(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)
“Divine right of kings means the divine right of anyone who can get uppermost.” Herbert Spencer
I just finished reading an excellent book by British historian Derek Wilson: A Brief History of Henry VIII, 386 pages of densely informative prose that is certainly not brief by American standards. I do not often read history, but I’m glad I read this book because it illuminates much of what’s going on in the world today. But before I tell you a little more about Henry VIII and why his story reminds me so much of George H. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and innumerable bullies and louts responsible for the ruination of our local, national, and global societies, I thought you might enjoy knowing how I came to be interested in Henry VIII.
“Kings are in the moral order what monsters are in the natural.” Henri Gregoire
Several years ago, I wrote a play about a history professor who has a nervous breakdown that features visitations from Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter. When I came out of my trance and found that the rough draft contained a goodly amount of Queen Elizabeth data, I thought it prudent to run a fact-check on my muse and see if she knew what she was talking about. So I read two biographies of Elizabeth and was pleased and mystified to find that the information in my play did, indeed, jibe with those historical records.
If this sort of precognition seems implausible or impossible to you, well, so be it. I had never read or seen anything about Queen Elizabeth prior to writing the play. I only knew she was not the same Queen Elizabeth of my childhood who was forever appearing in National Geographics watching African warriors and soldiers dancing and marching in her honor. Twenty years ago, I wrote a novel (not yet published) in which the protagonist, a pianist and piano teacher, knows a great deal about the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn, all of which was news to me. Shortly thereafter I bought my first recordings of Mendelssohn’s music, which I loved, and I read two Mendelssohn biographies to make sure the references in my novel were accurate, which they were.
How do I explain this sort of thing? Well, if you’ve ever been struck hard and completely out-of-the-blue by thoughts of a friend you haven’t heard from in years, and then the phone rings, and you pick up the phone, and it is that very friend, or if you’ve ever for-no-reason-in-particular decided to turn right instead of turning left as you have always turned a million times before, and because you turned right instead of the usual left you saw something that cleared up a mystery or changed the course of your life, then maybe what I’m about to say will make some sense to you.
Jung spoke of a collective unconscious wherein the cumulative experience of humanity resides and may be accessed by individuals, usually through symbolic dreams. In more modern terms, perhaps there is some sort of psychic internet, if you will, from which surprising and informative responses to our thoughts and desires may come, causing us to do things or create things we might otherwise not have created or done. Or maybe I have supra-phenomenal hearing I’m unaware of and without knowing it I listened to long and learned lectures about Mendelssohn and Queen Elizabeth emanating from UC Berkeley five miles from my house. I don’t know.
In any case, when I saw A Brief History of Henry VIII advertised in the Daedalus remainder catalogue for only five bucks, and wondering if there might be any new revelations therein about Elizabeth, I decided to give the book a try.
“If you’re asking me as President, would I understand reality, I do.” George W. Bush
Henry VIII became king when he was a teenager. George W. Bush became President of the United States and might as well have been a teenager, and not a bright one. Henry let other people run the country while he hunted and jousted and partied. George W. let other people run the country while he, I don’t know, watched television? They both had rotten fathers who thought their sons stupid. They both presided over ill-fated military adventures and appeared at staged victory celebrations—George W. emerging from a jet on an aircraft carrier, Henry arriving in a conquered French city wearing armor. The big differences seem to be that George W. only presided over the ruination of his country and the world for eight years, while Henry ruined England and France and Scotland for almost forty years, George W. wasn’t obsessed about producing a male heir and Henry was, and Henry founded the Anglican Church, had scads of wives, and was apparently lousy in bed, whereas George W. had only one wife and founded no church.
“Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings.” Frederick the Great
One of my favorite books is The Prince and the Pauper, which is ostensibly, fictionally, about Henry VIII’s son. Interesting note: when I tell people The Prince and the Pauper is among my favorite books, I usually get one of three responses. 1. Dickens? 2. The children’s book? 3. Never read it. When I tell these respondents that The Prince and the Pauper was written by Mark Twain, that only smart and imaginative children will enjoy it, that I think the book is Twain’s most beautifully written work, and that I’ve read it five times, my respondents are invariably surprised.
Twain vividly portrays with fiction, and Derek Wilson shows with meticulous biography, that not only does Might Make Right, but once Might has established an entrenched bureaucracy and controls all the money and weapons and commerce of a nation or a world, then absolute nincompoops can be made kings (or presidents) and the monstrous pyramid will lurch along for decades before finally collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and stupidity.
In The Prince and the Pauper, which, by the way, is great fun to read aloud with your mate or children or friends, a pauper (who happens to be physically identical down to his eyebrows to the heir to the English throne, and who learned to mimic courtly speech and manners as a means of escaping, at least in his mind, the violence and grossness of grinding poverty and an abusive father) quite accidentally switches places with the boy who would be king, and the would-be king becomes a pauper in the manner of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Once the switch is made, the rulers of the entrenched bureaucracy conclude that the prince has gone mad rather than been replaced, and when they report their finding to Twain’s brilliantly drawn fictional Henry VIII, the king, who is dying, orders that the prince’s madness be tolerated and ignored, and that anyone spreading news of Edward’s distemper outside the castle will be summarily executed for treason. And that, from what I gather from Wilson’s biography, would have been just like Henry.
O, what a tangled web we weave;
When first we practice to deceive! Sir Walter Scott
Lying is the primary method of rule by an oligarchy masquerading as a monarchy or as a democracy with a congress and president. I am thinking specifically of what is going on right now at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan, and how we, the people, are being lied to so egregiously it would be laughable except the powers-that-be, so far, are getting away with their lies and what they are lying about is the ruination of an entire nation if not a larger part of the entire world.
So why did Henry VIII lie as a way of life? Why did Bill Clinton lie with every breath he took? Why does Barack Obama lie with such maddening frequency? And how did these guys get so good at lying? My hunch is that they each developed a false persona early in life in order to survive a childhood that did not permit honesty, either self-honesty or honesty to others, and these false personas served them so well that they became, Henry and Bill and Barack, thoroughly false.
Of equal importance, of course, is why we, the people, so readily believe the lies of our lying overlords and keep electing and/or not overthrowing these monsters? After painful consideration of my own enduring gullibility, I think we believe our lying overlords (at least enough not to revolt) because the entrenched bureaucracy, by successfully controlling our religion, our media, and our education, has instilled in us from cradle to grave a foundational mythology of lies with which their current lies resonate as entirely plausible.
“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Aristotle
Regarding Fukushima, the foundational mythology says that the corporations that build nuclear power plants are inherently good. General Electric, after all, is synonymous with light bulb, and who doesn’t love a light bulb? Thus it is inconceivable to a well-indoctrinated citizenry that those who give us light and electricity to run our computers and play our video games would ever build a power plant that might turn Japan into an uninhabitable wasteland for centuries to come. Who wants to believe that? No one. And the puppeteers of king and president puppets know we don’t want to believe what may very well be true. So they say things like, “We are rigorously monitoring the situation, and we are confident the situation will be stabilized relatively soon and that negative impacts on the environment will be minimal,” when the truth is just the opposite.
Here’s a little tidbit I snatched from Reuters that sheds a tiny light of truth on what’s going on at Fukushima. “In its attempt to bring the plant under control, TEPCO is looking for “jumpers”—workers who, for payment of up to $5,000 a shift, will rush into highly radioactive areas to do a quick task before racing out as quickly as possible.” See? Clearly they’ve got things under control. And if you need some quick cash…
“Compassion is the basis of all morality.” Arthur Schopenhauer
In The Prince and the Pauper, while the pauper is fast learning to play the part of a prince, the real prince, who had yet to solidify his false persona, is learning firsthand what life among the downtrodden is really like. And ultimately he learns what it is to sacrifice one’s self for the good of others; which is the quantum opposite of what kings and presidents learn to do. Alas.
If only Obama and Bush and Clinton would each take a turn or two as “jumpers” at Fukushima. Maybe then we would finally see the beginning of the end to the nuclear madness.