Special Report

America’s Royal Irony

The romantic obsession that betrays our egalitarian myth.

By 4.20.11

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The couple has been shacking up for months and one celebrity gossip magazine claimed that the bride-to-be is pregnant, yet the wedding next week between Prince William and Kate Middleton is being ballyhooed with all the fairy-tale hype that marked the 1981 nuptials of Charles and Diana.

One might have thought the not-exactly-happily-ever-after denouement of that union would have cured Americans of their ironic obsession with British royalty. Contradicting the romantic mythology of that "Wedding of the Century," it turned out Charles carried on an affair with his mistress, which led to a 1996 divorce, followed the next year by Diana's death in a bizarre car crash while fleeing paparazzi in Paris with her Egyptian-born millionaire boyfriend, Dodi Fayed.

Romance is not logic, however, and a new century evidently requires a new "Wedding of the Century" to inspire new storybook dreams. And so we must brace ourselves for the transatlantic media onslaught leading up to April 29, when Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales -- to accord him his full title -- will wed Miss Middleton, the commoner who will be instantly transformed into Princess Catherine by saying those magic words, "I do."

Conservatives, predisposed to defend all things traditional and hierarchical, might naturally be expected to admire the British monarchy. But the remarkable fact is that most of the Americans obsessed by the royal wedding (and the media shamelessly feeding that obsession) are not conservative. The Will and Kate wedding is being hyped, and the hype is being consumed, by Americans who see no contradiction between their commitment to egalitarian ideals and their celebration of hereditary privilege. Liberals who quiver in outrage that American millionaires pay only a 35 percent marginal rate on their incomes -- an injustice they blame on the hated "Bush tax cuts" -- nevertheless seem unembarrassed by their adoration of British royalty. But then again, liberals spent decades pining for the restoration of a Kennedy dynasty, so perhaps we should not be surprised by their fascination with the House of Windsor.

The New York Times, daily journal of American liberalism, has offered its readers gossipy chatter about the menu at the royal wedding reception and about the relationship between "glamorous and young" Miss Middleton and her soon-to-be stepmother-in-law, Camilla. The former Mrs. Parker-Bowles, whose long-term affair with Prince Charles was blamed for the disruption of his marriage with Diana, has evidently become slightly more sympathetic since her 2005 marriage to the widowed prince elevated her to Duchess of Cornwall. We are informed by Times correspondent John F. Burns that public-opinion polls in Great Britain "show sharply reduced levels of personal antipathy toward" Camilla, but that at least half the Britons surveyed favor the crown skipping a generation, so that the much more popular Will and Kate would take over after Queen Elizabeth's death.

Dynastic succession doesn't work that way, of course, but the fact that such polls are conducted and cited by reporters indicates how far democratic presumption has infringed the royal prerogative. Evidently, the Windsors nowadays must at least seem to care about public opinion. And merely seeming to care suffices to satisfy those whose passion for social justice doesn't prevent them from being dazzled by the blueblood glamour. Among the rumored RSVPs to next week's wedding is American rap performer Kanye West, who cited the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster as proof that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." This kind of contradiction -- what, if anything, has the British royal family done for New Orleans lately? -- is happily ignored by American liberals who fawn over the rich and famous, even while they respond with populist fervor to the class-warfare appeals of Democrats.

America's enthusiasm for the pomp and pageantry of a royal wedding is such that few dare criticize it, but at least one inveterate iconoclast is having none of that deference. British-born Christopher Hitchens denounced the upcoming ceremony as "a regular human sacrifice whereby unexceptional people are condemned to lead wholly artificial and strained existences, and then punished or humiliated when they crack up." That sort of anti-royal animus is rather a rarity stateside, where our Anglophile elite nowadays love all things British, including the Crown.

Little noticed, however, is how the rags-to-royalty story of Kate Middleton almost perfectly contradicts the dominant narrative of liberalism, which portrays poverty as hopelessly permanent. Kate's mother was raised in what the British call a "council flat," but what Americans would call public housing. After becoming an airline flight attendant, Carole Goldsmith married a pilot, Michael Middleton. Carole then started her own small business which grew so successful that her husband quit his job to join the firm. Their entrepreneurial success enabled Kate to pursue her education at St. Andrews University, which is where she met her future husband. Despite her family's millions, the soon-to-be-princess is still a commoner (unlike William's late mother Diana, whose father was the 8th Earl of Spencer) and, were it not for the wonders of capitalism, would probably never have been anything more.

American liberals can't be expected to notice that, any more than they can be expected to comprehend the ancient traditions of inherited custom that a royal wedding rightly ought to symbolize. It was more than two centuries ago that Edmund Burke denounced the "barbarous philosophy" of modern egalitarianism in which "a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order." If nothing else, next week's wedding will offer an opportunity to point out the irony of America's romantic fondness for a most old-fashioned form of inequality.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.