Is it senseless hype or civil heresy? Simple celebrity stalking or something deeper and more disturbing? Today’s (as of this printing) nuptials of Britain’s Prince William to Kate Middleton have sent the dream-weavers and lotus-eaters of pop culture into unprecedented states of intoxicated bliss. The joining of the inaccessible to the unattainable used to warrant a large piece in the Style section, a pre-dawn broadcast for the bizarrely dedicated, or at most, a Barbara Walters post-Super Bowl special to occupy sports widows while they cleared away the detritus of the Big Game.
Something else is going on here, something attributable to more than the ubiquity and demands of the 24/7 media shark sifting through the chum of the new and notable. A Lifetime movie about the couple is preceding the actual event it gauzily fictionalizes, begging the philosophical question: Does life imitate niche women’s programming?
Every major TV “news” outlet (not-so-ironic air quotes becoming more necessary with each passing, trivializing story) plans lengthy profiles in advance of their full-day, real-time coverage, from dawn’s first fluffing of the Grenadier Guard’s helmets to the shoveling of the royal carriage’s monarchical manure as it fades into the waning twilight.
It’s one thing for the British and their remnant of a kingdom to embrace this moment in the imperial lifecycle. But why are so many Americans jonesing for this fix of fantasy? Despite a collective national memory bounded by the span between Lady Gaga’s tweets, was it so long ago that we threw off the yoke of our redcoat-wearing, tea-swilling oppressors to embark on this exemplary experiment in independence and democracy? Don’t we celebrate this triumph every summer, albeit often with less pride and principle than with a dubious mix of fireworks and alcohol that bears out Darwin’s case?
We fought against the very elitism and exclusivism that this event embodies, and sought to create an egalitarian meritocracy that still rankles the landed gentry of that aloof isle. Are we so enamored of spectacle and pomp, so sick and tired of the plodding sausage making that passes for democracy in our current Congress, that we’ve regressed into playing a vast, culture-wide version of Pretty, Pretty Princess?
Perhaps our current, and often literal, idolization of celebrity expresses a longing for romanticism. The near-deification of the Kennedy dynasty, and its identification with the mythical Camelot, reflects this cultural quirk. But maybe there’s something more telling and more troubling going on. Despite our protestations for freedom and representation, and despite the sacrifices we’ve endured to achieve them, is there something in us that compels an attachment to royalty?
This ambivalence is as old as the Bible. The Book of Samuel recounts the tension between a longing for concentrated, definitive leadership and the perils of investing power in a single individual. The disorganized and diffuse Israelites needed a compelling figure to rally them against the Philistine threat. As his tenure draws to a close, the prophet Samuel hopes his special brand of leadership, as God’s agent, will continue through his sons. Though they are morally unsuitable for the job, there is something more to the Israelite’s insistence on a monarch. They aspire to be like other peoples, with a king to lead them into battle and serve as object of their pride.
Samuel admonishes the people for compromising their fidelity to God as sole leader, and he lists regal excesses and the rights and property that the people would concede. It reads like the middle section of our Declaration of Independence, with its litany of royal abuses. Still, the people persist in wanting a king, so strong is their desire to be led and to adore a human sovereign. The succeeding history of the Jewish monarchy is filled with concession and consequence. Even the iconic David and Solomon demonstrate the frailty and failures of flesh and blood, despite their selection and ordination by God.
The lesson seems clear if not trite: Be careful what you wish for! As is so often the case, Judaism inspires and guides us to transcend what is easy, obvious and impulsive toward embracing what is challenging, affirming and empowering. It may be easier to project our fears, needs and longings on an overly idealized person, but the costs of such an investment in lost freedom and opportunity far outweigh the temporary quelling of our existential angst.
So while today’s royal wedding may tap the wellsprings of nostalgia, it is also a reminder of how far we’ve come in our national enterprise, and how far we’ve yet to go.