Stand Up Straight--She's Not Your Queen!
In Richmond's Capitol Square and along the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Americans wearing Burger King crowns greeted the visiting British monarch. Women who had lined up hours in advance sported tiaras. Gracious hospitality, all in good fun.
But look closer:
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine gave state workers a day off to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's visit. Cost to the taxpayers: about $11 million, in a state where legislators this year rejected raising the minimum wage, which has not changed in a decade.
When the queen met with four Virginia Tech students who were injured in last month's horrific shootings, one of the students presented the visitor with a gift, a custom-designed silver bracelet featuring 32 orange and maroon stones, one for each person killed.
And get this: Inside the Virginia Capitol -- a building designed by the American revolutionary Thomas Jefferson -- the majority leader of the House of Delegates, Morgan Griffith, paused before ushering the queen into the House chamber and then bowed his head.
The hype and hoopla over the royal visit has driven too many of us to forget who we are.
"We are Elizabeth's subjects and she our monarch for a day," editorialized the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
No. We are no one's subjects. We do not bow to kings and queens. When we forget this, we sully ourselves.
In our country, all men are created equal. "Exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature," Thomas Paine wrote in "Common Sense," the 46-page tract that called on colonial Americans to revolt.
Our revolution was not against King George III so much as the concept of the monarch, the notion that power and status are inherited from one generation to the next. Paine called this idea "unwise, unjust, unnatural -- an insult and an imposition on posterity."
Every word of Paine's booklet applies as much today as it did in 1776, when he warned that people who believe they are born to be in charge of others "are early poisoned by importance. . . . The world they act in differs so materially from the world at large that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests."
Today, as we enter the eighth consecutive presidential campaign involving a Clinton or a Bush on the ticket -- a span of 28 years -- it is sad to see Americans bowing and curtsying to a monarch, a descendant of the very king against whom we fought a revolution.
"The people who wrote the American Constitution were the most radical people on the planet," says Craig Nelson, author of "Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations," a biography of the most important anti-monarchist of the Revolution. "Paine was trying to undo people's loyalty to the crown. Today, most Americans are taught that King George was a mean guy, not that ours was a revolution against monarchy and inherited aristocracy."
Both left and right in this country have embraced the symbol of Tom Paine. His stirring assertion of the value of ordinary people -- "one honest man," he wrote, is of more worth "than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived" -- remains at the heart of our self-image as Americans.
But in a society increasingly divided by money and access to power, in a country that places more value in stability than in Jefferson's belief that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing," the visit of a queen becomes one more chance to celebrate celebrity.
In Britain, our attitude toward the royal visit strikes many as odd. The Guardian newspaper, wondering how the queen got "so hot stateside," blames it on " 'The Queen' Effect," actress Helen Mirren's sympathetic portrayal of Elizabeth in last year's movie. "America now believes that the Queen is a graceful, complex, dignified but still very human monarch with an admirable devotion to family and duty, instead of a little old lady who likes horses and never says anything much," writes Tim Dowling.
"The idea that anybody should bow to anybody is beyond me," says Graham Smith, campaign manager for Republic, a British political group that pushes to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. "Americans wouldn't bow to George Bush. But they think that's what people do over here."
Smith says the democracy inherent in the digital revolution -- electronic voting, blogs, the ability to use the Internet to foil powerful governments -- has finally lifted the taboo against discussing elimination of the British crown. The American reverence for the queen, he says, is nothing more than "untainted celebrity worship," a quest for a fairy tale to believe in.
It is a dangerous fairy tale, fomented by celebrity-crazed media companies (700 news credentials were issued for the queen's visit) and accepted all too readily by people who should know better. Let the queen play at the Kentucky Derby; the rest of us should read Tom Paine.
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