”William’s wedding is in the sanctuary where one day he will sit on the Coronation Chair with the Stone of Scone, to be anointed king: There have been 38 coronations at the Abbey since William the Conqueror in 1066. You don’t ignore a thousand years lightly.” ~Richard Quest, “Why the Royal Wedding Matters,” CNN
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer five years before I was born. My Anglophile mother, like so many Americans, got up at dawn and watched what was probably the greatest display of pageantry (and, truth be told, excess) that has been seen on so many televisions since—until tomorrow. During the years in between that wedding and this one, a period that contains all the years of my life, I never questioned the gravity of that event, nor the significance of the people involved, including the ones who lined the streets (one of whom was a fourteen-year-old David Cameron). As the elder of their two sons prepares to marry at Westminster Abbey tomorrow morning—historically, to a commoner—I hear more questions than I thought I would among my fellow Americans as to what tomorrow means.
Of course, Princess Diana was an icon for reasons both together with the monarchy’s legacy and apart from it, someone who shook the royal foundation and changed it forever, but who also sparked progress, comfort and conversation independently of their constraints. I remember my unsentimental father, not an Anglophile by any means, speaking reverently of the impact she made: “When she touched people who had AIDS, on television—nobody, nobody, had ever done that. She changed everything.” In the September 1997 issue of The New Yorker, mere days after her iconic funeral at the Abbey on September 6th, Simon Schama wrote:
“The Princess touched people, not just metaphorically. When she laid her hands on the sick, and especially on victims of AIDS, she was, perhaps without knowing it, tapping one of the most ancient rituals of royal magic: thaumaturgy, or touching for the king’s evil. Medieval kings, at their coronation (and on each subsequent anniversary), would extend their hands to those suffering from the disfiguring disease of scrofula. It was believed that through their divine appointment they were able to absorb the evil of the disease into their own bodies and exorcise it. This was the emblematic miracle of monarchy, distantly related to the Gospel of Jesus washing the feet of the poor. More than any of the Palace Windsors, Diana seemed to understand the incredible potency of the common touch.”
It’s entirely possible that no other institution in the Western world creates a living time capsule, merely by existing, in the way the British monarchy does. When Prince William of Wales becomes King, his coronation will mark the first eldest son of an eldest son to take the throne since King George IV in 1820, and due to the wedding the world will soon witness, his consort will be called Queen Catherine. His father’s coronation will be the first one that most people on this planet will remember seeing, as Queen Elizabeth II has as of this writing spent 58 years on the throne. These moments, these ceremonial events, could determine the morale and overall strength of our oldest and greatest ally for the next century. It’s also significant that the British Commonwealth still comprises one third of the globe, and Her Majesty the Queen is the ultimate sovereign—not just the face on the money and a ribbon cutter, but the woman to whom the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, all members of Parliament, members of the armed forces, civilian police, and bishops of the Church of England swear their allegiance. To obey, honor and protect her and her family, not the government nor the people of the Commonwealth. As sovereign, she’s automatically the head of the Church of England, emphasizing the lack of a separation of church and state. She is consulted on all important governmental matters (and her input is not just ceremonial), has access to confidential intelligence, signs (and reserves the right to refuse to sign) every piece of legislation into law, and has the power to not only dismiss government officials in every nation in the Commonwealth, but to dissolve Parliament (this is only supposed to happen at the behest of the Prime Minister, but there is only convention to prevent it). There is an unwritten (and completely unenforceable) rule that the royals are supposed to be apolitical, but it is merely by chance that Queen Elizabeth has reigned for as long as she has, and that she happens to be a monarch who has never wanted to exercise the majority of her power. And her son and heir, the temperamental Prince Charles, is an enigma. If he decides to jack up his popularity with his subjects by making the decision that Britain will not be sending troops the next time we decide to invade a country, Parliament can’t stop him. Whether he’d do something like that, nobody can predict, and if most of us had to guess we’d say no. But the power exists on paper.
I’m not sure most Americans know all of that, but they do know that more contracts of power in human history have been inked through weddings, funerals and births than through elections. This democracy thing is a relatively new idea, and that’s one of the things that make it so special. Americans know that. Yet, a truly unfortunate amount of bitterness and disrespect (beyond that of comedians who make their living lampooning the powerful, which is expected). The only reason there is so much purported cluelessness as to why a spring wedding could possibly generate so much fervor is because of a blatant (and typical) ethnocentrism, a refusal to believe that the wedding of two people could hold such importance to the culture of another country, a country that is fundamentally different from ours, but one we hold dear. A nation that has stuck with us through crisis and war, assassinations and hurricanes, impeachment, scandal and hanging chads. A country that used to occupy us, that is now without question our strongest friend.
That friend is celebrating an historic event tomorrow. It’s fairly certain that most Americans don’t care. The New York Times/CBS News poll has been a bit bastardized in the misinformation stream that can be a serious downside of social media: the results were not that 6% of Americans care about the royal wedding; they were that 6% are following the news surrounding the wedding “very closely,” while 22% stated “somewhat closely.” Small numbers, but not as miniscule as some believed; additionally, the poll asked whether people were following the news at that moment, not whether they cared at all or would be watching on the day. Not the same thing. Moreover, opinion polls should absolutely never dictate which news stories receive coverage. Input, tips and suggestions from the public are absolutely necessary, but if every journalist conducts a poll before s/he does a story, we’re going to be in big trouble. The only international news we’d ever see would be about the wars in which we’re directly involved, and even that would be incredibly limited. As I’ve said on this blog before, Americans talk a big game when it comes to supporting the troops, but just try to get them to watch an hour-long special on what they actually have to endure. The ratings speak for themselves.
Tornadoes have relentlessly ripped through the American South, and the death toll is lingering somewhere around 280. It’s horrendous, and it’s understandable that people find royal wedding coverage hard to take when such devastation is happening at home. However, CNN and “The Early Show” have done a bang-up job covering the constantly breaking and devastating news, and the local affiliates have been working overtime to deliver the news from the ground. Media is a microcosm of life. People are born and wed as others die. The guilt-ridden prospect that death, gore and destruction should take precedence and dominate the news is wrongheaded; it would provide an inaccurate picture of the world. You also absolutely cannot have that argument without acknowledging that it is because those 280 lives were American that we’re debating how to adequately cover those deaths, as opposed to whether to cover them at all. How many died in the Congo while we were glued to coverage of the inauguration balls? Keeping media accountable is heartening and can only be beneficial to a free society, but the royal wedding is a red herring, because in debates about American media, international news is always a red herring, even if it has frills.
Mark Oppenheimer’s response was to pen a histrionic column for Slate announcing that anyone who watches Prince William’s wedding is a traitor to the country. It is accompanied by a photo of Prince Harry’s longtime girlfriend Chelsy Davy, with the caption, “If you know who this is, you are un-American.” That’s right, folks. When they’re not hunting birth certificates or trying to defend marriage from the evil gays, the right-wing has now gone so totally nuts that even being knowledgeable about another nation’s culture—an ally, no less—means you hate America. He goes on to shriek reminders about how we broke away from England to get away from such nonsense, as if anyone had forgotten, as if it were somehow still in question. I honestly believe that I have a pretty good grasp on what a young country we are, but between the shamelessly racist birther madness and the hyperbolic freakout (really, you have to read Mr. Oppenheimer’s column to believe it) surrounding the royal wedding and its requisite media coverage, these past two weeks have really brought it home. I’m a believer that in order to truly be a patriot and to truly love this country, you have to embrace its flaws. One of those flaws is that our relative youth makes us the arrogant, whiny, petulant teenager of the world far too often. It is extraordinarily hip not to care about this wedding. That’s been made abundantly clear, by everyone from two-bit bloggers like me to an ornery Dan Rather. However, the “I couldn’t care less,” “Isn’t he the red-haired one?” and “I have better things to do with my time” are doing a piss-poor job of concealing what is actually motivating this: the insecurities that Americans still harbor about the monarchy. We expressly rejected this form of government for ourselves, and we did it 235 years ago. We are now an economic superpower with a powerfully strong national identity. I can’t believe I even have to say this, but it’s time to mend fences. Yes, our union needs to be protected, but not from Britain, for God’s sake.
Americans bow to absolutely no one. That is not going to change. This does not mean that we can’t raise a glass to our oldest and greatest ally on one of their most historic occasions, even if we do not choose this pattern of living, this unmitigated devotion to a royal family, this inescapable class system, for ourselves. I’m not pretending that there aren’t serious arguments between those who consider themselves monarchists and those who do not—it’s not my fight, because I’m American. The concept that Americans are supposed to pretend we have a dog entered is asinine. We can calm the hell down, rejoice with them on their happy day, and not feel threatened, because a tip of the hat is not the same thing as a bow, and it’s about time Americans got a handle on that. Because we look ridiculous.
I’m not saying Americans are obligated to watch, or even really pay attention. I’m fangirling, because I’m an Anglophile raised by an Anglophile and I have a few British co-workers and friends, and there may be watercress sandwiches at my house tonight. I admit to nothing. This is obviously a matter of personal taste, and no American is required to care that much. I’m just asking for a little respect. Even if you put history aside (I can’t imagine how), and you point out that the royals, certainly compared to what they were, are “just figureheads” (although as I pointed out above, that really isn’t accurate) the fact remains that the only reason Americans do not think 500,000 who gather to sing their national anthem qualify as a news story is because those 500,000 people are not American. That has to change.
When Prince William of Wales marries Miss Catherine Middleton tomorrow, it will be in Westminster Abbey, with the whole history of the British Empire alive for just an hour inside that storied building, through the ghosts of those who had their lives changed there over the centuries, whether due to a wedding march or a funeral dirge. The music of the choir rising into the rafters above their heads, the corpses of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton literally buried beneath their feet. It will be living history, a history of which, perhaps against our will, we are very much a part. Princess Diana will be there in whatever way she can be. The world will be watching, no matter what the polls say. A commoner will take her first steps toward being a queen, and toward true love—possibly both for the first time.
I love this country. I love the youthful fervor, the unique ideals. The enthusiasm, the bravery, the freedom to say what you will, and to protest the government. It makes me very proud. April is the cruelest month, but most forget why. The next lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” are: “breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain./Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/A little life with dried tubers.” In the literal sense, the brutal transition into spring results in the wicked weather we’ve seen hurt so many. Metaphorically, it’s the awakening of the senses, facing what we don’t want to face—in this case, it isn’t desire, it’s memory—the horrible pins and needles that everyone hates, the ache in your jaw when you grit your teeth to avoid saying something you regret to someone you love. Compromise, and learning. The growing pains that make us what we are.
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