In­sult­ing a monarch can still get you in royal mess

Kingston Whig-Standard - - OPINION - SHAN­NON GORM­LEY

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.

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