Let Us Speak of Charters and Kings
(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari)The Magna Carta is simply the most misunderstood and improperly revered document in human history. So it only follows that the misunderstanding and misplaced pomp and circumstance is reaching a fever pitch on its 800th anniversary today.
Now granted, I'm not a historical scholar by trade but I am more than barely conversant on various histories of various countries. History being cyclical, you never know when a valuable point can be made when history, as George Santayana predicted, comes around to bite us in the ass when we do not heed its lessons.
And the Magna Carta, which is the bedrock of the English (hence American) judicial system, is on this very day getting an unhealthy dose of ignorant worship or impenetrable denial and delusion.
The year was 1215. Mud was England's biggest export, John McCain and Phyllis Schlafly were just beginning school and King John had drained the British coffers drier than a martini because of his endless wars, primarily with King Philip of France. Desperate for war bucks, he cast his baleful, avaricious eye toward the vast fortunes held by the land barons and decided to ramp up his taxation on them. Rebelling, the barons appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury to intercede and the cleric drafted out what would be the final version of the Magna Carta.
As well as protecting their wealth, the early 13th century's version of the 1% also threw in a few provisions that were then considered radical, provisos that would become the foundation of the judicial system throughout the English-speaking world: A man shall not be falsely arrested, will be innocent until proven guilty and will be tried by a jury of his peers. These are legal protections that we in the modern age take for granted, even though these elements have been bypassed, broken or ignored more times than can be counted on a Cray computer.
Intellectually and emotionally retching the entire time, King John met with a group of 25 barons and signed the document on June 15th, 1215 at Runnymeade and promptly broke it. The King's other great enemy, Pope Innocent III, was for once united with the King and advised he should ignore the Charter that he'd signed only for PR purposes to relieve the pressure on him. The barons, for their part, also walked away from their own document. The Magna Carta was a joke and a fraud literally before King John's signature was even dry.
In fact, Pope Innocent III nullified the Charter the year after on King John's death and wasn't put back in force until 1297, with all of the "radical" elements deleted from it. Both the Pope and the King saw the charter as a threat to their previously unchecked power over the most powerful and wealthiest citizens in the British realm. It would deny the Crown the power to round up dissidents wholesale, to unfairly charge them with crimes they didn't commit and to unilaterally condemn and punish them without the consent of his subjects. It would also prevent him from excessively taxing the 1% the next time he felt the urge to invade a rival kingdom.
In other words, John treated the Magna Carta like George W. Bush the Constitution, the document to which he'd allegedly referred as "just a Goddamn piece of paper" (but probably didn't).
It's true that the original Magna Carta contained some admirable, high-minded ideals that would find fuller and more refined expression in our beautifully-written Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence that we will celebrate next month. But let's not forget the primary impetus for the barons' desire to have the Archbishop draw up this doomed document: to protect their money and chattle from the rapacious grasp of a war-mad monarch. The rest was gravy.
Yes, while the Magna Carta is piously revered by historical and legal scholars, it was a fraud then, is a fraud now and always will be a fraud. It was the first time, perhaps, in human history that a prominent high-minded declaration of human rights was trumped by a central authority citing the constant exigencies of state.
And in the 800 years since the Charter's public relations charade at Runnymeade, Mankind and its governments have never been able to balance the rights of Man with the so-called necessities of the State. When the interests of both collide... Well, you don't need me to tell you which side always wins.
Even during FDR's presidency, one of the finest sustained feats of leadership in human history, the one thing that marred his legacy was interning Japanese-Americans (while pointedly not doing the same to German and Italian immigrants).
Mankind will never change, if our progress over these past 800 years is a fair enough sample. Governments will always be corrupt, disingenuous and will go to war for little or no reason no matter how badly they bankrupt their own Treasuries. our own current government should serve as an illustration of this.
So today we should remember the failed example of the Magna Carta, the Great Charter, and the high-minded ideals that were predicated on mutual greed and got trampled in favor of matters of state.