Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A royal pain?

The royal family in Great Britain is welcoming a new addition, and many around the world are joining them in their celebration.

Huzzah, right?

The joyful sentiment is not shared much by others who shrug and openly ask, "Who cares?" This, in my opinion, is that this is a legitimate question in light of how our modern world consists of various forms of government that involve power being handed down through means other than inheritance.

This skepticism rings especially true in the United States of America, a nation that violently broke away from its 'mother country' and has since taken pride in being a meritocracy. George Washington famously turned down being president for life and set a precedent for a new way of leading on this side of the pond. For those who are not Anglophiles in America, the spectacle of anything royal somehow triggers a gag reflex and cries of open apathy - or even antipathy.

Those who have taken to the streets to proclaim how little they care about the yet-to-be-named baby prince are sincere in their wish that we could focus on more important things. Sure, the arrival of a future king is not necessarily an event of interest to all, but what real 'news' occupied our attention in the previous days and weeks?

To be honest, the news has been a welcome distraction for me in light of racial tension, serial killers and political gridlock here in my country. The degree to which I care is no more than what other news dispatch arrives on my computer, but I do not shy away from showing some interest.

But why am I interested?

Sure, Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy that has whittled down royal power to that of a figurehead who graces national currency, but the British monarch continues to be the head of state. In that vein, royal watchers are no more annoying than those who are fascinated with our very own combination head of government and head of state. Remember when American women attempted to copy the look of Jackie Kennedy or those who stormed department stores to buy the same attire as Michelle Obama?

It's not all superficial, however. For all of the leisure and laziness that is perceived in the British royal family, let us not forget that they have a staying power that has withstood the overthrow of other monarchies. In modern times, the British royals survived two world wars, the violent overthrow of other monarchies and managed to keep healthy ties with their Commonwealth. And even as republican movements come and go, the House of Windsor maintains a reservoir of good will that other political institutions would envy.

And the media do play a role in preserving the royals' relevancy. Before the modern media, the royal family indeed lived a very cloistered existence. The public trusted in their monarchs simply through Divine Right. As other nations changed their governments, the royals needed to justify their expense to the public. King George V knew that, in light of radical movements and the overthrow of his cousins, he had to present his family as everyday citizens and to dispel the image of the debauched kings and princes like his father - King Edward VII.

The new media of motion pictures and radio gave King George V a powerful tool for public relations. The human connection of a king's voice and his ceremonial presence combined to cast strong ties within what was a Dominion of Nations. Those ties were tested during the abdication crisis of George's son, Edward VIII. Great Britain moved past the abdication and then buckled down through a war in which their King George VI and family would not abandon them.

As you can see, the history of Britain is infused with the story line of their royals' 'soap opera.' Historians still discuss the drama that pitted George VI against the Duke of Windsor and debate how the Germans may have planned to use the former king as a tool for invasion.

Hollywood even entered the fray of royal watchers with its moving 'The King's Speech.' The tale of overcoming a speech impediment exposed the private battle of a king for the entertainment of millions. The details of his struggle were given added gravity by his responsibility to his nation. A film about a man who stopped stuttering would not have meant as much without the narrative of a man who was to be the voice of his empire.

The rest of the Pandora's Box for the royals came with television. The documentary of a day in the life of Queen Elizabeth II may have been a watershed moment in how Britons viewed their royals and then, of course, there was Princess Diana.

The frenzy of attention increased with every glamorous photo-op that featured Princess Di. The royal wedding generated record ratings on television not because the television networks had nothing else to broadcast in the early morning. Public demand reached a fever pitch for those who daydreamed of a Cinderella-type possibly becoming the queen consort.

The royal soap opera rivaled fiction in the coming decade of Andrew, Fergie, Charles, Camilla, etc. This after all, was the generation of the future king. At least with Queen Elizabeth, she only had a few minor scandals from Princess Margaret. In the 1980s and 1990s, the family was publicly falling apart. It seemed to hit the bottom when Princess Diana was killed in 1997.

I guess that one important aspect of this new royal baby is that it appears to be a redemption of a family that went through divorce and strife out in the open. I am sure that there are days when the Windsors want to retreat into themselves. But, as Princess Diana's death showed us, there is always someone who is standing outside with a camera. Their shame has been public so much, it would at least be fair to broadcast their triumphs as well.

Maybe that is one reason to 'care.'

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