Monday, December 13, 2010

A Royal Pain

I was in elementary school in 1953 when on a fine June day we were summoned from the playground and marched into the auditorium to gaze at a 21-inch Philco on the stage and watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

To a group of ragtag schoolkids, kings and queens, coronations and royal trappings was the stuff of fairy tales, no more real to us than gnomes and dragons.

But there it was, in stark black and white, brought to us courtesy of a new technology called television.

It was, as they say these days, a teachable moment. It was also our unwitting indoctrination into the cult of royal family worship that thrives to this day.

Witness the unbridled hysteria surrounding the recently announced nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton. The dashing prince is, of course, the son of Prince Charles and the late Lady Di who alive and deceased received more attention than the entire royal family and Elvis rolled into one.

The bride-to-be is a commoner, which seems a strange designation in an era when the monarchy is becoming irrelevant. But she is hardly the dust bin variety. She is educated, poised, stylish and tenacious, having hung around for eight years before getting a ring.

So good for them. They make a handsome couple and we wish them well. But you and I know the story will not end there.

The avalanche of coverage began with the wedding announcement that on many TV stations was the lead story, bumping into a secondary position the awarding of the Medal of Honor to the first living soldier since Vietnam.

The media is already speculating that the ceremony will be broadcast in 3-D courtesy of Rupert Murdoch. Think of it as a wedding, "Avatar" style.

The British tabloids are in a feeding frenzy. Social networking sites, Web pages, bloggers and cable news pundits will provide all-wedding, all-the-time coverage for the next six months. Don't be surprised if there's a William & Kate iPhone app soon.

We love the Brits, we really do, despite the Boston Massacre, the burning of the Capitol and Herman's Hermits. But do we really care that much?

Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, sees Kate and William as a compelling biological match. "They're slim, they're fit, they're tall, they have gorgeous shiny hair, all the things that connote health," she told the New York Times. "We're watching this prime couple socially and biologically do this mating ritual, which is satisfying and exciting. It feels good."

Which seems a bit clinical.

What really grabs us is a fairy tale in which the beautiful couple and their happy subjects live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the last fairy tale involving Prince Charles and Lady Di ended in divorce and death, which will not be lost on many who watch.

At the risk of sounding cynical and unromantic, the real driving force behind all the hoopla is money. Estimates for the ceremony's price tag range wildly - from around $20 million to $75 million.

William's father, Prince Charles, is expected to pick up most of the check for the wedding, including a possible donation from the queen. Security costs, which have been estimated well into the millions, will be paid by police and government agencies.

This at a time when the people of Great Britain are facing tax increases and austerity cuts that will whittle at benefits and slash half a million public-sector jobs. Even Queen Elizabeth II's budget got squeezed.

But the wedding will be a stimulus package for the British tourism industry. That is, after all, one of the main economic arguments in favor of maintaining the monarchy: It is a steady draw for tourists who visit the British capital to see the Windsors in their pomp.

According to the BBC, restaurateurs and hoteliers can now look forward to a two-year bulge in tourism numbers, with the 2011 wedding to be followed by the 2012 Olympics. Some economists think a feel-good event could help lift broader consumer spending out of the doldrums.

Then there is the merchandising. A reporter for the Guardian's blog said that she "just spoke to a woman from Asda," Wal-Mart's British arm, "who confirmed the supermarket is planning to flog as much memorabilia as possible, `because we all love a royal wedding, don't we?"'

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