King of Pain

As Jackson Lears and many other scholars and observers have noted, many Americans throughout the cultural history of the United States have accepted that the circumstances of life are inevitably determined by luck, that economic life is a matter of good or ill fortune. Which some have suggested explains the current popular aversion to increased taxation on the rich: even the poor think they have a chance of being rich someday, and want to keep all the imaginary money they might get.

I think there’s a less-told but equally important trope in the American imaginary: the loophole. The finding of the trick, the turning of the fine print back on the lawyer who wrote the contract. The victimless crime of cheating the government or the big company out of something it mindlessly and wastefully demanded of the little man. The free money, the thing that your friend fixed up for you. Topsy-turvy, the quick score that makes the smart and the sly rich without distress to anything. The beads-for-Manhattan.

It’s that last I’m thinking about when I think about King Jeremiah Heaton, who became Internet-famous for a few days when he travelled to southern Egypt to plant a homemade flag on a small area of land that he believed was unclaimed by any existing sovereign state and therefore his for the taking. All for the sake of his 7-year old daughter, who wanted to be a princess.

There’s a lot to say about the story, most of it properly accompanied by much rolling of the eyes. But I do think Heaton is a canary in the coal mine of sorts, a window into a psychic cauldron seething inside the consciousness of a fading empire. Heaton himself invoked history in the coverage: what he did, others had done, he acknowledged, but they did it out of greed or hatred. He did it for love, he says, love of his daughter. But if ever first time tragedy, second time farce applied, this is it.

The basis of Heaton’s claim is the rarely-invoked principle of terra nullius, which as several analyses point out, was one (though not the only) justification invoked by Western colonizers in their land claims after the 17th Century. The hard thing about Heaton is that I can’t tell if he thinks this is a joke or not. He’s aware, in part because the press has queried him, that a flag and terra nullius mean precisely nothing if the claim is unrecognized by other states. I’m not sure he’s aware that Bir Tawil is terra nullius because Egypt and Sudan are still fencing with each other about their postcolonial border, that to claim Bir Tawil cedes a claim to another far more valuable unresolved territory to the east.

But even as a joke, it’s a very telling one, and pursued at a level of earnestness in terms of cost and effort that it seems a rather elaborate joke for an age where a silly YouTube video generally is as far as one need go. There are so many other things available in the treasure chest of American popular culture for a princess and her patriarch: the home-as-castle (another legal doctrine, even!), the imaginary kingdom in the backyard or the woods, constructing an elaborate heritage fantasy complete with family crest and lost inheritances in the auld country. Americans make utopian communities and religious movements all the time. They go out into the wilderness that their own internal empire secured and made for them and make retreats and hermitages, towns and communes, pilgrimmages and wanderings. What’s wrong with all that?

To say instead, “I shall go to Africa, plant a flag, claim a country, and as long as I’m at it, it will be a very nice kingdom that has some good agricultural development policies”? Well, that is not exactly a random idea, though I don’t get the sense that Heaton knows exactly who and what the other members of the club he’s trying to join actually are. But once upon a time this was the kind of fantasy that got people killed and maimed, and not just by aspiring Kings and their Princesses. For every Leopold of Belgium, there was a Leon Rom whose principality was small and short-lived. Some of the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century men (and a smaller handful of women) who flocked to Africa looking for land they could imagine to be empty then demanded that new colonial states do just that: empty the land of human beings and return them as obedient laborers. Most of the new settlers were delusional in some way or another, but they wandered through a world where their dreams could spur nightmares.

That’s not going to be Heaton, but that’s not by any great understanding on his part. It’s just that in dreaming his little dream of a kingdom for his princess, he’s managed in a little, inexpensive way to show what it has otherwise taken the United States billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives to demonstrate: that we are slipping into the fever-dream stage of superpowerdom, in a Norma Desmond haze so deep and foggy that we don’t even know any more what we don’t know. All we think is that somehow out there, there must be a trick that gets it all back. A law, a loophole, some fine print. Some Manhattan that we can have for a few beads and a couple of pamphlets on using irrigation in agriculture.

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9 Responses to King of Pain

  1. Dammit, Tim, after all these years, you’re still one of the best writers in the whole darn internet. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful and sobering piece.

  2. Kyle says:

    Or the Austrian, Maximilian I of Mexico, who reigned for a little over a year.

  3. Withywindle says:

    The Man Who Would Be King.

    But we do own the continent, after all. So it’s not as if these ideas never work out.

  4. Contingent Cassandra says:

    All I could see is yet another white guy deciding to claim a bit of the African continent. If he’d gone looking for terra nullius somewhere his ancestors might have conceivably lived (and/or if an American of any kind of African descent had decided to make his daughter a princess of an African land), I’d have a smidgen more sympathy for the “I did it out of love” argument (while still deploring the child-raising philosophy, as well as many of the other principles, involved). But I just can’t get over the racial/historical tone-deafness involved in Heaton’s act. It just reeks of the unconsciousness that is one of the most lethal components of white privilege, and it seems to me that that’s the real legacy he’s passing on to his daughter. Ugh.

  5. Far more witty and interesting, in my view, is the tale of the pipe-maker Adam Fortunate Eagle, who arrived by Alitalia at Fiumicino Airport, Rome, in September 1992, and claimed Italy on behalf of the native peoples of the Americas. Fortunate Eagle asked:

    “What right had Columbus to discover America when it was already inhabited for thousands of years? The same right that I have to come now to Italy and claim to have discovered your country..

    and noted that whereas Columbus “came to conquer a country by force where a peaceful people were living” he himself was “on a mission of peace and goodwill.”

    A mission of pointed humor, too, I think.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    There’s also the African-American guy who changed his name to Shaka Zulu and tried to claim Kenya citizenship back in the early 1990s, which I recall led to a lot of bemused commentary in the Kenyan press at the time.

  7. mch says:

    Zeitgeist, it must be. After reading Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivory last fall, I got to wondering if my New England ancestors were slave-owners. Not that I knew anything about those ancestors, not really. Just some vague WASP sense of “they arrived here” combined with (what were often mangled, as I soon learned) family memories of a few specifics. Anyway, my initial question led me to researches that have since totally absorbed me in colonial American history (to the detriment of my proper scholarly duties). And to American history, writ large. (What happens when your ancestors came to MA, PA, and VA in the 1600’s and 1700’s and you follow every line studiously. My direct line kept heading west, for which I am puritanically Thankful! A certain loosening up….)

    But that’s also the problem. Always heading to new places. And who actively “holds” the patent (that thing lying there, in an active form — we need a Raymond Williams to trace the term “patent”) over those “new” places (new to whom?)? What pact between Indians and planters or among nations has opened new territory for entitlement? The very notion of title is at the heart of it. And the invention of capitalism in the Lowlands….

    I queried my clerking-laywer daughter just yesterday about “ownership” and “title.” She was too deep in the weeds to get fully the point of my query, but, yes, “own” is a problematic concept. Title is a better way to think about things, and it raises the problem, who gives first title?

  8. Western Dave says:

    Or as Bill Cronon pointed out years ago, when title is usufruct to one party and fee simple to the other, that’s a huge problem.

  9. mch says:

    Thank you, Dave, for the Cronon reference. (Can’t help but notice his New Haven-Wisconsin direction — my ancestor moved from Rhode Island to Whitewater in 1838 — written up in the late 19th century as a lonely frontiersman, when in fact almost the entire extended family went, too, from Providence! Fascinating, the post-CW ideology of the lonely frontiersman — such a contrast to the earlier, Puritan ideology of the planter in his community). Usufruct a very familiar concept to me, but fee simple not. Will go to work on it.

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