King Cnut and Absolute Power
“The arts of power and its minions are the same in all countries and in all ages. It marks its victim; denounces
him: and excites the public odium and the public hatred, to conceal its own abuses and encroachments.”
King Cnut is better known by the anglicized name of Canute. Through war, birth, and supreme cunning he was able to form an empire that included Denmark, England, Norway and a large part of Sweden early in the 11th century. This was no easy job. After his death he developed a reputation for being fair and magnanimous, but we must take into account that he was extremely generous to the Catholic church during his tenure, and in those days the monks were the ones who wrote the history.
My first encounter with Canute was during a world history (which in those days meant Western history, since we were never exposed to the amazing accomplishments of Asians and Africans) High School course. Canute was pictured sitting on his throne, which had been placed at the shoreline of the sea. We were told that the king had dared the tide not to come in, in order to demonstrate to his subjects that he could defy Nature’s laws. Of course his robes got wet.
This story is almost certainly legend. But even this version of it is inaccurate. According to the “true” legend, if there can be such an animal, the king was showing his courtiers how humble he was. When he ordered his minions to carry him to the beach, his intent was to demonstrate that there was a limit to the king’s power, and that there were matters that were best left for God to rule.
Cnut did well in life. He kept two wives (one in Denmark, the other in England) and managed to avoid any criticism from the church. He trusted his noblemen and helped them out, again mostly in their dealings with the church. He probably died a happy man. By taking his last breath he confirmed his humanity and further ensured that people understood his limits.
I thought of King Cnut as I read still another Twitter post from our new president. He will not let go of his business empire. Countries that allow him to build one of his hotels under favorable terms may have a preferential ear when they need our nation’s help, and how are we to find out? Foreign diplomats who spend a lot of money in his hotels may have preference. This is, after all, the way business is done. Just not the president’s business, but let’s be fair: he didn’t think that he was going to win and he didn’t make a single plan as to how to deal with all of these potential conflicts.
More than half of the population wants clean air. He’s ready to do away with that. More than half of the population wants health insurance for everyone. He has no plans for such an endeavor. More than half of the population wants to use diplomacy to avoid disastrous and meaningful wars. He is ready to use threats and warnings.
A huge majority wants a balanced budget. He’s ready to blow a gaping hole into this dream. He has no intention of submitting a budget to Congress for the coming fiscal year. He doesn’t want his supporters to see just how much off balance his money suggestions are.
He won’t take questions from the press. He attacks anyone that he disagrees with, and he will have the enormous power of his office to keep dissenters in line. He has surrounded himself with aggressive generals and billionaires who have no idea of what it’s like to not have enough money to buy food, or pay for the doctor’s visit.
He knows best, and only he knows how to fix it. When things go south he will find a scapegoat; anyone. He will tweet until his fingers become numb; he will direct popular anger against individuals dumb enough to stand in his way. He will do anything that he can to suppress free press coverage of his actions. He will conceal his abuses and wash them with innocent blood.
More than a thousand years ago a king who had absolute power was insightful enough to realize that having the ability to make all of the decisions was not what would make him great. Would that our current leader acquires his wisdom, before it’s too late.