“Queens! Queens! Strip them naked as any other woman, they are no longer queens!”
–Mark Antony in Cleopatra.
Such a brouhaha over Michelle Obama’s supposed embrace of Queen Elizabeth! Royal Watchers (I can scarcely believe that’s a legitimate profession), tabloids, the British public were in a tizzy over the apparent lack of etiquette by America’s First Lady as they rolled their eyes and snobbishly cocked a snook at another American faux pas, tempered this time by their amusing fascination with Mrs. Obama’s “down-to-earth” attitude!? The pomposity surrounding the monarchy begs so many questions it’s hard to know where to begin.
In an age that prizes democratic ideals it’s unbelievable that so many people still pay homage, even abject adulation, to a person and family whose sole claim to their position springs from what can only be described as an accident of birth. I suppose every country has its own objects of affection, whether it’s the royal family or film stars or just the rich and famous–perhaps our need to be ensorcelled fuels our levels of aspiration, or at least fulfills our vicarious imaginings.
It’s quite astonishing to realize that 44 monarchies still exist around the world today, that almost 600 million people are bowing and scraping to kings and queens. It is also interesting that questions of propriety and royal protocol seem to surround British royalty more than anyone else. Perhaps that’s because Britain’s Queen maintains at least a “figure-head” authority over many of her erstwhile colonies across the globe, from Canada to Australia. It also has to do with the fact that Britain makes a great deal of fuss about it–I’m sure visitors to Swaziland or Saudi Arabia or Japan slip up occasionally when it comes to protocol without making headlines; but the British whine about it loudly lest we forget they have a queen, which we’re always on the verge of doing! Italian PM Berlusconi shouted out to someone while walking near the queen and was chastised for it, for how dare we talk above a whisper in her royal presence?! Australian PM John Howard drew criticism for appearing to place his hand on the Queen’s back to direct her through traffic. All of this springs from a 16th century belief that the royal touch had the power to cure disease!!
Questions about what seems like an anachronistic presence at the head of Britain is often met with the answer that the Queen performs an invaluable service to her country in terms of internal and external public relations–she’s the head of the most expensive PR firm in the history of the world! Of course, it’s also Britain’s way of authenticating itself in the face of its diminishing powers; that and the way it hangs on to America’s coattails.
I don’t really care how a country decides to govern itself; if Britain–and the other 40 or so states that have monarchies–choose to spend a “king’s ransom” for the daily upkeep of their nominal heads they have the right to do so (some monarchies actually do govern their countries). But when they insist that the rest of the world treat their queen as a sacred person before whom we must virtually genuflect and whose “holy” person is not to be touched then they’re carrying their obsession too far; particularly when this same queen is the grandmother of a prince who wears Nazi uniforms for fun and uses racial slurs towards Asian colleagues!
I suppose it really is sad when a nation seeks its identity in a monarchy that has lost its relevancy or when that same nation draws its legitimacy from an arcane and anachronistic system, or when tax dollars support the hedonistic and sybaritic lifestyles of royal offspring throughout the world!