Congratulate Prince William, but don't mythologize monarchy
Not surprisingly, the engagement of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton is creating a sensation in this country. To some extent, the hullabaloo reflects the fact that the royals are celebrities not that different from Hollywood stars.
But there is also an undercurrent of longing for the idea of monarchy. The New York Times reports that some Anglophiles are stocking their cabinets with royal kitsch -- china, novelty rings and tea towels bearing the smiling faces of William and Kate -- and points to such activity as evidence of the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain.
At the risk of sounding priggish, I'd say that the special relationship is based on other things: Britain’s history of parliamentary government, its solicitude for civil liberties, shared foreign policy goals and, of course, a common language.
At a time of widespread interest in the “original intent” of the Constitution, it’s worth recalling how averse the framers were to monarchy and hereditary distinctions. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution says: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”
It’s easy to downplay the importance of the monarchy because it has been rendered “constitutional” -- that is, mostly powerless -- by centuries of democratization. It’s a legal fiction that Prime Minister David Cameron leads “her majesty’s government” as he makes day-to-day decisions about foreign and domestic policy. Likewise, the queen doesn't command the warships of the Royal Navy even though they are named for her.
But, symbolic or not, the monarchy enshrines in law a distinction between commoners and those who owe their prominence, not to mention their fortunes, to bloodlines. At least Hollywood stars earn their celebrity -- sometimes anyway.
This country should be respectful of the monarchy (which survives, to be fair, with the sufferance of Britain’s democratically elected representatives), just as it recognizes the political cultures of other societies, from warlords in Afghanistan to politically influential clerics in Iraq. To each nation its own.
But the framers had a point when they forswore monarchy and aristocracy, the same point made in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” Americans can wish William and Kate well without succumbing to the mystique they represent. In this country, we’re all commoners.
-- Michael McGough