The Multiple Personas of the Monarch and the President

Netflix has produced a new series, called The Crown, about the reign of Elizabeth II. It is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. The initial series of ten episodes explores the first few years of her tenure and the broad and subtle canvas provides yet more evidence that long-form television is one of the most innovative art forms of the last two decades, generated by the greater competition for viewers from ever more stations and networks.

But what is most impressive about the series is its sustained mediation on an important social idea—that the monarch must recognize that she has two personas—the natural and the political. In the first she can be an individual, but in the second she must follow conventions that lend dignity and stability to the state.

The idea is not itself new. Ernst Kantorowicz’s Two Bodies, one of the greatest books ever about medieval political theory, shows that kingship in the Middle Ages consciously reflected this idea. Monarchy included all sorts of rituals suggesting that political body of the King or Queen was directly connected to the divine and thus provided a source of stability beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary politics. The writers of the Crown seem familiar with this book, because they underscored the transcendent rituals in the coronation of Elizabeth, such as the anointing ceremony.

But while the ideal  that body of the sovereign rises above the natural person is not new, The Crown raises the profound political question of whether it can survive in age devoted to individual authenticity and democratic equality.

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The Vanished World of Martin Luther King

(Photo by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

With today’s honoring of Martin Luther King, Jr. come new skirmishes in the turf war over his legacy.

Tradition holds that radicals on the Left own it. Because the civil rights leader was most radical near the end of his life, that King allegedly proved to be the truest. The King of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign is deemed to be better than the younger, greener, and more obviously Christian King of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He engaged in acts of civil disobedience, including boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins. He went to jail to demonstrate the violence at the heart of the white supremacist state. He also vocally opposed the Vietnam War. King sought to relieve the racially and economically dispossessed by way of government programs that would redistribute wealth from the richest Americans.

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So-So City

Did you ever catch yourself dreaming, adrift in la-la land—only to wake up to your own, personal so-so city? A consoling (but sophistic) thought: The number of possible worlds is infinite, so there’s some possible You out there for whom your daydreamt world is actual. Isn’t it nice to know a parallel possible You gets to really enjoy it? You could equally conjure up a possible world that is worse—and in that case, so much the better for actual You.

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land shows how imagining possible worlds uplifts, and disappoints, human life. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) fall in love, but ultimately the film is more about human la-la lands, symbolized by the Los Angeles in which Seb and Mia are trying to make it—he as a nostalgic jazz pianist bent on opening his own club, and she as a barista/actress infatuated with images of old Hollywood.

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The British National Health Service Is in Crisis: What Else Is New?

hospital hallway

One of the most curious political phenomena of the western world is the indestructible affection in which the British hold their National Health Service. No argument, no criticism, no evidence can diminish, let alone destroy, it. The only permissible criticism of it is that the government does not spend enough on it, a ‘meanness’ (with other people’s money) to which all the service’s shortcomings are attributable. In effect, the NHS is the national religion.

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No Justice, No Peace

In my last post, I briefly introduced the different communions that make up Mideast Christianity and described their historical treatment under classical Islamic law. For many centuries, Islam tolerated Christians as dhimmis, minorities subject to a notional agreement that allowed them to live in Muslim society as long as they accepted a subordinate status and did not challenge Muslim authority. Yet, as I mentioned, the dhimmi restrictions no longer apply as a formal matter in most of the Mideast, not since the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire enacted a set of reforms known as the Tanzimat, instigated by European powers, which gave Christians legal equality. In most of the Mideast today, as a formal matter, Christians and Muslims have equal rights. So what explains the violent persecution Mideast Christians now suffer—nothing short of a genocide in some places?

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Everson‘s Syllogism

Thomas Jefferson Statue

Almost every constitutional law scholar—Left, Right, and center—agrees that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence is, to put it kindly, confused. Much of the blame for this mess can be laid at the feet of Everson v. Board of Education, which turns 70 this year.

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Our Laws Should Encourage Business Leaders to Become Cabinet Secretaries

One of the best disruptions of Donald Trump has been his decision to nominate many officials to the Cabinet who have been enormously successful in business. Such appointees have run major organizations and thus can use their substantial management experience to impose order on the sprawling government bureaucracy. They also bring the perspective of business into the heart of government. A commercial republic can thrive only if, from time to time, officials set about lifting off the dead weights that democratic practices tend to place on the economy.

It is thus disheartening, if not surprising, that many Democrats in the Senate now want to eliminate most of the tax law that facilitates the transition of business people to government.  This law permits appointees to an administration to defer their capital gains on the stock they must sell to avoid conflict of interest. It thus encourages wealthy individuals to take government posts, because otherwise they would face an unpalatable choice: Pay a huge capital gains bill or hold on to stock that would create conflicts of interest in their new positions. The legislation greatly aids in eliminating conflicts of interest, because in exchange for the tax deferral, appointees must put their money in treasuries or index funds.

Thus, it is not an interest in good government, but in insular government that is behind the push to change this law.

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Fare Thee Well

U.S. President Barack Obama gives his farewell speech at McCormick Place on January 10, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

If there is any doubt remaining that the slogan “change” had no content when it was proffered as a reason for electing a President, consider this: Barack Obama bid farewell to the nation without calibrating his calls for change to his assertions of having already achieved it. President Obama’s farewell last night—delivered not in the traditional sedateness of the Oval Office but rather at the site and in the manner of a campaign rally—thus served as a primer on the shift from the liberal politics of amelioration to the Progressive politics of historical teleology. It should be said that despite the setting, he…

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New Methods for Assessing Possible Nominees to the Supreme Court

To state the obvious, the Supreme Court is extremely important.  After years of Repubican Presidents not taking their picks carefully or seriously enough, Republicans appear to have finally have come to appreciate how important not making a mistake is. One of the key questions is not only what the nominee’s views are, but what those views will be in the future.  Republicans have seen their appointees drift over the years – “grow in office” – in large part because the dominant legal culture is so hostile to conservative and libertarian views.  In a world where not having a clear paper trail…

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National Sovereignty, Political Idea of the Year

Freedom   Composed entirely of words, text applicable to image

The year 2016 demonstrated the enduring relevance of political ideas. A political idea is distinct from and more fundamental than a stance on a policy or issue. It is a way of understanding political phenomena in light of a worldview. A political idea connects the dizzying array of available facts, forming a coherent vision of what is really happening in the world.

Nearly every political idea involves at minimum three components, corresponding to these questions:

  • What is a good society—in other words, what should the world look like?
  • Why doesn’t it look that way?
  • What would set things right?

Scholars, journalists, and analysts have attributed Trump’s victory, Brexit, and other nationalist advances to the forces of populism, demagoguery, and xenophobia.

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