Monday, June 1, 2015

Vis et voluntas

During the Norman Conquest of 1066, the dispossessing of traditional feudal title holders by William the Conqueror and the emancipation of Anglo-Saxon slaves offered clear advantages to those who had been oppressed, enslaved and indentured.  Trading land title holders for military victors and allies of the Conqueror, while shedding one form of tyranny to be sure, put in motion what would 149 years later be squarely addressed at Runnymede.  Commoners – farmers, tradesmen, and laborers – were introduced to the fickle whims of kings, earls, dukes and anyone who enjoyed the patronage of crown or church (largely indistinguishable at the time courtesy of Pope Alexander II’s cosy relationship with William).  A papal legate and the right flag and one could levy tax on money, commodities, and family members – particularly daughters!

As we stand on the eve of the mid-June 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, I found myself disheartened by the degree to which eight centuries have done little to fundamentally change the timeless tyranny of those who perceive to wield power and dominion over others.  Power and dominion rear their ugly heads in countless ways – most of the time barely gaining the attention of the average citizen.  At 3:59pm yesterday, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly stopped collecting information on American phone calls and the FBI lost certain access to corporate records that they used to “hunt terrorists”.  Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA can’t collect phone records but can rifle through records held by phone companies with court oversight.  Clothing manufacturers across the globe are racing to find low cost labor to manufacture the clothes Americans don’t need at prices that are “too low to pass up” putting in jeopardy the lives of those who will never live to see the fluorescent glare of gluttonous consumption.   In recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, girls as young as 12 years old are being auctioned as sex slaves in Syria and being subjected to unspeakable violence.  Barrick Gold paid out-of-court settlements to women in Papua New Guinea for numerous rapes of local women in the vicinity of the Porgera Mine stating that, “the women will receive compensation under the Porgera remedy framework, and a payment in connection with their participation in the mediation process.”  We’ve changed the venues, made them more remote and less verifiable, but our current systems are as dysfunctional as they were in 1066 and our sterilization of the industrial forms of inhumanity are potentially more insidious than lords of a millennium ago.

As we approach the Magna Carta anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a couple of the key principles that were contained within the Articles of the Baron’s which was drafted 800 years ago right now.  While our systemic violation of humanity seems to persist largely unabated, knowing what a group of Barons thought would be worth demanding of King John may remind us what we should care about in 2015.  The Angevin monarchs ruled “above the law” (a practice boldly embraced by the Bush Administration and canonized under the present administration) and ruled by force and will.  The Barons, sick and tired of paying tribute to John for the reclamation of lands he lost to King Philip II in 1204, defied both King and Pope Innocent III and demanded of the King a series of concessions that they designed to democratize their influence.  In what would become the Magna Carta, they sought to strip John of his unchecked abuses.

One of the most fascinating provisions in the Articles was the notion that common people should be capable of persistent livelihood.  In Article 7, minimum wage was established by insisting that no one should be forced to do more service for a “knight’s fee than is owed for it.”  Article 10 demanded equivalent ecumenical compensation to clerics.  Bailiffs and sheriffs were prohibited from taking land and commodities from a debtor who was capable of servicing debt.  And commodity seizure that would impair the livelihood of the debtor was prohibited.  In short, the Barons sought assurance that imposition of levies and debts would not enslave humanity nor subject them to inhumane treatment!

The Article that struck me most profoundly, however, was Article 9.  Some of us are unfamiliar with the principle of amercement.  This was the practice of being held “in the mercy of” the crown for offenses great and small.  Harvest a deer from the King’s forest – you were amerced a tariff.  Trespass on the wrong road or land – you were amerced a tariff.  In the 13th century, if a crown wasn’t on your head, you were subject to someone who wanted to collect something from you for violating some petty rule they’d established – kind of like modern homeowners’ associations.  This death by a thousand financial cuts was so harmful that the Barons demanded that these penalties be commensurate with the offense rather than capriciously determined.  What is most profound in the demands of the Barons was the insistence that no offense should warrant the threat to someone’s livelihood.  

We’ve long forgotten the wisdom of the Barons.  The notion that laws and rules should ultimately be for social benefit but should never lead to the perversion or extermination of individual well-being is as relevant in the halls of Congress as it is in the tortured towns in Syria, Iraq, and East Africa.  Whether you justify your tyranny based on a perversion of “national security” or under some warped theology which places women under the crushing abuse of sex-crazed mercenaries, the notion that any cause justifies the removal of individual liberty is sadistic and evil.  And We The People must muster the courage and the audacity – like Barons of 800 years ago – to first identify and then demand alternatives to systems great and small which place dominion over mercy.  If not, 800 years from now, this time will be described as the darkest of ages when we could have known so much and chose to do so little.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave