Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hey, Everybody! Let's Put on a War!

I'm almost done reading Michael B. Young's King James VI and I and the History of Homosexuality (Macmillan, 2000), a book I've often seen cited but hadn't got around to reading until now.  It's given me a much fuller picture of James and his reign than I had before, and I may write some more about it soon.  But for now I wanted to pass along an interesting passage from later in the book, about James's distaste for war and the reaction to it in some English circles.

After James died in 1625, his son Charles and his boyfriend George Villiers*, the Duke of Buckingham, promptly abandoned what Young calls James's "pacifism":
First there was the war on the continent.  Thomas Scott, the pamphleteer who had so fervently advocated war, was delighted with the transformation of the English into a fighting people.  Speaking now through the manly voice of Sir Walter Raleigh, Scott observed that 'Englishmen, who for the space of twenty-two years before, had but as it were dallyed and played with Armes, rather seeking to affect it for novelty then necessity, were now, in one yeares deliberate and materiall exercise, become so singular and exquisite' that they excelled the Netherlands in military prowess.  Under James, England's 'ease had made her grow idle', but now every child aspired to be a Hercules, and the whole island had become a 'Nurcery of excellent and exquisite Souldiers'.  In 1626 Scott was murdered by a soldier.  Life does have its ironies.
I'm tempted to say that the US might be better off if some of our warmongers suffered something like Scott's fate.  But I won't give in to that temptation.  Just the other day on Facebook someone wrote complaining about a bad experience he had with an online retailer, who refused to give him a refund on a purchase he found unsatisfactory.  Should he publicly shame the dealer on Facebook? he asked.  "In the great grand scheme of things, this is irrelevant. But also in the great grand scheme of things, I believe that karma is a bitch if you are."  I pointed out that karma cuts both ways, meaning that if this guy decides to take karma into his own hands, karma is supposed to turn around and bite him on the ass.  But people with vengeance (and macho pride) on the brain never think that far ahead.  (I don't believe in karma myself, but I was put off by his invocation of the doctrine in service of his personal pride.)
Scott's fate serves as a  metaphor for the war effort in general.  The war expanded to include Spain and France.  It brought the nation to the point of bankruptcy and political breakdown, and it led to the death of approximately 20,000 British fighting men.  James would not have been surprised.  In the words of Sir John Oglander, James 'was a good king and, in his death, said that our nation could not be contented for they desired war, and he prophesied that, when he was dead, they should have more war than they knew how to manage' [102-3].
Many people enjoy talking about war, strutting around with their chests puffed up and bellowing "We're Number One!"  In the same way, for many people, marriage is about weddings: the clothes, the presents, the spectacle, the overspending!  It's much the same for war: people love fantasizing about the uniforms, the parades, the sacrifice (almost always by other people), the spectacle, the overspending!  As with George W. Bush's Afghan and Iraq adventures, Charles's wars stopped being so attractive after they resulted in economic disaster for England and much loss of English life.

What Young is concerned with is the role of gender in such discourse.  James's homosexuality certainly was a factor in the reaction to his lack of bellicosity -- he was quite capable of violence when his majesty was impugned, however, imprisoning, exiling, and murdering rivals and critics -- but I think this was mainly a convenience.  Had he been exclusively heterosexual, he still would have been called effeminate and accused of buggery for refusing to entangle England in the wars that Elizabeth I had found necessary to compensate for being a mere woman.  That the accusation was probably true in James's case is unimportant: in the warmonger's mind, lack of aggression equals pacifism equals effeminacy equals taking it up the butt.  Any term in that equation can stand in for the others.

*Yes, I phrased that somewhat ambiguously.  I intended to.  Though Buckingham was James's boyfriend, and Charles was a militant flaunting heterosexual, Buckingham stayed on as a royal favorite well into Charles's reign.  Maybe Charles 'experimented,' or wasn't as able to reject his father's example as he wanted to; but that's just my speculation.  In any case, only after Buckingham's assassination, according to Young, did Charles settle down into domesticity with his wife Henrietta Maria, who became pregnant for the first time a few weeks after Buckingham's death, three years after they married.