Sunday, May 1, 2011

Celebrating Aristocracy: Why Americans are Both Repulsed and Fascinated by the Royal Spectacle

The Royal Wedding is finally receding into the rear-view mirror and the only minor flaw in a perfect fairytale story was a frowning flower girl. But as the pomp and circumstance recedes into memory many of us are asking, why? Why was the wedding of two rich Brits such a captivating story for so many people around the world; particularly Americans who rejected the whole idea of the monarchy more than two centuries ago? I think that really, there’s a fundamental issue involved here that is at the root of both Americans’ fascination and frustration with the whole spectacle.

Although it’s tempting to think of the wedding as an important political event, at heart this was simply a celebration of aristocracy – an event whose pomp and circumstance was based on the fact that the man who kissed that beautiful bride on that storied balcony is Prince William, second in line to the throne of England. Look at the royal guest list – it’s not populated with heads of state, but with royalty from every corner of the world. It blows people’s minds that Middle Eastern dictators, northern European monarchs, even the royal family of Japan (they declined the invitation due to the tsunami) were invited while Barack and Michelle Obama were not. But really, it makes perfect sense – if you keep in mind the fundamental premise behind the whole thing, which is rooted in the concept of aristocracy.

Think about it. The Obamas weren’t the only notable snubs – neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown, former Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, received an invitation, because this was not an official state event – William is not King of England, nor is he heir to the throne – that title belongs to his father Charles, the Prince of Wales. That distinction doesn’t have much meaning here in the United States, but it’s an important one. This is not an event that has anything to do with international politics. Lets face it – even when William does some day ascend the throne he won’t be a leader on par with Barack Obama or Tony Blair; he will be a King. A King. Which in twenty-first century Europe has about as much to do with international politics as world cup soccer.

Regardless of his election to the office of the most powerful human being on Earth – President of the United States – Barack Obama is still just a commoner. Prince William can trace his bloodline directly back to Alfred the Great, who ruled England in the 9th Century AD. That is what this wedding was all about. The only reason it was any bigger deal than any other rich kid marrying his college sweetheart is the fact that William is in direct line for succession to the throne of England – one of the most historically important monarchies in world history.

So what does elected office have to do with any of that? Elected officials like Presidents and Prime Ministers are not royalty – their authority is granted by the whim and caprice of the electorate. Today’s president is tomorrow’s motivational speaker, depending on how the political winds blow. In just 18 months Obama faces a tough reelection, and no one knows how powerful he will be two years from now. William, on the other hand, stands in a line of succession that can be traced back 1200 years and more. He was born a Prince and he will die a King. No political changes will ever alter that fundamental fact.

The underlying premise behind the whole Royal Wedding spectacle is that Prince William is better than the rest of us. He is a nobleman. And he’s not just any nobleman, but a nobleman who is second in line of succession to one of the greatest monarchies in the history of the world. As far as Queen Elizabeth II is concerned, Obama is a mere footnote in history compared to the family legacy that she carries with such grace and aplomb. Clearly the only worthy guests on such a necessarily short list are fellow noblemen and women – members of the few remaining aristocracies on Earth.

That notion is anathema to most Americans, contradicting the basic tenets on which America is built, so it’s understandable that Americans are simultaneously annoyed and fascinated by the whole thing. But aristocracy is fundamental to and ingrained in the British mythos and continues to be perpetuated by a nation that is otherwise among the most progressive and innovative in the world. Barack Obama is not part of the royal club, and no popular election will ever place him among the noblemen and women of the world. Only one thing gives one the right to sit among those guests at this celebration of aristocracy and nobility – and it has nothing to do with brains, achievement, or tenacity – it has everything to do with blood.

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