During the past two weeks, my wife and I celebrated our silver anniversary vacationing in England. It was a wonderful fortnight, thanks in large part to the inspired itinerary that my wife planned. With the help of a rental car and a whole lot of deep breaths (English roads are as dangerous as they are picturesque), we saw London, Cambridge, Stonehenge, Salisbury, Plymouth, Bath, villages in Cornwall and in the Cotswolds, Bath, Cheltenham and Oxford. I’ve seen more incredible architecture in those two weeks than in five decades of American life. Honestly, can’t we Americans at least try to pay attention to architectural beauty? Just take a look at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=489, which is an example of the one of the more impressive American buildings I’ve seen in a while – the Stanford mansion in Sacramento -- and check out the eyesore that the urban planners have allowed to tower only a stone’s throw behind the mansion, thereby sapping it of any significant appeal. That’s American architecture for you. It’s all about functionality; aesthetics, be damned.
While I marveled at the English buildings, the truth is that I’ve seen splendid architecture before in visiting other old-world countries. What I came to appreciate for the first time this past fortnight was something that I had previously despised, and even now have to take with a major grain of salt. I’m referring to that other English gift to the world – the royal family.
Late July was obviously the perfect time to visit England if you want a whole lot of royalty. Our last day in London was the day of the regal birth. I could see for myself the joy that the whole affair brought to the people of the city. Even before the birth, the monarchy enjoyed an approval rating in England of over 80 percent. Compare that with, say, the views that the English or the Americans hold of their respective politicians. The affection that so many of the English “commoners” have for such figures as Queen Elizabeth and Prince William, not to mention His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, is palpable. The closest thing in the States to which I can compare such affection is the way that we once admired our professional athletes – before the steroid epidemic and other scandals required us to see them more as cheats and narcissists than as heroes.
It is glib for social critics to look down their noses at the so-called “hero-worship” of celebrities, whether they don crowns or hit home runs. Ultimately, these celebrities reveal that, far from being deities, they are “human, all-too-human” figures, who periodically will engage in embarrassing conduct. But what I saw this past two weeks is that we don’t have to deify our heroes – or even look up to them as role models – to gain sustenance from them. Merely by being born, Prince George Alexander Louis lifted the hearts of adult men and women in England and all over the world. He symbolizes both the innocence of youth and the hope of adulthood with integrity. Accordingly, while young George has yet to “achieve greatness,” he has surely been “born great” and we all can watch with interest as an even greater status is “thrust upon him.”
One of the exciting things about the royal family is that they willingly make themselves available for the whole world to watch -- from womb to tomb, they belong to their kingdom, and in the case of England, to the world. So while we are likely to see photos in 18 years about young George getting drunk in public, or engaging in a laughable public display of affection with a co-ed, or perhaps even smoking marijuana, we can all hope that in 48 or 68 years, we can see a mature George making a statement in some walk of life that shows compassion for others who are less fortunate, or perhaps an appreciation for the needs of the environment -- something that affects commoner, courtier, and crown-prince alike.
Someday, for all we know, George might disgrace himself. But for now, he represents a blank slate, and we are all free to place on that slate our hopes and dreams for a monarch with a conscience. Frankly, as someone who has paid little attention to the British monarchy in the past, I can do the same with respect to his father, the future King William. I’ll be pulling for them both, and I’m not even British. I can only imagine how much joy their “subjects” must get at the hope that these monarchs will ultimately do them proud.
To be sure, the English monarchy comes with a lot of baggage. To visit England is to hear one story after another about the debauched behavior of past monarchs, including but hardly limited to, the infamous Henry the Eighth. Even today, those of us who care about human rights and the ability of governments to protect them raise our eyebrows at the idea that one branch of the English parliament is the exclusive domain of a hereditary aristocracy, the so-called “House of Lords.” As a religious American, I have only one Lord and I don’t care to think of that word in the context of another human being, least of all, someone who owes his “lordship” to a charmed birth. Perhaps my newfound tolerance for English royalty is due to the fact that I don’t also use the term “King” to refer to God, so it doesn’t bother me so much when the English use that word in reference to their own monarchs. Still, I for one am happy that George Washington had no interest in such a title, and that every time a new President is elected, we don’t immediately place his visage on all of our coins. In other words, I’m not clamoring for the institution of the monarchy in America. But for once, I have no desire to see it eliminated from England.
Perhaps the bottom line is that I see the English monarchy today as a decent investment from the standpoint of the English public. The royal family, I am told, owns roughly $50 billion in assets, which is slightly less than $1000 for every citizen of the U.K. So I guess you can say that in order to allow that clan to enjoy “the lifestyle to which they have been accustomed,” every Englishman must pay a tax of roughly 15 pounds per year. Before this trip, that may have seemed exorbitant. Now, after seeing all the joy that George’s birth provided to the people of that country, I look at that price as a bargain.
Of course, it could also be observed that if the monarchy were abolished, perhaps the antiquated “House of Lords” would go as well. Perhaps. Then again, we Americans live in a democracy in which every legislator serves subject to the will of all the people and none owes his or her appointment to an aristocratic birth. And what has this brought us? A Congress with an approval rating of 15% -- meaning that the tiny number of Americans that approve of our Congress rivals the tiny number of Brits who don’t approve of their monarchy.
No, I’m not inclined to condemn the Brits any more for their crown jewels and castles. They can keep their monarchy … but please, folks, widen your damned roads!