Insulting a monarch can still get you in royal mess
In the event you occasionally entertain notions of giving obscure European royals a piece of your mind, you might consider this: In the Netherlands, to insult the king is now to commit a crime punishable by up to four months in prison.
This change in law, passed in the lower house last week, is lenient. Insulting a Dutch monarch was previously punishable by up to five years in prison.
That it is still a crime to impugn the character of heads of several European states is less a testament to the endurance of the Crown than to the stamina of an idea born at a time when you could be ushered into an amphitheatre and invited to play with lions for treason. One wasn’t allowed to insult the Roman emperor; therefore, one mustn’t make fun of the House of Orange.
I only hope one is allowed to remark on the fact that places widely reputed for progressivism are the very places where one is not allowed to speak ill of white people ordained by God to sit at the front of rooms in gold chairs. The Netherlands! And Denmark! And Spain!
Now, some countries are slightly more generous than those: not to their citizens, but to visiting heads of state. Italy and Poland think it more dignified to outlaw offences to His Majesty than to One’s Own Majesty — such as, in Poland, the Pope. And Vladmir Putin. When Turkey’s Erdogan demanded a German comedian be prosecuted under this sort of law, the prosecution was dropped along with the law.
The wonder is that any of these laws are still around to drop. The justification for their existence has, however, changed. Where once Roman emperors were effectively gods, and gods having the generally observed right to smite thee for being rude about them, the justification for lèse-majesté now lies in the weakness rather than the strength of royals: They are regarded as so incapable of defending themselves against verbal and cartoonized attacks that the law must defend them.
So argued Dutch conservatives as they pushed to preserve prison penalties for royal insults: The king is not free to speak his mind about everything; the king’s subjects, then, should not be free to speak their minds about the king.
Well, no. Norms prevent royals from defending themselves in certain ways, and norms prevent us, the unwashed masses, from attacking them in certain ways. If a cartoonist violates them in a too scatologically inclined manner, he will be subject to social sanctions; if a royal violates them in a not passive aggressive enough manner, he too will be sanctioned. Whatever the offender’s station, his offences will not result in his being locked up for meanness.
In 2013, the United Kingdom axed the law that forbade fun-making at the Queen’s expense or even “waging war” against her in speech.
For proof of the exquisite beauty that can come of a quid pro quo arrangement between mutually hostile parties, consider the Queen’s royal representative in Canada: Julie Payette, a former astronaut and current Governor General, who, if only her résumé could speak for itself, would give us nothing negative to say. Fortunately, she has been left to her own devices. When she recently delivered a stark warning about the dangers of horoscopes, Canadians, delivered words of their own.
No one called for anyone to go to prison, even if some Canadians did tell the Governor General to go somewhere at least as oppressive. All remain free to say the wrong thing, and thankfully so. It was all a nicely benign diversion, which seems one of the functions of the monarchy.
Europe still affords monarchs a reverence that Canadians usually reserve only for Europe. On this matter, it should emulate us. Shannon Gormley is an Ottawa Citizen global affairs columnist and freelance journalist.