Friday, May 14, 2004

On Your Knees, Knaves
I have been rereading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror recently. The book might be my very favorite work of history--an exhaustive and involving chronicle of what Tuchman calls "the calamitous 14th century." It was a tortured time of political failure and horrific violence, and of the Black Death, and the time of artists like Chaucer and Boccaccio. Tuchman's book is full of saints, mystics, peasants, kings, torturers, popes--the full panoply of medieval Europe. Her dry wit keeps it entertaining, even when she's explaining medieval economics or the byzantine courses of dynastic politics.

In an era when nearly every crime could be punished by death, the most horrid crime a person could commit was lèse majesté, an offense against the sovereign. Anything from open and armed rebellion to looking at the king sideways could be interpreted as lèse majesté, depending on who was doing the interpreting. The penalty was usually swift and brutal--beheading, drowning, or hanging--and could be imposed on the population of an entire town for the offenses of a few townspeople. (In those cases, the town could be sacked and burned and the inhabitants, including women and children, slaughtered by the sword.)

So when I saw John Nichols' recent column in the Capital Times (reprinted at Common Dreams) about the quashing of dissent during Bush's western Wisconsin bus trip last week--particularly Nichols' allusion to "King George"--I heard an echo. Just as in the 14th century, the villeins of western Wisconsin were warned that they dared insult the king at their peril. In one case last week, a peace activist in Platteville (where I was an undergrad in the 14th century) was actually arrested simply for holding a sign along the route that said only "FUGW." (The reason given by local authorities was that children could see the sign. The children . . . my God, who will save the children?? I'd rather the police just admit they're fascists than resort to such patent nonsense.)

The activist, Frank Van den Bosch, got a $243 citation for disorderly conduct. Platteville was not sacked and burned (as far as I know). But what Bush did last week, with the help of local governments along his route, was to criminalize activities permitted by the First Amendment, in a way highly reminiscent of a medieval king. And people are more upset over a voting controversy on American Idol than they are about that.

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