The Tudors, Tradition and Tyranny
The Tudors is a bad show. I’m a sucker for historical drama, but after slogging through the first three episodes, of this much I can be sure. I don’t need the show’s writers to drop six references to humanism and Utopia in the first six minutes to remind me that, yes, one of the main characters is Sir Thomas Freaking Moore. I don’t need to watch King Henry make out with every maidservant in sight to grasp the extent of the man’s libido. Modern artifice can occasionally enhance historical drama (see Deadwood), but for the most part, The Tudors feels like a transplanted soap opera. Which is unfortunate, because the show’s subject matter is genuinely interesting stuff.
One particular scene comes to mind: As the Duke of Buckingham rides home, he is accosted by the King’s men, who demand he return to London and face trial for treason. He quickly agrees, convinced that no peer of the realm would ever vote to convict a man of his stature.
Buckingham, of course, was a traitor. But he was also confident enough in his status to face the King’s threats with equanimity. Which brings to mind this old post from Virginia Postrel:
. . . limited government is a liberal idea. It only seems conservative in the Anglo-American context because we’ve had several hundred years of liberal tradition. But there are older, pre-liberal conservative traditions, including a rather prominent one to which Rich Santorum outspokenly adheres–a tradition that honors hierarchy, solidarity, and “natural law” and sees liberal individualism as a source of decay.
Liberalism has always been identified with a robust defense of limited government, but limits are not unknown to older political traditions. Hierarchy, status and tradition were all barriers to untrammeled autocracy, albeit unsystematic and often ineffective ones.
The Tudors‘ relationship to historical fact is decidedly tenuous, but Buckingham’s trial manages to capture the reality of traditional power relations. The duke’s guilt or innocence is almost beside the point – his status, his reputation and his position within England’s complex social hierarchy were all guarantors of his safety.
Flawed guarantors, perhaps, as King Henry rigs the game and has Buckingham executed. But the episode reminds us that liberal conceptions of limited government are not without traditionalist precursors, and that all our talk of checks and balances would be quite hollow without certain conservative assumptions about the nature of self-interest and the importance of institutions’ cultural legitimacy. I don’t think it’s an accident that our legal system is rooted in a decidedly illiberal tradition, or (to take a more recent example) unapologetic reactionaries have been some of the most prominent opponents of modern totalitarianism. Something for liberals of all stripes to keep in mind when we speak of limits, particularly when faced with the fact that so many of the Bush Administration’s most outspoken critics – on torture, surveillance and the war – have all hailed from the traditionalist end of the spectrum.