Last Friday my wife, Hoa, and I saw what I am calling the “Tea Party movie” – Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.
In this imaginary tale, Robin Hood gets to be the populist hero who gives birth to Magna Carta, the Rule of Law, English liberties, and constitutional government to check rapacious and predatory rulers like King John. This is not your traditional story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men of Sherwood Forest.
This movie has much to say about government taxation, none of it favorable. We are shown in historically correct reality downtrodden yeomen and worthy middle-class barons and squires paying and paying and paying for the foibles of King Richard the Lion Heart and his nasty younger brother John.
The movie’s theme is populist, so I consider it in tune with Tea Party aspirations and resentments of “big government” – and with feelings of solidarity with the hard-working, long-suffering people of any realm.
The only solution for evil times, says the movie, is to organize from below -democracy. To demand terms and conditions from the rulers in return for the loyalty and obedience they demand.
In other words, it’s a “No taxation without Representation” movie. I could easily imagine the movie’s oppressed villains raising up the yellow Rattlesnake Flag with its “Don’t Tread On Me!” motto as they follow Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck into Sherwood Forest and a life of outlawry.
King John avows that it is the duty of the ruled to pay taxes in support of government. But the government he speaks of is only his whim and pleasure, which are not to be controlled by anyone, least of all his people or his barons.
Even the moral authority of the time – the church – presented in the person of the Bishop of York who wants all the seed grain when the people have none – is aligned with the corrupt and unfeeling establishment.
It’s not too far-fetched to associate that haughty and cold-hearted power with today’s moral lords who run Wall Street, another target of Tea Party anger.
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood does not steal from the rich and give to the poor, only grain from the bishop to plant in the barren fields of the desperate and the deserving. His fictional Robin Hood is centered on political reform – that government must have the consent of the governed, that the people must rise and rise again until “lambs become lions.”
It wasn’t obvious to me that the audience of aging baby boomers watching the movie last Friday in Grand Avenue’s Grandview Theater really got Ridley Scott’s political point. After all, this was only a sappy costume picture with a strong silent hero, Russell Crowe, and a tough, take-no-prisoners heroine, Cate Blanchette.
Maybe the passions and the rhetoric of 1968 had become dim memories for those in the audience like me who are about to start coasting on Social Security and Medicare payments for the next 20 or more years – government programs that will pass over to us taxes collected from our neighbors and children.
Maybe we will become the new King Johns, each of us a spoiled little monarch in our own right.
I wonder what Robin and his men of Sherwood would think about the transfer of such wealth from the young to the old.
Who is planting America’s – and Minnesota’s – seed corn for the future, if revenues are going to current consumption?
Well, now that our campaign for governor is in full swing, how does Minnesota fit this new Robin Hood political allegory?
If we take taxes as the point of departure, then Republicans like state Rep. Tom Emmer and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann would be the Robin Hoods. They’re standing up against what they argue is government overreach and seek strict rules of constitutional law to bind the powers that spend to the priorities of the powers that pay.
If we take caring for the poor and the worthy middle class as the point of departure, then it’s the Democrats who should glory under the halo of Sherwood Forest heroism.
But we can’t really have both low taxes and caring for the poor and the middle class, can we? Something has to give. In Minnesota today, would Robin Hood be a taxer or a spender?
That’s a silly question, of course. Let’s look at this another way. Here I jump from references to Robin Hood to an appreciation of Aristotle. Why not consider his point of departure in order to choose our next governor?
In his writings on ethics, which were designed to shape politics, Aristotle took the mean as the zone of virtue and justice, not the extremes. The center, where principles and priorities clash and hard choices must be made, is the place of honor and of importance for Aristotle.
The person who can find the right center must use prudential wisdom to assess and balance conflicting pressures and considerations. Such a person must needs be open minded and astute, able to listen as well as to persuade, comfortable with coalitions but firm in seeking a common good.
Aristotle’s arguments give credence to the campaign of Tom Horner, seeking in the August primary the nomination of the Independence Party to run for governor. Now, Tom is a friend of mine and I have from time to time asked him for advice and I have learned from his approach to government and politics. Thus, I am predisposed to value his point of view and to argue for his qualifications to be governor.
I was, however, quite caught up in Ridley Scott’s movie on Robin Hood as the author of English liberties. The association of a fine, honorable warrior with the Magna Carta and the standing up of a brave man to the unctuous and scurrilous King John was great fun to watch and think about. My adolescent self that was caught up in 1968 and is still around 42 years later could easily identify with Russell Crowe’s taciturn but righteous Robin Hood.
But then, on walking out of the theater on to Grand Avenue, I lost some youthful emotionalism and quickly concluded that Minnesota needs more than a good action flick to get us out of the fiscal and moral messes that we have brought upon ourselves.
We need courage, yes – but a kind of quiet moral courage that doesn’t come with a sword or with Hollywood bravado. We need more another old Greek attribute, civil virtue – the inner power to stand up to simplicities, to well-intended but misplaced emotions, and to those who seek power just for the sake of getting their own way.
Steven B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government. He was dean of Hamline Law School, now teaches ethics at the Carlson School of Management. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected].