A child is born and America rejoices, making us wonder, once again, what it is about British royalty that has such attraction for those living in the land of the free and the brave. We supposedly cast off that yoke 237 years ago, but we never really seem to have gotten over our fascination with royals, wishing, perhaps, that we could be them. In truth, it’s a wish we’d never want fulfilled.
The last century or so has seen tale after tale about the soap opera-like lives of the House of Windsor. Edward’s abdication in 1936. George’s accession to the throne, stutter or not. Elizabeth’s long reign, from age 26 and now in its 61st year. The fairy-tale wedding of Charles and Diana, its grinding dissolution, and her tragic death. The fairy-tale wedding as well of William and Kate — she plucked from the obscurity of a commoner (well, OK, her parents are multimillionaires) — and then the multiple false reports of pregnancies, confirmation, and finally, last week, the birth of George Alexander Louis.
George’s birth is particularly striking because it is unlike that of almost any other birth in the world. George has a destiny. It’s an idea that seems very far removed from modern-day sensibilities.
We like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, free to be and free to become whatever we want. In the United States, in particular, that ideal of equal opportunity has a powerful hold. We believe that no one is bound by the circumstances of their birth. Parentage is irrelevant, social strictures of class are fluid and maybe even nonexistent. One rises and falls based on individual ambition and merit.
There are real-world limits to this. When people are judged on matters such as their race, ethnicity, or sex, then the opportunities available to them are circumscribed. There is also much evidence that the conditions of our earliest years — from birth through year five — are enormously consequential. Everything from poor nutrition to poor parenting reverberates through a person’s life. Then too there is a sense that the US economy has changed and that opportunities to move from lower class to middle class — to be comfortable but not wealthy — have become less available.
Still, those are all challenges to be confronted and fixed. Indeed, we see those issues as social evils precisely because they undercut equal opportunity. We may not be there yet — and we may never really achieve it — but, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, we are always in “pursuit.”
Royalty represents an entirely opposite notion: You are what you were born to be. It’s an idea rooted in antiquity; as far back as we have recorded history, we’ve had nobility. Parentage and class were supremely important. To be on the upper rungs was preferable — one had wealth and status. To be on the lower rungs, on the other hand, often meant being consigned to misery.
Much of the story of the United States, in fact, is that it was a place where people could escape the Old World’s strictures. It was a revolutionary model, and many of the countries that people once escaped from — especially in Europe — have now followed suit. Like the United States, they’ve created true democracies, giving citizens equal voices and getting rid of the rigid hierarchies that once defined the course of people’s lives. Many of them still retain the vestiges of royalty — Great Britain, of course, but also Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, and more — but it is a largely powerless position, a figure on a stage acting as head of state, but nothing much more.
Which brings us to baby George, a child who one day likely will be king. Many doubtless envy his circumstances. Isn’t it everyone’s fantasy to learn, “Princess Diaries”-like, that we are in truth a prince or princess? But envy, it seems to me, is the wrong word. Pity is more like it. As the rest of the world increasingly grants its citizens the right to be whatever they want, George has no choice. The royals are indeed different: There is no equal opportunity for them. Their destiny is known, and that is a terrible burden to bear.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org