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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Diamond Jubilee, divine right, and the rebel angels of the anglophone world

by John MacBeath Watkins

If sovereigns rule by divine right, Americans are the rebel angels of the anglophone world.

Britain's other colonies evolved toward independence, while our leaders decided they would rather reign in America than serve in the British Empire. We are the anglophone country, as a consequence, that was never part of the British Commonwealth: We were cast from that particular heaven.

Yet we cannot get enough of royalty. The Queen Mum and all of Britain are celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, which should mean almost nothing to us, and it certainly does mean less here than there, but it gets plenty of coverage never the less.

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, arrival at St. Paul's
Part of the reason is that the special relationship between America and the United Kingdom is more than just a political alliance. As a bookseller, I can assure you that Americans read British history as avidly as their own. It is nearly impossible to sell Canadian history, even though it happened on our doorstep, and there's far less interest in Santa Anna than in Henry VIII or his daughter, Elizabeth, even though Antonio López de Santa Anna lost half of Mexico to America when he took his country into war with us.


Part of the issue is that the history of Britain is the history of Americans prior to the founding of America. Even those who have no British ancestors understand that there is a cultural continuity that ties us to them.


And part of the fascination with the British royalty has to do with our own lack of royalty. Thomas Paine may have been right, we're better off without them, but they do seem to fulfill an emotional need. There is a sovereign-sized hole in the American psyche, which we have tried to fill with the occasional Kennedy or Reagan. Part of the reason conservatives have derided President Obama as "the chosen one" is that they fear him becoming one of those.


But when royals rule as well as reign, it doesn't take long for the bad king problem to come up. You may get many good kings, but the selection process is about heredity rather than competence, which means you will eventually get a bad king, and will have great difficulty getting rid of the fool.


Having a monarch whose duties are purely symbolic allows the British to have a symbol of the nation's magnificence without actually screwing up the country. In America, we give this role mainly to presidents who are safely dead, and can make no more mistakes. Instead of a monarch sitting on a throne, we have the Lincoln Memorial. People may admire the symbol and revere their nation without being obsequious to a living person.


It's a good system, but the Queen gives a warmth to the symbolic life of the nation that no dead president can. And besides, what point would there be in sending a dead president a lamprey pie?

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