Last month, the magazine rack at Partridges, an upscale grocery store on Duke of York Square in West London, was a disquieting sight. “Palace’s Baby Plan Revealed,” People magazine promised. OK claimed to be “First for Royal Baby news,” while Hello offered the opportunity to “Meet the ‘Amazing Man’ who will deliver the Royal Baby.” Two glossy pseudo-books were present too, with intriguingly disparate approaches to royal nomenclature: Andrew Morton’s William & Catherine vied off with Kate and William from the WP Collectors series.
This, all before the royal baby had even begun its descent through the birth canal. Now that 31-year-old Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and wife to the second in line to the British throne, is in labor [Update, 3:45 p.m.: It’s a boy!], we have, I believe, neared peak mania. And peak mania is an ugly thing.
Or maybe it’s healthy. Middleton, after all, is not Michelle Obama. She is not married to the most powerful man on the planet. Though the political emasculation of constitutional monarchies is not completely straightforward—in 1981, for example, King Juan Carlos I of Spain played a sizeable role in derailing an attempted coup d’état, and even William’s father Prince Charles has repeatedly pushed the bounds of his theoretically apolitical status—royalty, at least in Europe these days, does not helm the ship of state. Monarchy therefore takes our basic human urge to bow before power and redirects that urge toward a politically insignificant quantity. That is a good thing.
Of course, this argument does not make the hysteria about Britain’s Royal Birth much less absurd. In the course of research for this article I requested an interview with Jane Bruton, editor-in-chief of the British edition of celebrity weekly Grazia. I was interested to hear the thinking behind recent stories like “Royal Baby Beauty: what products will Kate Middleton pack in her Hospital Bag?” and “Royal Baby Countdown: Is Kate Middleton planning a hypno birth?” Curiously, Bruton’s PR people declined. Likewise, I paced the streets of affluent West London, visiting upmarket baby shops that stocked minuscule cashmere cardigans for £57 ($87) and linen romper suits for £80 ($120). There, a woman with cut glass accents admitted coyly that “she’s been in,” but would disclose no more, as though to say what Kate actually bought would be an act of Snowden-scale whistle-blowing.
So, yes, absurd. But hasn’t it always been? While celebrity culture is no doubt turbocharged by the communications technology of the modern age, I cannot but think it fundamentally reflects a deeper human need, at least since the advent of the printing press. To read an account of the reception of Romantic poet Byron in London after the publication of his tyro work “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” 201 years ago is, for example, to see that perhaps not much has changed. “The subject of conversation, of curiosity, of enthusiasm … of the moment is not Spain or Portugal, warriors or patriots, but Lord Byron,” wrote the Duchess of Devonshire at the time.
Perhaps a poet is more worthy of our ogling than an almost-newborn baby who is already famous for being famous. But if celebrity worship is at least partially intrinsic, then let the subject of hysteria be without hard power. Kate Middleton’s sartorial decisions are literally market moving, but she does not deploy nuclear submarines, nor is she close to anyone who does. In other words, better to be in love with her bump than Michelle Obama’s upper arms.
Defenders of monarchy often reel out the fact that many of the world’s most progressive societies (Norway, the Netherlands) have kept their kings. My defense, however—which is basically that it is wise to separate power and pomp—is more informed by my recent experiences working as a reporter in West Africa. There the situation was quite the opposite. While generalizations are perilous, there is a common thread in much of West African culture relating to the absolute nature of political power, the ceremony of office and the taboo of questioning authority. The Big Man lives. In Sierra Leone, the country I know best, the president was routinely called the “Father of the Nation.” To question him meant violating his prestige, and that was an abomination. In such a system the opportunities for accountability are limited. And while prestige and status are somewhat different quantities in contemporary Britain, the royalty are a useful lighting rod for the urges to worship we do still have.
If West Africa is an extreme example of the problems of grandeur within the body politic, then America, while evidently less extreme, is also a telling case study. We are back to Michelle Obama’s formidable upper arms. I lived in New York for 16 months and was astonished at the imperial scope of the presidency; frankly I found it dangerous. POTUS is the most powerful man in the world, and that is all the more reason for not treating him as such. More insidious are the second order consequences of fawning—the obsession with Jackie Kennedy’s dresses, Hillary Clinton’s hair, the Obama girls’ school choices, and of course that Portuguese Water Dog. Much of this fluff is an indication of the unpleasant reality that women in public life are still judged on different grounds than men, but it also indicates that America needs to direct its reverent urges beyond the presidency. Hollywood actors, sports superstars, and even reality TV participants—all in plentiful supply in contemporary America—cannot match monarchy when it comes to deflecting mankind’s worse tendencies away from politicians.
(There is an alternative possibility here of course; the fact that even if the British public wished to direct their celebrity obsessions onto their elected officers, said leaders would simply not be able to absorb them. Attempts at hero-worship might simply slide off the sloping shoulders of Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg, or opposition leader Ed Milliband. No Obamas, they.)
Earlier this year Hillary Mantel, the author of high caliber historical novels, gave a speech on “Royal Bodies” that was later printed in the London Review of Books. It was a finessed piece, which moved from discussion of Kate to the matrimonial challenges of Tudor monarch Henry VIII. After the story’s publication, the British popular press laid into Mantel. They charged her with denigrating the Duchess of Cambridge. The right-leaning Daily Mail accused Mantel of a “venomous attack.” But to me it seemed that their real accusation was one drawn from the early modern period in which Mantel sets her novels: usurpation of prerogative. The tabloids know it is their customary lot to tear down when the building up is done. They did it to Sarah, Duchess of York, unfortunate ex-wife of the queen’s second son Andrew, and also to Princess Diana. The monarchical lighting rod conducts both praise and scorn.
It is for that reason that it is possible to conceive of genuine pity for the royal baby-to-be, and also to not be able to look away. We’ve seen this with the young British princes, who were born into a public role that they did not choose. While the expenditure of public money on their upkeep is distasteful there is genuine pathos to their situation. Sympathy for Kate is more complicated; it is hard not to conceive of her present position as the result of a pact that bordered on the Faustian, but likewise I wonder whether she could truly have made an informed consent, to have known when she dreamed of marrying her prince what the real levels of intrusion and consequent personal limitation would be.
As Sarah Lyall, the sharp-penned New York Times correspondent, has pointed out, Britain remains a deeply repressed society. But repression is not the entire truth. Certain aspects of British culture are vastly more confrontational than their American counterparts. No American president ever faces a public mauling comparable to prime minister’s questions, and the gladiatorial interviews on the BBC’s Today Programme make Meet the Press look like a mutual appreciation society. It is perhaps true that these occasions are the repressed rage of the ages seeping through any available fissure, but maybe that’s not so bad. British society has created conduits and venues in which our most bellicose, and in many ways basest, desires can be conducted in a controlled environment. If you must kneel, kneel at the newsstand.