“The strength and power of despotism consists wholly in the fear of resistance.”
October 2023


At Least Canute Learned

Canute the Great, King of England, Denmark, Norway, Scotland and parts of Sweden, from 1016 AD to 1035 AD did some great things, ending Viking attacks on Britain, lowering taxes, and broadening the rule of law. He attended the coronation in Rome of Emperor Conrad II, opening the way to partnership between England and Europe. But the best remembered partial story of Canute tells of his determination to use his authority to sit on the banks of the Thames and command the tide to recede.

Canute of course failed to do that, but he learned:

“But the sea carried on rising as usual without any reverence for his person and soaked his feet and legs. Then he moving away said: ’All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy of the name of king but he whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal Laws.’

— Henry of Huntingdon

Donald Trump is a latter-day Canute, without the learning. Rather than reshaping all before him in his own image, it just might be that The Donald’s manifold criminal charges will get him more than wet. Or maybe not.

But the world gets scarier by the day because The Donald is merely an avatar, an emblem of a belief system grounded in autocracy. To remind you, dear reader, autocracy describes a country or a society governed by one person with absolute power. So when the Republican caucus gathered in an effort to choose a Speaker of the House of Representatives, the shots were called by none other than The Donald.

For a few hours the choice appeared to be Congressman Tom Emmer, until The Donald said no. His reason was Emmer’s insufficient fealty to The Donald. One wonders if the Reichstag fire will be attempted next, or maybe it was on January 6, 2021.

But it’s not just here.

In Israel, the conflict between Jews and Hamas is sadly familiar. The two-state solution was first recommended by the Peel Commission report of 1937, an effort to resolve the British Mandate of Palestine. It’s been around ever since, and in some American presidencies it appeared likely to happen. But greed and hatred have repeatedly intervened over the question of borders. There are only three possible solutions to this endless problem: two states, or one state with shared governance between Jews and Arabs, or endless killing. In the Netanyahu era Palestinians have been screwed by the Jewish right wing and today the maniacs of Hamas have benefitted from the autocrats in Tehran and temporarily gained the upper hand. Its October 7 atrocities were so horrible that the world will not let that stand. Or will they? Which side in this intractable contest is commanding the tide to recede? Which will accept the reality that it will not recede no matter how hard they try?

And the beat goes on. Putin thought he could command Ukrainians to surrender, China thinks the reality of Taiwan can be wished or eventually commanded away, and right-wing political parties in Europe are loudly demanding an end to democracy. The tide in this case was framed by Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” And why will that tide prevail? To understand the repeated embrace of democracy over time, consider the American Dream.

I’ve long thought that Dream can most easily be understood by talking to an immigrant cab driver and asking why they came to America. As Reagan reminded us, the country in trouble is the one whose citizens want to get out, not whose outsiders want to get in. Here’s what the cab driver is likely to tell you he or she wants:

1. Freedom of thought, speech and religion.

2. Freedom from discrimination, random arrest and violence.

3. Freedom of opportunity for themselves and their families.

Simple, right? No mention of freedom to carry a gun without a permit, or to have military grade armaments and ammunition, or to keep the woman next door from making her own reproductive decisions, or her granddaughter who has been raped from opting for education and career over maternity.

Underlying the culture wars are important differences of faith and opinion. But democracy and a written Constitution with its Bill of Rights are still here and viable. Let those who prefer autocracy be Canute, and maybe even learn.

It’s only common sense.