Saturday, February 21, 2009

Off with their heads.

"I would rather be at the mercy of someone with the power to say 'Off with her head!' than be nibbled to death by a bureaucratic duck."
~Florence King

Having had an exhausting week, this weekend I indulged my guilty pleasure by renting The Tudors.

Many American movies set in monarchical times and places take a propagandistic slant against monarchy. The usual angle is that kings had too much power and were wont to use it arbitrarily. I don't think that The Tudors is intended to have any sort of political message; my impression is that the era was chosen only for its dramatic potential. However, if it was intended as propaganda, it was unsuccessful.

It's true, the movie shows how fickle Henry VIII could be. More than one friend and ally of the king eventually found himself in a dungeon or on a scaffold when he had thwarted the king's wishes; Henry was no more loyal to men than he was to women.

But despite this, it couldn't help but strike me that until he escalated his obsession with Anne Boleyn to the point of leaving the Catholic Church, only his intimates were harmed by his royal whims. His insistence on divorcing Catherine of Aragon initiated generations of English Protestants and Catholics taking turns persecuting each other. Until that, while his advisors and courtiers found their fate hanging by the thread of his inconstant favor, the people of England went about their own business without interference. No one was forced to become a royal favorite or to curry favor at court, and the risk-averse generally had the sense to seek their fortunes elsewhere. It was kind of like the mafia: they only killed each other.

Democracies constantly change the rules that govern every detail of citizens' lives. Dictators seem to compete to see which of them can pile up the largest body count. But most monarchs do nothing worse than beheading a few of their former favorites. It is clear which is the most pleasant to live under.

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