Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Henry VIII and the Modern Republic

So, my girlfriend and I have been watching The Tudors on Showtime. It's a show about Henry VIII as a young man, before he got fat, when he was athletic (to a degree*) and vital. While watching this recreation of a feudal society, albeit a post-Magna Carta one, with the King holding such vast power over the life and limb of his subjects and those with royal blood looking down on those without, regardless of the relative merit of each, I kept thinking, "Boy, I'm glad I'm living in a free society where things aren't like that anymore."

But then, an important politician's business here in NC burned down. And, despite the fact that this is the politician's private business matter and he or she should not get service from the state that anyone else wouldn't get, he or she clearly is. And I remember when I was in Massachusetts and they told me about how big the operation to find JFK, Jr. was after his plane went down, far in excess of what would have been done if, say, my plane had gone down.

And I wondered: How different, really, is the society I live in from a feudal one? I may, in theory, be free with equal rights to everyone else, but if, say, Oprah wanted to use my land for something, wouldn't she probably be able to use her money, power, and influence to get it? Didn't the Duke lacrosse case demonstrate the disparities in how the rich and poor get treated in the legal system, no matter your opinion on the ultimate outcome? Given that they had habeus corpus back in Henry VIII's time but it has been discarded here in the US for anyone the president labels and "enemy combatant," does the government and the president not have as much or more power over my life and limb than the King did in that day?

Am I less of a serf, more of a serf, or pretty much exactly as much of a serf as I would have been then? I'm not sure that I am less of a serf. I'm not sure that my freedom and "inalienable" rights aren't as contingent upon the goodwill of the government, the rich, and the powerful, as they would have been in the day, and aren't just illusions.

And somehow, I don't feel quite as superior when I watch the show anymore.

*He's actually kind of a loser. He gets his ass kicked in a wrestling match by the King of France -- France!, tries to pole vault over a river and ends up falling on his face into the river and nearly drowning, almost gets killed in jousting when he forgets to put his visor down, and loses in an arm-wrestling match to one of his Lords. He pretty much loses every athletic/physical contest he's in, despite the ads for the show showcasing how young and athletic he is.


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