The Atlantic

Are Politics Regressing to Premodern Forms?

The sultan of Brunei has proposed stoning as a punishment for male sodomy.
Source: Piroschka Van De Wouw / Reuters

The sultan’s hand felt soft and gentle, more suited for a moisturizer commercial than for participating in a public stoning. By the official count, the sultan of Brunei had shaken tens of thousands of hands in the previous two days, and I worried that by the time his hand shook mine, it would be blistered or leathery. But absolute monarchs are different from you and me, and the sultan of this oil-rich Southeast Asian city-state was different dermatologically as well. When I arrived at the front of the receiving line and squeezed the royal hand, lightly, I thought of Curley in Of Mice and Men, who wore a “glove fulla vaseline” to keep his hand “soft for his wife.” (Wives, I thought, in his case. The sultan has had as many as two at a time.)

The sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, recently attracted fury and denunciation by instituting death by stoning as punishment for male sodomy. (The prescribed punishment for sexual acts between women is less harsh.) He had foreshadowed this policy years earlier but delayed

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