At various times over the past six years, I’ve let my remote control take me on a tour of America’s cultural civil war. First, we visit MSNBC, where the story of the day might be about, say, the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid. Then we stop for a layover at CNN, where the blood-thirst for getting Trump might be just as palpable, often coming from a progressive ideologue like, say, Don Lemon. Then we amble over to Fox, which is like traveling to another country. There, the lead story might be about the crisis at our Southern border, complete with provocative imagery and talk about “caravans” of invading, marauding migrants.
It’s a glimpse into two warring American agendas. Not only don’t Red and Blue America operate from the same set of facts, we’re not even talking about the same subjects.
Until, that is, the passing of a 96-year-old welfare recipient in the United Kingdom. Put aside that the death of Queen Elizabeth II wasn’t altogether a surprise; leave it to John Oliver to observe that, “the U.K. is reeling from the shocking death of a 96-year-old woman from natural causes.”
“There’s a weakness in the American character that still yearns for that era of hereditary privilege, which is the very thing that we escaped from,” said journalist Richard Stengel on MSNBC.
The surprise actually came in her death’s aftermath. Almost immediately, if you went on that TV tour of our cultural divide, you’d think we were suddenly a united nation. There, finally, was the same story, delivered in the same hushed reportorial tones of sadness and respect, without regard to network or ideology. It was as if the death of a Queen, referenced in headlines across the nation as “The World’s Queen,” had brought us all together.
Well, excuse me. By all accounts, Queen Elizabeth II was a decent sort, though, after a lifetime on the public dole and despite her vast wealth, she did try and raid a government fund normally reserved for low-income families in order to pay for Buckingham Palace’s rising heating bills. (But, hey, everyone’s entitled to a misstep or two, right?)
But the breathless media coverage this week about the death of the Queen, complete with soundbites from shaken and sobbing American citizens, is difficult to wrap one’s head around. Didn’t we kind of fight a revolution to escape the moral trappings of class-based monarchy?
Oh, Platt, there you go again. “It’s just about celebrity,” one friend advised, after I’d vented. “The Royal family is no different than the Kardashians.” Ah, but they are: They appear far more miserable, for one; the late, great Christopher Hitchens once referred to the House of Windsor narrative as the “gruesome aspect of a publicly financed human sacrifice.”
And you’ve at least gotta hand the Kardashians some points for pluck. They built an empire based on solipsistic fame … rather than inheriting it. As Hitchens was wont to remind us, referencing Thomas Paine, “a hereditary monarch is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician.”
The British monarchy is not merely symbolic. It’s a values system — one that doubles down on inequality. And now that autocracy is on the rise at home and abroad, it may just be medicinal for the body politic to keep our founding values in mind.
What’s been lost in this week of gavel-to-gavel hagiography and mourning is the inherently anti-democratic role of the office of the Queen. After all, before a member of British Parliament can take his or her seat they must first swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch — not to the constituents who voted them into office. They serve the crown, not the people. That’s fine, if you want to go that way: Government by, for and of the aristocracy. But we chose a different, more egalitarian, path, no?
There was one voice of reason during all of this week’s public groupthink, one that reminded us of the radical compact we made toward self-government some 245 years ago. That was my old friend Rick Stengel, the former Time magazine editor and head of the National Constitution Center who went on to serve in President Obama’s state department. On MSNBC, he announced himself as “the skunk at the garden party” before speaking the unspeakable.
“You played a clip of her speaking in Cape Town in 1947, in South Africa. That’s the year apartheid took effect in South Africa,” Stengel, who collaborated with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, said to host Nicolle Wallace. “That was something British colonialism ushered in. British colonialism, which she presided over, had a terrible effect on much of the world.”
Taken aback, Wallace made some nervous comment about Stengel “keeping it real.” “To your earlier question, why are American news networks dedicating all this time to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral — I think it’s a good question,” Stengel added. “There’s a weakness in the American character that still yearns for that era of hereditary privilege, which is the very thing that we escaped from.”
Amen, brutha. Stengel suffered some slings and arrows over right wing media after those comments — he was hating on America, the thinking went. But he was actually advancing a very American idea: Here, we embrace values of the Enlightenment, like equality and pluralism. We don’t have subjects; we have citizens. Stengel responded beautifully to the blowback on Twitter: Hmm, fine woman, and a queen, but not our queen. Fortunately, we don’t have one. In fact, our nation was born in revolution against her great-great-great-great grandfather and against everything monarchy stands for.
In other words, the British monarchy is not merely symbolic. It’s a values system — one that doubles down on inequality. And now that autocracy is on the rise at home and abroad, it may just be medicinal for the body politic to keep our founding values in mind. Especially given the prospect of King Charles, a real-life exemplar of the Peter Principle in action. (“Members of a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent.”)
Hitchens once referred to then-Prince Charles as “a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts.” Why so vituperative? It had something to do with Charles’ lazy forays into New Age mysticisms, which Hitchens considered as much of a threat to the common good as the expansionism of any despotic leader.
“Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran,” he wrote. “The ‘vacuum’ will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now.”
That’s some serious foreshadowing from 13 years ago. Remember, Charles didn’t have to ascend to the throne this week. He could have passed the torch to a new generation and let William take the reins and begin the process of, Gorbachev-like, introducing some perestroika to the monarchy. But he’d waited all his life for this country to rule over.
So it bears remembering what Tina Brown reported in her book The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — The Truth and the Turmoil. According to Brown, when staying somewhere as a house guest, Charles liked to have servants schlep along for him his orthopedic bed, some paintings to help him feel comfortable, a teddy bear, and his martini, pre-mixed and in his own glass from home. “The sorry truth was that Charles, in his material character, just wasn’t the kind of person the Queen admired,” Brown writes.
That’s your King, Great Britain. Good luck with that. I’ll stick with our flawed founders, like George Washington, who resisted all entreaties to anoint himself a king.
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