Friday, February 20, 2015

Thoughts on Lèse-majesté

I would be willing to bet money that as soon as anyone reads the title of this post the first country they are going to think of is the Kingdom of Thailand. This is extremely unfair but not unexpected as the elite media (at least in the western world) never misses the chance to give a great deal of publicity to every case of lèse-majesté that comes up in Thailand. It may, therefore, surprise some people to know that some degree of lèse-majesté laws remain on the books in a number of monarchies around the world, even if they are not always as dutifully enforced as in the “Land of Smiles”. Thailand does seem to be singled out, possibly because the monarch is so loved and honored in Thailand and the leftist global elite just cannot tolerate people having such feelings, but they do report efforts to enforce such laws in other countries on the rare occasion that a case is actually brought forward. It seems that those who like to accuse others of being “reactionaries” (as if that were a bad thing) are the ones who like to exaggerate and become nearly hysterical every time lèse-majesté laws are applied so they can try to scare people with images of absolute monarchy, royal tyranny trampling on free speech and so on. It fits their favorite narrative quite well.

The only relatively recent instances of lèse-majesté laws being applied in Europe that I can recall off-hand were from The Netherlands, Spain and Monaco. The Spanish case involved a magazine being fined for featuring a lewd cartoon of the King and Queen (then the Prince and Princess of Asturias); hardly a harsh punishment. In the Netherlands it involved a man spending a week in jail for making extremely rude remarks about then Queen Beatrix. Again, an extremely light punishment considering that his remarks could have been taken as a threat to the Queen’s safety (and I certainly would have treated them as such). The most recent case that I can remember involved a drunk Frenchman who was jailed for six days in Monaco for insulting the Sovereign Prince after being arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. So, he earned free accommodations in Monaco for the better part of a week for insulting a man who is an almost absolute monarch in his own country. Personally, being forced to stay in Monaco under almost any circumstances hardly seems like punishment but it made all the papers of course. One would think that the people living and visiting monarchies around the world lived in daily fear of being carted off in irons for speaking disrespectfully of the sovereign. Such is hardly the case.

The remaining monarchies in other parts of the world have similar laws, such as in the Middle East, Malaysia and Brunei and they are more uniformly enforced whereas in Europe, even where they remain on the books, they seldom are. Some monarchies, however, have no such laws but societal norms tend to make them less necessary. Japan, for example, no longer has lèse-majesté laws on the books but saying anything derogatory about the Emperor or Imperial Family would not be tolerated in polite society so most of the insults hurled at members of the Imperial Family are confined to the internet. The situation is somewhat similar in Cambodia where insulting the monarchy in print or in person could get you into some trouble but it can be done on the internet with the authorities being able to do little about it. However, the idea that only monarchies have such laws is absolutely false. Republics cannot have lèse-majesté laws in the same way monarchies can by their very nature but many, many republics have laws that come to the same thing, however, once again, how evenly they are enforced is another matter. Not long ago the republican government in Turkey, for example, made it illegal to say anything insulting about the country of Turkey, the government or anything Turkish really.

Numerous republics have laws protecting foreign heads of state from being insulted if not their own, as such things could cause international problems. However, again, these are not always enforced. In Poland, in 2005, for example, people were jailed for insulting Pope John Paul II and Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet in all the Iraq War protests, no one was ever given similar treatment for insulting US President George W. Bush though I think pretty much everyone in Europe did it (you would be very un-cool if you didn’t). In the case of Poland, insulting a beloved son and religious icon like John Paul II could be expected to provoke a reaction and while President Putin is certainly not beloved in Poland, an insult in his direction could prompt retaliation whereas an American President would never respond to such antics and everyone knows it. For quite a few republics it is illegal to insult the president though such laws are not always enforced. In Italy, for example, it is illegal to insult the President of the Republic but the law is not always enforced. However, not too long ago legal action was taken against someone for insulting the Pope who is protected by Italian law according to the terms of the Lateran Treaty. In the United States it is legal to insult the president but not to threaten the president. However, during the administration of President Obama, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people “investigated” by the Secret Service for insulting the President on the grounds that such insults “could” have been threatening.

When it comes to monarchies and comparing their lèse-majesté laws to republics, however, I consider it more indicative to look at laws pertaining to the desecration of flags. Such laws are also quite widespread all around the world and often include laws protecting the desecration of foreign flags and not just the national flag. In fact, in some countries, such as the Kingdom of Denmark, it is perfectly legal to burn the Danish flag but illegal to burn the flag of a foreign country. Why do I say this is indicative? Because a monarch, like a flag, represents a whole country, a whole people as no politician, no matter how he or she is chosen, ever could. Put in those terms, even some republicans may be able to understand why some people might actually support lèse-majesté laws. In Mexico, for instance, no one would think twice about insulting the King of Spain and most would see no reason why a Spaniard should be punished for insulting the King of Spain. Yet, when it comes to the Mexican national flag, there are quite strict laws preventing it from being treated in any way that could be construed as disrespectful and this is regarded as entirely appropriate.

Of course, the issue is also complicated by the European Union. In Britain, for example, there were clear laws against insulting the monarch or advocating for the abolition of the monarchy but such laws were overruled by EU guidelines on free speech. However, the “free speech” laws of Europe are as myriad as they are confusing to the point that people can march in the streets with signs saying “Death to the Jews” perfectly freely but other people will go to prison for denying the Holocaust. But then, plenty of countries have odd laws regarding speech. The most recent I learned of was a law in South Korea, not against insults but against praise; it is illegal to praise North Korea, communism or Japan (though I cannot imagine such laws being enforced). I could at least see some reason for that list up until “Japan” appeared. There was also a recent case of a Japanese journalist being arrested for reporting some rumors of misconduct on the part of the South Korean President, which I tend to think may not have happened if the reporter had been anything other than Japanese. Punishing a reporter for reporting something seems to be going too far to me but, again, this was mostly likely a symptom of the on-going antagonism between Japan and South Korea rather than a case of real censorship. The government wasn’t being anti-free speech so much as just anti-Japan.

As most could probably guess, I have no problem with lèse-majesté laws nor do I have any problem with laws against the desecration of national flags (even though my country doesn’t have them). On one level, I look at it like this; whether you are tearing up a picture of Queen Elizabeth II in England or burning the American flag in the United States you are attacking the symbol of a country and if you feel that way about the country you should pack your bags and get the hell out -no one is forcing you to live there. If, on the other hand, you want to tear up a picture of “Call Me Dave” Cameron or Gordon “IS ALIVE!” Brown, I would have no problem with that. Similarly, if an American feels he can only express himself by burning the flag of the Democrat or Republican parties I would have no problem with that. Doing something like that is showing contempt for a government, a political faction or ideology and that is a totally different thing, to my mind, from an act with disrespects an entire country as a whole and a symbol that represents everyone in it.

As I recently said concerning the horrific Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, I have no problem with laws which protect symbols or figures or anything that a country at large holds sacred. However, no one can force others to treat as inviolable something which they do NOT hold sacred, which is what was at the heart of the massacre in Paris. It does not bother me at all that a country like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the Sultanate of Brunei forbids insulting Mohammed. Anyone who would go to such a country and make such insults is someone wanting to get in trouble, however, they cannot expect that countries which are largely irreligious treat their religion (Islam) as sacred. Personally, I think insulting any major religion is in poor taste, needlessly antagonistic and unnecessary but you cannot expect a country that routinely insults its own historic faith to treat another faith (such as Islam) as sacred just because you do. It would be impossible anyway which is why such attacks will never be anything more than criminal terrorism. If someone in Russia insults the Prince of Wales, I may not like it but there really isn’t anything I or anyone else can do about it so trying to make a law against it would be rather pointless. However, someone insulting the Queen in Great Britain itself absolutely should be against the law and such laws should be upheld, even if the only penalty is to be deported to France or Ireland. Does that make me an enemy of “free speech”?

Obviously, I don’t think so, even though no country has absolute freedom of speech no matter where you go. I have no problem with reasonable debate and discussion in the ‘public square’ a country. One can do that without resorting to insults. For example, one can point out why they do not accept the Islamic religion or state why they think Mohammed was not what he claimed to be without drawing lewd cartoons of him involving bestiality. One can also say why and on what points they disagree with tenets of Catholicism without resorting to vandalism against sacred images or pictures of the Pope just as one can explain in great detail what disagreements they have with the policies of a certain government without resorting to the childish antics of burning a flag. On the subject of persons I would also say that I do not find it all unjustified to have different standards for monarchs than for politicians. For instance, an American who insults an American President will not offend me. If reasons are given I may agree or disagree with such points (though not much as painfully few have even been moderately good in my opinion) but no more than that. For a real precise example, let us say that someone insulted President Ronald Reagan to me, the only American chief executive of my lifetime that I consider fairly decent. I would not agree with such behavior, but I would not be “offended” by it. However, if someone were to insult the Queen of Denmark or the Emperor of Japan, I would be offended (to put it lightly). The reason is that there is a clear difference to me between a person who had a position of leadership thrust upon them and one who sought a position of leadership of their own free will. I feel the same about privacy laws for famous people. I do not feel at all the same when a celebrity, who chose to enter a profession which depends on media attention and popular support, complains of their privacy being violated as when the privacy of, for example, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is violated. They are two entirely different things to me.

How then would this attitude affect monarchists living in republics (some of you may be asking)? My position would remain mostly unchanged, though I would have to say “mostly” because one seldom finds any guidelines that can cover absolutely every contingency. For example, the Hungarian freedom-fighters who defaced the communist Hungarian flag by tearing out the arms in the center; that does not bother me at all as it was the symbol of a regime imposed on Hungary unjustly by a foreign power. But then, that is an easier case. What about the desecration of a flag in the French Republic? In such a case, though it certainly would not stir such feelings as it would for a monarchy, I still would have to say that I would rather it did not happen. Happily, I have never seen such a thing. Happily, I most often see monarchist demonstrators waving royalist flags rather than burning republican ones and that seems more appropriate to me. Burning flags (or books, effigies or icons etc) always seemed rather barbaric to me, something uncivilized. I have seen photos of nationalist protestors in Japan defacing South Korean flags and I do not approve of it (even if I may be in agreement with what they are actually protesting about). For one thing, I just find it unseemly and needlessly antagonistic and for another the flag of the Republic of Korea (unlike the communist north) is essentially the same as the traditional flag of the Kingdom of Korea and it pains me to see it disrespected (just as it pains me to see South Korean protestors disrespecting the Japanese flag). For similar reasons I could not relish seeing the flags of republics like Germany or Russia being disrespected. In the case of Russia, the flags in use today are essentially the same as in the days of the Russian Empire. Germany is a little different but the black-red-gold flag was also the flag of the monarchial German Confederation under the Hapsburgs and I just see no need to make a dramatic display of destroying it.

I would also draw a distinction, even if it made little difference to my ultimate position, between those countries which became republics because of the violent overthrow of a monarch and those which did so by coming to an agreement with their monarch. Most of the republics in the world today, after all, did not spring into being by overthrowing a monarch but by separating themselves from one, in most cases the Spanish or British monarch. If, for example, some man in India who longed for the days when the British monarch was still Emperor of India decided to burn the Indian national flag, I might not be as offended as I would be by the desecration of a monarchist flag or a picture of the Queen but I would still not be best pleased. The British monarch agreed to the independence of India quite freely and such a demonstration would only hurt the image of those in India who have a friendly attitude toward the United Kingdom. It would simply inflame Anglophobic sentiments in the subcontinent rather than encouraging greater Anglo-Indian friendship. If such an individual were known to be a monarchist, it would simply make monarchists look bad and so boost the prestige of the republic in comparison. I think most people could understand that such a demonstration would also be seen rather differently in a country like India or Burma or Kenya than in a republic which arose not because of a country gaining independence from another but from the overthrow of a legitimate native monarch.

Finally, I would say that one reason why I support laws protecting the integrity of monarchs from insult and slander is that I think too many monarchies today (and plenty of republics too for that matter) have become so liberally “broad minded” that even treason seems to be tolerated. This is extremely dangerous and must be fought against. Especially in a country in which the monarch reigns but does not rule, it should not be seen as “extreme” to insist that the legitimacy of the monarchy is the one thing everyone must be required to agree on. Every country has to have something like that, some foundational core that is above dispute that is a litmus test for being a loyal subject or (these days) a loyal citizen. That would not even preclude having reasonable debates about the nature of that core but that adherence to the core itself must be enforced and upheld. There is such a thing as treason and there are such things as traitors and we have to get away from this mentality that all speech and all points of view must be tolerated, even if it means tolerating betrayal and open and avowed enemies in your midst. Anyone who does that, being perfectly free to leave the country for one with institutions more to their taste, is openly making themselves an enemy and should be treated as such. Given how widespread republicanism has become, no dissident in a monarchy is ever very far away from a republic. If they choose to stay and continue to insult and slander what every loyal person should honor, they are willingly choosing to face the consequences of that. I just think there should be some.
Speak not ill of the king, not even in your thoughts and do not 
curse the rich even in your bedchamber for a bird of the air 
will carry your voice and that with wings will relate the matter.
-Ecclesiastes 10:20


  1. I, too, have no problem with laws against Lèse-majesté and harsh punishments, same goes with blasphemy. Most westerners, who get convicted for Lèse-majesté in Thailand, as far as I can tell, belong to a special kind of tourist: middle-aged, single men who travel the country for certain reasons who end up drunk and insulting the king. Such behavior shows a degree of disrespect for a whole country and its people that is inexcusable. Unfortunately these guys always get pardoned too easily, the only punishment being not allowed to ever come back. However it is a bit different for citizens of a certain country. How can you tell, that the law is not misused? It’s like with “blasphemy” in many Islamic countries. If you want your neighbor’s donkey in Pakistan, just point at him and claim: “He mocked the prophet!” and a bloodthirsty mob will massacre the whole family. And so there are reports from Thailand – true or not, I don’t know – that the military government extensively uses the accusation of Lèse-majesté to silence any critic, although the king was not even mentioned… However, that laws are often misused cannot be a point against them.

    1. In a civilized country one would have to present proof and be proven guilty of any crime before punishment is meted out. An accusation being enough to cause the ruination of someone's life has nothing to do with the law but with a barbaric society -much like France was during the First Republic. As for Thailand, I cannot say unless a specific case is cited. I can say that I am not unbiased on the subject and my knee-jerk reaction would be to applaud the military for cleaning house on disruptive elements that were a threat to Thai society. Mind you, my government and I disagree on this point as the Obama administration has been highly critical of the military government.

    2. That’s just what I have read in some papers that some „civil rights activists“ in Thailand and their comrades abroad claim. I don’t know the truth. Overall I think it was good that the army took over power, but there are other ways to make sure your opponents keep their mouths shut – without involving the king and risking to damage his image. My point is, that accusations like Lèse-majesté and blasphemy are very unspecific, since it is hard to say what is legitimate critique and what is insulting or blasphemous. For example, I see that many Catholics consider caricatures of the Pope to be “blasphemous”, just like many Muslims do with drawings of Mohamed. Sorry, since neither the Pope, nor Mohamed are God, that may be disgusting, offensive etc., but it is not blasphemy. I don’t know what exactly that poor fellow in Saudi-Arabia, that got sentenced to 1000 lashes, wrote on his blog, but accusing him of blasphemy is an easy way to keep him from criticizing the political influence of the clergy. I think a good solution is the German law protecting the head of state, since it has not changed since the times of monarchy. It says, that the courts only persecute insults, if the Kaiser/President gives the order to do so (and in most cases they don’t). This prevents abuse by third parties.

      Off topic: Is there a chance that someday you will write a monarch profile of King Ludwig II of Bavaria? Certainly a very difficult task, but I would enjoy reading your opinion. I absolutely don’t know what to make of him…

    3. It may be that they were guilty for all I know. The red shirt faction, against whose acts of violence the military took action (as well as flouting the law on numerous occasions) were known even before the declaration of martial law for frequently violating the laws protecting the dignity of the monarchy. Personally, I've never heard accusations of blasphemy over caricatures of the Pope. All I know of have involved the desecration of images of the Virgin Mary or Christ. As for the man in Saudi Arabia, to me the pertinent point is that none contest his guilt only that they feel the punishment is barbaric. That may well be but the fact remains that he chose to break the law and must therefore submit himself to punishment. I would not wish to be subject to such laws, hence why I would never live in Saudi Arabia. However, it must be said that, as with most such laws the west finds deplorable, the Saudis did not dream up these crimes and punishments on their own but are adhering to the same interpretation of Islamic law as has prevailed in that land for very many centuries. They could not do so if the majority of the people did not approve of or at the very least accept this sort of system.

      As for King Ludwig II, like Louis XIV of France, I had thought I already covered him but see that I have not. I will have to get to that.


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