The word for today is…

Two friends sent me Wednesday’s word of the day from A.Word.A.Day. The word was, or rather the phrase was STAR CHAMBER, which is defined as “a court or group marked by arbitrary, oppressive, and secretive procedures.” It continues

After the Star Chamber in the Palace of Westminster in London. It was the site of a closed-door court appointed by King Henry VII of England in the 15th century. Notorious for its abuse of power, it was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641. The chamber was so named because its ceiling was decorated with stars.

The poor vilified Star Chamber originated as a court open to the public, employed by the Tudors as a royal counter-balance to the chaotic common law courts. It was those nasty Stuarts that drove it into the ground and gave it its enduring reputation. As we read in the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Its procedure was not according to the common law. It dispensed with the encumbrance of a jury; it could proceed on rumor alone; it could apply torture; it could inflict any penalty but death. It was thus admirably calculated to be a support of order against anarchy, or of despotism against individual and national liberty. During the Tudor period it appeared in the former light, under the Stuarts in the latter. […] The need for a strong central court directly inspired by the king, which could administer justice without respect of persons, was so great, that the constitutional danger of establishing an autocratic judicial committee, untrammelled by the ordinary rules of law, escaped notice at the time. It was not until much later that the nation came to look upon the Star Chamber as the special engine of royal tyranny and to loathe its name.

Sounds pretty contemporary, eh? One of the morals here is that secrecy and power are a bad mix (Total Information Awareness), but beyond that it illustrates one stretch of the long sordid path the enlightened West has taken on its way to liberal democracy and capitalism. Democracy is often at odds with the defense of individual and national liberty; a strong wise hand is sometimes needed to play the one against the other. Henry VII could pull it off. Charles I could not, and consequently got his head pulled off. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek writes engagingly on the troubles of nascent democracies in a series of recent articles, with an emphasis on our newfound friends in Iraq. Will they get Henry or Charles? Or will they defy the odds and jump straight to the final stage of an advanced modern liberal democracy? Stay tuned.