One of the things about America that most endeared it to me when I first arrived for graduate studies was the lack of stuffiness in personal and business relationships. There was an easy informality, casual yet respectful, friendly yet polite, that I liked and found easy to get used to. I put this down to the American revolution, that decided that along with getting rid of direct rule by the English king, they also decided to get rid of all the pomp that went along with the English court. It seemed to reflect a sturdy democratic and republican (small ‘d’ and small ‘r’) spirit.
So it always surprises and amuses me that whenever the US president goes to England and meets with the Queen, the media of the very country that inspired the rest of the world to overthrow colonial and monarchial rule, gets into all of a doo-dah at the alarming prospect that the president or his wife will commit some awful faux pas that will embarrass the country because it will reveal to the world that Americans are ignorant hicks who should not be allowed into polite society.
We are not talking about things like the president picking his nose at the dinner table or chewing tobacco and spitting on the carpet. We can take as a given that such things are generally understood to be not done. We are not even talking about making mistakes of esoteric etiquette at formal dinner parties, like which fork to use for what or what one should do with one’s napkin after one is done or what one should drink at any given stage of the meal. Although these latter issues are trivial and I do not understand why anyone even cares about them, I am talking about the even more arcane rules of etiquette that involve just the Queen. Apparently one should never turn one’s back on her, not touch her, not speak to her until she speaks to you, and so on. If you do any of these things, the journalists covering the event suddenly get transformed into a bunch of Victorian ladies either getting the vapors and reaching for their smelling salts or raising their eyebrows and peering disapprovingly through their lorgnettes with a lot of harrumphing and tut-tutting, saying, “This is perfectly frightful. This will never do.”
The hot topic this time is whether Michelle Obama should have touched the Queen and whether their gift of an iPod was appropriate. There was little discussion about the fact that the Queen gave them in return a signed photograph of herself and her husband, which struck me as quite odd. If an American president had done that, the press corps might have collapsed with apoplectic embarrassment.
But the real question is: Why the hell should anyone care about any of this? Why should anyone else be bothered by the possibility that the Queen will be offended by the violation of some private rule of etiquette? Just suck it up, Queenie baby!
These absurd rules were imposed by the kings and queens of yore because they wanted people to be afraid of them and to grovel before them. The way you keep people off-balance and apprehensive is by making them not know whether they are transgressing a rule or not. And the monarchs of those days had the power to create and enforce rules arbitrarily. Breaking any of the rules could result in them ordering the offender’s head to be cut off and placed on a spike for public view. That’s how “civilized” the British royalty were. And yet we admire them?
The Queen may be a nice old lady but the respect she deserves is the same as what one should give any other nice old lady, such as the grandmotherly types of one’s acquaintance or the cashiers at the supermarket, no more and no less. All this bowing and scraping is unseemly. Who knows, maybe the royal family makes up weirder and weirder rules just to see how far they can make gullible Americans tie themselves up in knots, and then secretly laugh uproariously at their expense afterwards.
Furthermore the British monarchy is a totally parasitic institution, living off inherited wealth that was taken by force from the people, and it should be abolished rather than pandered to. To abide by these arcane rules and not to ignore them or treat them with contempt is to endorse some of the worst legacies of feudalism.
In the unlikely event that I receive an invitation to Buckingham Palace and decide to go, I will not say upon meeting her “Yo, Lizzie, what’s shakin?” but I am definitely not going to bow to her or follow any of the rules that somebody decided long ago was the proper way to behave in her presence. I will treat her like I would treat any elderly lady of my acquaintance. I will stand when she enters, offer to shake her hand, and make appropriate small talk. That’s it.
The British have been warned.
POST SCRIPT: John Oliver explains why one should not touch the Queen
(This clip appeared on April 2, 2009. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)