LONDON — "We know no spectacle so ridiculous," opined the great nineteenth-century historian, Thomas Babington Macauley, "as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality." But for sheer ridiculousness, few spectacles are quite so grimly moronic as the American media plunging overboard in one of its periodic obsessions with the British House of Windsor. The news -- to use the term in its most limited sense -- that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expect their first child to arrive on this Earth sometime next summer is sending a good part of the American press into a familiar frenzy of twittering, fluttering excitement.
There will be a baby! Not just any
baby -- a royal baby! Could anything be finer or more deserve front-page
coverage? Were I an American, I suspect I should find this contemptible; as a
Briton, I make do with considering it laughable.
Mark Twain was surely right. "Unquestionably the person that can get lowest down in cringing before royalty and nobility, and can get most satisfaction out of crawling on his belly before them, is an American. Not all Americans, but when an American does it he makes competition impossible." Consider, too, that Twain never had the pleasure of witnessing American morning television and its ridiculous habit of fawning over, successively, Prince William's engagement, his marriage to Kate Middleton and now, the happy news that the next stage of the succession is on the point of being secured.
I recall experiencing some of this first-hand. When Queen Elizabeth enjoyed a state visit to Washington in the summer of 2007, you should have seen the palaver. I lived in Washington in those days and was mildly taken aback by all the upper-crust hysteria. My, how members of the imperial capital's elite scrambled for the merest glimpse of royal flesh. At a garden party hosted by the British embassy, members of Congress and what remains of (or passes for) Georgetown society could have been mistaken for teenage girls queuing for tickets to see One Direction. (Tough-hearted British journalists, of course, did their best to hide their amusement at this spectacle behind a mask of laconic detachment.) Needless to say, this didn't happen when other heads-of-state came to town.
The American fascination with the British royals is hardly new, even if it has been magnified and encouraged by a culture ever more in thrall to celebrity and an age in which trivia and gossip are privileged by carrying around Google on your phone. Much of the rot set in with Princess Diana, whose "fairytale" wedding to Prince Charles descended into a gruesome -- if compelling -- soap opera.
Diana's death was, if you will, as tragic as it was useful. She died before her story became too tawdry. Her demise allowed attention to pass to the next generation and, befitting his status in the line of succession, to Prince William in particular. Here was a photogenic and responsible royal, whose rise could redeem the family's tarnished brand, offering fresh hope and, above all, a fresh storyline.
His wedding in the summer of 2011 to Kate Middleton -- a commoner, no less! What a fairytale! -- was an event crying out for mawkish excess. American television, ever ready on this front, fell upon the challenge in splendid style. The morning shows decamped to London for a week of newlywed overkill. As purveyors of mindless tommyrot at the best of times, "Good Morning America" was in its element as it offered Americans the opportunity to gawk at all the princely finery, pomp, and flummery on display in Ye Olde London Town.
A writer for Entertainment Weekly dryly reported that "NBC had a graphic in the upper right corner of its screen: "‘Countdown to the Kiss.' The network didn't realize it should have made that plural. When the freshly spliced William and Kate went in for a second smooch on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, I think I heard Barbara Walters gasp on ABC."
A gasp! An honest-to-goodness gasp! Some people are too easily impressed. And so it continues. The Daily Beast -- helmed by the indefatigable British import Tina Brown -- publishes a blog titled "The Royalist," which, "updated several times daily" is deemed "essential eyeballing for fans of the world's most famous family." There is something ghastly about this.
Ghastly but not, alas, un-American. There is no novelty in observing that much of American culture thirsts for dynasties and aristocracy to an extent and with a prominence that is sometimes hard to find in the United Kingdom. To cite Twain again: "We have to be despised by somebody whom we regard as above us or we are not happy; we have to have somebody to worship and envy or we cannot be content. In America we manifest this in all the ancient and customary ways. In public we scoff at titles and hereditary privilege but privately we hanker after them, and when we get a chance we buy them for cash and a daughter."