Argument

What the Bloody Hell Is Wrong with You Americans?

Why you should be embarrassed by the fascination with Kate Middleton's womb.

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."

Can anyone who has spent any time in Washington doubt the abundant good sense of this? To say nothing of the celebrity of royalty, the drawbacks of an elected head of state have long since become apparent. The imperial presidency has been a sorry fact of the American existence for decades now. How can it be otherwise when the mere mortal elected to the presidency is treated -- at least in terms of the expectations with which the office is lumbered -- as some kind of priest-king?

Not that it ends there in Washington. Congress has become a family business in which promotion is based on genes more than ability. The British House of Lords may be an anachronism, but at least it recognizes inherited power as, well, an anachronism. From the Kennedys to the Pauls via the Udalls, the Murkowskis, the Jacksons, and many others, political privilege in modern America often seems to have become a matter of inheritance.

More broadly, the elites are, in some respect, more completely isolated from the American mainstream than at any point in the nation's history. Witness, for example, the widespread sense on Wall Street that President Barack Obama was implacably hostile to America's super-rich. Witness too how much more ink is spilled debating affirmative action than contemplating legacy admissions to America's greatest universities. Anything that inconveniences the elite is, apparently, "class warfare" (albeit of a kind real class warriors might struggle to recognize).

The divide between the privileged and the rest has become disturbingly wide. Whatever its other strengths, the rise of the "meritocracy" also fosters the writing of rules and norms that sustain and protect those already happily advantaged. It is a form of regulatory capture that, amid much else, downplays the impact of dumb or otherwise unearned luck. As writers such as Ross Douthat and David Brooks have argued, if elites convince themselves their advantages are the product of nothing more than hard work, one might not expect them to be animated by an excess of old-fashioned, aristocratic noblesse oblige. 

One need not be a hardcore leftist to sometimes wonder if the fascination for foreign royalty (and other, lesser, homegrown celebrities such as the Kardashians) is a means by which the common people may be distracted from recognizing the reality of their own, depressingly humdrum lives. Never mind any of that, look, there's a new and shiny royal baby on the way!

And yet it is not just that. America's "elite" media institutions also devote extraordinary dollops of attention to the Windsor soap opera. I am not sure this is necessarily a mark of great cultural confidence. The New York Times will, it is true, occasionally mock the silliness of it all, but most of the time, it is just as willing as US Weekly to babble on about royal wedding menus, hairstyles, and Lord knows what other examples of cringe-inducing, space-filling guff.

True, the royals are an entertainment whose foreignness gives them just the right amount of exoticism but whose (English-speaking) familiarity makes them sufficiently accessible to command a mass audience. Perhaps it is merely harmless entertainment. Nevertheless, watching Americans coo over the latest royal "news" is always faintly disheartening.

It is one thing for Britons -- or Canadians or Australians -- to take some interest in Kate's pregnancy. The infant will, some distant day, be expected to be our -- and their -- monarch. Americans have no such excuse. Is there not something mildly shameful, something plausibly demeaning, about this excessive fascination with another country's ruling dynasty? Aren't you supposed to be a bit better than this, America? There is no need for overt hostility to the British royals; a studied, even lofty, disinterest would surely be the most appropriate American attitude.

Benjamin Franklin's challenge to the new-born United States always carried a whiff of pessimism about it. "A Republic, if you can keep it," he warned. In truth, that kind of astringent republicanism perished long ago. Today, the goggle-eyed, breathless fascination with Kate Middleton's womb is perhaps but another reminder of the extent to which American exceptionalism, in this respect at least, is no longer quite as exceptional as once it was.

Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Argument

Mubarak with a Beard?

The United States needs to tell Egypt's new president that there's no going back to the old, bad ways.

Reflecting on the lessons of the Arab uprisings in November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was adamant that traditional U.S. policies in the region were no longer tenable. "[A]s the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear," she said "the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent." But such revelations necessitate drastic changes, and in the face of unanticipated events and crises, it's all too easy for the familiar policies of the past to re-emerge. As Egypt descends again into turmoil over the country's fraught constitution-writing process, it appears that the United States is once again embracing the past and eschewing the lessons it learned the hard way during the uprising.

In a move that bears the hallmark of U.S. policy in the Mubarak era, the United States has largely reduced its relationship with Egypt to the maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel and withheld serious judgment of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, even as it actively undermines the country's already troubled democratic transition.

The most severe political crisis to strike Egypt since the fall of Mubarak was sparked by President Mohamed Morsy's Nov. 22 constitutional decree, which granted the executive absolute authority and immunized his decisions from judicial review for the remainder of the transitional period. Morsy defended the move as an attempt to protect the constituent assembly -- tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution -- from potential judicial dissolution, but his unilateral steps provoked outrage among opposition forces who again took to the streets.

The crisis deepened when the president directed the assembly to ram through a governing document in a chaotic, all-night session that made a mockery of deliberative constitutional process and design. If approved in a hastily called referendum, that slipshod document will bound Egypt's political future and institutionalize its crisis. With a significant portion of the country's judges declaring a strike in response to Morsy's declaration and dueling protesters mobilizing on opposing sides, Egypt's flawed transition now risks tipping into outright civil strife and prolonged instability.

Morsy's actions presented the United States with a difficult choice: Should it challenge an elected Egyptian president just as the two countries have begun to reconstruct bilateral ties? This choice was complicated further by the close cooperation and pragmatism displayed by Morsy and his government in securing a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip last month. These efforts won the Egyptian president newfound confidence in Washington, and administration officials were quick to shower him with praise.

But rather than using his burnished reputation as a regional leader to forge a more consensual and stable transition back home, Morsy capitalized on the favorable international political climate by making an untenable and unjustifiable power grab that has plunged Egypt into crisis and exacerbated existing divisions.

Morsy's moves were particularly damaging to the United States since he made his initial announcement the day after meeting with Clinton to finalize details of the Gaza ceasefire. The timing raised the unfounded specter among already suspicious Egyptians that the Brotherhood had cleared their undemocratic power play with the now-grateful Americans.

The Obama administration's response has only reinforced those fears -- though it does not justify the more baroque conspiracy theories about a secret U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood pact. Following Morsy's decree, the State Department released a tepid statement referencing "concerns" in the international community. The statement urged calm and encouraged "all parties to work together," calling for "all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue." The decision not to deliver a White House statement further indicated that the Obama administration wished to downplay the significance of Morsy's moves.

But the administration's conservative response was woefully short-sighted and reflected old modes of thinking that were ostensibly discarded in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

First, by downplaying U.S. concerns about Morsy's maneuvering, the United States seems to have forgotten the most important lesson of the Arab uprisings: Usurping authority or trampling rights are not recipes for political stability. The scenes of outraged opposition in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt indicate that the Brotherhood cannot claim to represent Egypt by itself. Its efforts to do so bode ill for the country's future and have precipitated a climate where political contestation is now accompanied with overt threats and incendiary rhetoric. 

An unstable Egypt led by repressive rulers is a bad bet for the United States -- from the perspective of values and interests. A chaotic transition has tested America's diplomatic patience, but that challenge pales in comparison to the prospect of chronic instability and civil strife. With Egypt's economic woes high on the list of worries faced by U.S. officials, it bears mentioning that economic reform and growth will never take root so long as the political process remains deadlocked.

Second, the American response was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and a limited view of Egypt as a client state. While it is true that the treaty underpins U.S. security policy in the region, avoiding criticisms of Egypt's authoritarian tendencies does little to secure American interests.

For too long, the United States has seen the Egypt-Israel peace as perpetually vulnerable and sustainable only through American largesse. The peace between Egypt and Israel is a cold one, and it will undoubtedly become colder still. It is hampered by the unyielding occupation of Palestinian lands and the ever-expanding settlement project. With an Islamist-led government now in place in Egypt, the deep-seated anti-Israel sentiments of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affinity for Islamist fellow-travelers such as Hamas will reshape regional dynamics. Egypt will undoubtedly play a greater role in championing the Palestinian cause, and future Egyptian governments will abandon the anti-Hamas policies long pursued by the Mubarak regime.

But despite the tangible shifts in atmospherics, symbolism, and policies, regime change in Egypt will not alter the underlying strategic interests that pushed Anwar Sadat to seek a separate peace with Egypt's bitter enemy. Partly, this is a function of the national security establishment's continued stewardship of the Israel portfolio. While the parameters of the pact struck between the president and his military are not formally enshrined or even fully defined, the military and intelligence services still bound the policy discussions on issues such as Gaza.

Most importantly, Morsy's pragmatism should not come as a surprise. It is a clear reflection of enduring national interests and the infeasibility of aggression towards Israel. The prohibitive costs of such conflict -- both materially and for Egypt's position in the international community -- mean that the fundamental bargain underlying this cold peace is far more durable than is commonly presumed. Rewarding Morsy for his pragmatic approach to the recent Gaza conflict is a case of offering inducements for a policy already decided.

In her November 2011 speech, Clinton declared that we "cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives." That long run is here. The United States retains influence, particularly in light of Egypt's dire need for multilateral financial assistance and diplomatic support. Conditioning aid and support is complicated and often over-hyped, but it is a much-needed shift that would represent a break from the blank checks so often given to Egypt's leaders.

With much of the judiciary on strike and the prospect of prolonged street protests high, Egypt's democratic future is in peril. While not foreordained, a slow drift toward illiberal majoritarianism is now distinctly possible, as is the attendant instability that is likely to ensue. Injecting the United States more prominently in the current crisis also comes with risks, especially in light of America's checkered history in Egypt. But given the United States' deep ties, the Obama administration should understand that the choice between values and interests is a false one in this instance.

If America acquiesces anew to authoritarian behavior in Cairo, it won't win a new stable ally; it will only further alienate the many Egyptians who find the transactional nature of U.S.-Egyptian ties repugnant. Even worse, it will encourage a destructive political culture that provides an unstable foundation for future relations.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/GettyImages