Monday, 2 May 2011
A royal weekend of symbolism
Last night's news that after a decade of efforts the United States has at long last killed Osama Bin Laden is just about the only news story people are talking about today. This is to be expected for such a symbolically important event – regardless of its actual real-world impact. The news finished off a weekend when the US was paying more attention than normal to events going on abroad, with the royal wedding in London and the huge mass in Rome that declared Pope John Paul II ready to be a saint. All three of these events were short on real-world impact but high on symbolic value.
The royal wedding
I was in London on Friday for the big day, when Prince William married commoner Kate Middleton. I watched the ceremony in Hyde Park surrounded by Londoners and tourists alike, and it was interesting to see the crowd reaction. Most of my friends who live in London had high-tailed it out of there for the weekend, expecting the city to be unpleasantly mobbed with people coming in for the wedding. But in fact it seemed to me that the turnout and enthusiasm was rather low. The city looked the same as it does on any weekend, and in Hyde Park the crowd only filled about half the space that had been allotted for the viewing. Likewise, the street parties in central London were underwhelming to say the least. There was no huge crowd.
80% of Brits don't care about the royal wedding. So why do Americans seem to enjoy the royal family so much more than the British? There could be a multitude of reasons for this. Americans can enjoy the monarchy without having to fund it as the British taxpayer does. There's also a certain romance and Hollywood-esque fantasy element to the whole thing that Americans are obviously suckers for.
Though the American media was using the term 'fairy tale' to describe the wedding ad nauseum, I don't think I ever saw this phrase used in the British media. A bit trite really, no? For the British media, the wedding was not only a day of celebration but also a time when the public debate again returned to the question of whether or not to keep the monarchy. The subject seemed to dominate the covers of many of the weekly magazines this week.
On paper, Diana was the perfect candidate to be Princess of Wales. Born to an old, aristocratic family with royal origins, she had been practically bred to be a princess from an early age. But the arrangement didn't exactly work out. A princess's tolerance for a loveless show marriage ended up being much lower in the modern era than what it used to be. The marriage fell apart as Diana refused to accept her golden prison, and refused to look the other way as Charles continued to see his true love, Camilla. Throughout it all the Queen demonstrated an iron-spined rigidity which many feared would doom the monarchy to extinction as an out-of-date relic.
The Queen seems to have learned from the mistakes of the past. Having first consented to finally allow Prince Charles to marry the woman he loves in 2005 (a woman who was divorced no less!), the queen has now allowed her grandson to marry someone with no aristocratic background whatsoever. What has been especially interesting is to see how little resistance there has been to the loosening restrictions of the royal family recently – even as they've married and remarried in ways that would have been inconceivable just a few decades ago. In fact the degree to which the public worldwide has reacted so positively to Will and Kate, who do seem to be quite genuine in their affection for one another, shows that this is really what the public wanted from the royal family.
Far from the brief regimented courtship of his mother and father - which, let's face it, was effectively an arranged marriage – Will and Kate met organically in school and were in a relationship for eight years before marrying. Their marriage reflects a more modern British reality – a long relationship before a marriage in their late 20's as opposed to marrying at age 20 as Diana did. Everything about this wedding was different from the one in 1981 – from the simple, elegant dress to the friendly, casual nature displayed by the royal couple. One can imagine that another over-the-top rigid affair like 1980 staged today could have consigned the British monarchy to the dustbin of history.
And yet, we'd be kidding ourselves if we said this wedding actually reflected modern Britain, or that the likability of this couple translates to an embrace of the royal couple by all of the British people. There was a rather awkward reality evident during the ceremony. Both the rich and famous inside Westminster Abbey and the commoners who camped out on the street outside to get a glimpse of royalty had one thing in common. Both groups were overwhelmingly white.
Historian David Starkey noted on Channel 4 on Friday that if you looked at a map of which areas of the UK were holding street parties to celebrate the wedding on Friday it almost perfectly matched the countries that voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 general election. Such street parties were hard to come by in Scotland and Wales, or in the neighbourhoods of East London. But they were plentiful in middle class areas like Kent. Was this wedding really an expression of national unity, Starkey asked, or a reflection of the deeply divided state of the British public today?
My guess is that the good feeling engendered by this wedding buys the monarchy some more time, but how much? The transition from Queen Elisabeth II to King Charles III is going to be a difficult one. He is far less popular with the public and is prone to making gaffes or errors in judgement. Charles will also not have the same imposing connection to history that it has had under the 50-year reign of Queen Elisabeth II. It will no doubt be helpful to have such a likable young couple waiting in the wings to take over after Charles, but will the public have the patience to wait? And given that he is a rather shy young man, does Prince William have what it takes to command authority as a monarch? These are all questions which will surely be asked when the queen passes away.
Saint John Paul?
Like the royal wedding, the non-theological impact of the beatification is rather low. But its symbolic importance is quite significant, most notably in how it is being discussed. Both the media coverage and the language used by the Vatican itself has focused on justifying the beatification on the basis of what John Paul II did to "defeat Communism". This reflects both a political and spiritual reality – that Communism has come to be regarded as a universal 'bad' that was defeated by 'good'. In fact it was apparently so bad that a person can be made a saint for fighting it. The fact that few question this reasoning shows just how much we've accepted this idea as a confirmed narrative in the Western world.
The beatification of John Paul II is a symbolic victory not only for the Polish who resisted communism but also for the larger capitalist world, even for non-Catholics. This explains why we've seen such strong support for the beatification of John Paul II in America, a majority non-Catholic country.
No more Osama
The symbolic victory of the US killing Osama Bin Laden is obviously huge. But, as several world leaders have been keen to stress today, it changes nothing about the dangers faced by the West from Islamic terrorism. The personalisation of Bin Laden as the 'face of terrorism', as the archetypal villain in the so-called 'war on terror', was probably never very helpful to a public understanding of the real threat situation. But given that he was made to be the face of the 9/11 attacks (even though his role was far more financial and inspirational than operational), the cathartic sense of relief felt today in the United States and worldwide is understandable. Thus you had the celebrations in the streets outside the White House last night.
His death seems to at least end the taunting effect his continued freedom seemed to have on the American psyche. But it will also surely make him a martyr to those who believe in the brand of Islamic fundamentalism he espoused. Will his martyrdom attract new followers to that cause? It seems to me unlikely, but I'm no expert on the subject.
Of course violent Islamic fundamentalism will continue to exist with or without Osama, and the realities of the threat posed by terrorism will not be diminished by this killing. But its symbolism should help make the American public, and likely many more people in the Western world, feel less vulnerable to terrorism. And even though that feeling may be illusory, that doesn't diminish its importance.
So, good feelings were generated this weekend by a wedding for the British, by a beatification for the Polish and anti-communists, and by a killing for the Americans. All in all a momentous couple of days. Symbolically, at least.