Shakespeare said “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown” Henry IV, Part Two. Throughout most of human history, kings ruled. They were thought to be annointed by God (or the gods), and were to be obeyed by all their subjects. But in some of the more advanced societies, kings were not all-powerful; there were exceptions.
Chinese culture demanded obedience to a king unless the king’s “mandate of heaven” was revoked. People could recognize that heaven no longer blessed the king when there was severe natural disaster, famine, or successful invasions.
The ancient Greeks also hedged their mythical kings with limitations when their personal behavior provoked the wrath of the gods. Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother (he didn’t know they were his parents) was punished by the gods with a plague and famine descending on his kingdom. Another Greek king, Pentheus, was punished by madness when he interfered with an important female religious cult. Both left power.
The Jewish prophet Samuel warned the people what would happen when they begged him to appoint a king to rule over them. They wouldn’t listen. King David, a hero-king, lusted after a married woman and sent her husband to the front lines where he died in battle. David’s kingdom was punished by a plague that continued until he confessed and atoned for his sin.
Although Christian kings grew more powerful after the 16th century, they nonetheless had some limitations on their power. They had councils of nobles and in some cases (such as England) parliaments that could and did control the purse strings.
In the modern world, kings with total power have disappeared from the scene. Our modern kings are cultural remnants who will continue to be financed as long as the public is satisfied with them as symbols of the state.
In the lesser-developed world, kings have been replaced by dictators, who increasingly function like kings. They hand over power to their sons, surround themselves with thugs, and see their tasks essentially as an opportunity to become wealthy. They run their governments like a Mafia. With only a few exceptions, these are dreadful men with even worse families and hopelessly bad children. The model for this was the late Saddam Hussein, who, brutal as he was, had sons who were even worse.
But the time has come for dictators around the world to become uneasy. The last round of dictator removal came at the fall of the Soviet Union—particularly the horrific leaders of the eastern bloc countries, such as Romania’s Ceausescu, Albania’s Xosia, and East Germany’s Erich Honnecker. Each of these monsters impoverished their countries while robbing and torturing their subjects.
Today such Mafia families remain only in the Muslim Arab world, non-Muslim North Korea, and Burma. Tunisia’s Ben Ali has already fallen, as has Egypt’s Mubarak, and soon Libya’s Gadhafi.
Also uneasy is the dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who managed to turn a country that flourished while under colonial rule into a quagmire. His subjects are starving. The president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, lost his reelection bid and refuses to step down. He mistakes being president for dictator for life. He will eventually be removed.
Iran’s leadership has become even more dictatorial than they already were—thinking they were ordained by God. Their subjects do not agree. And Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a good friend of the Iranian Mafia, is chipping away at his country’s democratic institutions. He may not die in bed as an old man.
There are people living in the Himalayas who live as their ancestors always did—trekking over the icy mountains twice a year to trade goods for things they need (salt, cooking pots, etc.). Tribes in Afghanistan live a severe and repressive existence amidst their ancient tribal customs and a primitive version of Islam. But even these people on the fringes are not totally cut off from the rest of the world. Television and radio (and even the Internet) have become the camel’s nose under the tent.
Sleep uneasily, autocrats!
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of How Do You Know That? You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.