What the Bloody Hell Is Wrong with You Americans?
Why you should be embarrassed by the fascination with Kate Middleton's womb.
LONDON — "We know no spectacle so ridiculous," opined the great nineteenth-century historian, Thomas Babington Macauley, "as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality." But for sheer ridiculousness, few spectacles are quite so grimly moronic as the American media plunging overboard in one of its periodic obsessions with the British House of Windsor. The news — to use the term in its most limited sense — that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expect their first child to arrive on this Earth sometime next summer is sending a good part of the American press into a familiar frenzy of twittering, fluttering excitement.
There will be a baby! Not just any baby — a royal baby! Could anything be finer or more deserve front-page coverage? Were I an American, I suspect I should find this contemptible; as a Briton, I make do with considering it laughable.
Mark Twain was surely right. "Unquestionably the person that can get lowest down in cringing before royalty and nobility, and can get most satisfaction out of crawling on his belly before them, is an American. Not all Americans, but when an American does it he makes competition impossible." Consider, too, that Twain never had the pleasure of witnessing American morning television and its ridiculous habit of fawning over, successively, Prince William’s engagement, his marriage to Kate Middleton and now, the happy news that the next stage of the succession is on the point of being secured.
I recall experiencing some of this first-hand. When Queen Elizabeth enjoyed a state visit to Washington in the summer of 2007, you should have seen the palaver. I lived in Washington in those days and was mildly taken aback by all the upper-crust hysteria. My, how members of the imperial capital’s elite scrambled for the merest glimpse of royal flesh. At a garden party hosted by the British embassy, members of Congress and what remains of (or passes for) Georgetown society could have been mistaken for teenage girls queuing for tickets to see One Direction. (Tough-hearted British journalists, of course, did their best to hide their amusement at this spectacle behind a mask of laconic detachment.) Needless to say, this didn’t happen when other heads-of-state came to town.
The American fascination with the British royals is hardly new, even if it has been magnified and encouraged by a culture ever more in thrall to celebrity and an age in which trivia and gossip are privileged by carrying around Google on your phone. Much of the rot set in with Princess Diana, whose "fairytale" wedding to Prince Charles descended into a gruesome — if compelling — soap opera.
Diana’s death was, if you will, as tragic as it was useful. She died before her story became too tawdry. Her demise allowed attention to pass to the next generation and, befitting his status in the line of succession, to Prince William in particular. Here was a photogenic and responsible royal, whose rise could redeem the family’s tarnished brand, offering fresh hope and, above all, a fresh storyline.
His wedding in the summer of 2011 to Kate Middleton — a commoner, no less! What a fairytale! — was an event crying out for mawkish excess. American television, ever ready on this front, fell upon the challenge in splendid style. The morning shows decamped to London for a week of newlywed overkill. As purveyors of mindless tommyrot at the best of times, "Good Morning America" was in its element as it offered Americans the opportunity to gawk at all the princely finery, pomp, and flummery on display in Ye Olde London Town.
A writer for Entertainment Weekly dryly reported that "NBC had a graphic in the upper right corner of its screen: "‘Countdown to the Kiss.’ The network didn’t realize it should have made that plural. When the freshly spliced William and Kate went in for a second smooch on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, I think I heard Barbara Walters gasp on ABC."
A gasp! An honest-to-goodness gasp! Some people are too easily impressed. And so it continues. The Daily Beast — helmed by the indefatigable British import Tina Brown — publishes a blog titled "The Royalist," which, "updated several times daily" is deemed "essential eyeballing for fans of the world’s most famous family." There is something ghastly about this.
Ghastly but not, alas, un-American. There is no novelty in observing that much of American culture thirsts for dynasties and aristocracy to an extent and with a prominence that is sometimes hard to find in the United Kingdom. To cite Twain again: "We have to be despised by somebody whom we regard as above us or we are not happy; we have to have somebody to worship and envy or we cannot be content. In America we manifest this in all the ancient and customary ways. In public we scoff at titles and hereditary privilege but privately we hanker after them, and when we get a chance we buy them for cash and a daughter."
Can anyone who has spent any time in Washington doubt the abundant good sense of this? To say nothing of the celebrity of royalty, the drawbacks of an elected head of state have long since become apparent. The imperial presidency has been a sorry fact of the American existence for decades now. How can it be otherwise when the mere mortal elected to the presidency is treated — at least in terms of the expectations with which the office is lumbered — as some kind of priest-king?
Not that it ends there in Washington. Congress has become a family business in which promotion is based on genes more than ability. The British House of Lords may be an anachronism, but at least it recognizes inherited power as, well, an anachronism. From the Kennedys to the Pauls via the Udalls, the Murkowskis, the Jacksons, and many others, political privilege in modern America often seems to have become a matter of inheritance.
More broadly, the elites are, in some respect, more completely isolated from the American mainstream than at any point in the nation’s history. Witness, for example, the widespread sense on Wall Street that President Barack Obama was implacably hostile to America’s super-rich. Witness too how much more ink is spilled debating affirmative action than contemplating legacy admissions to America’s greatest universities. Anything that inconveniences the elite is, apparently, "class warfare" (albeit of a kind real class warriors might struggle to recognize).
The divide between the privileged and the rest has become disturbingly wide. Whatever its other strengths, the rise of the "meritocracy" also fosters the writing of rules and norms that sustain and protect those already happily advantaged. It is a form of regulatory capture that, amid much else, downplays the impact of dumb or otherwise unearned luck. As writers such as Ross Douthat and David Brooks have argued, if elites convince themselves their advantages are the product of nothing more than hard work, one might not expect them to be animated by an excess of old-fashioned, aristocratic noblesse oblige.
One need not be a hardcore leftist to sometimes wonder if the fascination for foreign royalty (and other, lesser, homegrown celebrities such as the Kardashians) is a means by which the common people may be distracted from recognizing the reality of their own, depressingly humdrum lives. Never mind any of that, look, there’s a new and shiny royal baby on the way!
And yet it is not just that. America’s "elite" media institutions also devote extraordinary dollops of attention to the Windsor soap opera. I am not sure this is necessarily a mark of great cultural confidence. The New York Times will, it is true, occasionally mock the silliness of it all, but most of the time, it is just as willing as US Weekly to babble on about royal wedding menus, hairstyles, and Lord knows what other examples of cringe-inducing, space-filling guff.
True, the royals are an entertainment whose foreignness gives them just the right amount of exoticism but whose (English-speaking) familiarity makes them sufficiently accessible to command a mass audience. Perhaps it is merely harmless entertainment. Nevertheless, watching Americans coo over the latest royal "news" is always faintly disheartening.
It is one thing for Britons — or Canadians or Australians — to take some interest in Kate’s pregnancy. The infant will, some distant day, be expected to be our — and their — monarch. Americans have no such excuse. Is there not something mildly shameful, something plausibly demeaning, about this excessive fascination with another country’s ruling dynasty? Aren’t you supposed to be a bit better than this, America? There is no need for overt hostility to the British royals; a studied, even lofty, disinterest would surely be the most appropriate American attitude.
Benjamin Franklin’s challenge to the new-born United States always carried a whiff of pessimism about it. "A Republic, if you can keep it," he warned. In truth, that kind of astringent republicanism perished long ago. Today, the goggle-eyed, breathless fascination with Kate Middleton’s womb is perhaps but another reminder of the extent to which American exceptionalism, in this respect at least, is no longer quite as exceptional as once it was.