So, today was the Royal Wedding in London. No, I did not fly over to see the fanfare; only John Foxx is worthy of a $600-$1000 plane ticket. I did, however, catch a bit of it on Channel 13 as I was getting ready for work. The whole phenomenon raises some interesting questions.
The first and most obvious question is why they do it at all. Why is there still a monarchy in Great Britain? Their political duties are largely ceremonial, and they’re really a wealthy family being kept in zoo-like conditions. They are expected to behave in a certain way that is somewhat less than human, and ironically, they are held up as being better than other humans (they are “royalty”, others are “commoners”). This is because they are living symbols.
I like this example because it demonstrates something that I have great difficulty explaining in a “rational” sense—the force of symbol over function. The British monarchy is a symbol of British history, which is a huge force, not only for citizens, but for the world. They are an archetype unto themselves, and even though there’s no functional reason for them to be there (other than tourism, perhaps), they are still supported. You will always hear an outcry against getting rid of the monarchy when it is suggested. State occasions are loaded with symbol, and the royal weddings are the ultimate symbol—they bring together the notion of union/conjunctio (the marriage) with the religious symbolism of a place like Westminster Abbey (2000 years of Christian symbolism), with the royal symbols that carry hundreds of years of British history. It’s like an orgasm for the unconscious. People react to it in a very emotional manner—either they are very excited, or they are very opposed. Either way, it has an effect on British citizens, and on others around the world as well.
Americans have a real love affair with British royalty. They just love the aesthetics of the beautiful palaces, decorations, and regalia. They love the archetypal notion of being a “queen” or a “prince” or a “princess”—anything with a title, really. And they can do this easily because they are outside the system. (I say “they” even though I’m American, because I’m not really that bowled over by all of it, though I can appreciate the aesthetics and symbolism of the whole thing). It’s very much romanticized.
For the British, it’s a different story. Certainly the monarchy has its staunch supporters. But among regular middle class and working class people, the impression of the monarchy and their feelings about it may be rather different. Since the industrial revolution, Britain has had quite a violent history of class warfare—parallel in some respects to what went on in the United States in the early 20th century with the beginnings of the labor movement, but much more intense—and going on for a much longer time. There was a reason punks were angry at the time of the Queen’s first jubilee in 1976. All this money spent on fanfare when there was poverty, unemployment, and scarce resources. The symbolism of the royalty affects them as much as anyone else—you almost can’t help it if you are of European descent at all. But the British often struggle with that archetype versus the resentment over fiscal realities.
As I was watching the motorcade from Buckingham Palace on the television, one of the female British commentators made the statement, “Michael Middleton must be so proud of his daughter, being the son of a Yorkshire pilot, and coming to this.” Since this is a bit unclear, let me re-state: Mr. Middleton is the son of a Yorkshire pilot. Now he is part of the aristocracy, due to his daughter's marriage. I think I threw up a little in my mouth. It’s an illustration of something that I don’t like about the UK—a caste-like class distinction. It is accepted that what one’s parents did determines one’s place in society, regardless of anything that person may have achieved on their own. It’s as if feudalism never died out, and we’re still in the era in modern Europe where one can only change their social status by the partner they choose. And even still, that person is considered to occupy a “lesser” place, whether that is conveyed overtly or subtly.
It’s particularly offensive to me as an American, partially because of our own collective mythology in this country. In America, the idea is that anyone can become successful if they work hard enough. This is utter nonsense, but it does permeate the elementary ideas of our culture. As an idea, it has its advantages and disadvantages, like any myth. It can prompt someone to overcome difficult circumstances. As we are seeing in this country today—it can also be an excuse to disenfranchise those who are not rich, by suggesting they have not been hugely successful because they are “lazy” and “entitled”. All myths have a dark side. And no one should be fooled into thinking there’s total equality in this country—anyone who is not white, male, and Protestant (and wealthy) has a real set of challenges to deal with if they occupy any position of authority. But the British love to come here—as I was once told, coming to America for the common British person is like losing 15 pounds right off—the weight of “hereditary (and geographic) racism”.
When John Foxx visited New York in November of 2009, I had someone ask me what Americans thought of his Northern accent. I laughed, because the average American can’t tell the difference between a Lancashire accent and a posh London accent. For that matter, Americans can’t tell the difference between English, Irish, and Scottish accents. It’s all “British” and all wonderful to them. (Of course, the Scots and the Irish are often offended by being lumped in with the English). Americans don’t care. If you have a British accent, they love you. It may be the most hated accent other places in the world, but not here. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 have been long forgiven. I happen to love John’s Chorley accent, but it subjects him to a lot of prejudice at home (which he has indicated in interviews, and is evident in the way many English interviewers talk about him). Americans don’t get that—it seems stupid to treat someone differently because of their accent. And I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re right for once—it is stupid. Not that we don’t discriminate and judge in other ways. Humans are funny that way.
In any case, the wedding fanfare was colorful and interesting, and I’m very glad the British got a bank holiday out of it. I hope the royal supporters and detractors both had a good day, and if you’re one of those obsessed people that bought a Kate and William commemorative refrigerator, may I suggest you get professional help.