The imperial mindset on display

I have been reading the reactions to the Singapore summit meetings and have been bemused by the hostile reactions to it almost across the board. What struck me was that many of them were extremely irate about one particular aspect, that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were shown as equals, in that they had equal numbers of flags of the two nations, stood and sat side by side, and in every other way the two leaders were treated as if they were of equal standing.

The sentiment appeared to be that the North Korean leader had achieved some kind of major propaganda coup just by being shown to be of equal stature with an American president. The pundits seemed to feel that just sharing the same stage with a US president was a great honor that Kim should have had to pay for with some prior concession or some sign of obsequiousness to display his inferior status. To me, this demonstrated how even the liberal-left-progressive elements in the US have internalized the imperial mindset. They seem to feel that Kim should have been portrayed as the lesser of the two leaders, though how that would have been done without being insulting to Kim was not made clear. Maybe they expected Kim to walk few paces behind Trump, like women have to walk behind their husbands in some societies to show their subservience.

When the leaders of two nations meet in a neutral venue, it is surely proper protocol for them to be treated as equals, however much the two nations might differ in terms of economic and military power, as is obviously the case here. In taking this attitude, the liberal-left-progressive intelligentsia seemed to be to acting less maturely than Trump, something that I thought would not have been possible. Given Trump’s display of childish petulance after the G7 summit just a few days earlier, when he spoke so contemptuously of the host nation’s leader Justin Trudeau, I was expecting some kind of idiotic one-upmanship from him in Singapore too and was pleasantly surprised that he refrained from doing so.

The imperial mindset in our media can be seen in a more oblique way when a US president visits the Queen of England. The media here seems to have no problems with the absolutely ridiculous shows of deference that royal protocol imposes on visiting leaders and American presidents seem to happily go along with it. Back in 2009, I wrote a post titled God save us from the Queen about this unseemly behavior when the Obamas visited the Queen and there was a fuss in the media simply because Michelle Obama had touched her, which is apparently a violation of protocol. Pat Oliphant’s cartoon from that time is worth repeating.

As I wrote at the time:

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.”

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..

Trump is due to visit the UK on July 13. Of one thing we can be certain is that there will be large and loud protests during his visit. The visit is also now being described as a mere ‘working visit’ (itself a risible description since one cannot imagine Trump actually working) as opposed to a ‘state visit’ and that may signal that there won’t be much pomp and ceremony and no grand ride with the Queen through the streets of London in a horse drawn carriage which happened with the Obamas and is something Trump desperately desires. The British are unlikely to risk letting the Queen be at the receiving end of the jeers, catcalls, and insulting signs aimed at Trump.

But if he does manage to sneak in a visit to see the Queen, I hope he will not show undue deference but will treat her as if she were just any other head of state, except without the dominance games like the power handshake. The US media will declare him to be a boor of course but it would great if he could set a new precedent on this issue. But since he seems to be dying to meet the Queen, he may be willing to kowtow to her just like his predecessors.


  1. Chris J says

    Not gonna necessarily dispute what you’re saying, but the additional context I’ve seen around the meeting putting Trump and Kim side by side is that North Korea has sought a legitimacy that has been denied them for a long time. Basically, Kim and his predecessor haven’t been put side by side on stage with “the leader of the free world” (yeah, awkward phrase at best) until now, so even achieving something you recognize as basic courtesy is a step up from what has been.

    I honestly have no idea what the “best move” should be. Maybe Trump is righting a wrong by doing what previous presidents haven’t been doing with no strings attached, and that will lead to tensions breaking. Maybe the previous strategy of refusing basic courtesy was proper because Kim is a dictator of an oppressed nation (and maybe meeting with other similar dictators is super hypocritical). Global politics is complicated as hell, and it could even be that the normally right, courteous thing becomes the wrong thing specifically because of the US’s history in refusing it and thus the optics and meaning of it have changed. Like, if I declare that I’m not going to shake your hand because you have terrible taste in clothing, and I keep this up for decades, and then at some point I shake your hand, isn’t that simple act going to imply that I no longer am judging your clothing the same way?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Maybe Trump will give her a 10%-off coupon for two nights at his DC hotel if she comes to visit.

  3. markdowd says

    The problem is not that Trump treated Kim with respect. Like it or not, he is the legitimate ruler of NK and treating him as anything less is an arrogant snub. I agree with this part.

    No, the problem is that Trump consistently fawns over autocratic rulers (see Putin, Duterte, and the Saudi royals) and acts like a total dick to the democratically elected leaders of allied countries (re: NATO). He clearly admires the dictators and envies their power. In that larger context, I am definitely not “pleasantly surprised” by his behavior towards Kim. It was infuriatingly predictable.

    Add onto that fact that Trump is a huge fucking idiot. I can see that there could be pros and cons to stopping military exercises with South Korea in exchange for concrete, verified concessions from NK. What is stupid is agreeing to do that without concessions. What is even stupider is agreeing to do that BEFORE EVEN TALKING TO SOUTH KOREA.

    Kim won the summit just by getting Trump to show up, because it was obvious that Trump would get playing like the fucking idiot that he is. Talks are only good if the people involved are competent and not corrupt fucking morons.

    Have I said “fucking idiot” enough times? I feel like there’s a lot more I need to get out of me.

  4. Mark Dowd says

    You need another example?

    President Xi meets with Kim in secret, giving them advice on how to handle the US summit. Trump calls Xi a “world class poker player” and said “I would probably do the same thing”.

    Justin Trudeau denounces the US tariffs and announces retaliatory Canadian tariffs, saying that Canadians are “polite, but will not be pushed around”. Trump calls him “dishonest & weak”, and all the talking heads on Fox News are calling this a “betrayal”.

    Gee, what’s the difference between the governments of China and Canada? I wonder…

  5. says

    My favourite bit of pearl clutching is how the US has lost its “moral authority” by Donald not doing the usual hypocritical lecturing at Kim over human rights abuses.

    Is it worse in North Korea? Certainly. But the US has never held a moral high ground on human rights and it’s refreshing to see a president, even one as reprehensible as Donald, not making Americans feel better about themselves on this issue.

  6. cartomancer says

    Most elements of British royal ceremonial and protocol are actually surprisingly recent. There was a big push in the 1920s to re-brand the monarchy for the radio and later television age -- before then there was little chance of any regular people coming across the royals, and they could comport themselves in a fairly informal and relaxed fashion. All those gold coaches and rules on touching and formal forms of address are from the early 20th century. They were needed to convince the public that there was something special and superior about the royals.

  7. says

    They were needed to convince the public that there was something special and superior about the royals

    You know he’s the king because he hasn’t got shit all over him.

    Joking aside, it used to be easier when the king was just the biggest thug.

  8. Quirky says

    “…it used to be easier when the king was just the biggest thug.”
    Yeah, it is sad that the people can’t see that they themselves have become the biggest thugs. Each clamoring to have pseudo authority exercised in behalf of their pseudo rights and causes.
    It has been divide and conquer for a long time. Those in positions of power behind the thrones have pitted everyone else against each other by tempting them with the possibility of unauthorized power and pseudo authority over others.
    Time to return to First Principles. Initiate no aggression against another. This includes the voting booth where the seeds of unauthorized political power over others is so often sprouted.

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