Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 April 2011

Runnymede in Tripoli


People who think Libyans aren’t ready for self-government ought to study the Magna Carta and its history. That venerable document is the ultimate source of self-government, the rule of law, and human rights in the English-speaking world.

Over the ages, the Great Charter has acquired a patina of unreality. Without thinking deeply about it, most people in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, the United States and Wales probably think their modern democracies, as imperfect as they are, sprang full blown from it, maybe with a little “tweaking.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1215, when King John signed the first of many versions, the entire once-colonial part of this English-speaking world didn’t exist. There was not even a Britain, only a nascent England harried by external and internal wars. The vast majority of its “citizens” were serfs, living on rented land at the sufferance of their lords and ladies. It was, after all, a medieval society.

King John did not cede the rights in the Great Charter gladly. He had overextended himself in war in France, and the Barons who assembled their forces in the fields of Runnymede chose their time wisely. John saw he was outnumbered and that victory, if it were even possible, would be very costly. So he made a deal and wrote it down, and the rest is history.

There are good translations of various versions into modern English, and reading one of more of them can open your eyes. You will search in vain for mention of “the people” or common men and women. The rights that the Great Charter established were for the Barons whose forces were assembled, and for their officials and functionaries, including knights (military leaders), sheriffs and tenants with title or rank.

The document also mentions abbots and other religious figures and protects their lands and rights to their callings. But the Magna Carta’s basic thrust was to protect the land and rights of feudal lords and ladies and their tenants and vassals against the King’s arbitrary rule.

Once you understand that bit of history, it’s not hard to make a good analogy between the feudal Barons and the tribal sheikhs of Libya. Like the Barons, the sheiks are local leaders, responsible for protecting and governing their local empires, battling rivals, and dispensing local justice. Like the Barons and their sheriffs and notable tenants, the sheikhs are primarily concerned with preserving the continuity of their traditional way of life―their local laws, customs and religious practices. Just as the Barons resisted King John’s tyranny out of London, so the sheikhs resist Qaddafi’s tyranny out of Tripoli.

Even the existence of foreign intervention is similar. Without King John’s war in France, which was going badly at the time, the Barons’ attempt to assert their “rights” against an all-powerful monarch might have gone quite differently. (We Americans acknowledge our debt to the Marquis de Lafayette in our own War of Independence, but the whole English-speaking world owes a similar debt to France.) So the fact that foreigners’ arms are playing a part in asserting self-determination is nothing new.

Viewed broadly and in historical context, the process that produced the Magna Carta has only two distinct differences from what is happening now in Libya. First, King John decided not to fight but to bargain. It’s unfortunate that Qaddafi is not smart enough to see the writing on the wall, but that’s not the fault of Libya’s sheikhs or its people. And his supporters still may see the light.

Second, the Great Charter recognized the rights of women (noble ones, of course). It required the King to respect the “dower” rights of wives of landowners and reserve for them at least one third of their deceased husbands’ estates for their lifetimes.

Rights of women are important, but it is not essential that they arise full-blown from this present conflict. Apart from the Great Charter’s limited recognition of noble women’s land rights, and beyond the need for a certain level of force to convince Qaddafi’s retainers to abandon him, there is little to distinguish what’s going on in Libya today from the ultimate foundation of our own self-government. Even the same nation―France―that midwifed our own American self-government, and whose war helped the Barons at Runnymede, was the first to recognize the Libyan rebels. Italy now has followed suit.

As many have remarked, it’s ridiculous to to call what may come out of Libya democracy. It’s likely to be limited self-government, a departure from brutal tyranny and a bit better than what came before. But that’s precisely what the Magna Carta authorized. Changing a people’s culture takes time, even in the Internet Age.

If we can restrain our Western sense of cultural superiority, understand that this is a Libyan affair, and let nature take its course, we may have reason to look back on our intervention as proudly as educated French people no doubt do their assistance (unwitting and witting) in the birth of Anglo-American self-government out of an all-powerful monarchy.

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