Back in the early 1990s, when I worked in London and wrote frequently about the hi-jinks of the monarchy, I tried in vain to understand why the British clung to such an archaic institution. But Tuesday morning, with the arrival of The Royal Baby, I finally get it. The House of Windsor gives the British permission to ignore their political and economic woes, to escape from themselves.
Wouldn’t it be swell if we had something like that? In our own perpetual time of trouble — when we’re profoundly divided by race (see the latest poll on Martin-Zimmerman), when we’re gripped by Washington gridlock (the next round of debt-ceiling brinksmanship is on the horizon) — our escapist fare runs the gamut from zombies to Honey Boo Boo.
Granted, the British obsession with the royals — and our own as well, judging by the cable coverage — is a tad balmy. As the London-based writer Lionel Shriver says today, “the firstborn of the Duchess of Cambridge (that’s Kate Middleton to you) being third in line for the throne is of no more worldly import than my being third in line at my local London Tesco.” On the other hand: “The British hold on to their sense of themselves by their fingernails, and when it comes to identity, you take what you can get . . . However decorative this institution, at least for the British this birth symbolically perpetuates the endurance of their own country.”
The British remain mired in an economic recession that dwarfs our own, but they endure in part because they have such a grand psychological crutch. And it’s amazing how the royals have endured. When I was working there, the whole institution appeared to be in crisis, thanks largely to the melodramatic love triangle of Diana, Charles, and the latter’s mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles. My favorite story was when Charles phoned Camilla, and told her that he fantasized about being her tampon. Somebody had tapped his phone, and the transcript went viral (the 1993 version of viral). I persuaded my editors to OK my opening paragraph about how “the next king of England gives good phone.”
But today Charles is a newly anointed grandpa, and the British are newly ga-ga. Even the lefty Guardian newspaper, no friend of the royal institution, is tracking the story minute by minute. By all accounts, the commoners are expected to spend the equivalent of $400 million on everything from royal baby burp cloths to royal baby diapers, just to bond in their minds with the crowned elite, with the custodians of the national myth.
For better or worse, we Americans lack that kind of cultural glue. We have our flag and our patriotic holidays, but in this era we’re profoundly split over how the American creed should even be defined. This autumn, for instance, President Obama and the House Republicans will collide yet again over what constitutes the proper role of government as they flirt with yet another federal shutdown. Heck, the nation’s first black president can’t even speak from the heart about what it feels like to be black without being tagged by right-wingers as “the race baiter-in-chief.”
(Incidentally, Obama was precisely right last Friday when he said that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” If Obama at age 17 had been stalked and killed under similar circumstances, he would have been posthumously caricatured in court, and in the press, as a dope-smoking hoops-shooting gang slacker who came from a broken home. But I digress.)
So it’s easy to understand why so American TV talking heads are currently encamped in London; and why the 24/7 cable coverage of the Zimmerman aftermath has been trumped by 24/7 cable coverage of the birth. As much as we might want to mock the royals, and all the attendant pomp, many of us also envy it. In our own time of trouble, amidst our seemingly intractable polarization, there is something to be said for the rites of cultural continuity.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.