Protocol

     I am amused by the standoff between Speaker of the House John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on one side, and decent human beings on the other.
     Because this fracas, allegedly, is about protocol – and protocol is ridiculous: Who can speak to whom when, and where, and who has to be asked first.
     Protocol is wholly symbolic – until it’s used as a calculated insult, as Boehner and Netanyahu used it. Then protocol reveals what petty and pathetic people politicians are.
     But let us make no mistake: This dispute is not about protocol. It’s about a deliberate insult to the president of the United States, and the Republican Party’s ensuing surprise and horror that the lame duck President Obama stood up to them for once.
     Protocol is more important to some people, and to some countries, than to others. It’s very important, for cultural reasons, in China and Japan. It’s more important in monarchies and dictatorships than in democracies. That’s why it’s not that important in our country. Usually.
     My favorite protocol story comes from the Sept. 5, 1662 entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary. That night Pepys, the world’s greatest diarist, jotted down a tale that officers of the Customs Board had told him about Sir Jerome Bowes, late ambassador from Queen Elizabeth to the emperor of Russia.
     Bowes refused to climb the stairs to keep an appointment with the emperor because two Russian noblemen had ascended the stairs before him – which Bowes viewed as a breach of protocol. “He would not go up till the Emperor had ordered these two men to be dragged downstair, with their heads knocking upon every stair until they were killed,” Pepys wrote.
     That didn’t end the Russians’ breaches of protocol. After Ambassador Bowes climbed the bloody stairs, the emperor’s bodyguards demanded his sword, if he would see the emperor.
     “He told them, if they would have his sword, they should have his boots too; and so caused his boots to be pulled off and slippers to be sent for, and made the Emperor stay till he could go in his night-dress, since he might not go as a soldier,” Pepys wrote.
     But it wasn’t over. When the English ambassador finally gained the royal presence, the emperor commanded one of his subjects to leap out a palace window and break his neck, “to show his command over his subjects.” And the fellow did it.
     Bowes replied that his queen “did set more by and did make better use of the necks of her subjects.” Then he threw down his glove before the emperor, “and challenged all the nobility there to take it up in defence of the Emperor against his Queene. For which, at this very day, the name of Sir Jer. Bowes is famous and honoured there.”
     So there you have it. Through their sly, rude, ill-considered and shortsighted use of protocol, Boehner and Netanyahu asked President Obama to surrender his sword and jump out the window, or be dragged down the stairs, so that Netanyahu could speak to a joint session of Congress. And President Obama refused to do it. He is not yet famous and honored here for it, but he will be.
     Jewish Americans used to be a dependable liberal constituency. But since right-wingers such as Netanyahu and Boehner gained power, they and their ilk, such as Israel’s powerful AIPAC lobby, have relentlessly sought to split Jews away from the Democrats, to gain their support, and their money, for Republicans.
     That’s what all this nonsense is about.
     It’s not about Iran or nuclear weapons.
     It’s not about the disastrous situation in the Middle East, which threatens the entire world with conflagration.
     It’s not about democracy, or tyranny, or protecting the lives of billions of people around the world, which government leaders are supposed to do.
     It’s about petty people using a petty process to pursue personal power.

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