Of all the annoying things about the royal wedding—the crass materialism, the outrageous invasion of a young couple’s privacy, the bad TV—none is more troubling than the occasion this event gives for the non-English to transform themselves into besotted Anglophilic wusses. It is one thing for the English to care about the wedding. Paying attention to the royal family, even if only to read sensationalist tabloid articles about them, is one of the proper jobs of English people. But for an American to be excited about the royal wedding is undignified and lame. And, I would add, if you get up at 3 a.m. on Friday to watch the wedding on television, you are a traitor to your country.
Good Englishmen might mock the royals, but good Americans should not even consider them royal. (Just writing this column I risk paying the House of Windsor too much mind. I’m like Phyllis Schlafly, whose work outside the home was to convince women not to work outside the home.) Americans are supposed to loathe and reject monarchs. In the earliest years of English settlement, this land was a proud haven for king killers. In 1660, it was to the New World that Edward Whalley, John Dixwell, and William Goffe, all responsible for the beheading of Charles I, fled after the restoration of the monarchy imperiled their lives. A century later, descendants of the New Englanders who had hidden the regicides, now banding together as overtaxed colonists, fought a bloody war for the privilege to ignore the king of England.
Anti-monarchism was then written into our Constitution. The United States was born in sin—slavery, the murder of Indians—but one thing our founders got right was the banishment of titles as inimical to republicanism. To wit, Article 1, Section 9: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” Not only were we not to bestow our own titles—we were not even supposed to accept them from foreigners.
No nobility—what a noble sentiment.
That is not to say that certain (ignoble) Americans have not acceded to monarchy by accepting its bestowals, like titles of nobility. On June 15, 1989, the New York Times reported: “Queen Elizabeth II conferred an honorary knighthood on former President Ronald Reagan today, the highest honor Britain can give a foreigner. … The palace said the Queen made Mr. Reagan an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath, an order established in 1725 that recognizes services to Britain.” Apparently, Reagan was the 58th American to receive an honorary knighthood, earning the right to use the initials “G.C.B.” after his name.
It is unclear why anyone would want to take the Bath, given the company you would keep: Yes, you join Lech Walesa and Colin Powell (who got bathed after the Gulf War), but also Zimbabwe’s murderer in chief, Robert Mugabe, who at least got stripped of his G.C.B. in 2008, after the foreign secretary pointed out that Mugabe was not a nice person (a fact that had escaped the queen in 1994, apparently).
Technically, only current office-holders are barred from accepting such titles, so Reagan’s post-presidential knighthood was kosher. What concerns me is not the legal propriety of becoming part of the machinery of royalty, but the unseemliness. After all, are we not taught, as Americans, that all are equal, if not in wealth and education and type-of-car-we-drive, than at least before the government? It is surprising, and dispiriting, to see Americans accept symbolic taps on the shoulder from foreign governments that hold to such official vestiges of inequality.
This eagerness to be ensconced in royal velvet has many roots. For some, like the late, weird billionaire John Templeton, moving to the Bahamas, renouncing his American citizenship, and accepting a knighthood seems to have been a tax dodge, although he said it was to keep his distance from Wall Street. (Asking his employees thenceforth to call him “Sir” was just garden-variety boobery.) For others, like Mick Jagger, one can only surmise that accepting a knighthood was an acceptance that his days as any sort of rebel were over. At least Keith Richards had the good sense to dissent: “It’s not what the Stones is about, is it?” he asked.
For many Americans, however, the love of monarchy and titles is simply one aspect of a generalized Anglophilia. It is perhaps not surprising that there exists a pernicious strain of Anglophilia in the United States: As writers from Malcolm X to Orlando Patterson to Claude Steele have noted, oppressed (or enslaved, or colonized) peoples often internalize the message of the oppressor. Ian Buruma wrote a very good book, Anglomania, about the powerful draw that the idea of England has had for people all over the world, not least nations once ruled, or killed in great numbers, by the English. The child who rejects his mother often loves her more than the child who simply drifts away.
The rejected-child aspect of Anglophilia helps explain why marginalized peoples are perhaps most susceptible to Anglophilia. Just as Indians are more prone to Anglophilia today than Canadians are, in my own experience, a great number of the enthusiastic Anglophiles I have known have been gay men, Jews, or black people. They may perceive that the empire, and its personification the queen, is capacious enough to love them all. That even if their bosses or families or neighbors condescend to them, they are still enobled by being subjects of Her Royal Highness.
If American royal-worship were confined to this twisted pathology of self-loathing, or to buying newsstand copies of People magazine every time Princess Diana is exhumed for another cover story, it would not be such a problem. But instead we forget our American-ness. We shuck and jive—I mean bow and curtsy—for the royal box at Wimbledon’s Center Court. We call them “the Queen Mother,” “Prince Charles,” or “Your Highness,” instead of the more American, and more dignified, “Mrs. Windsor” or “Charles.” We accept their worthless titles. We forget ourselves.
I come not to bury the English royal family, that sad tribe of oft-divorcing, panty-sniffing, plant-whispering non-intellects whose matriarch still embarrasses otherwise dignified countries like Canada and Australia by staring out from their money. Christopher Hitchens has done a better job than I ever could shoveling dirt on their living entombment. That son of a Royal Navy officer put it very succinctly, writing that if Kate Middleton loves Prince William at all, she will abscond the both of them out of the monarchy altogether: “Many of us don’t want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a desiccated system.”
And I certainly mean no disrespect to the English, that island people that gave us abolitionism, church-ratified divorce, the modern novel, and the Beatles. Rather, I simply want to recall to us our own inheritance, which is of a vision still quite radical: that we are all created equal. Being human, some number of us will always have the urge to ogle couture wedding dresses and generally wonder how the other half gets married. And the American version of that will involve people named Trump, Kennedy, or Kardashian. That tendency is not the United States of America at its best. But at least it is our bad tendency, born here, of a free people, one that calls each of us “Mr.” or “Ms.”—that, in fact, encourages the familiarity of “Kim,” “Kourtney,” and “Khloe.” That is worth something, and it is worth sleeping on Friday morning.