The Royal Wedding: William and Kate

Unless you were pronounced legally dead sometime last October, you’ve definitely heard about the royal wedding.  And if you haven’t been lost in the jungles of Borneo since Tuesday, you saw — or will see — at less part of the ceremony.  But if you’re like most people you probably don’t realize what just took place.  Yes, Kate Middleton joined the next generation of British Royalty when she married the man who will be king — Billy Mountbatten-Windsor, but there’s more to it than that.  The Mountbatten-Windsors have been running the show (in one form or another) in England for close to 1,000 years.  Only Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has a longer pedigree in Europe.  Over the last millennium, the House of Windsor (as it is styled now) has gone from being absolute off-with-his-head monarchs to reign-but-not-rule royalty and has seen everything (literally) in between.  In the last 30 generations, there have been 49 kings and queens of England — give or take a couple of disputed ones and Oliver Cromwell (a religious head case.)  In that time, their realm, the United Kingdom, has given the world, among other things, literature, banking, capitalism, industry, a common language and representative democracy.  England’s political and cultural legacy is felt in every corner of the earth.  And it all started when Bill’s distant ancestor William the Conqueror (affectionately called William the Bastard) crossed the English Channel in 1066, with an army, to claim what was illegitimately his.

The history of the world is intimately tied to the history of England, and the history of England is intimately tied to the royal family.  No other family has done more to shape the course of human experience.  Some have risen to great power and prominence, shining brilliantly over their time and place, but they have all faded into relative obscurity.  The Julia family of Rome founded the Roman Empire and the Augustan Age.  Genghis Khan and his descendents ruled vast empires in Asia and Eastern Europe. The Medicis and the Borgias held sway over Italy during the great blossoming of the European Renaissance.  The Fuggers financed the Age of Discovery.  The Rothschilds and the Barings shaped the beginning of the modern world and the Industrial Revolution.  Yet none of them could hope to host an audience of perhaps a billion people in the 21st century.  Even the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan, the oldest continuous dynasty in the world, doesn’t command that kind of attention.

The Windsors took centre stage on Friday, April 29th because — for a thousand years — they’ve been able to adapt to the world around them.  Many royal dynasties — the Bourbons, the Romanovs, the Qing (Manchus) — failed to renew themselves as history marched past them.  As the divine right of kings gave way to the will of the people, they stood in the path of progress, blindly clinging to their former glory.   They forgot their raison d’etre.

Here’s the history lesson.  From the beginning of time, royalty has been the centre of the nation.  Tribal chiefs offered protection, direction, organization and the law (albeit arbitrary) to a collection of people with common interests.  As tribes grew into states, the monarch give diverse peoples, physically separated, a shared purpose.  The wealth of the nation — money and ideas — was collected in one place and redistributed for the common good.  For example, roads were built and paid for by people who would never use them, with the understanding that the benefits would eventually be shared by all.  The king embodied this altruistic ideal.  Despite what modern history books will tell you, royal power has always been derived from the strength of the people, and strong monarchs returned that power in the form of a national ego.  This symbiotic relationship helped to concentrate the power of the people and funnel it into great achievements in learning, art and science.  It eased the creation of wealth, responded to disaster and established law.  But most importantly, the monarch offered the key to prosperity: stability.  Dynasties fail when monarchs no longer fulfill this obligation or abuse the trust given to them, and the people naturally reclaim their power.  The genius of the Windsors is that, over time, by fair means or foul, they’ve recognized the winds of change and adapted to accommodate the wishes of the people they serve.

In the 21st century, it’s easy to dismiss royalty as a very expensive anachronism; a gaudy bauble left over from a former time.  It’s also just as easy to resurrect the magic kingdoms we all knew as children and turn Kate into a fairy princess, complete with her Prince Charming.  That’s been done before, with disastrous results — more than once.

The truth, however, is very different.  Most people can’t name five British Prime Ministers since 1952, but there are very few people in this world who do not recognize The Queen.  That’s not by accident; it’s the prestige she has maintained as the personification of Britain.  This is the legacy that William and Kate will inherit — not the territorial kingdom handed down from William the Conqueror.  That belongs to the people.  William and Kate are now the next generation of royalty.  Their celebrity is ceaseless and relentless.  They are expected to be the living symbol of the very best of Britain, the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world.  They must be all things to all people; they must give up their personal lives for the greater good.  In short, they are no longer just people: they have become an institution of the nation, and perhaps even of the world.

The Queen

The Art of the Insult

One of the problems with being politically or socially active these days is all the name calling.  You can’t say five words in a reasonable discussion anymore without somebody calling somebody else a dirt bag or worse.  I’m as guilty as everybody else.  In my defence, I don’t go in for some of the juicy items, but I’m absolutely addicted to “dumb-ass.”   The result is, of course, people just get angry and reply in kind.  Gone are the days when rational debate carried an intelligent component that elevated the subject; instead, we have the current climate of trash talk that diminishes it.  Personally, I’m not going to speculate about how we got here, but if it walks like a fox, talks like a fox and looks like a fox, chances are good it’s FOX.  However, as we continue to holler, kick and spit our way through the 21st century, sometimes there is a brief, shining moment when civility returns to the art of the insult.

Let me start this discussion by saying I’m not Obama bashing.  I kinda like the guy.  I don’t agree with his politics (because I think he’s a dumb-ass) but for the most part, I think he’s doing the best he can, given the circumstances.  Okay, now that’s out of the way, it’s the president’s prerogative to make foreign policy.  He sets the tone of the administration.  Historically, there’s been the Monroe Doctrine, the Truman Doctrine, the Nixon Agenda and many others.  When Obama was elected president, he wanted to cut a clear path away from the Bush administration.  He wanted to get rid of the “them or us” world philosophy, wipe the slate clean and open the discussion – to everybody — equally.

Unfortunately, that meant distancing himself from the old Blair-Bush Project which had been set up after 9/11 to coordinate the War on Terror.  This wasn’t a big stretch for Obama, because, like most American, he thinks Britain is a bit of a has-been power, sitting at the head table because of its glorious history.  Besides, Obama isn’t a huge fan of Britain anyway or its colonial past (with good reason.)  However, in his zeal to symbolically demonstrate that nobody was getting special treatment on Pennsylvania Avenue anymore, he has damaged — if not destroyed — the “special relationship” America has had with Britain for about 100 years now.

Barack Obama learned his trade in Chicago, where subtle hasn’t been in vogue since before Al Capone was running the city from the Lexington Hotel.  Remember, this is the town where taxi drivers once showed their displeasure with Mayor Jane Byrne by plastering their cabs with bumper stickers that read “Jane, you ignorant slut!”  Politics is practiced with a heavy hand in Illinois, and Obama learned it that way.  He’s the master of the sweeping gesture, the grand vision, but he hasn’t really caught on to nuance yet.  But in international circles nuance is all there is.

I’m not going to get into the sordid details of Obama’s mishandling of British sensibilities because it all just sounds bitchy.  Besides, if you want to you can read all about it in any Fleet Street tabloid.  However, a few choice items do stand out.  To begin with, Obama hadn’t even reset the burglar alarm at the White House when he told the British to come and get the bust of Winston Churchill they’d given George Bush after 9/11.  This is no big deal, by the way: every president redecorates his office.  The problem is the guy did it publicly.  He could have just as easily put it in the basement and forgotten about it, but he didn’t.  In fact, he made a show of making the Brits take it back.  Then, of course, there’s the notorious exchange of gifts during Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s state visit to Washington.  One of the gifts Brown gave Obama — on behalf of the British people — was a pen holder, made from the timbers of the anti-slave ship HMS Gannett.  There’s huge symbolic significance to this.  In response Obama gave Prime Minister Brown a 25 DVD boxed set of classic American movies.  (No, I’m not kidding!)  The head of state of the most powerful nation in the history of the world cruised over to Walmart and went $49.95 to get something special for America’s oldest ally.  And I don’t care how many times the apologists deny it: I am absolutely certain the most of folks at Team Obama knew damn well American DVDs don’t work in Britain.

Diplomatically, the Obama White House has made a fetish out of pulling the British lion’s tail.  In Argentina, Hillary Clinton assured the government there that America would support a negotiated settlement to the question of who owns the Falkland Islands, a piece of real estate that Britain fought a war over.  Then, during the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House repeatedly talked about putting a “boot to the throat” of “British Petroleum.”  (Incidentally, the company changed its name to BP over a decade ago) This was an environmental catastrophe, but these are pretty harsh words for a country addicted to fossil fuel.  Obama’s people didn’t even use that kind of language when I’m a Dinner Jacket – oops — Ahmadinejad threatened to get some atomic bombs and kill all the Jews.  And the hits just keep on coming, and the Brits have to take it ‘cause they’re the junior partner. 

So here we are in February, 2011, and in a couple of months, the man who will be King is getting married.  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson William is going to walk down the aisle with Kate Middleton in front of 1900 people and a worldwide audience of about a billion.  Now take a wild guess who’s not going to be there?  Mr. and Mrs. Obama.   Barack and Michelle will have to wander on over to the Elephant and Castle Genuine British Pub in Georgetown and watch it on the big screen.  To all those people who say this isn’t a snub?  Crap!  Here’s the deal: that little lady at Windsor Castle represents the British people, and it’s her government the Obama boys have been pushing around.  BP is a British company that employs thousands of her subjects.  Her son fought in the Falkland Islands, and her grandson was in Afghanistan.  She and her people are just as proud of their country and their heritage as anybody else.

Royal displeasure doesn’t come with the whack of an axe anymore, but it’s still there, and it is real.  There’s only one reason Michelle Obama is not representing the United States of America at this royal wedding.  (After all, First Lady Nancy Reagan did it – twice!)  The Queen doesn’t want her there.  You and I and everybody else on the planet knows it.  I don’t care what kind of excuses everybody’s making.  Remember: Queen Elizabeth II was doing star power before Barack and Michelle were even born.  She understands what international celebrity means. 

We live in a world that’s gone loud with people shouting abuse at each other.   Opinion is considered carte blanche to be rude.  Fortunately, however, there are still people around who have the good manners to deliver a deliberate insult without ever uttering a word.