Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr admitted telling a lie about his starting lineup before critical Game 4 of the NBA Championship series. His lie proves that a bad thing sometimes can produce good results.
For Kerr, his lineup lie caught the Cleveland Cavaliers off guard as his team’s small, mobile starting five won to even the series. Kerr dismissed the lie as just a tactic.
Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law and political science at the University of Chicago, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times asserting much bigger lies have been told about the Magna Carta. Ginsburg believes the 800-year-old Magna Carta that we revere is not nearly as important as the lies we believe about it. The Magna Carta may be one of the best cons in history that has propelled progress toward greater individual freedom.
Ginsburg dismissed our common perception of the Magna Carta’s origin as a petulant king yielding to the noble aspirations of his knights. King John squandered a king’s ransom on a war with France and his barons revolted. John signed a document, but immediately repudiated it. Before much else could happen, he died.
Versions of the Magna Carta, Ginsburg says, were reissued during the 13th Century. It is one of those “second” editions that is on display at the National Archives.
The Magna Carta is credited for launching the rule of law and constitutional government. Ginsburg said it did codify limitations on the power of government, but mostly on its powers relative to nobility, not the great unwashed of the kingdom. And, he adds, it was just one of many documents floating around at that time with the same purpose. The Magna Carta survived over the centuries because it had the best story line.
While the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Mohandas Gandhi and the Tea Party have cited the Magna Carta as the flagship for liberty, Ginsburg said that would be quite an exaggeration. “Even a cursory reading reveals a number of oddities. One clause prevents Jews from changing interest on debt held by an underage heir. Another limits women’s ability to bear witness to certain homicides. A third requires the removal of fish traps from the Thames.”
Lying about the Magna Carta didn’t get serious, Ginsburg explains, until the 17th Century when the musty document was exhumed by anti-monarchists – and by those who opposed anyone in power, like Oliver Cromwell, who referred to the “Magna Farta.”
William Penn carried lies about the Magna Carta to America, where the document took on a mystical quality in the rants of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin against the Stamp Act. Later, the Founding Fathers drew inspiration from the Magna Carta’s concept of “due process,” even though that was an add-on in the 14th Century.
Franklin Roosevelt said the Magna Carta embodied “democratic aspiration.” The American Bar Association dedicated the Magna Carta monument at Runnymede in 1957. After World War II, Winston Churchill had offered to give America an original copy of the charter, only to discover the British didn’t own it.
Ginsburg says the lie about the Magna Carta has become so engrained that it has been used in advocacy for the Clayton Act (The Magna Carta for Labor), the National Environmental Protection Act (the environmental Magna Carta) and by Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton.
Despite the lies, even Ginsburg believes the myth of the Magna Carta matters more than the truth.
Or as Steve Kerr might say, “If you are going to lie, make it a good one.”