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‘Why Do We Need a King?’
In the matter of monarchy, Thailand has made one critical improvement over the United Kingdom: Whereas the British imported their ridiculous royal family from Germany, the clever Thais have taken the much more sensible step of exporting their ghastly monarchy to the same country, with the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, a.k.a. Rama X, having abandoned his homeland, famous for its beautiful beaches and gorgeous police state, and set up housekeeping with his extensive harem at the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, near the Austrian border. It’s a famous spot: The funny little fellow with the funny little mustache presided over the winter Olympics there in 1936.
(One might be tempted to think of Garmisch-Partenkirchen as the Eurotrash Aspen, except that the Eurotrash Aspen is Aspen.)
The absentee monarch is an avid cyclist, and avid for . . . other pursuits: The Economist quotes a source close to the king describing his daily schedule: “Bike, f***, eat. He does only those three things.” No doubt the Bavarian alps provide interesting and rewarding opportunities for all three. Try the Alpen Käsefondue.
Vajiralongkorn is one of those entertaining throwback monarchs, one who promoted as the military’s “chief air marshal” his splendidly well-attended poodle, Foo Foo. And he apparently has a special air-force unit composed exclusively of his various sexual partners.
Very amusing stuff, if you don’t have to live with it.
But the Thais do have to live with it. The country’s notoriously strict lèse majesté law makes it a serious crime — up to 15 years in prison — to criticize the monarchy. And, like other police states, Thailand conflates criticism of the government with sedition, and uses trumped-up prosecutions for non-political crimes as an instrument of political coercion. Like any number of left-wing utopias — the Soviet Union, Cuba — Thailand recruits the medical profession into the service of political repression, and critics of the king end up locked up in psychiatric hospitals. (The American psychological and psychiatric organizations’ attempts to classify certain kinds of political dissent — the kind you might read about in National Review, for example — as a form of mental illness should be understood in that context. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.) Recent protests have been met with arrests, water cannon, and an emergency decree forbidding any gathering of more than five people, but the protests have continued. News organizations that have reported about them are being subjected to persecution.
Even so, when news broke that the king had relocated to Bavaria, millions of Thais took to Twitter to ask the same question: “Why do we need a king?”
They don’t, of course. Lots of countries, including this one, have got along just fine for a good long time without so much as a viscountess, much less a king. But H. sap. is a barely improved chimpanzee, and the desire for a king is imprinted very deeply into human beings, who crave something to which to submit. So they will have a king. “We want a king over us!” the Israelites demanded. “Then we will be like all the other nations.” Samuel warned them:
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.
Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.
When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.
(What, a tyrant who takes only a tenth of your income? Mirabile dictu!)
Why would the ancient Israelites — or anybody else — want a king?
The king is first and foremost an object of idolatry. Idols are usually familiar things, even household things. They take the shape of people or animals, or other objects one commonly encounters. We do not go out into the world looking for things to idolize but idolize that which we already know. Idols are a way of making abstract and slippery things more concrete and tractable. Writing in The Golden Bough, James George Frazer instructs his reader not to sneer at the primitive man and his quaint superstitions, but to understand them as the first blindly groping effort of our species to articulate what we would now understand as a product of science: a set of stable, predictable rules governing how the universe behaves.
But we had (and have) a hard time thinking in incorporeal terms, so we fixate on the things we understand most intimately: people and animals, especially domesticated animals. (Remember, it was a golden calf the Israelites worshiped, not a representation of a wild animal.) We secular-minded moderns are hardly immune to that: Look around Washington, and you will not see monuments and memorials to liberty and democracy, but a city named for a man filled with shrines to men: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., the fallen in Vietnam. There is no denying the religious character of these depictions: Constantino Brumidi’s frescos decorating the Capitol dome bear the very forthright title The Apotheosis of George Washington.
The conception of the king as a god on Earth, or as god’s representative on Earth, is so widespread as to be nearly universal: Egyptian pharaohs and Japanese emperors are gods or god-men descended from gods; Roman emperors were deified not only after death but during their lifetimes, receiving worship in the temples; the British monarch is the head of the national church; the Chinese have their “mandate of heaven”; and Sarah Huckabee Sanders insists that Donald Trump is God’s own special anointed leader, a belief shared by about half of Evangelicals.
The American presidency has always had a sacramental aspect. But, in recent years, the sacramental and liturgical understanding of the presidency and the president has crowded out the main character of the office: chief administrator of one branch of the federal government. As the president evolves into a kind of semi-divine personification of the nation, normal politics becomes impossible, because we are not fighting about taxes or farm subsidies but instead are engaged in a war for the “soul of the country.” Joe Biden insists his campaign is “about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America”; Donald Trump’s campaign ads promise to “Save America’s Soul.”
Elizabeth Dias, in the New York Times, limns some of the history of that rhetoric:
The soul of the nation is “a very ancient trope that is revived when all sorts of cultural ideas are in flux,” Eric Gregory, professor of religion at Princeton University, said. “It reveals something about the current political conversation, in times of crisis and change, a corruption of sickness.”
Often we stress systems and institutions, he said, but in the Trump era there has been a return to ancient concepts about the welfare of the city, where politics is about right relationships. “In ancient politics the health of society had a lot to do with the virtue of the ruler,” he said.
It is for this reason that we believe that the country cannot be put right if the wrong man is president — and about 40 percent of the country, maybe more, is going to believe that the wrong man is president at any given time. Worshipers of this or that tribal totem feel themselves to be excluded, degraded, and humiliated if the highest elected office in the land is held by a member of the rival clan. The sacral king is the vessel in which the tribe as a whole worships itself — and America is no longer one tribe but two.
And so, in that respect, we are not so different from the Israelites who cried out for a king. As the Lord explains it to Samuel: “They have not rejected you — they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” People are born terrified and live much of their lives naked in the darkness, and they are going to worship something: that dopey Thai king conducting a yearlong orgy in his alpine quarantine, Harry and Meghan, or even something as debased and tawdry as the American presidency.
Words About Words
In the final season of The Wire, a group of editors at an ailing newspaper stand around smoking cigarettes and talking about their favorite newspaper clichés.
You ever notice how a “mother of four” is always catching hell? Murder? Hit-and-run? Burnt up in a rowhouse fire? Swindled by bigamists?
Tough gig, “mother of four.”
“Innocent bystander” is worse. He’s always getting the short end.
Not a lot of them around anymore. Not a lot of innocents anymore, you ask me.
You know who there’s less of? “Statuesque blondes.” You don’t read about “statuesque blondes” in the newspaper anymore. Buxom ones, neither. They’re like a lost race.
I thought about that when looking at a weekend New York Times article on the actress Sigourney Weaver. The headline in the magazine is slightly different from the homepage copy on the Internet, which is normal: Display copy, as it is known, is written slightly differently for different contexts. I did notice that the word statuesque had been added.
Statuesque literally means resembling a statue. It is sometimes used merely as a synonym for “attractive” — and I cannot recall having read the word used to refer to anything other than a woman — but it also carries the connotation of dignified and tall. So, appropriate for the six-foot-tall Sigourney Weaver. It is kind of a funny word, to my ear, though it makes sense in that, unlike paintings or photographs, statues have volume rather than merely representing volume in a two-dimensional space. I also suspect that it calls to mind the word stately, reinforcing its sense of dignified.
State, statue, status, and statute all are derived from the Latin stare, to stand.
A reader asks which to use: that having been said, that being said, or that said? Another reader writes to object to the phrase in all its variations as mere throat-clearing: Of course that has been said, you big dope — you just said it!
Each of the three variations works fine grammatically, and I am sympathetic to the categorical objection to that being said. That being said, I use it from time to time. It is a more formal version of but and a less formal version of the foregoing notwithstanding, an acknowledgment that what comes after may not necessarily follow from what came before and may even contradict it or seem to contradict it. For example: “A quarantine is a reasonable measure in an epidemic. That being said, it is easy to overreact and to abuse emergency powers.”
I slightly prefer that said, which is nice and brisk and compact, but it would not come naturally to me in speech.
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Home and Away
Words still mean things, at least in the New York Post:
In 1984, George Orwell introduced the term “doublespeak.” In the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, Democrats have perfected it.
The Democrats are in a bad way, and two things stand immediately in the path of their political agenda: the Supreme Court and the English language. To destroy one, they must destroy the other.
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I sometimes write that Americans would love free-market capitalism but for their experience with banks, health-insurance companies, airlines, and cable providers. But what it took to make happy regulators of Republicans was Twitter and Facebook. Those two companies have done their shareholders and their users a grave disservice with their ham-fisted attempts to squelch that New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s emails. The Republican response to this abuse is probably going to be dumb as a matter of policy, but not nearly so dumb as a matter of politics as what Twitter and Facebook have just done.
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