Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bitchy queens

About two weeks ago Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg marked her 60th year in office.  Editorial pages across the land celebrated the milestone and waxed eloquent about her office's role in making the people of the nation essentially Canadian, and how our very celebration of her office distinguishes us - nay, elevates us - from those vulgar Americans across the 49th, and who decided long ago they'd have no truck with Monarchy.

I suppose politeness dictates I should use her chosen current surname, Windsor, as Ms. Windsor's family chose in 1917 to change their name, to distance themselves from their German parents and cousins and grandparents, who'd fallen out of favor with the locals.  (Had WWI gone the other way, perhaps we'd all be celebrating Hildegard Saxe-Coburg's 60th jubilee, with the same person; the Saxe-Coburg-Windsors are nothing if not desperate to maintain power.)  "Windsor" is so much more English, and it evokes sunny lanes, unruly flower gardens, pretty young kindergarten teachers leading their charges through meadows; Saxe-Coburg, while it sings in German, doesn't feel the same to English-speaking ears.

My seven-year-old daughter wondered at the time how one becomes a royal, and as is my wont, I looked for the root cause.  (My children have quickly tired of searching for the root cause.)  And the answer, of course, to be brutally historically materialist, and not at all Pythonesque, is that if you are a "royal" then at some point in the past your family was composed of ruthless, vicious and extremely violent bullies.  Your ancestors demanded their neighbors give them land and tribute in exchange for protection from, oh, your ancestor's henchmen, the cowardly bullies who generally aren't bold enough to make threats but are more than willing to carry out someone else's threats, the Crabbes and Goyles of the world, and from the other bullies and/or tribal leaders in the region.  It was, then, to start with, as it always is, a protection racket that grows in strength until it becomes a tyrancy with its own momentum. 

There is little else to it.  Oh sure, there's stories of chivalry, of valor, written by some of the greatest propagandists of their day, stylists who coif butchers like Lancelot with a wig of greatness and the finer virtues, who turn histories of brutal villains into fairy tales.  But let's be honest: no matter how nice a guy Lancelot really was, whether to the average serf literally slaving away to feed Lancelot and his gangsters, or to his boss's wife or the boss himself, he inherited his title and his power from violent ancestral bullies.  What's more important is he retained his title and power by force, including forced starvation and rape, neatly (and roundly, like a circle) justified by an ideology that dictated the relative worth of human and animal life with an eye to determining how much or little moral approbation accrued from the constant and casual maintenance violence.  He could have renounced his position, as a moral Christian should, but instead the best we can hope for, as an explanation, is that he was just following the orders of his class.

I'm not much of an ideological Marxist, but it isn't hard to see where his analysis in this case hits the nail on the head.  What, exactly, does the nobility provide in a society, except for the threat of violence and completely irrational bases for decision-making, decisions which, even if they are well-thought-out and logical are ultimately justified with appeals to one's family?  The obvious analogy demonstrates how ludicrous it is to celebrate the "royals: "We should all go to war with Saxony because my great-great-great-grandparents stole some land and were able to defend the theft by recruiting enough weak-minded individuals into the gang, so that no one has yet been able to take it away from us."  That is the material content of the phrase "For King and Country!", at least as used in a martial context.  It gets no better translated to sports: "We run the marathon for the greater glory of a family that's always threatened to kill us if we didn't run for their greater glory!"

There is a principled (and thus weak) argument for monarchism, namely the "tribal leader" argument.  The theory here is that, both historically and now, circumstances select leaders for positions of authority and responsibility.  Some families are able to train their progeny up in the arts and techniques of leadership, and so thus establish hereditary chains of leadership; fathers beget daughters who learn to lead, so the story goes, and thus the band is able to migrate north as the glaciers recede and grasp the future with optimism, all thanks to the hereditary linkage and trust band members have in their leading family.  Now, any leader must exercise authority and bring the recalcitrant back into line, and that of necessity involves violence, real or imagined; further, leadering is hard, and so the people got to come up with a little something so the leader doesn't have to worry about where his or her next meal is coming from, and can concentrate on the very specialized sorts of things involved in leadering.

Of course anyone who's had a boss "selected" for their leadership skills by some combination of neglect, misrepresentation, skullduggery and flat-out incompetence knows that this selection process tends to be pretty random.  Its not anachronistic to point out that process - or corruption of process - has been going on for a long time.  And moreover, how does it always end up that the wealthy become well-connected and always first in line for selection as leaders?  Strange how that works.

And what's more, the actual tribal approach to leadership - as opposed to the misty rationalizations monarchists fall back on when Le Morte d'Arthur fails to sway their co-dialogists - dictates that the polity can select a new leader should the current one prove incompetent.  Typically leadership does not devolve to a single family; its shared between more than a few families, and tyrancy isn't tolerated, but inheritance is no guarantee of fitness.  Contrast that actual, practical formation of leadership with the ruthless self-interest of Machiavelli's charges, or the generations-long incompetence and cretinism and the attendant horrific loss of life and misuse of resources that results in any royal dynasty.  How many Monets and Flauberts were killed in French royal adventurism; how many Dickens and Watts died to keep China English?

In the minds of my monarchist countrymen, however, particularly the small-c conservative ones (and their counterparts in the anti-royalist US), there is comfort to be taken in the notion that the rich and well-connected are somehow selected for their success.  People are royal because they lead us.  Sure, in most countries with monarchies they don't actually lead us anymore, per se, but they ... function as leaders?  As figureheads, we're told, of the continuity of the... people?  So the Cantonese family who immigrates to Calgary should see Elizabeth the Queen of England as a symbol of the continuity of the Canadian people?  Does that mean the Cantonese family is now English, or part of the English story?  Or that they labor and pay taxes for the glory of England, a country the Cantonese have every reason to be suspicious of, for the brutal historical lessons in colonialism

There is in the end nothing but magical thinking here: The Monarchy represents something great about the past and the people, even though the Monarchy did none of those great things in the past, unless they were forced to by armed peasants or the polity lucked out and got a monarch who wasn't a complete troll.  If great things did happen, it was actual people who did them; it wasn't the spirit of the Monarchy or the soul of the people that did great things, it was actual living breathing sweating people who did it.  And while some of those people were inspired by the monarchy, most were doing it for food, or because if they didn't they'd be killed.  Good officers are crucial in any war, but let's not forget who does the actual killing and dying. 

The attachment to the monarchy is nothing but sentimentalism, but its a useful sentimentalism, obviously, because it helps distinguish between us and them.  Certainly in Canada anyone who isn't a monarchist is treated as a kind of humorless, wonderless prude, or worse, sympathetic to the Americans.  For those of us who aren't monarchists, however, it serves as a handy marker for identifying people who still believe in fairy tales.

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