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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Do Americans Understand Monarchy?

Do Americans Understand Monarchy? Probably not, no. I haven't come across one who I can say for sure does, actually.

An observation that I remember from year thirteen history is that in New Zealand there are very few memorials of the colonial past. Sure, there's the occasional historical site like the remains of a pa or a monument, but for the most part these weren't set up. In the USA this is... not the case. In fact, Americans are so keen on historical monuments and the like that a bunch of their lawyers buggered off to Runnymede and installed one for Magna Carta. Yet, recall the lesson of the History Boys:
[T]here is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
I'm not entirely sure I agree, but if you take this as a limited statement it is really rather defensible.

The US predilection for memorialisation has a major consequence in mysticisation. To the American Magna Carta isn't a contract. It isn't even a treaty. The American sees Magna Carta as the start of liberty, the original root of their vaunted, worshipped and unequestionable Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Now, there's an alternative explanation for that latter symptom but it's scarcely better. Perhaps it is the supremacy of the US Constitution that makes Americans confuse paper (or, indeed, parchment) with Justice, Truth, Democracy and Freedom. These are just ideas and highly particular articulations of them are embodied in the work of the Founders and Framers. Jesus. It makes my skin crawl just to use these terms like that.

The American generally understands the point of their Revolution, i.e. an uprising. However, what they universally fail to grasp is that it was really more a rebellion. The revolutionary elements appeared after the fact, once victory has been attained. This happens quite often. The Civil War did not begin with the intention of executing Charles I: that was an idea that emerged out of the inevitable "now what?" The motivation of the Thirteen Colonies' War of Independence was, when you cut through the chaff, entitlement... they didn't want to pay taxes. That's it.

When you look at the relationship of those colonies to Britain at the time, you need to consider the way Britain worked. And the truth is that Britain was well on its way to the constitutionality we know today. Indeed, it had been since well before the Civil War... after all, Charles I and Parliament struggled largely over the issue of taxation. During Charles' personal rule he never instituted new ones, just resurrected old ones. There was a reason for this... he couldn't do much more than that. But what do Americans remember? They remember Evil George III and the Divine Right of Kings.

Social Memory isn't history. In fact, it's not even really compatible with history. One of the major implications of social memory is that people approach historical topics with deep seated prior beliefs. Usually these complicate, confuse and contest historical analyses. Which is why you find lay discourse in America about monarchy today which draws on the Divine Right of Kings. That was a philosophy of two monarchs: father and son. And it moved a long way from ministers on earth.

Another common American conception of monarchy is that countries with monarchs have subjects, not citizens. Sure, that has been true. But it's not at all something that is necessary to the idea. And that's why it doesn't exist today. If you ask me, the reason Americans make this mistake again and again is because they confuse paper with reality. Just because it is written down, doesn't make it right or why. We have the power and capacity to re-frame and re-articulate institutions. This is a lesson constitutional monarchy reveals far more clearly than any other form of government.

Defining monarchy is pretty difficult. The child's definition of "parent to sibling" sounds attractive, but hereditary monarchy isn't the only kind. I mean, we could say, "Yeah, they called themselves monarchies, but they weren't really". We definitely can do that. But, at the same time, if you're North Korea do you look like a monarchy? None of the tropes we associate with monarchy are present beyond emperor cultism. Which is certainly as Big Thing to notice, but where are the crowns? Why aren't siblings of the "emperor" afforded "of the blood" status? It seems to me that the only reasonable definition of monarchy is one burdened by self-description and self-use of standard tropes.

It follows pretty immediately that the formative power of the mind is a lesson laid bare by constitutional monarchy. After all, in an absolute monarchy, the formative capacity still exists, but the power is arbitrarily suppressed. And in a republic, there's a a substitution of the "divine right of kings" with the "divine right of the people"... and frequently also a suppression of the power. Which is to say... constitutional monarchies aren't just republics by another name, or fake monarchies as some (including Americans) like to say. Constitutional monarchies are post-modern government structures. They are the cutting edge when it comes to theories of state, government and society. And this impression only gets truer when you realise just how old republicanism is.

The paradox of America is that it happily believes in Evil George whilst hungrily eating up every gossip story it can get its hands on. The British Monarchy, in some sense, is to Americans is more different to the Kennedys or the Bushes than it is to the Kardashian-Jenners. The reason for this is probably that they're not at all exposed to the Big differences. There's nothing stopping Kim Kardashian from taking big political positions in public. There is something stopping Charles or the Queen from doing that. It's very strange to Americans, I think, to imagine an official public life which is completely apolitical. After all, they even elect judges in the US. This stems from their institutional settings, as I have already alluded.

Naturally, Harry and William and co. are gossip mag staples here as well. There really are important parallels between celebrity and royalty in the 21st Century. The difference is that there's a wider appreciation of what William and Harry are (i.e. lizard people*). Even if the only reason this exists is because the organisation of our society is an active question in NZ, it still exists. What Americans (as a whole, because individuals always will) don't seem to get is that monarchy is just a thing. The Queen is as meaningful as The Plumber. The difference is that more people know the Queen. That's it. That's the relationship of citizen and monarch.

As a final thought let's spoil the end of Legend of Korra: Book Four and Thor: Ragnarok.

The relevant character arc of Thor between the three Thor films is from over-eager would-be King to reluctant King. This is superficially similar to Prince Wu's arc in LoK. The difference is that Thor actually takes the throne where Wu denies it... proposing some sort of republican structure instead (LoK also features Republic City, so this is probably to be expected).

In the original Avatar run, Zuko eventually takes up the throne because his uncle says it would be a bad look for brother to fight brother for the throne. Even though Ozai is still deposed, the replacement of the father with the son is thought to be better. Yeah, well, probably not. In real life, it doesn't matter what kind of relationship we're dealing with... throne seizures tend to be destabilising. This gets more and more true depending on the institutional and other extra-personal features of the polity.

The Earth Kingdom, as it is depicted in Avatar and LoK other than Book Four, has poor institutions but symbolic leadership in the Earth King/Queen. Wu's decision is ultimately incredibly selfish... he chooses to replace a brief tyrannical regime with an imposed republican structure whilst removing the stabilising symbolism of the Throne. It stands in a stark contrast to Thor's acceptance of the Throne in a somewhat more troubling time for his people. When you see Monarchy as a thing suddenly removing it is just as radical, dramatic and destabilising a change as pulling the rug out from under you.

Don't get me wrong, Wu is a terrible person to be a king... he's deeply immature, selfish and air-headed. There have been many, many examples of poor monarchs and a lot have shared Wu-traits. But the lesson to be learnt is not that monarchy is all about personal power, but that those monarchies were. The logical lesson of Wu's arc in Book Four was that he should be symbolic... allow himself to be constructed in the way his bodyguard's Grandma did, to allow people like his bodyguard to do the work supported by that symbolism. In other words, he should have recognised that the problem was what his predecessor did, not what his predecessor was. Which, you know, would also have been consistent with the overall theme of LoK re: the nature of the Avatar.

Thor: Ragnarok takes that position. Thor puts aside his personal response to the Throne in order to be what his people need from it. The symbol subsumed the god. It's a vastly less American interpretation... and one wonders if it's related to the vastly less American nature of the production.




*An old joke made funny.

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