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Friday, April 29, 2011

On the "Wedding of the Century": Royalty as Natural or Exaggerated?

On April 29, 2011, the world watched in utter fascination as a crown prince in one of the E.U. states married a wealthy commoner in London's Westminster Church--the same edifice in which Queen Elizabeth had married in 1947.  The prince is of course William, and his bride is Kate (or Catherine to the purists), who in one hour's time went from being the daughter of two wealthy commoners to royalty.  It is as though she leap-frogged from “the many” past “the few” to join “the one”--the firm. My question is whether these distinctions, involving birth as well as wealth, are natural in terms of human nature or exaggeraged artifices borne of excessive privilege and power.

The seemingly-eternal tripartite division was on display during the wedding, as throngs watched large screens in large parks and crowded pubs while a relative few, which had been invited to attend the ceremony in person, took their seats inside the church after which the royal family arrived with great attention to each individual member. Of course, “the one” literally refers to the person of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who uniquely stood deliberately silent as the congregation sang “God Save the Queen.” One might ask whether having a living human be the subject of a national anthem evinces a category mistake wherein a person is taken for the nation as a whole (i.e., an abstraction). Does aristocracy go so far as to end up as standing for a nation itself?

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both referred to a natural aristocracy of virtue and talent. Such differences do indeed exist between people, and thus are generally agreed to be quite natural. Indeed, most people view it fitting that distinguishing people by their character or effort is a perfectly valid basis for rewards. The two American founders also wrote of an artificial aristocracy based on birth and wealth. While nobility and royalty are typically associated with the latter, a monarch may also serve as a check on the sort of artificial wealth that grabs more than it is entitled to on the basis of character and effort. In other words, a king or queen, being in the job for life, can in theory protect titles from simply being bought. This potential benefit of royalty implies a downside to the aristocracy in the American republics wherein what counts is the size of one’s bank account rather than whether one has been raised well and is talented.

In virtually any of the American states, for example, a boorish used-car businessman or subprime mortgage salesman who has become newly rich by providing lemons could join a country club and thus be reckoned as part of his city’s aristocracy. Similarly, wealthy CEOs like Lew Glucksman and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers could be members of the most exclusive country club in New York and yet lack “gentlemanly traits.” Such qualities cannot be purchased like some commodity traded by investment banks; instead, a gentleman is fashioned from birth. Such natural aristocracy is beyond the reach of the vast wealth of the sort like the envious Glucksman and the childish Fuld even if they could buy themselves into exclusive country clubs. In a European state such as Britain, however, the monarch could theoretically forestall a grasping capitalist from buying a title. Hence, even a rich CEO in Europe can remain a commoner regardless of his or her wealth, which in an American state would clearly differentiate him or her from the masses in terms of exclusivity and privilege.  This is not to say, however, that European aristocracy and royalty are without their downsides.

That Kate Middleton, a millionaire’s daughter, would be lumped together with the other “commoners” only to become royal in marriage ignores the rather obvious economic distinction between rich and poor. That is to say, because of Kate's parents’ wealth, there was something artificial in Kate being referred to as a commoner before her wedding. Moreover, royalty itself might be a highly artificial construct in so far as royals come to believe they do not share humanness with other people.

The director Ken Loach points to the irrationality in the behavior of “commoners” when they ignore the artificiality that is in the expectations of royals. Good people “have knelt before the Queen at some point in their lives. . . . the woman you’re kneeling before represents all that is wrong with this country—inherited wealth, inherited privilege, the apex of the class system. Let’s have a bit more dignity than to crawl before that woman, please.” In other words, subjects as well as monarchs are adults and they should all act the part. There is something undignified for people such as the Middletons who created a business from scratch regressing to childlike behavior in front of a person simply because that person is regarded as the symbol of the state. Furthermore, there is something insulting in the royals referring to the Middletons as commoners because the appelation does not recognize the family's achievement in business.

Perhaps Europeans have the potential benefit in royals acting as a check on ugly usurpers grabbing off too much societally, yet at the cost of artificiality in the royal-aristocrat-commoner distinction wherein the common human denominator in all three is ignored or relegated. Ironically, I suspect that the royals themselves may be among the casualties in the severing of a recognition that we are all human beings. In addition to holding themselves to standards of behavior that may be at odds with human nature itself, royals may tend to forget that commoners are just as human as are nobles and royals. For example, we all die, and none of us knows what, if anything, is in store for us after death. So while there are real and artificial distinctions, there is also the shared basis in all of us being human. Accordingly, my instinct should I come in contact with a royal would be to relate to him or her simply as another person, whose need for genuine human contact is just as real as mine.

Source on Ken Loach: “Between Commodity and Communication: Has Film Fulfilled Its Potential?” International Socialist Review, 76 (March-April 2011), 28-44, p. 44.

See my related essay, "On the "Wedding of the Century': History Made or Manufactured?"