[Repost] How I became a reluctant monarchist

Monarchy is both a stupid idea and a good choice

Author’s note: This article first in May 2017. Reposting it today in light of the announcement of the Royal engagement.

On days like this, it is hard to defend Britain’s monarchy. It is beyond me how people manage to care about stuff like Pippa Middleton’s wedding. It has the banality and irrelevance of celebrity news, but lacks the colourful characters and outrageous behaviour. That combination is made even more grating because it is presented in a tone of fascinated obsequiousness, and in staggering volume. Every paper in the UK apart from the Guardian put the wedding on its front page today. By contrast, none found space for Iranians deying hardliners and re-electing their moderate president, an objectively significant story.

It is hard not to be aware of the absurdity of the Royal Family as an institution and, perhaps even more so, our reaction it. I laughed for several minutes when I first read a headline in the Daily Mash, Britain’s answer to the Onion, that went ‘Duchess wows easily-wowed crowd‘.

Despite all this I now consider myself a monarchist. That’s not always been the case. I was a republican up until 2011. That was the year of the William/Kate wedding. As you can probably deduce from what you’ve just read, I found that a rather trying period. Never has so much attention been paid to so little. Would her dress have sleeves? Oh seriously, who gives a ****?

I retreated to thesis writing. But as usually happens when I do that, procrastination followed, and for me that meant perusing blog after blog. Naturally, most of them considered the Royal Wedding in one way or another, and plenty of them considered it as strange as I did. Nonetheless,  many also found convincing rationales for the paegentry.

Two arguments particuarly stuck with me. The first from Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling:

John Band makes a superb point:

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) [he might have added Japan – CD] also tend to be monarchies.”

This, he says, is because monarchies remind us that our fate in life is due not solely to merit but to luck, and thus increases public support for redistribution. Is it really an accident that monarchical Spain is more equal than presidential Portugal, or Canada more egalitarian than the US, or Denmark more than Finland?

The Observer says that “meritocracy and monarchy is one marriage that just doesn’t work.” True. But a true meritocracy would, as Michael Young famously pointed out, be even more horribly inegalitarian than the fake one we have now. So given the choice, give me monarchy.

The other came from the philosopher Mark Vernon:

A republican will say that a president can [also embody a nation], along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions – though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict – as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they’re symbolic not explicit.

That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.

After this, I came to see my own (and I confess other’s) republicanism as rather literal minded and, dare I say it, a bit adolescent. Not every institution needed to conform to every desirable ideal. Sometimes anachronisms that make little logical sense, can still serve a purpose. Events like royal weddings are inherently silly, but the people excited by it weren’t: They were enjoying a moment that bonded communities. So, when the Diamond Jubilee came round the next year, I gladly went along to a (as it turned out very wet) celebratory barbecue, safe in the knowledge that its absurdity was something to savour rather than reject.

Best reaction tweet:

Worst reaction tweet:



The best things I’ve read recently (27/11/17)

Can China find aliens? Can the DPRK survive South Korean pop culture? Can Dan Brown write for toffee?

Dan Brown is a very bad writer by Matthew Walther (The Week)

“The novel’s most crucial scene is the stunning almost-but-not-quite-too-late moment when, having reached as far as he can into the depths of his (as is repeatedly impressed upon us) encyclopedic memory, it dawns upon Langdon, purportedly a member of the Harvard humanities faculty, that “Blake was not only an artist and illustrator … Blake was a prolific poet.” Bingo? This is like saying that John Carpenter is not only a composer of synthesizer music, he is also the director of such classic films as Halloween and The Thing.”

N Korean defection sheds light on influence of pop culture by Bryan Harris (FT)

‘US president Donald Trump has embarked on a strategy of “maximum pressure”, leaving “all options on the table”. North Korea, however, is demonstrating resilience to comprehensive international sanctions, while the estimated death toll of any military intervention makes the prospect unfeasible.

The alternative path for some watchers of the reclusive nation is to focus on its people — particularly the younger generation, who are increasingly familiar with foreign movies and music.

“This is such a point of leverage that is being underutilised,” says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps scores of North Koreans defect every year.

“There is so much focus now on security problems and harsh rhetoric but ultimately that is playing North Korea’s game — and they are very well-practised. It is the soft underbelly of media, culture and the economy where South Korea, the US and the international community has massive advantages over North Korea.”

Analysts say the first step is to improve the quality and quantity of radio transmissions — a prospect that was boosted when the BBC Korea service began in September.

“We need a more diverse array of tailored media content for North Koreans,” said Mr Park, who contrasted the lacklustre efforts to break North Korea’s information blockade with those made to bring down the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. “We used to be better at this stuff.”’

What happens if China makes first contact? by Ross Anderson (the Atlantic)

“How would he reply to a message from a cosmic civilization? [Famous Chinese Science Fiction writer Liu Cixin] said that he would avoid giving a too-detailed account of human history. “It’s very dark,” he said. “It might make us appear more threatening.” In Blindsight, Peter Watts’s novel of first contact, mere reference to the individual self is enough to get us profiled as an existential threat. I reminded Liu that distant civilizations might be able to detect atomic-bomb flashes in the atmospheres of distant planets, provided they engage in long-term monitoring of life-friendly habitats, as any advanced civilization surely would. The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.

Liu told me that first contact would lead to a human conflict, if not a world war. This is a popular trope in science fiction. In last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly triggers a war between world powers anxious to gain an edge in the race to understand the alien’s messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast simulating an alien invasion was replayed in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We have fallen into conflicts over things that are much easier to solve,” Liu told me.”

Tweets of the week

Podcast of the week

Analysis examines the premium voters seem to be placing on ‘authenticity’ and why this is problematic. I would perhaps go with a slightly different conclusion than the show does and say that ‘authenticity’ is functionally a synonym for ‘entertaining’ and that this is a terrible criteria by which to choose leaders.

Video of the week