God Save the Queen and the Baby-Making Machine
Why Do Americans Care About Royal Births?
Mr. and Mrs. Windsor are expecting a baby, due to be born at any moment. In that, they join myriad other couples and single mothers. I have never met either of them- I am sure that William and Catherine (Kate to her friends) are nice enough. They seem earnest and likeable- just an ordinary young couple starting their family and whatever it is they for a career. Nothing special here- though you would be forgiven for believing otherwise based upon the reportage from most media outlets.
Barely had sperm met egg before the enthused coverage began. The United States, in particular, seemed to be a heavy producer and consumer of this sort of “slow news day” stuff.
As Catherine’s belly and ankles swelled, the hypothesizing increased: boy? Girl? Twins!? What would the baby be named? Breast or bottle? Disposable or cloth? How will the Kate manage the demands of career and motherhood?
Mr. and Mrs. Windsor, like other expectant parents, endured the unwelcome attention and well-meant but unwelcome advice. Their mailbox is no doubt filling up with offers for diapers, formula, shoe bronzing, and college saving plans.
The parents-to-be are coy as to the sex of the pending bundle of joy. The claim is that they do not know- perhaps a bit disingenuous in this age of high definition ultra sound imaging (picture and video! Can sound be far behind?), when even the most commoner of obstetric offices is well equipped for a pre-birth snapshot. Mr. and Mrs. Windsor have not wanted for the best and most up-to-date of prenatal medical care (they live in Britain of socialized medicine, after all); their protestations of not knowing or caring to know are perhaps to be greeted with a smile. Still, there is a family failing (on the father’s side, wouldn’t you know…) in going in for the all sorts of medical quackery such as homeopathy, so perhaps they have eschewed modern methods is favor of more rustic prognostications. In any event, respecting the young couple’s privacy would only be the right and proper thing to do.
The news media will have none of it. To look at the attentions lavished upon Mr. and Mrs. Windsor, one might suppose that the impending birth was of some importance. The media in the United States seems particularly besotted with this notion. The plan fact of the matter is that one more infant will be pushed out of a birth canal in quiet the usual way. That is all. There will be one more monarchist added to the rolls (like we need another), but that is about the extent of it.
So what accounts for the American obsession with the British monarchy? It often far exceeds the celebrity status we afford to others: Hollywood actors. Apple. Off-shoring “greed is good” CEOs. TED talkers. It borders on the craven and obsequious. And this in a republic, born of rebellion against the very Hanoverian interlopers to the British throne that now so enthrall popular attention.
Why? And why the British monarchy? There is far less interest in any of the other remaining monarchies. The king of Sweden gets far less scrutiny. The recent abdication of the King of Belgium created barely a ripple in the zeitgeist.
This question of “why” has been posed before. Some have suggested that we need royals, that we need to have an elite over us, the be the noblesse while we oblige.
Evidence of our need to have a “royalty” is how it keeps getting inserted into American popular culture. The Disney Studios have done very well peddling a series of “princess” stories (and related paraphernalia); popular actors and musicians are often spoken of in terms of being royalty (as long as they making money for their investors, at any rate). Part of the veneer painted on the Kennedy Administration (and indeed, the whole Kennedy family) is that of a native royalty- they even purloined the term Arthurian “Camelot” to add luster to the claim. While America prices itself on being the land of equal opportunity, what we are seeing a today is a concentration of wealth and opportunity, a sort of “economic enclosure” that would have made the Tudors proud.
The “need” argument is unconvincing. It ignores the fact that adulation of monarchy (and the British one in particular) is by no means universal. It not possible to put a third of the world under the heel and not make a few enemies. Not all subjects received the full measure of the benefit of empire. It also ignores the fact that aping the European aristocracy was a middle class phenomena in the United States. As soon as they has larded away a sufficiency, the American middle class copied the manners and mores of European and British aristocrats.
Last year the New York Times posed the question Why Do Americans Love Royalty? Maya Jasanoff, offered that what was at play was “an insecurity over what we lost”, meaning those hallowed traditions and customs (like doffing hats to social betters, presumably) “Well into the 19th century,” Jasanoff notes, “Americans were haunted by a sense of cultural, political and economic inferiority to Britain”.
Jasanoff’s loss theory may be on to something, but she does not take it far enough. For one thing, the early republic was inferior to Britain by most key “big power” measures. While it was generally recognized that the US would grow into a world power someday, in the early 19th century that was far from being the case. Further, it is not surprising that Europe and Britain would be looked to as a source of culture- the United States was still importing much of its science and technology from European sources in what would today be regarded as piracy of intellectual property.
The reason for preferring the Britain’s aristocracy and its monarchy would seem to be two-fold:
First- the American Revolution produced a republic. Much nattering is spent on “what the Found Fathers intended”, but one thing is certain. They did not intend a revolutionary republic. That comes later. The initial goal was to achieve home rule, to get out from under the rule of the king- this has a long history in Britain, so no new ground was being broken. The notion was that once independence is won, things would pretty much be as before, with the best families (the American nobility) still in charge. But as so often happens in war and revolution, all sorts of social forces got unleashed. The United States of America which starts to emerge in the early 19th century is a very different from the one the 18th century revolutionaries had envisioned.
It is not surprising, then, that the erstwhile North American aristocrats would look to Europe not entirely without envy. At least there (until the French, and subsequent, revolutions) commoners knew their place. In Britain, the gentry avoided the threats that decimated some of their continental brethren. Britain’s landed gentry, with the royal family at their head, represented stability.
After the Civil War, the United States underwent profound economic change and explosive growth. Some the richest and most powerful people in the world were soon to be Americans. The new plutocrats and a growing middle class still looked to Europe and Britain as the arbiter of thing cultural. The nouveau riche of would often look to buy up or marry into titles that a democratic republic did not allow.
Writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton described these antics in some of their better known works. It was a common trope used in novels and plays. This attitude was not without its critics. Mark Twain tweaked his countrymen’s predilection for elevating the European and British over the American in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in the characters of the duke and the king. The former is allegedly an English duke, the latter the long lost rightful king of France. The con men use these guises and the locals’ gullibility and susceptibility to try and defraud them.
The second element, which accounts for the peculiar preference for the British royals, is that Britain was the preeminent power of the day. The 18th century was the British century- by the end of the century, the sun never set on its empire.
Early in the history of the republic, John Bull was the tough guy that the Uncle Sam decided to pal around with. When the Uncle Sam adopted its own tough guy stance, such as it did, for example, with the Monroe Doctrine, it did so with John Bull looking on favorably. The Monroe Doctrine was essentially an American restatement of what was already British policy. The difference was that the British had the power (chiefly, its navy) to back it up. When President Monroe made his proclamation, the US had no navy worth speaking of. It had no ability to enforce the doctrine. For much of the century, the United States rode on British coattails.
With such a relationship, it is hardly surprising that British institutions, with its monarchy at the top, would be help in high regard and copied. Fast forward to the mid-20th century, and consider the place of American military and economic power in the world. Now consider the influence of its culture for the same period.
That British institutions are still are held in such high esteem so many decades after the end of British power can probably be ascribed to something akin to inertia, to a persistence of the ancien regime. That too is fading- the accolades for William and Catherine pale when compared to the disgusting and nauseating cult of Diana.
Soon the news will come from Buckingham Palace that someone has been born. The newest royal will the fussed over by the (mostly American) media, but it will probably not be the event it would been a decade or two earlier. After all, we have the Kardashians now.