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What History Can Teach Us

Cross posted from Slobber And Spittle

[One of the Harolds discovers a flaw in his defense policy. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Admittedly, I don’t know much about British history. There were a lot of kings named John, Harold, and William, and more than a few named Henry. One of the Harolds met one of the Williams in a place called Hastings, and that’s why we have all those French words in our vocabulary. There was that Cromwell guy, and at least a few Welsh. It’s all very confusing, and one might even say repetitive. How many civil wars where there? Three? Five?

Even so, there are lessons we Americans can learn from British history, if we’re willing. One of them was provided courtesy of one of the Johns in 1215:

By 1215, some of the most important barons in England had had enough, and they entered London in force on 10 June 1215, with the city showing its sympathy with their cause by opening its gates to them. They, and many of the moderates not in overt rebellion, forced King John to agree to the "Articles of the Barons", to which his Great Seal was attached in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on 19 June 1215. A formal document to record the agreement was created by the royal chancery on 15 July: this was the original Magna Carta. An unknown number of copies of it were sent out to officials, such as royal sheriffs and bishops.

Wikipedia: Magna Carta

In those days, of course, lords and other important folks had their own armies. The king had to get their cooperation to wage war, and effectively needed it in other matters, too. Fortunately for most kings, the lords were ambitious and self-interested enough that they wouldn’t cooperate with each other. King John’s misadventures in France, among other things, united the lords against him. Once the Magna Carta was signed, the lords demonstrated their querulous nature by starting the First Barons’ War, which ultimately ended with one of the Henries becoming king.

The important point is that King John didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. Had the barons not banded together, he would have continued his policies until they’d either failed utterly, or he’d been removed from power. He didn’t do it out of some feeling that he should include others in the decision making process, nor was it due to a sudden realization that certain elements of his policy were mistaken. He did it because crowds of gruff looking gentlemen carrying battle axes and swords focused his attention on the opinions of others.

What does all this have to do with today? It’s simple, really, because this is an age-old lesson. People who seek power, whether they’re kings or presidents, don’t want to be told what they’re supposed to do. They acquire that power so they can do what they want. If you want them to do something differently, you have to focus their attention.

Just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve received some rather stark warnings that the Obama Administration isn’t interested in our opinions. One was explained by Glenn Greenwald last Sunday:

After many years of anger and complaint and outrage directed at the Bush administration for its civil liberties assaults and executive power abuses, the last thing most people want to do is conclude that the Obama administration is continuing the core of that extremism. That was why the flurry of executive orders in the first week produced such praise: those who are devoted to civil liberties were, from the start, eager to believe that things would be different, and most want to do everything but conclude that the only improvements that will be made by Obama will be cosmetic ones.

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for honest commentators to do anything else but conclude that. After all, these are the exact policies which, when embraced by Bush, produced such intense protest over the last eight years. Nobody is complaining because the Obama administration is acting too slowly in renouncing these policies. The opposite is true: they are rushing to actively embrace them.

Obama’s "enemy combatant" policy: following a familiar pattern

Yes, I’ve used that quote before. This article should make clear why I was making the point I made in that article. It’s clear to more observers than just me that this is what’s going on. The implications are ominous. There seems to be no one in the government who is willing to stand up against the President’s declaration that he has the unlimited right to imprison anyone who he determines is associated with terrorism.

On the economics front, things are no better. In addition to having done nothing to prevent huge bonuses from being granted to the AIG executives who ruined the company, the administration has made every effort to hide the recipients of bailout funds. What’s worse, as Jane Hamsher documented, they have attempted to blame this on Senator Chris Dodd, even though it was they who had insisted Dodd’s amendment be modified to allow these bonuses.

The Obama Administration pattern is the same in both cases – say they’re doing (or trying to do) what we need them to do, and then do the opposite.

Sadly, the days of private armies are over, but there are still things that can be done to reduce the power of an errant politician. As I have suggested, one way of doing this to Obama is to tie his actions to him visually. It’s also possible to do that in other media. The basic idea is to make certain that everyone knows when his words don’t match his actions, and do it in the strongest possible terms.

Another thing that can be done is to increase the power of Congress. The best way to do this is to elect progressives who are motivated to make Congress the equal partner it was meant to be in place of people who don’t fit that description. Where that isn’t possible, I recommend supporting any candidate who declares that he is willing to impeach a President who doesn’t follow the law or respect Congress’s budgetary authority, provided there’s reason to believe him.

What should be clear is that without a motivation to change, Barack Obama will continue on the course he’s set. Until we’re able and willing to deny him political power, he’s not going to be concerned with our opinions.

While you’re figuring out how to make that happen, I’ll be over here sharpening my axe.

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