Magna Carta

January 2, 2015

This year the Magna Carta, a failed treaty between medieval combatants, is 800 years old. Especially in America it is seen as the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon world. But, is that view justified?

The Magna Carta was a very short-lived admission of rights by King John to his subject nobility, the barons. John refuted its provisions immediately stating that he had signed under duress. All these players were the descendants of the Norman conquerors who had taken over the country following their invasion of 1066. In doing so, they had replaced the Saxon nobles and with them the custom of electing their King. The document, in a much weaker format, was last reaffirmed in 1625 and then went dormant.

At the onset of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, a barrister, judge, and opposition politician, was looking for arguments against the oppressive rule of the Stuarts. Not surprisingly, he found support in the Magna Carta and interpreted its provisions liberally. Of course Coke had the benefit of hindsight and that of the new thinking that had entered England during the preceding one hundred years or more. But, since foreign laws carried no weight, he had to rely on English law to make his case.

The age of immigration into America had started and, in the following century, English subjects relocated across the Atlantic and took their perceptions with them. Inevitably, the belief in the importance of the Magna Carta is the result of Anglo-Saxon historical sources, which, by its very nature, is inward looking. That fact is not surprising if one realizes that Anglo-Saxon history was, and still is, written by historians who have little knowledge of any language other than English and are therefore confined to sources in that language. You cannot do what you do not know.

What then is the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon world? This is much of the subject of a new book, MANY HEADS AND MANY HANDS, James Madison’s Search for a More Perfect Union, by the Dutch/American author, Mau VanDuren. In his time-spanning narrative he follows the concepts of rule of law, democracy, and liberty from their early roots. He visits the movers and shakers who advocated and implemented these concepts as an answer to the unique problems of their day. The first ever national document that incorporated these values is known as the Great Privilege. Drafted and signed in 1477 it describes the relationship between states and their ruler, Duchess Mary of Burgundy. The various states were the provinces of the Netherlands, not nobles. In turn these states were represented by delegates from their cities who, in turn were elected by (mostly wealthy) citizens. The document in effect grants “no taxation without representation;” it spells out the rights of the states and cities to maintain their laws, privileges, and customs; citizens have the right to be tried under the laws of their state only; it awards rights regarding life and liberty. These articles, and a number of others, raise the document to the level of a constitution.

The concepts thus enshrined became a part of standard Dutch governance that was perpetuated in the Dutch Republic. The reformation, and the Narrow Sea between England and the Netherlands, helped transfer these notions to England. During England’s bouts of religious strife many of its thinkers such as John Locke vacated to the Netherlands to return after many years. Eventually William of Orange invaded England to become King William III with his spouse Queen Mary in 1689. This is, not incidentally, the year that the Bill of Rights was passed and that the Parliament became permanent (it could no longer be sent home by the king). Soon after, the Tolerance Act granted religious tolerance (which was somewhat limited and far from religious freedom as enacted in the Dutch Republic).

Earlier English Separatists had fled to Leiden in the province of Holland (1609/10) where they gained many insights in democratic governance and religious freedom. These same people migrated to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts (1621) and instituted a separation of church and state, secular marriage, and religious freedom. We know them as the Pilgrims. Later immigrants from England known as the Puritans opposed these notions. The difference of opinion was logical. The Pilgrims came from the Netherlands where they had learned to appreciate these values. The Puritans came from a country where such freedoms did not exist.

In conclusion we can suspect that most of the values that Americans hold dear are not necessarily Anglo-Saxon unless one expands the definition to include the Netherlands (which then, importantly, included present day Belgium).

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Our Pride, Our Burden

November 21, 2008

Pride is a human condition that makes us feel good about something that we consider ourselves part of. But, even though pride has that feel-good element, it comes at a price. It puts us at risk of becoming blind to the possible negatives of the things we feel proud about. It diminishes our ability to think critically. Politicians use that to their advantage when they remind us that America is the greatest democracy, that it is the land of opportunity, that it is a guiding light for people and nations all over the world, and that we are invincible — it is the land of the brave. And we want to believe it. This is a great country and there are opportunities. We have helped others and we are the envy of others. But, should those facts blind us to some good things from elsewhere? Unfortunately it does and the price is that we keep hobbling along with a colonial system of government that serves our people less and less. The organization of our government is based on the shareholder interests as they existed before the founding of our nation. With a few minor exceptions, white, male property owners in the North American colonies were the only ones with a right to vote. Although the nation, after much discussion, decided on universal suffrage for white men, the system of representation was modeled on the two parliamentary systems that existed at the time, that of the Dutch Republic and that of England. Both had a form of district representation in the national legislature. America chose to have one man represent each district. That man would need the plurality of the vote in his district. All grown white men of 21 years of age or older were eligible to vote after they registered with their district to do so. Under this system the larger landowners had the most influence and they often (s)elected one of their own to represent them in the legislatures and the US House of Representatives. The Industrialization of America brought in other large players but the concept remained the same. The Emancipation (end of slavery) and the introduction of universal suffrage added more voters to the rolls but the lists of viable candidates were still determined and dominated by the largest wallets. In other words, the largest shareholders, in terms of financial interests, still have the most influence. And that is still true today. It is no accident that the conservatives, who represent this class of wealthy owners, want to preserve this situation. To help them they invoke the first amendment which guarantees “Freedom of Speech.” Over the years what constitutes speech has been significantly broadened: i.e. flag burning. How we conduct that speech is also broad. At the time the Bill of Rights was written the known forms of speech were: public speaking, pamphlets, and advertisements in periodicals. Today we have much more intrusive and persistent means of delivering messages. Especially television spots are effective. But their high price tag makes them available to big wallets only. Campaign finance reform has done little to diminish the influence of the modern shareholders. Instead of giving their own money they use their power to collect from others instead and “bundle” the proceeds into large sums.
Did Obama’s campaign break that system? I think not. His campaign benefited from the innovation to collect funds from small donors on the internet. Now that everyone knows how to do this it will again be up to the most influential to use this method to their advantage. America, it appears, is still a shareholder dominated society that tells the rest of us to be proud of it.

The only constant in this nation’s presidential election cycle is that it has a fixed period that is accompanied by the few harmonics of congressional, state, and local elections. It is the four-yearly return to the presidential ballot box that draws the most attention, the most money, and the most hype. Participants in the campaigns for the highest office in the land try their damnedest to convince every voter that their candidate is the one to save the nation and that the opposing candidate is akin to the devil and intent on bringing disaster to the country and its citizens. Since all campaigns before the primaries and the two remaining campaigns thereafter have the same goals and follow the same script, the number of truths and untruths fly about indiscriminately and only serve to emotionally tie voters to one candidate or, failing that, emotionally separate them from the other. Many voters have been, and will continue to be, turned off by these tactics and, with Election Day still months away, will have decided to sit this one out. In the mean time the campaigns and their candidates continue their battle for the remaining, more committed voters. It may be that the elimination of the sporadic voter is a calculated gambit. Votes by this group may be much more unpredictable than that of the more frequent voters. Thus having reduced the electorate to the two partisan camps with a number of independents in the middle, the campaigns can now switch over to the task of coaxing the undecided to their side. Issues are tested for effectiveness on focus groups before they are launched. Policy promises are tailor-made and almost everyone knows that they can’t be kept by the candidate once in office. But, if they aren’t too wild, voters will want to believe them and eventually cast their vote for the candidate that appeals the most.

The candidate that wins does so, of course, with the votes of a majority of the participating electorate. Thus the partisans of the majority are euphoric over their win. A great high has been reached. And the partisans of the losers slip into an immediate depression which usually lasts until the activity for the next election gives them renewed hope.

Almost immediately the winning candidate, the president elect, will start to downplay the promises: economic times are such that …, Congress will have its voice, unforeseen events may …, and there is the national debt, as always. And, indeed, come January the new president is sworn in and the Whitehouse and Congress begin their negotiations over policy and legislation and, voila, promises cannot be kept, other forces prevail, and new conditions present themselves. The voters, who pushed these officials into office on that wave of promises, have no recourse for another four years – maybe two if you consider the House and one third of the Senate – and are quickly sent into a funk. “I told you so,” say the voters who didn’t vote, and those of voting age, who didn’t bother to register, feel vindicated in their convictions that “they are all crooks and they do whatever they want anyway,” and continue their perpetual funk.

What would be the antidepressant that could cure us from this political bipolar disorder? The communication between politicians and electorate is driving this cycle. Because our election cycle is constant there is no reason for politicians to spend a lot of money on communications with the voter in off-years. In European countries messages from candidates are most intense before elections, just like here, but the intensity is only marginally higher than the communications during the off-years. There are two reasons for this: because there is no private funding campaign funds are limited to membership dues, and political parties are given public broadcasting slots to present their causes to the public on a regular basis. This ensures a constant communication of comprehensive messages to the electorate. It is a low volume stream of information that emphasizes the party programs in fairly fine detail. The multi-party democracies offer a greater basket of nuanced programs. Coalitions are formed after an election and the parties’ performance is easier visible to the public. In the U.S. both the Democratic and Republican parties are coalitions by themselves and the unified message is much more difficult to attain so that it often looks muddled. The voters have to choose between all these aspects of the party programs. This is very difficult to do. Therefore they rely on the candidates to define the party programs and, as a result, there is no continuity of programs since every candidate brings his/her own issues to the campaign. The result is a cycle from greatly hyped new ideas and promises followed by a deep disappointment and funk during which the country has effectively eliminated half of its voting age public. This, surely, is not the definition of a great democracy.