GELFAND’S WORLD-NPR almost certainly got the details wrong, but the story they played is food for thought. The radio segment, which I heard on my drive home the other night, was about the fact that the word "president" wasn't prestigious back in the days when we started calling our George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns by that title. Commenter Mark Forsyth explained that there was a lot of debate about what to call the chief executive.
Some people were OK with referring to our leader as the king, even though the American colonies had cast off acceptance of supreme power and of hereditary rule. By the time the Constitution was written, the official title was established: President of the United States of America. The lesson from this semi-apocryphal NPR story was that reality and history converted that word President into the representation of power and importance, rather than the word itself reducing the meaning of the actual office.
The fact that this old radio segment was replayed the other night resonated with another story about another titled character.
This other part of our discussion was introduced by Dr David Gorski, a science blogger I follow, who wrote an article for Slate.com about the impending visit of the Prince of Wales. Gorski is concerned about medical quackery, and was commenting on the fact that Prince Charles has been a follower and supporter of quack nostrums.
What the above article revealed, interesting from the lexicographical standpoint, was the press release from the Brits announcing the visit. Let me excerpt part of one paragraph to give you the flavor:
At the request of the British Government Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall will make a four day visit to the United States of America from 17th – 20th March 2015. Their Royal Highnesses will undertake a broad range . . .
Now I don't feel much of anything either pro or con about the Prince. I sense that he is something of a mediocrity in a position that only requires a touch of PR skill. But that's OK. It's what the job demands. As long as he doesn't say or do anything too outlandish, he will get by. The criticism, in fact, is that he has been trying to take a leadership role in something he is not qualified to do, namely to act authoritatively regarding the science underlying medical care.
But the part that jumps out at you in the press release is that phrase, repeated in almost every paragraph, "Their Royal Highnesses." It does seem a bit much, doesn't it? I mean, the Royal Chuck isn't required to ride his horse into battle, swinging his sword and risking his life. Old time kings (like back in the 13th century) actually did this. They had real power which they both used and abused. That's what it meant to be a king and to be called Your Royal Highness. You put your life on the line in battle. Kings and Dukes died alongside their foot soldiers.
That word highness, if you think about it, is kind of irritating. It refers to being highborn, as opposed to the rest of us, who aren't. Welcome to my lowborn world, loyal readers. Or we could reject the concept of the divine right of kings and all that went with it, including that highborn trope.
Here's one more snippet of the royal press release:
On Friday 20th March, Their Royal Highnesses will end their visit to the USA in Louisville, Kentucky. Central to The Prince of Wales's programme in Louisville is a symposium on health where His Royal Highness will give a keynote address to an audience of health practitioners, business, faith and community leaders about links between health and the natural environment.
Somehow the wording and the reality don't fit. The people of Louisville will hear a lecture on healthy eating habits or the like. Ordinarily we might expect to hear that from Prof Jones or Dietician Smith. Tossing in all those Royal Highnesses just reads weirdly.
We've come full circle from the great George Washington, who was merely a president, to the barely average Charles, who is His Royal Highness and has a staff of writers who are forced by tradition and usage to write uncommonly about a very common person.
As people who wait in supermarket checkout lines are well aware, Charles has a wife. The tabloids make fun of her, and always call her by her first name. The royal press release limits itself to referring to her as The Duchess of Cornwall. It would have been useful for the authors to clue the reader in by explaining, "Yes, this is the Camilla that you read about on the cover of the National Enquirer."
There is a real advantage to having a republic. George W. Bush may have been a disaster, but he was only an 8 year disaster. The American people replaced Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush after a single term. If we truly buy into the idea of a representative democracy, then we should reject viewing monarchs as anything special. I understand that fairy tales about charming princes and princesses are an embedded part of the culture, but perhaps we could get over the obsession in our adult lives.
When I see a picture of the Prince while waiting to pay for my groceries, I'm always reminded of the closing scenes of the film Excalibur. The dying Arthur commands that his sword be thrown into a body of water and in response to the protestations of his knight, makes prophecy that one day, a king worthy of the sword Excalibur will arise. We don't seem to be there just yet.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vol 13 Issue 24
Pub: Mar 20, 2015