April 25, 2009

He is slight, impetuous, surly, speaks with the hint of an Irish accent and is a satyr who hops from bed to bed with the effortlessness of a rabbit and the conscience of a gigolo.   Who is he?  None other than King Henry VIII, the 16th Century monarch of England whom we meet in the BBC/Showtime drama The Tudors. But the real Henry was neither Irish accented, dark haired nor 5′ 6”.  

Nor was he, at least for the greater part of his life, the womanizing, carousing libertine we encounter in the first episodes of the series.   These are the first among many facts that the The Tudors gets wrong –  and it only gets worse from there.  The political machinations of Henry and his counselors concerning European politics are hopelessly mangled;  Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s primary adviser for the first 20 years of his monarchy, did not commit suicide in 1530 but died en route to the Tower of London; Henry did not send his sister, Princess Margaret, off to the King of Spain to be betrothed in a morganatic marriage but rather to Scotland where she became mother to the eventual Mary, Queen of Scots;   It was Mary, not Margaret, Henry’s second sister, who first married Louis, the King of France and later Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.  There were several years, not days, between those marriages and Mary certainly had no hand in the death of her husband, let alone any responsibility for his asphyxiation on their wedding night.


Okay, okay, the producers and actors tell us, this was never meant to be serious history, but rather an attempt to bring to life a vital period in the life of the British nation, which was dominated by an outsized king and whose story is juiced with lubricious detail.


But here, on the quincentenery of Henry’s ascension (April 22, 1509) to the throne of England, one does have to wonder whether anything like truth and honesty should be the province of  televised drama and what the corruption of that truth means for national identity.


The Tudors is, of course, not the first depiction of Henry to characterize him as either  a skirt chasing rake or as a cruel, self -centered hedonist .  For generations the Hans Holbein portrait of the aging monarch  – obese, weak eyed and balding, has dominated our visual memories of the man, and, as a result of a string of 20th Century popular  books and movies, the only thing we can now think of him wielding is neither scepter nor sword – but a drumstick.


Poor Henry.  Who is now to know that the young King was once a dashing athlete, a brilliant scholar and deeply religious man who took his monarchical duties with the utmost seriousness?    At 6′ 2″, extraordinarily handsome, and according to the measurements of his armor from 1522, possessed of a 32 inch waist – the new king was the ultimate renaissance man,  passionate about the arts, devoted to developing institutions of higher learning and a careful strategist who understood exactly England’s military and political position vis-a-vis the rest of Europe.  More surprising, perhaps to most, will be the knowledge of the years-long deep affection and commitment Henry bore his queen, the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon who was, in fact, the widow of his older brother who had died several years before the succession.


Where the story of Henry begins to drift into the realm of soap opera is around 1527 when he first meets Anne Boelyn.  Boelyn, according to contemporary accounts, beguiled the king not with her looks, which were quite ordinary, but with her vivacious personality.  Catherine had failed, after several miscarriages and the death of three infants, to produce a surviving male heir to the throne of England.  Like most medieval kings, Henry understood that the security of his own rule depended on the production of a male heir, for without it, as English history itself had clearly demonstrated, rivalries which anticipated the King’s eventual death might develop to foment an early rebellion.  With only a tenuous claim to the throne of England, the Tudors were acutely aware of the dangers of an heirless monarchy.


The younger woman offered an escape from this unhappy scenario and her six year long involvement with the King, before their eventual marriage in 1533, began a train of decisions which were to unalterably determine the course of English and world history.   The Reformation, which began with Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, was triggered almost by accident in England when the Convocation of Canterbury agreed in March,1531 to accede to Henry’s demands that the clergy recognize him as head of the English church and remove Papal authority of Rome.   This sparked a revolutionary process of such profound economic and political change that even today there is dispute about the full extent of its consequences.


But there seems to be little doubt that without the English Reformation we would not have had  the growth of  an educated middle class, powerful enough to initiate an industrial revolution;  without the removal of Papal authority, we would not have had the strengthening of the role of Parliament and hence the rise of constitutional government which resulted from the civil wars of the next century.   Nor would we have had the dramatic expansion of English land and naval power that the sequestration of the Catholic monasteries’ wealth facilitated.   Therefore there would have been no British empire, no spread of the virtues of liberal democracy and no exportation of the concept of human rights and the notion of individual freedom.


You will learn none of this from the The Tudors. The monarchy of Henry VIII in the Showtime drama is bathed in very little historical context and the soap opera which engulfs the King, ironically parallels the plot line of another recent Showtime offering – Californication. It came as no surprise then that a bonus trailer for that very production accompanied my DVD copy of The Tudors.


Why should any of this matter?   After-all, the producers and director have laid no claim to historical authenticity (a fact underlined by the costuming which is Elizabethan, not Tudor) and have repeatedly insisted that the show is entertainment, not educational material.


This is answered by a simple truth.   A civilization’s continuity is predicated on a unified understanding of its past.   Reduce that past to a mere pandemonia of sexual politics and bedroom acrobatics, in an attempt to mirror the mores and license of the contemporary world, the glue that binds that civilization together begins to come unstuck. Britain‘s national identity is largely dependent on the remembrance of the greatness of its achievements.  But neither the British educational system, its media nor its bureaucracy seems to value them much any more and the pernicious results can be seen in the collapse of respect for authority; the impugning of Britain’s prior imperial ambitions, the replacement of patriotism with a reverence for multiculturalism and the consignment of such world changing works by Shakespeare and other ” dead white males” to irrelevance.


The United States suffers from a similar malediction, with movie makers and television writers and directors seeking to rip apart the reputations of some of America’s greatest and most inspiring figures – from Thomas Jefferson to Harry Truman.  This kind of revisionism and the supposed honest drive to reveal these men as human beings – warts and all -might be an expression of artistic license, but it is extraordinarily harmful to the embrace of a proud and unified national memory.


Henry VIII may have been dead for five hundred years, but for whatever his flaws, his legacy to England and the world, accidental or not, should never be forgotten.  Unfortunately,The Tudors does much to subvert that legacy and in the process contributes to the gradual collapse of national cohesion – a fact all of us, British or not, should mourn.



April 21, 2009

Sixty-four years ago, shortly after the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen Belsen, U.S. army doctors became concerned at the rapid death of hundreds of the freed inmates. Disease, extreme malnutrition and despair were all mooted as causes of the rash of sudden passings until an army doctor noted how the survivors were having difficulty excreting. Soon it was discovered that the survivor death toll was being caused by the inability of severely malnourished metabolisms to absorb the rich quantities of food and drink with which they were being plied by their well meaning liberators. The survivors’ bodies were simply incapable of coping with the overwhelming shock to their systems delivered by fatty foods such as chocolate and meat, that some had not consumed in years.

As we enter Holocaust Memorial Day this year it might pay us to remember how well-intentioned actions and beliefs can often lead to catastrophe. In a few days time thousands of human rights activists will descend on Geneva, in preparation for the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission’s Durban Review Conference. This Conference, designed to review the results of the September 2001 World Conference Against Racism,Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is an effort to renew the focus on human rights around the world, but will almost certainly transform into a hate fest as virulently antisemitic as its predecessor.

The full impact on the concept of human rights of the previous conference was never entirely examined due to the shattering events of September 11, 2001 which followed six days later.

But if ever there is ‘a day that will live in infamy’, at least as far as the human rights community is concerned, then, September 5, 2001 must surely stand as the favored candidate. That is because while the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DPPA) made nebulous pro-forma statements about discrimination and prejudice around the world, it singled out only one country for reprimand – the State of Israel.

“Concerning the Middle East, the DDPA expresses concern about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation and recognizes the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the right to an independent state.”

This relatively tame language belied the actual ferocity of the attack on Israel at the conference and the antisemitic language which was allowed to air freely within the Conference’s workshops and plenary sessions.

But more devastating than this was the work of 3,000 NGOs, including most human rights group worldwide, who banded together in Durban to declare that Israel a “racist apartheid state” and guilty of “war crimes, acts of genocide, and ethnic cleansing.”

They were aided and supported by many ancillary activities.

On the grounds of the U.N. conference itself, the Arab Lawyers Union distributed pamphlets filled with grotesque caricatures of hook-nosed Jews, depicted as Nazis, spearing Palestinian children, dripping blood from their fangs and with missiles bulging from their eyes. Attempts to have the group’s U.N. accreditation revoked were rebuffed.

In a Palestinian-led march with thousands of participants, a placard was held aloft that read “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job.” Nearby, someone was selling the most notorious of anti-Jewish tracts, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

An Amnesty International press release, handed out during the NGO conference, cited several examples of racism and human rights abuses around the world, but mentioned only Israel by name.

While demonizing Israel, the Conference failed utterly to address rampant genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Sudan; the continuing slave trade in sub- Saharan Africa; the repressive Chinese occupation of Tibet; the eclipse of human rights in Cuba and the squelching of religious freedom and womens’ rights in almost every Arab country.

Although Israel and the United States packed up their bags and left the conference, the general world governmental response to this vicious monument to racism and xenophobia was general silence.

And that is perhaps what we can expect again as the Durban Review Conference gets underway. The new draft document of the Conference deals in the abstract platitudes as the previous one, affirming, inter alia, the conclusions of the former conference, while not mentioning one word about its poisonous antisemitic atmosphere.

But more troubling is the acceptance of a rabid anti-semite and inciter of genocide, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to address the conference on Monday, April 20. He follows in the footsteps of Fidel Castro in 2001 who used his platform to denounce the United States and the West as apartheid-sponsoring imperialists and of Israel as guilty of genocide. His address was met by a rousing one minute ovation. Ahmedinejad will almost certainly use the legitimacy of the meeting to broadcast his own brand of anti-Zionism and racism.

What we are left with is the question of how the democracies will respond to this presumptive assault on human rights. Will the United States and the European Union eventually refuse to attend, just as Canada decided some months ago? Will they decide to support the organized protests revolving around Durban and draw attention to the curious fact that while the Durban conference falls on the memorial day for the gravest assault on human rights in world history, absolutely no provision has been made in the program to recall that atrocity? Will they stand defiantly behind the very concept of human rights and refuse to have it manipulated and recast as a weapon to be wielded against Israel and the West in the hands of anti-semites?

The world has well learned the consequences of silence in the face of depravity. Sixty years ago, well intentioned men, determined to win a war against Nazism, neglected entirely the deeper danger to human survival represented by the Holocaust, in refusing to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Silence or willful blindness may lead our contemporary well intentioned men – who believe in the sanctity of human life and in basic human rights – to an awkward complicity in a 21st Century style assault on the very values they wish to preserve and protect.

The supreme irony that the very same genocidal atrocity that gave rise to the human rights culture, is somehow now being assigned to the people who were its victims and,in retribution, is being fomented against them – and at a conference that should be outlawing that very notion- should be lost on no one.


April 21, 2009

If Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon has his way, former Bush Administration officials Douglas Feith, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld will soon be standing trial in Spain for war crimes related torture of Guantanomo Bay detainees.

If Richard Falk, the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Territories, has his way, Israeli generals such as Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli political and military leaders, will soon be brought before the International Criminal Court to face war crimes charges for the actions of the IDF in Gaza in January, 2009.

The effects of these indictments are to render it next to impossible for many of these leaders to travel overseas or to step foot on foreign soil. This was clearly demonstrated when former U.S Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was forced to leave France in January, 2007 when a French human rights group sought to charge him with war crimes in Iraq.

These claims draw their inspiration from the unparalleled respect rendered to international human rights law which gives almost any judge in any country, the jurisdiction to order the indictment of individuals who have violated what she or he believes be a breach of the law.

The rebuttal to the spurious claims mentioned above have been dealt with ably by Feith and Ashkenazi in their own editorials while being absolutely rejected by many international jurists.

What remains, however, is the troubling intrusion of this relatively new and amorphous body of law into domestic legal systems and the radical assault on the sovereignty of nations.

As the 65th anniversary of the Dumbarton Oaks conference grows near(October,1944) it might pay, then, to recall how wildly out of control the global governance movement has grown since its inception.

Dumbarton Oaks, the Washington D.C. conference where Franklin Delano Roosevelt convened a meeting of the Western allies to kick start the United Nations, remains a monument of reverence for global governance enthusiasts. After all, it was the first time that all the major nation states of the world ( including the United States itself which had elected not to join the earlier League of Nations) agreed to establish a supranational body that would adjudicate international disputes and establish international bodies to oversee matters of global concern.

The idea itself was not new.

It was first mooted in Thomas More’s Utopia in the 16th century and brandished with equal enthusiasm by the polymath and futurist H.G. Wells in the 20th. Wells foresaw a centralized world government which would cover criminal law, prisons, registration of births and deaths, and the right to direct people to work in whatever part of the world it determined best. Everyone would have identity documents bearing their thumb-print; the official language would be English and primary alleigence would be to a world government. ” It is the system of nationalist individualism and uncoordinated enterprise,” he stated in The New World Order(1940),” that is the world’s disease, and it is the whole system that has to go. It has to be reconditioned down to its foundations or replaced. It cannot hope to “muddle through” amiably, wastefully and dangerously, a second time.”

Curiously enough it is “nationalist individualism,” – the very concept of the nation state and its right to regulate its own affairs and enforce its own laws, which is widely under assault today.

These attacks are being led by unelected and undemocratic supranational organizations such as the United Nations, radical activist human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and activist judges such as Baltazar Garzon. For the global governance enthusiasts, the very idea of a nation state is anathema and they are taking full advantage of the opportunities to enforce laws that many democracies have unknowingly embraced through treaties within their own legal systems.

An example of this is the Geneva Convention. The Convention, promulgated in the Hague in 1953, was ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1954 became part of American law, a law that the United States justice system is obliged to enforce if violations are proven. It is under Article 3 that the matter of Guantanomo Bay detainees has been referred to the International Criminal Court,seeking the indictment of members of the Bush Administration as war criminals.
That article proscribes ” outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” of captured belligerents.

The Convention allows for domestic courts to take action where it finds possible violations but says nothing about supranational bodies adjudicating such matters. The great innovation of international human rights law is its claim that where a domestic justice system has remained silent, another jurisdiction has both the right and duty to bring indictments that would effectuate justice.

This notion has no basis in customary international law and is proven by the fact that such a recently established international judicial body as the International Criminal Court is restricted in its ability to hear cases and has not until now, though founded in 1998, actually delivered a full ruling.

What is happening, of course, is that politics – and namely radical politics, which is anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Semitic, is being given an effective weapon to subvert the actions of democratic nations who might be at war or might be fighting for their own survival. What is certain is that global governance is insidiously worming its way into our legal systems and into the very fabric of our political dialogue.

We should not pretend that this movement will end with mere attacks on the activities of the Bush Administration or the Israeli military.

What if, as Feith argues, a European judge doesn’t like like the legal analyses prepared by U.S. officials on border security with Mexico? Would European judges feel similarly empowered to make determinations that contend that the United States is taking positions contrary to international law? Is Israel to refrain from defending itself from merciless rocket fire on its citizenry because a human rights activist in Malmo believes its methods to be unethical? Under these circumstances the very exigencies of defense are taken out of the hands of the governments charged with defending their citizens and placed in the hands of outside observers.

Across the whole spectrum of human affairs, from climate change to national security, from health issues to parent-child relations, global governance advocates are similarly seeking to intrude their way into our lives, making use of loopholes in international treaties to impose their own values on our society. An example can even be found in business. A number of NGOs, disappointed that transnational businesses are not taking the time to address practical human rights standards, are promoting a system of human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) that can be implemented on a piecemeal basis within targeted industries. Because they require company officials to “identify, understand and manage corporate impacts in the field of human rights,” these standards are regarded as having the potential to have a serious influence on the way companies do (or do not do) business and therefore a possible impediment to the flow of international commerce.

Well then, somewhere H.G. Wells must be smiling. At the height of the London Blitz, when the future of Western civilization itself was in doubt, he felt perfectly at ease to write:

“There must be no protection for leaders and organizations from the most searching criticism, on the plea that our country is or may be at war. Or on any pretense. The war is incidental; the need for revolutionary reconstruction is fundamental.”

If the global governance advocates have their way, revolutionary reconstruction may coming to our homes, our schools and our political systems sooner than we, or even they, ever anticipated.

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