What Kind of King Do You Want to Be?

Whenever I teach something, I always start with the same question: Why should you care? Because I hate being an authoritarian and demanding that people learn things they don’t want to know.

Wednesday I started teaching current events to a bright, home-schooled 13-year-old. So that’s where I had to begin: Why should he care about the news? Why should anybody?

Lots of people don’t, and they get by just fine. Lots of people who do, do it so badly that they probably shouldn’t. The news is just one more reason to get depressed or angry or to feel superior to the uninformed masses. They get mad at President Obama instead of their boss, or worry more about some missing girl in Wyoming than about their own kids. Maybe the news is just an addiction, a bad habit like smoking. Why should a teen-ager start?

Here’s why: In a democracy, the People are sovereign — the People have replaced the King. That means that each of us, in our own small way, is King. All of our children are heirs to the throne. “So that’s why I’m here,” I said. “I’m training you to be King. What kind of King do you want to be? What information will you need if you’re going to be that kind of King? That’s what news is.”

You can’t explain it with economics: There’s no profit in news unless you’re a politician or a journalist or a stock trader. Homo economicus doesn’t bother with news. He doesn’t vote, either. The personal gain doesn’t justify the investment of time and effort.

And while the news can be fascinating or engaging, let’s face it: Hard news, the kind of stuff kings need to know, is never going to compete with gossip and sensation. What gets human brain chemistry stirring? Charlie Sheen’s latest rant? Britney Spears going out without underwear? Or the collateral damage of some Predator drone strike on the other side of the world? You tell me.

No, the right reason to care about news isn’t profit or even interest. It’s because we have responsibilities. When we screw up our job as King of the most powerful nation on Earth, people die.

Look at Iraq. After 9-11, We the People of the United States were scared and shaken and angry. Collectively, we wanted to kick somebody’s butt. We wanted to show the world that we were still top dog, that we couldn’t be poked in the eye like this without somebody paying for it.

Bin Laden had vanished into the wind. We chased the Taliban out of Kabul, and then they vanished into the wind too. Nobody had paid yet, or they hadn’t paid enough.

And there was Saddam Hussein. He’d been thumbing his nose at us for years. He was vaguely a Muslim and vaguely in the same part of the world. You can say Bush fooled us, but all he did was encourage us to believe what we wanted: that Saddam was behind 9-11.

So we fought an unnecessary war. You can blame it on Bush if you want. You can blame it on Congress and on Democrats who didn’t have the courage to take an unpopular stand. But kings can always blame a bad decision on their advisors.

Really it was us. We could have stopped it. The truth was there for anybody who wanted to see it, but we couldn’t be bothered. We wanted to hit somebody.

So people died for no good reason. Four thousand of our troops. Tens of thousands of insurgents. And ordinary Iraqi civilians — God knows how many. Maybe hundreds of thousands, who can say? Millions had to leave their homes and go to Jordan or Syria or some other part of Iraq. Picture it: Picking up and leaving your friends because you had to go to Canada or Mexico or Alaska to feel safe. Millions of people.

That’s what happens when we screw up.

Right now we’re screwing up our economy. Millions of Americans want to work but can’t find jobs. So they’re losing their homes, their kids aren’t going to college, and if they get sick they have no insurance.

That’s what happens when we screw up.

I know what you’re thinking: If being King is such a hard job and we’re that bad at it, we should just abdicate. Let somebody smarter do it.

That turns out to be even worse. All of human history proves it.

The power doesn’t go away just because you don’t want it. Somebody else gets it. Occasionally it’s somebody good and responsible, but that never lasts very long. Eventually power winds up in the hands of somebody who is good at seizing power.

People like that run the country for their own benefit. If you have something they want, they take it. If they want you to do something, you do it or you go to jail. If you try to take the power back from them, they kill you.

That’s why our ancestors decided to take on the responsibility of being King in the first place — because all the alternatives were worse. All over the world now, ordinary people are trying to take on kingship because they’ve seen what happens otherwise. Just this year, hundreds of thousands of people showed up in public squares in Cairo, Tunis, Damascus, and a bunch of other cities all over the Middle East.  “You don’t dare kill all of us,” they were saying to their rulers. “If you give the order, the soldiers won’t do it.”

Sometimes they were right. Sometimes they weren’t.

That took a lot of courage. And the reason they did it was that they wanted the chance — the chance! it might not even work! — to be a King like you and me.

So what kind of King do you want to be? The kind who can’t be bothered to keep track of the kingdom? The kind who lets unscrupulous advisors run things for their own benefit? The kind who is easily manipulated with lies? Who is impulsive and acts without thinking? Who is easily distracted by ginned-up controversies that don’t really matter?

I’m hoping not. I’m going to try to convince you to be a good King. And if you’re going to be a good King, there are things you need to know and understand.

That’s what news is.

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  • Daniel  On October 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    HOW were we supposed to stop the Iraq war? As I recall, polls at the time showed that fully half the country was against it at the very beginning, well over half if you asked about a war that would last an appreciable length of time or have an appreciable number of casualties. A fair number of us marched in the streets. (I’m sure more would have if they had thought it would be any use. I started to suspect that marching is only useful if it comes with an implicit threat of future rioting if demands are not met. Maybe disavowing that possibility from the beginning was our mistake?) I wrote my representatives in the strongest terms, saying the war would be a morally and pragmatically indefensible bloodbath and if they ever wanted my vote again they should do what they could to prevent it. (Also I wrote Byrd who had threatened a filibuster.)

    Anyway. Given that the government’s best propaganda efforts and WMD fearmongering managed to produce only 50% support, and that for something maybe the size of Desert Storm, I think this is at least as much a failure of representative democracy as a failure of the American people.

    • weeklysift  On October 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      We had an election right after the authorization to invade passed Congress in 2002. The War Party won handily. Representative democracy worked just fine — we got the war we voted for.

      • Daniel  On October 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm

        I grant it’s disappointing that the War Party beat the Whatever Party, but even assuming an inviolate electoral process I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as voting for a war. (Both because the Whatever Party did not take a clear stand, and because issues other than war influenced people’s votes.)

      • Daniel  On October 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm

        Anyway, as usual it’s not a matter of Democrats who didn’t have the courage to take an UNpopular stand.

      • Daniel  On October 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm

        (Or if that’s too many negatives–they were yet again to the right of the median American.)

  • Dave Lance  On October 12, 2011 at 10:59 am

    We occupied Iraq. We occupied Afghanistan. We surrounded Iran. If Iran goes nuclear, people will indeed die. There is probably a rhyme and a reason for these actions. Sometimes the King is the last one to know what is happening in his own kingdom….


  • By Public Shamelessness « The Weekly Sift on October 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    […] What Kind of King Do You Want To Be? Wednesday I had to explain to a teen-ager why the news is important. I told him that in a democracy the People are King, and the children are in training to be King. Whatever we need to know to be a good King, that defines what news is. And when we’re a bad King, people die. […]

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