If the Shoe Fits

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The Bible’s Standard of Liberty

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As the Constitutional Convention drew to a close, newly minted Americans waited anxiously outside Independence Hall to see what kind of government would emerge. Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded forcefully, “A republic — if you can keep it.”

“If you can keep it.” There’s the rub. We’ve managed to maintain our republic for 240 years, but it seems to be standing on the brink of a new kind of monarchy, tainted with overbearing mandates and burdened with no compunctions about invasions of individual liberty. It has ever been thus. The lure of power, pomp, and largess has always stood in the shadows of monarchy, ready to trade a false promise of security and ease for hard-won liberty.

The Bible provides one of the most concise and accurate warnings ever written about the corrupting power of monarchy. In just nine short verses, the first book of Samuel describes what happens when a king comes to power. I’ve thought about those verses a good deal during the Fourth of July, and indeed throughout this election season.

We’ve managed to maintain our republic for 240 years, but it seems to be standing on the brink of a new kind of monarchy.

Here’s the biblical narrative: after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the Israelites finally crossed the Jordan River into the land that had been promised to their tribal founder, Abraham. In the wilderness they had been given Ten Commandments — coincidentally, the same number as the Constitution’s Bill of Rights — and these rules, like the Bill of Rights and Magna Carta after it, protected life, liberty, and property. Moses set up a system of judges to hear and adjudicate complaints, and Joshua continued the judicial system after Moses died. It worked for a while. But soon the Israelites started looking around at the kingdoms that surrounded them. They were drawn to the regality of it, the pomp and pride.

The crisis began when Samuel was judge in Israel but his sons were found unfit to succeed him. They had “turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.” But instead of simply replacing the corrupt judges with honest ones, as had happened a generation earlier when Judge Eli’s sons proved unfit, the people said to Samuel, “make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” They wanted to be like everyone else.

As a prophet, Samuel consulted with God, and God warned them about the consequences of having a king. The regime of the judges had been decentralized, and more concerned with fairness and simple means of self-protection than with power or glory. Monarchy, as God explained through Samuel, is a much more costly affair.

First, he said, the king “will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.” In other words, he will conscript an army.

Soon the Israelites started looking around at the kingdoms that surrounded them. They were drawn to the regality of it, the pomp and pride.

Next, “he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties, and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of chariots.” I’m not sure whether we would call this bureaucracy, fascism, or slavery, but forced labor by any other name is still as bleak.

Then “he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.” Ever an equal-opportunity enslaver, the king will conscript the daughters too — not unlike our own Senate, which recently voted to require women as well as men to register for the draft in the interest of “fairness to women.”

In addition, the king “will take the tenth of your seed [an income tax] and of your menservants, and your maidservants, and … your asses … and sheep [a wealth tax].”

And here’s the kicker about consequences: God concludes by saying, “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:10–18).

Notice the reason God gave for leaving the people to suffer when they inevitably cry out for help: “the king which ye shall have chosen.” God respects choice, and he insists on accountability. Why do bad things happen? Because so many people make bad choices.

It is interesting that the warning did no good. “Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations [a kind of globalism],” the people said. The fact that ideas and choices have consequences is unpleasant to consider. Much easier to follow one’s desires and find someone to help them — or to blame — later.

From that moment Saul viewed David as a threat and usurper, and vowed to kill him. One of the costs of centralized power is the grim desire to get and keep it.

If a king was what they wanted, God was willing to help Samuel select a good man for the job. Saul was a humble man who responded to the call by saying, “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” (1 Samuel 9:21). On the day of his coronation Saul was found “hiding among the stuff,” so overwhelmed was he by the thought of becoming king.

Nevertheless, as Lord Acton observed, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As king, Saul became reckless, paranoid, and churlish. God selected another young man to become Saul’s successor — David, the youngest son of the shepherd Jesse. After David volunteered to face the giant Philistine Goliath, and killed him, the Israelites shouted, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” From that moment Saul viewed David as a threat and usurper, and vowed to kill him. One of the costs of centralized power is the grim desire to get and keep it.

When Saul died in battle, David became king, and it happened to him too, just as God had predicted; soon the once-humble shepherd boy began to change. He conscripted armies and demanded food and supplies. When a “churlish” local landowner, Nabal, refused to give his army food and wine, David flew into a rage and threatened to kill all of Nabal’s servants and their families. Only the quick thinking of Abigail, Nabal’s wife, prevented the slaughter as she reminded David of how such a vile act would affect his reputation as king. Abigail’s wise argument brought David to his senses, and he thanked her. “Blessed be thy advice . . . which hast kept me from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand” (I Samuel 25).

But David’s humility was short-lived. Soon he was standing on his palace balcony, filled with lust as he watched a woman, Bathsheba. With the power given to a king, he sent for her, slept with her, and when she became pregnant arranged for her husband Uriah’s death by sending him to the battlefront and ordering his captain to leave him unprotected. This is what happens, often, when a man gets unchecked power; his sense of entitlement overpowers his sense of rightness. David would struggle for the rest of his life with the demands of war, and civil war with people who craved his power. He also struggled, often unsuccessfully, with his own impulses. Power did not corrupt David absolutely, however, and he tried to escape its withering grasp.

As we celebrate the 240th year of our nation’s independence, we have reason to be proud. The founders began a process of separation from monarchy that would provide an example for other nations around the world. Our constitution became a model for other nations that would throw off the power of monarchy and turn monarchs into figureheads. The founders were not able to make all wrongs right — there were other civil rights still to be won. But they blazed a trail to freedom that others would follow in their own time.

When bad choices are made, the continued existence of choice provides a path back.

Yet we must ever be vigilant against the corruption of power. The description of monarchy provided in 1 Samuel 8:10–18 is still timely today, and it can describe presidents and dictators as well as kings. Indeed, many of us would be delighted if our income and wealth taxes stood only at the biblical 10%!

But there is another feature of those verses in 1 Samuel that should be emphasized. They picture God granting the people a choice. He warns of the natural consequences of certain actions, but then allows us to choose which path we will take. When bad choices are made, the continued existence of choice provides a path back. Let us hope that we, too, can find a path back to the liberties vouchsafed by our founding documents, as well as the respect for the rights of others encompassed within the Ten Commandments.




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




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Finding a Voice

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Robert Frost defined poetry as “a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness . . . where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

Just as a poem can express an emotion or describe a relationship through a single snapshot, sometimes a person’s character can be summed up in a single experience. For King George VI (“Bertie,” as he was called by his family) that experience occurred in his determined effort to overcome a pronounced lifelong stammer. The King’s Speech is a wonderfully witty, brilliantly acted, and emotionally satisfying film that tells of the singular moment when an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) helped the king (Colin Firth) to find his voice, at a time when England — and the free world — desperately needed it.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this film is the opportunity to see the royal family in their living rooms, so to speak, when they were young and not expecting to become king or queen. A rumble of recognition is heard in the theater, for example, as viewers realize with a start that Helena Bonham Carter’s character is the young Queen Mum, already demonstrating her twinkling smile and munching on the marshmallows that would eventually lead to her familiar round torso. “That’s Queen Elizabeth!” at least one viewer gasped as the young princess, Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) is seen romping in pink pajamas with her little sister Margaret (Ramona Marquez) as they listen eagerly to a bedtime story told by their father, the man who did not expect to be king.

It is also unexpectedly intimate to see the debonair playboy Prince of Wales cum King Edward VIII cum Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce), bursting into tears and sobbing on the shoulder of his mother, Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), at the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) — sobbing not because his father has died but because of what it will mean to his relationship with the twice (and still) married Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). He would remain king for less than a year, not even enough time for his official coronation, induced to abdicate because of the relationship with Mrs. Simpson and because of his general incompetence.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions.

As the film opens, Bertie, the timid younger son of a domineering father, attempts to stammer his way through a radio speech under the disapproving eye of King George V, whose Christmas radio speeches were as important to his people’s sense of good will as Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats became in America. The film suggests that George V’s raging disapproval and faultfinding may have contributed to Bertie’s stammer.

Sitting behind him and stoically willing him to succeed, his wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) exudes tender disappointment when he fails. She is not embarrassed by him; she hurts for him. Several royal doctors try to cure Bertie of his awkward and unregal stammer, but to no avail. In one particularly ironic scene, a doctor urges him to smoke cigarettes frequently because it will “relax” his vocal cords. (Sadly, George VI would die of lung cancer and arteriosclerosis at the age of 56.) Eventually Elizabeth finds an unconventional therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), who changes Bertie’s life by restoring his voice, and by becoming his lifelong friend.

The film is a delightful mixture of royal protocol and unexpected earthiness. Logue refuses to treat the Duke of York any differently from the way in which he treats his other clients, even insisting that they use first names. Their banter is droll and often hilarious. When Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), who is unaware of her husband’s famous client, comes home a bit early to find the king and queen of England standing in her parlor, she asks querulously, “Will their Majesties be staying for dinner?” Elizabeth, knowing it would be inappropriate for them to stay, responds charmingly, “We would love to. Such a treat! But alas . . . a previous engagement. What a pity.” No wonder everyone loved the Queen Mum!

The King’s Speech is a tour de force for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, two masters of the king’s English, who spar and vie for dominance in each scene. But despite the humor there is an underlying seriousness to Bertie’s effort to overcome his impediment, especially when his struggles are set against the backdrop of his older brother’s abdication and the run-up to World War II. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is King George VI’s 1939 Christmas speech to the British people, on the eve of the war with Germany. The speech is familiar to anyone who has studied that period of history. It has always seemed emotionally charged and solemn because of its halting delivery. Learning that this delivery was the result of a speech impediment does not lessen its gravity. Instead, it increases it, as it demonstrates the king’s strength and courage at a time when the British people would be called upon to demonstrate strength and courage of their own. Logue literally conducts the king in his delivery of the speech in the way a maestro would conduct an orchestra, virtually transforming it into a lyric, set to the solemn strains of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which fills the theater throughout the scene.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions. When Buckingham Palace was bombed and his advisors urged him to move his family to the safety of Canada for the duration of the war, the king refused, joining Londoners in underground air raid shelters. While his people sent their children to the safety of the English countryside, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed in town.

Meanwhile, the abdicated Edward VIII and his beloved Wallis Warfield Simpson led an unhappy life. Suspected of German sympathies, they met with Hitler before the war, and he was finally sent by Churchill to govern the Bahamas, mainly to keep him out of the way. Hitler himself was quoted as saying, "I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us." One has to wonder where England might have stood during World War II — and what Europe would be like today — if Wallis Simpson hadn’t stolen Edward’s heart and caused him to give up the throne.


Editor's Note: Review of "The King’s Speech," directed by Tom Hooper. See-Saw Films/The Weinstein Co., 2010, 118 minutes.



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