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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

April 13, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 2

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Monarchies, PQ's and Condoleezza Rice

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I used to wonder why, in the name of common sense and good government, a people as wise and reflective as the British insisted on maintaining a monarchy at the dawn of the 21st century.

A monarchy in this day and age, I figured, was good for about nothing except the display of an undue amount of a largely meaningless and certainly unsubstantiated degree of political theater. Monarchy seemed to me to be at best an unnecessary expense and a useless appendage to anything even approaching the governance of a modern nation state. I put the whole beautiful show down to "tradition." A dead tradition. Until Condoleezza Rice.

When Condoleezza Rice came up from the White House to testify before the Congress-appointed Commission on 9/11 (The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States), I think I figured out how important a monarchy can really be. Even now.

Like just about everybody else in the country, I wanted to know what Dr. Rice's testimony might reveal about U.S. government awareness of al-Qaeda activities in the United States before the attack on the Pentagon and Twin Towers. After all, it seemed only logical to me that the citizens of the country had a right to know in what way the man who was running for re-election on his prowess as a military leader had really led at a time of military threat. Let alone what kind of military threat we ourselves are perceived to be by the rest of the world.

What I wasn't prepared to hear at the inquiry was the amount of self-congratulation spent on the fact of the testimony itself. When the hearings opened and Dr. Rice raised her right hand to take the oath, the voice-over TV narration proclaimed the historic value of the event with unction and ooze. Almost every person interviewed after the hearing began their remarks with comments about the glory of the hearing itself. The National Security Advisor of the President of the United States had agreed to testify before a commission empowered to investigate the most disastrous event on U.S. soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Oh, marvel; oh, wonder.

The message was clear. Here we were again: America, "the light of the nations"; the only hope of global democracy; the keepers of truth and transparency for the world. What?!

As Americans, we are inclined to be a bit insular. Probably because we live on one of the largest islands in the world. Bounded on the east and the west by oceans and on the north and south by nations far smaller than we, the geography may have affected the boundaries of our minds, as well. We see ourselves as the center of the globe, the biggest, the best, the latest, the smartest, the most advanced, the most powerful, the most right, the paragon of all paragons in all things.

We forget that unlike cell phones in Europe, which will work anywhere on the globe, ours don't work outside the United States. We fail to understand that our videos can't play too many places but on U.S. soil. We don't even advert to the situation facing other coalition troops in Iraq. "I've been in the United States for six weeks," one Brit told me, "and I have not heard a word on U.S. TV about the British soldiers in Iraq though our boys are being killed there, too, and news about U.S. engagement plays on European television daily."

We are a world unto ourselves. We forget, in other words, that rather than purporting to lead the human race in all things good, it may be time to join it. And government accountability may be as good a place as any to start. Most of all, at least in the Condoleezza Rice event, perhaps we have forgotten our P's and Q's. Or rather, their P's and Q's. "PQ's" is British shorthand for "Parliamentary Questions." In England, the Prime Minister himself goes to the House of Commons every Wednesday at noon to answer questions from members of parliament about any facet of government policy.

More than that, the Leader of the Opposition can question or rebut the Prime Minister's answers on the spot. No talk of "separation of powers," no refuge-taking behind the veil of "presidential privilege."

The process of questioning the government began in the 18th century. Then, on November 5, 1958, Mr. William Ross, a Labor MP, irritated by the fact that a position of the government was given by a Secretary, made the process clear: "We want the Prime Minister," he said, "not the office boy." Since 1961, the appearance of the Prime Minister in the House of Commons has been regular.

So every Wednesday since that time, the Prime Minister stands in front of the entire House of Commons and answers any questions they decide to ask. And he answered them before the Iraq war, during the Iraq War, "after" the Iraq war, and still. He answers them every single Wednesday that Parliament is in session. In public. Spontaneously. For the record. Alone.

Then the BBC plays the Prime Minister's PQ session on public television, where it is watched around the world and even across the United States.

On April 6, 2004, according to, there were 528 written questions alone submitted for response to government ministers by the members of the British Parliament. And all of this was going on while we were congratulating ourselves for allowing a national security advisor to finally answer questions about national security to the group created to ask them.

Point: Like with the cell phones and videos, a little humility may be in order here. We did not invent a new kind of accountability with the appearance of a government official before our highest elected body, our spokespersons, our lawmakers. We copied it. And, hopefully, not a minute too late.

Which brings me to the function of a monarchy in democratic times. Maybe when you have a monarchy, you have less chance of developing an imperial presidency. Maybe then, your major government officials are less inclined to forget that they are mere mortals, political mortals, who are beholden at least to the representatives of the people who elected them. Maybe then, politicians can let monarchs play monarchical instead of doing it themselves.

The decisions of a government that pays attention to its PQ's may be no better than one without them, but at least they will be open to scrutiny and held to public accountability. In that case, long live the Queen.

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