For a democracy, the United States still goes loopy over royalty.
No matter how successful or hard-working a “commoner” like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett may be, they still take second place to a paper sovereign with inherited riches and a genetic code taken from a Cracker-Jack box. I’m convinced that in three generations, the monarch of Great Britain will be an incongruous blob with one eye and a deformed limb. It’ll still probably qualify as either Henry IX, George VII or Blobby I. The crown of St. Edward will be covered in protoplasmic ooze on its coronation. I wouldn’t want to be its dresser at Balmoral–you try putting a kilt on a blob.
We still have these people, in various capacities in scattered countries across Europe (the Asian and African ones tend to be a little more autocratic). Their centuries of inbreeding have produced a virtual subspecies of human that is impervious to natural selection. All of them could drop a semi-literate bubble boy at any time, and he’ll still be Duke of WhatdaF**k or whatever. One thing is certain though; no matter how dim-witted or deformed, all royals are sticklers for etiquette and protocol. They are the only things monarchs still control with an iron fist–and we Yanks can never get it right.
The most notable recent gaffe occurred in 2007, when George W. Bush mistook Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain for her demented porphyria-stricken uncle George III. In a famous faux-pas, Bush suggested that the Queen helped celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1776, not 1976. It resulted in a look from Her Shortness that would have cost Dubya a half-hanging and a set of boiling instestines a few centuries earlier. He was not alone: who can forget the elderly elf speaking below the podium upon meeting Bill Clinton…oh, wait, that was the Queen. Evidently, the advance folks forgot the tricky business of height differential–and knowing Bubba’s nature, Her Majesty should have had Handi-Wipes down there.
This week, Barack Obama becomes the 11th Commander in Chief to greet the octagenarian monarch, and this had to go right. Gordon Brown’s still trying to find a region 1 DVD player that takes 220 Volts of two-pronged goodness. But as always, we figure out how to screw it up somehow, at least according to the British press. First Lady Michelle Obama did away with the “optional” curtsy (who knew a curtsy was “optional”?), instead going straight for the good ol’ American handshake…oh, the horror. Poor Barack was so confused about the rules that he twitched his head up and down like a punch-drunk bobblehead doll. At least the Queen took it in stride–it also helped that Prince Philip, Shorty’s main squeeze, did his own foot-in-mouth routine.
The American faux pas in front of a crowned head of Europe is a tired cliche. Okay, we get it: the Yank in the ten-gallon hat slaps King ThunderJowls on the back, the nobility stands aghast, and monocles fly everywhere. Thank God that the Queen never met Lyndon Johnson…he’d probably mention how his Haggar slacks ride his crotch like a wire fence.
The British press obsess about this perceived affronty, and they have a point. Without a monarchy to kick around, Great Britain would just be some run-of-the-mill European socialist welfare state with lukewarm food and ridiculous fashion sense. To be British is, for many, to be the Queen’s subject, and it behooves a subject to protect his/her sovereign from all enemies, foreign and domestic. To save us some embarrassment, it helps that we Americans should learn at least the basics about meeting these people–the forms of address, whether to bow or curtsy, etc.
Yet on the same note, Great Britain, and all constitutional monarchies for that matter, should cut us mere commoners a little slack if we fumble at the dinner table or offer the wrong hand. We’re just not accustomed to treating people differently if they don’t deserve it. Why couldn’t the Queen make money honestly like Bill Gates, crushing competitors like insects? Or be a professional basketball/football/baseball player? Even if you can’t make an honest living, at least have the common decency to make a fool of yourself in public–just ask Paris Hilton. It takes hard work to flush a reputation down the toilet and not care.
So give us a break, your Highnesses. Rigid social order is a little foreign to us, and we need all the help we can get.
NOTE: This does not apply to absolute monarchies, especially those where the monarchs wear bedsheets and sit on huge stores of petroleum. They always get the curtsy.
Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 6: Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?
A persistent problem in history instruction is the demonization of the “losers” of history.
The British were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.
The Germans were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.
The 1974-1976 Philadelphia Flyers were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction. (That last one may be true.)
It’s a common trap for educators. Because of our emphasis on literacy, especially elements of fiction, we tend to view historical events through the prism of the fiction story: plot, setting, protagonists and especially antagonists. Kids might not grasp the nuance of British soldiers assisting native tribes from encroachment by American colonists. They do get, however, a pack of British redcoats unloading their muskets on a group of 70 minutemen “peaceably” gathering on Lexington common.
Good guys and bad guys make a natural narrative that’s clear, convenient and memorable. It also makes for bad history.
This has been especially true of the American Revolution, one of my favorite subjects. I’ll be studying the revolution at UCLA at a Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar in July, and the old “bad British” mentality does not fly in academia. Scholars of late have attempted to rectify the prevailing narrative with research on the Iroquois campaigns of 1778-1779, the gruesome guerrilla wars between Patriot and Tory gangs in the Carolinas, and the fate of Loyalists after the war was over.
In classrooms, we are slowly coming into contact with such material. For example, George Vs. George attempts to give a balanced account of the revolution from the two most famous “Georges”, George Washington and King George III.
Yet my favorite of these works is an old warhorse by Jean Fritz, a master of historical narrative for children. Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? is an entertaining, balanced account of the trials of the British monarch from boyhood through the end of the revolution.
As in other books about Franklin, Columbus, Sam Adams, etc., Fritz uses historical facts and the events of the period to provide a very human, and surprising linear, portrait of complicated people. George III is shown as an awkward, troublesome boy who accidentally ends up heir to the British throne. Once in power, George endeavors to be a good king: in manners, in style, in government, and especially with his rambunctious subjects in America.
The conflict in the colonies is shown as a distant affair, a master stroke by Fritz to add realism. Remember that the revolution was occurring 3,000 miles across the ocean. Unless your family had someone in the army serving in America, most British subjects had the revolution in the distant background. Fritz shows how George fit the American war in the context of his numerous duties: very important, yet not always at the forefront of his mind.
Although a disservice to true aficionados of the period, George’s “madness” is rarely mentioned. The audience of Fritz’ work would probably not understand George’s porphyria, his well-documented mental illness. Thus, George is shown becoming more eccentric as the revolution progresses, when in reality those nervous tics were always part of his persona.
Older students should definitely couple this book with Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, as well as its excellent screen adaptation, The Madness of King George.
Finally, the book debunks the myth created by our Founding Fathers that George III was a hardhearted monster. On the contrary, George was in fact an incredibly involved monarch who was careful to look after the needs of his people. Yet for any government, let alone a king, ruling a vast overseas empire is incredibly hard work, and involves leaving decisions to subordinates that may not be in the best interests of everyone. And boy, did George have some doozies of subalterns: Lord North, Charles Townshend, Lord Grenville, William Pitt the Elder (and Younger), Lord Rockingham, Lord Bute, Charles Edward Fox, and so on.
Fritz goes a long way in showing just how difficult it is to lead the British Empire. Challenge your students to see what they would do if they were in King George’s shoes. You may be surprised at the answers.
As for me, I’ll cut George III some slack.
Bobby Clarke, on the other hand, has a special place in hell reserved for him.
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