Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Our Royal Double Standard

I've always wondered what Queen Elizabeth must have thought of the modern world. She began her life as a member of the royal family with no clear path to the throne and probably no thought on her part that there would be. Then, through an event almost unthinkable in the world of royalty and in the world of that time—the abdication of a British sovereign—she became the heir to the throne, to which she succeeded upon the death of her father, King George.

In other words, it wasn't something she sought. Elizabeth didn't want the job. She didn't seek it; it came to her. I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility that she would have given it to someone else if she could have. Did it involve notoriety and glamour? Sure it did. But she seemed to be oblivious to this. For her it involved only self-sacrifice.

This is the thing about royalty that we moderns don't get: We think it is privilege, and in many ways it is. But that is far less to the point than the fact that it is not chosen. There is only one avenue to becoming a royal other than being born one and that is to marry one. That's the only element of choice involved in the whole process of royalty. We think that this makes the privilege royals have worse that the privilege of someone who, say, earned his privilege. But it seems to me that the case is exactly the opposite.

In fact, why shouldn't ancestry be more deserving of reverence than these other things? Who your family is tells us much more about your character than how much money you have, or how many people know who you are, or how many other people will do what you tell them to do. I'd have far more regard for someone who had "come from a good family" than for someone who had a large bank account or who had a popular TV show or who held a high political position.

Plato once proclaimed that "the state in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the state in which they are most eager, the worst." When it comes to choosing leaders, you want the person who doesn't want the job, not the one who does.

Willingness is a desirable qualification; enthusiasm is a definite deal-breaker. Our modern politics produces ten examples of this every day.

If privilege that is earned is better than privilege that is inherited, then why is it that we all subconsciously recognize that someone like Queen Elizabeth is infinitely superior to the boorish tech bro? 

We know what we really think of royalty because of the way we treat one of its members when he goes wrong. On the one hand there is Prince Andrew, who's close association with Daniel Epstein caused a stir a couple of years back. Underage sex is something we do not tolerate in any class, and there are a lot of legitimate questions about how it was handled.

But the high bar we set for the royals becomes evident outside of rare cases like that of Prince Andrew.
Prince Charles' fraught relationship with Diana is a case in point. They divorced. He cheated on her. She cheated on him. Megan Markle claims to have been ill-treated by the Windsors. The Charles and Diana fiasco, as sad and unfortunate as it was, is all fairly tame stuff in our modern, licentious culture, but it is a big deal because it involves the royals. What does it say about our attitude toward the royals that we hold them do a higher standard? We think the royals should act better because we think they are supposed to be better. Otherwise, our attitude simply doesn't make sense.

This is why Queen Elizabeth was such a big deal. She was a member of the nobility who acted nobly. She served as a model for the rest of us of what it means to be selfless, to do our duty, to be polite in the midst of social strife, to work hard, and to consciously be a model of what it is to live a good life—all the things we expect of royals as royals.

This is one of the reasons that we need royalty: so that we have something superior to look up to. That's the job of the royals and that's why everyone gets upset with they don't do that. They occupy an "office" in the way a priest occupies an "office": they take on a role and a responsibility that is, by definition, bigger and better than themselves. And if they behave badly, they disgrace the office. But the point is that disgrace is bad only insofar as it falls short of the dignity of the office. It's only because we think the office so good that we see the person who disgraces it as so bad.

If a president behaves badly, we call for the elimination of the president, not the elimination of the presidency. When we split an infinitive, it is our fault for splitting it, not the fault of grammar for prohibiting its splitting. If our steak is overdone, we blame the cook, not the cow.

In spite of all the calls now to reassess the necessity of the British aristocracy, when a royal behaves badly, it is the fault of the royal, not the fault of the royalty.

In addition, there is the flagrant double standard we democrats employ when we argue from bad royals to bad royalty. If the bad behavior of aristocrats justifies the condemnation of the aristocracy, then why doesn't the bad behavior of democrats justify the condemnation of democracy? For every misbehavior of a prince, there are twenty democratic scandals. I'll give you three corrupt investment bankers, two elected lawmakers on the take, and one chief executive having an affair for one divorced duke.

G. K. Chesterton was not much enamored of aristocracy, being a self-described "democrat." But he knew that the way in which we moderns had eliminated aristocracy was misguided:

Thus in the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the great trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards was made one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. For all this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours, should have been extended to mankind. The tobacconist should have had a crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry. The grocer who sold margarine as butter should have felt that there was a stain on the escutcheon of the Higginses. Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling mistake—a mistake at the root of the whole modern malady—of decreasing the human magnificence of the past instead of increasing it. They did not say, as they should have done, to the common citizen, 'You are as good as the Duke of Norfolk,' but used that meaner democratic formula, 'The Duke of Norfolk is no better than you are.'

The anti-aristocratic view has it that the nobility should be brought down to our level, rather than the rest of rising to the level of nobility. In making the king a common man we make it impossible to make every man a king. If we extinguish the nobility of the nobility then we have struck no great blow for the good things of this world. And, in fact, in replacing the inherited monarchy with the aristocracy of wealth, celebrity, and power, we eliminate the possibility of royals we can look up to, and leave only tech barons, reality TV stars, and political demagogues.

And whenever you hear a liberal casting aspersions on aristocracy, search around on the internet and find a recording of their cooing and fawning over the Kennedy administration, an administration which, for years, they openly called "Camelot."

There is a vacuum at the top that has to be filled. And if it is not filled with royalty, whose job is little other than to be a moral exemplar, then it will be filled by something else—hip hop stars whose lyrics advocate the abuse of women, sports stars who take performance-enhancing drugs, and politicians who say one thing before the cameras and then say exactly the opposite to their staff. 

The superiority of this new system is not self evident.

Chesterton attributes to Queen Victoria the development of Britain's unique form of monarchy, "in which the Crown, by relinquishing the whole of that political and legal department of life which is concerned with coercion, regimentation, and punishment, was enabled to rise above it and become the symbol of the sweeter and purer relations of humanity, the social intercourse which leads and does not drive":

By lifting a figure purely human over the heads of judges and warriors, we uttered in some symbolic fashion the abiding, if unreasoning, hope which dwells in all human hearts, that some day we may find a simpler solution of the woes of nations than the summons and the treadmill, that we may find in some such influence as the social influence of a woman, what was called in the noble old language of mediƦval monarchy, "a fountain of mercy and a fountain of honour."

Had Chesterton lived to see the reign of Elizabeth II, he would have seen that Victoria's invention had not been squandered.

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