I’ve been watching lots of mini-series lately about the royals, as I mentioned yesterday. The one I just finished was “The Last Kingdom” which is the story about how Saxon King Alfred of Wessex defended his kingdom from a Danish invasion to become the principal King of a united England. I followed this up with “Crown”, about the rise of the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II. These series got me thinking about continuity and change and the preservative power of the nobility juxtaposed against the liability of having people you can’t get rid of making laws. The England of Alfred was a medieval place; Alfred’s palace not much more elaborate than a large wooden house; to say nothing of his subjugate kings of lesser kingdoms. Cue the Windsors, Buckingham Palace and Parliament and all the trappings of an elite nobility that had become enormously wealthy as they cemented themselves in place over a millennium.
The British don’t appear to mind this; it seems that an entrenched nobility has somehow lent stability to the Island and given England the ability to deal with the constant shocks that come from being too close to Europe, with its wars and its absolutism. The gradual shift to a constitutional monarchy has been done while still protecting the trappings of their royals and keeping the nobility somewhat happy, if a little bored. Again, an arrangement that works for them.
But that way is not our way. The American founding fathers had a different idea. There is a natural rebelliousness that is part of the American experiment, a flaunting of authority and a refusal to accept that there are people who are intrinsically our superiors. We believe it is the value that people add to society which makes them rich or poor; important or irrelevant – that is the American way. I suppose this comes from the fact that we are a nation of immigrants who came from all over (Germany and Netherlands and England and Poland and so many other places) because we were nobody back home. “Huddled masses” as lady liberty calls us. And a little tired of huddling – and not in any hurry to do so again.
But nobilities are a hard thing to avoid. Alfred in Wessex didn’t become a king because somehow it was ordained by God at the beginning (despite what I’m sure he believed); but because he was wealthier and more powerful than others. Through the generations his family accumulated land, gained vassals and patronage and built armies and conquered neighbors until his line assumed the title “King” and made others bow to them.
In the Old Testament book of Leviticus God put in place for the land of Israel the “Year of Jubilee”. “But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.” That is to say, every fifty years land was returned to the original owner – reapportioned so that feudal societies with Lords and eventually Kings could not crop up.
To protect the Israelites from the formation of nobilities. God wanted a more egalitarian society – to be able to commune directly with his people without the need of having kings getting in the way.
We have our own Jubilee, courtesy of the founding fathers – a political jubilee that has become also an economic one as our government becomes increasingly commingled with our not-very-free-anymore market. Not every fifty years, as is laid out in Leviticus. Our jubilee comes every four years, when the power is returned to the people – not en masse, mobs hanging out in the big cities but literally back to the land itself; so that the representation of our country would come from the forests and the hills and the lakes just as much as from the skyscrapers and condos.
This election the democrats forgot this, focusing as they like to on top-down “change”, using political power in an attempt to alter society in their image. But that is not how our republic works, and in our country that isn’t how change happens. They thought too much about the presidency and forgot the states and the municipalities and the counties – lower prizes that do not create so great a nouveau nobility are not important enough to seek after with any enthusiasm. Of course, that was a tremendous mistake and misstep – something they might be coming to realize, although I doubt it judging from their ongoing meltdown. The new nobility that had been forming for the last eight years is broken – their economic power, derived from their political station and their access to those in the hallowed halls in Washington evaporated the morning of November 9th like an early morning fog.
I certainly hope they find their way.
Because jubilees are a good thing. Power corrupts. And America’s political class has so much power that it is hard not to let the corruption consume everything – independent of the party. And change is also a good thing – the new elites that might form now will take some time to dismantle the old, and build something that is their own. Sure, many won’t like it – but many of us didn’t really like the last eight years either.
I recently read a blog by Robert Reich, laying out the strategy for “civic resistance” as if he was a college student in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. It was comical, coming from a former Cabinet Secretary; it was a little pathetic, reading his final point ‘sit down with your family at your table and come up with your own resistance’, as if the majority of the country were not celebrating so great a change; and it was refreshing. Because if somebody who was at the top of American power is reduced to conspiring over a bowl of cheerios at their kitchen table as a result of the decision of a bunch of ordinary folks on a brisk November morning, then there is hope for America yet!!!