Monday, May 9, 2011

To Monarch or Not To Monarch

That is the question that has spurred a great deal of conversation, debate and argument (polite and otherwise) for the past several months. The inspiration for the subject, of course, was the much-publicized wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, now HRH Princess Catherine. I have read a lot of opinions, participated in a lot of discussions and done a lot of thinking about this subject in the past few weeks. Now that the furor has died down a bit, I can step back and reflect on what I’ve learned.

First of all, I’m American so from my earliest school days I was taught that monarchy is a backward thing, a type of government that the world has evolved beyond. In other words, we’re grown-ups now and don’t need a king to tell us what to do. Why is it, then, that so many Americans were glued to their TVs for the royal wedding? In fact, a number of reports suggested that there was more interest in the event in the U.S. than in the U.K. What on earth is going on here?

Of course, there’s the romance-and-fairy-tale factor. What little girl didn’t dream at one time or another of growing up to marry a handsome prince? Let’s not get into the feminist angles of this bit right now, just admit that it’s there. But dreaming-of-princess-ness alone isn’t enough to account for the fervor, and fervor it was.

An article in the U.K’s  The Guardian about this very subject noted that for more than a thousand years Britain has been ruled by monarchs, so it’s a long-standing tradition without which the country just wouldn’t seem itself, or so the writer insisted. I think, however, there’s more to it than that.

When someone mentions Britain what images come to mind? The Queen; Buckingham Palace; those guards in the black-and-red uniforms and ridiculous bearskin hats. The monarchy and all its trappings are living symbols of the nation itself, its identity, symbols of the national soul, if you will. That same Guardian article suggested that if Britain got rid of its monarchy, the symbolism would then rest on the nation’s elected leader (the article offered a horrified vision of the Brits bowing down to ‘President Blair’). But I’m not sure that would be the case.

You see, in the U.S. we don’t have a monarchy, so we don’t have that particular symbol to encapsulate the concept of our nation. But President Whoever-it-is-this-year doesn’t fulfill that function, either. Sure, the presidency (the institution, not the particular person who holds the job this term) is something of a symbol, but it’s not the whole thing. In fact, I’d say we don’t really have a coherent soul-symbol for America. Because of that lack, we end up practically worshipping movie stars and professional athletes as if they were royalty. And watching endless hours of TV coverage of the real thing. Obviously, there’s an unfulfilled need here.

So I got to thinking about what might symbolize my country, or any country, for that matter. Indigenous populations and their cultures might be a good choice if they hadn’t been marginalized and/or exterminated around the globe. And I can’t honestly expect Joe Blow, the very modern descendant of European immigrants to New York City, to identify with those native populations or their ways.

In fact, I’m thinking that people, or even institutions filled by people, ought not to be used to symbolize nations. People are, well, human. Not always as brave, kind, honest and so on as we might like them to be. And undeniably mortal.

Where does that leave us? Where could we possibly find an enduring image, something powerful that symbolizes a nation effectively for all the people of that nation, from new immigrants to generations-long natives?

How about the land itself?

I am continually amazed at how great an impact place has on people and to how great an extent they don’t consciously realize this impact. Think about it. How attached are you to the area you grew up in or the area you now live in? How strong an image do you carry in your mind and heart, of your favorite places in your country? Are you a Southerner? Northerner? I bet you’re proud of it.

Every nation is rooted in the land beneath its people’s feet. That land molds the society, the way of life, the traditions that become secondary symbols for the nation. But the land is really the primary symbol, underneath it all. If you’re American, recall for a moment the song America the Beautiful: ‘O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain’s majesty above the fruited plain.’ If you’re British, how about Shakespeare’s famous speech about ‘this sceptr’d isle’? I’ll wager those images have a more powerful, gut-level impact for you than any human institution, elected or monarchical.

Consider also that there might be a few positive side effects to focusing on the land itself as a nation’s primary symbol. If the land IS the nation, might we not tend to treat it better, with more reverence and care, rather than as an expendable commodity? I can hope.

So there’s my answer to The Monarchy Debate. Let us return to the true, underlying, primary symbol of every nation: The land beneath its people’s feet. Then it doesn’t really matter whether you have a monarchy or presidency or Grand High Poobah. The government can shift and change as it needs to without endangering the nation’s identity. Because every time you take a step, you connect with your country.