By Ian Buruma
NEW YORK: Does monarchy — constitutional monarchy, that is, not the despotic kind — have any redeeming features left? The arguments against maintaining kings and queens are mostly quite rational. It is unreasonable in this democratic age to pay special deference to people solely on the basis of their birth. Are we really supposed to admire and love modern monarchies, such as the British House of Windsor, even more so today, just because some new princess has been plucked from the middle class?
Monarchy has an infantilizing effect. Witness how otherwise sensible adults are reduced to nervously grinning sycophants when they are granted the privilege of touching an extended royal hand. At great monarchical displays, such as the royal wedding in London, millions become enthralled by child-like dreams of a “fairy-tale” marriage. The mystique of immense wealth, noble birth, and great exclusivity is further sustained by the global mass media that promote these rituals.
Now, one might argue that the dignified pomp of Queen Elizabeth II is preferable to the tawdry grandiosity of Silvio Berlusconi, Madonna, or Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, the British monarchy, especially, has been reinventing itself by adopting many of the most vulgar features of modern showbiz or sports celebrity. And the worlds of royalty and popular fame often overlap.
For example, David Beckham and his ex-pop-star wife Victoria, live out their own dream of royalty, aping some of its gaudiest aspects. They also happened to be among the favored guests at the latest royal wedding. Similarly, while Britain has many outstanding musicians, the favorite of the royal court is Elton John.
Infantile or not, there is a common human craving for taking vicarious pleasure in the lives of kings, queens, and other shining stars. To call these people’s ostentatious displays of extravagance wasteful is to miss the point: a world of glittering dreams that must remain entirely beyond our grasp is precisely what many people want to see.
But there is another, darker side to this craving, which is the wish to see idols dragged through the mud in vicious gossip magazines, divorce courts, and so on. This is the vengeful side of our fawning, as though the humiliation of worshipping idols must be balanced by our delight in their downfall.
Indeed, to subject people who are born into royal families, or people who marry into them, to lives in a fishbowl, where they are on constant display, like actors and actresses in a continuous soap opera, where human relations are distorted and stunted by absurd rules of protocol, is a terrible form of cruelty. The current Japanese empress and her daughter-in-law, both from non-aristocratic families, have had nervous breakdowns as a result.
Likewise, movie stars often fall victim to alcohol, drugs, and breakdowns, but at least they have chosen the lives they live. Kings and queens, on the whole, have not. Prince Charles might have been far happier as a gardener, but this was never an option.
One thing to be said for monarchs is that they provide people with a sense of continuity, which can be useful in times of crisis or radical change. The King of Spain provided stability and continuity after the end of Franco’s dictatorship. During World War II, European monarchs kept a sense of hope and unity alive among their subjects under Nazi occupation.
But there is something else, too. Monarchies are often popular with minorities. Jews were among the most loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. Franz Joseph I stood up for his Jewish subjects when they were threatened by German anti-Semites. To him, Jews, Germans, Czechs, or Hungarians were all his subjects, wherever they lived, from the smallest Galician shtetl to the grand capitals of Budapest or Vienna. This offered some protection to minorities at a time of rising ethnic nationalism.
In this sense, monarchy is a little like Islam, or the Catholic Church: all believers are supposed to be equal in the eyes of God, or the Pope, or the Emperor — hence the appeal to the poor and the marginalized.
This might explain some right-wing populists’ animus against monarchy. The Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders, for example, has denounced Queen Beatrix on several occasions as a leftist, elitist, and multiculturalist. Like the new wave of populists worldwide, Wilders promises to take his country back for his followers, to stop immigration (especially of Muslims), and to make the Netherlands Dutch again, whatever that means.
Beatrix, like Franz Joseph, refuses to make ethnic or religious distinctions between her subjects. That is what she means when she preaches tolerance and mutual understanding. To Wilders and his supporters, this is a sign of her molly-coddling of aliens, of appeasing Muslims. To them, the queen seems almost anti-Dutch.
To be sure, like all European royal families, the origins of the Dutch royal family are decidedly mixed. The emergence of kings and queens as specifically national figureheads is a relatively recent historical development. Empires contained many nations, after all. Queen Victoria, mostly of German blood, did not regard herself as a monarch of Britons alone, but of Indians, Malays, and many other peoples, too.
This aristocratic tradition of standing above the narrow strains of ethnic nationalism may be the best argument to hang on to royalty a little longer. Now that many European nations have become increasingly mixed in terms of ethnicity and culture, the only way forward is to learn to live together. If monarchs can teach their subjects to do so, then let us give at least one cheer for the remaining kings and queens.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College. His latest book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.