation. Just keep in mind that many wars were started over it. People killed each other, which suggests it was more important to them than almost anything we argue about today.

Since the Pope is no longer a serious political force, imagine instead a photoshopped picture of poor immigrants farting before Trump’s (or Boris’s) famously tousled hair — or gun owners making Obama dance by shooting under his feet.

In the following generation, reformists would popularize Galileo’s conflict with the Pope as a battle — Church vs. Science — which is the narrative many people are still taught today. There was an element of contest, but the reality was more complicated and considerably more nuanced, as it almost always is. The church actually did a great deal to support physical science in its infancy. One could even argue it birthed it in the West. Copernicus was a Catholic monk!

The Pope didn’t object to what Galileo was saying as much as how he went about saying it. Politics intervened. Facts were exaggerated. And the whole thing got out of hand. Similar stories can be told about almost any historical event, especially those glossed by Hollywood or high school history class.

Of course, in any telling, we must condense the actions of a great many people across a great many years into a few sentences. It is impossible to cover, or even to know, all their varying aims. To report an event, a summary must be written. It seems sometimes the temptation to tell the story you want others to hear is too great. And so you get peasants farting on the Pope.

We should not expect people to change. They never have. This seems to be how we are — a species of large ape that is only irregularly brilliant.

Not that there’s nothing we can do. But in the era of social media, where each of us is connected to everyone else through the phones in our pockets, any system we invent to reward factual integrity needs to bind all of us, not just journalists, and it needs to do so without unduly stifling speech.

This is will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century.