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Make it stop!

Those of you who are regulars here will doubtless know that I live in the UK, a nation which still has some quaint vestiges of monarchism embedded in its constitutional machinery.

As happens from time to time in a monarchy, the heir to the throne is getting married — at the end of this month, in fact. As I predicted last year the media has now worked itself up ("25 days to go!" says the BBC headline; "Kate Middleton's engagement blouse is back in stock at Whistles!" announces the Daily Telegraph) into a self-amplifying frenzy capable of temporarily drowning out multiple simultaneous nuclear meltdowns, a series of civil wars and revolutions in the Middle East, and the most savage spending cuts since the early 1920s.

... Meanwhile, due to unforseen family circumstances I find myself unable to flee overseas to a suitably non-anglophone anti-monarchist haven of beer and sanity for the duration. The horror! The horror!

But I digress.

Making lemonade with the proverbial, I am led to ask: what are the psychological underpinnings of the cult of personality? Why are we — as a species — so prone to empathizing with remote figureheads? It doesn't have to be a handsome prince and his simpering bride: it could equally be Vladimir Lenin or Barack Obama. Indeed, the trappings of pomp surrounding any head of state seem to tend towards those of royalty. Look at Colonel Qaddafi's uniforms, for example, and compare them to those of Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Barack Obama's uniform is, of course, the lounge suit, because the USA's chief executive is very emphatically defined as a civilian office by the constitution, despite being head of the armed forces.) Or look at their bijou apartments.

Is this necessary? Is it even useful? While the existence of a high executive office implies a need for an office building, and presumably some sort of apartment for the occupant of the office to live in, why do we always seem to end up with bad parodies of 17th century imperial palaces? Which in turn were attempts to one-up the palaces of earlier dynasties? And why is it that even when we separate decision-making from monarchy hereditary dictatorship by the short, sharp expedient of a revolution, the trappings and traditions of royalty keep sneaking in through the back door?

140 Comments

1:

Regarding the palaces, some of it, I suspect, is peacock tails - a grand first residence says "We're not so poor we can't afford a decent place for our best".

(The only place where I've been that didn't have an impressive first residence was Iceland. Even Liechtenstein has a castle up on the cliff above Vaduz.)

The UK, by dint of separating the HoS and the Chief Executive, can devote the flashy palace to the Queen, and have a very boring looking building for the real seat of power.

I suspect the same may apply for the Netherlands and the Nordic monarchies, but others will have to address that.

2:

Alexis Gilliland, in his novel "THe Pirates of Rosinante", had, IMO, the best summary of the roles of modern "ruling" monarchies:

"Primarily reigning, providing a ceremonial and emotional focal point for the people..."

3:

That's a really good question. I might add that the same behavior exists in the corporate side of things.
There seems to be some sort of ingrained in response in some set of people to be desirous of an authority figure. Why that is, I don't know.

4:

I've often wondered about this myself. I think human beings have two distinct urges, which interact in strange ways: (1) the urge to aggrandize ourselves by acquiring power and wealth (status), and use whatever social means are necessary to do so; and (2) the urge to associate ourselves with those who follow and/or accomplish (1) better than we do, in order to take vicarious enjoyment from the other person's exercise of power/status. Hence the monarchist trappings in a parliamentary democracy, and the republican ideals (in the US) shown by buildings copying the Roman Empire at its height.

Recent right-wing politics in the United States seem to follow this pattern almost exactly, as well. How else would you explain the Tea Party?

5:

I think it goes back to childhood. Mom and Dad are icons for a good part one's young life, and we tend to externalize that. When we're young, there are these strange creatures called grown-ups, and even when we get older, we never quite feel that we've actually, for-real, grew up.

6:

1 & 2 are correct.
Britain is a Republic, with an hereditary Head-of-State.
Who can, and will be kicked out if they misbehave too much ( Think Edward VIII & his cosyness to the Nazis...)

As for the original question, is this not another approach to the questions Charlie raised in "Helplessly Dominant"?

What makes us co-operate, especially if we have good leadership, and why do people continue to follow leaders who have obviously blown it, and lost the plot?
( Apart from the obvious one of said "leader" being in power, having all the guns and the secret police, that is ....)

7:

Humans appear to have a powerful urge to have a boot on the back of their neck. Every time someone lifts it off, they work tirelessly until it has been replaced.

8:

Um, because people like them? Okay, that doesn't actually explain very much, but it may in fact justify the ceremonial excess. People enjoy ritual, pomp, celebration, and the human touch provided by relating to the State in the form of an actual person, as opposed to a faceless bureaucratic monolith. Having an ornamental monarchy is far from the worst way that this human urge can be expressed.

My question is, whence comes the neurosis that makes one object to harmless popular rituals such as these? It's ugly and Puritanical. And I mean that literally: the Puritans eliminated Christmas, Easter, and every other religious holiday on the grounds that every day should be equal. Some today seem to object to every form of monarchy and the ceremonial trappings of leadership on similar grounds that all people are equal. And just as the Puritans failed to eradicate Christmas, because people still like occasions to be merry and dress nicely and decorate their homes, royal ceremonies like this persist people still like to have a figurehead for vicarious celebration, someone they can dress in ridiculous antiquated costumes and address with pompous titles just for the sake of it.

Of course it can be abused. So can everything. In the absence of actual abuse of monarchical power, I really don't see what the problem is.

9:

Edward's real "sin" was being interested in a divorced woman. Being pro-Nazi wasn't exactly a problem for a lot of the 30s - being anti-Nazi didn't do Winston Churchill a fact lot of good until it was far far too late.

As far as I can tell, behind the trappings of the White House and, for that matter, Downing Street, there lies relatively modern office buildings with fairly boring civil service functions.

Why dictators like giant palaces is something I think is best left to the mental health care experts.

I recall reading a right wing blog castigating Saddam Hussein for having buildings named after him and having his face on the money.

I had to point out that the previous day I'd paid for a taxi to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre with a twenty pound note emblazoned with the visage of Queen Elizabeth II...

10:

You may be interested to know that the Apollo Theatre in London is doing a special. From Ansible:

For eager royalists, the eve of the royal wedding (28 April) has a thematic all-nighter including Bride of the Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, Bride of the Gorilla and I Married a Witch.

Regarding the monarchy... to be honest, I quite like the modern monarchy. I think that an all-powerful but powerless ruler fits right in with the paradox that is the United Kingdom. People like symbols, and the Queen does an excellent job of symbolising the country and so allowing us to loathe and despise the Prime Minister for the sociopathic lying bastard of a politician that he is. (Compare with, e.g., the USA, where the guy with all the secular power is also the head of state. That's not at all a recipe for disaster, is it...)

(Incidentally, one of the reasons the Queen does this well is that she understands for first law of being a modern British monarch, which is you have no politics. She is a mouthpiece for the job only, with no opinions of her own. I rather fear that Charles doesn't understand this, and if he ever succeeds her will have a tendency to meddle... and then the United Kingdom will suddenly become a republic.)

Personally what I find more worrying is that every single country on the planet has a single secular leader. Countries are big, complicated things; why do we need one man (and it nearly always is a man) at the reins to run the country? That strikes me as running the risk of rule by personality cult. See, e.g., Blair. Given that the actual decisions are (or at least, are supposed to be) made by people with actual skills at the job, can't we dispense with the top man and run things by committee? If they can't come to an agreement over overall strategy, it's probably not something that we should be doing anyway...

Incidentally, I note that Belgium finally has a government, after a lapse of about ten months without one. Few people seem to have noticed the lapse.

11:

If we imagine a world in which no one at all is interested in the story of a family they've never met, and no one can empathise with remote figureheads, would it be possible for this world to support novelists?

12:

Law and government is just a bunch of ad hoc inventions by a group of people given fancy titles like President or Judge.

These ceremonies give symbolic grandeur to government, which encourages the populace to see the people in power as something greater than mere human beings.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you want people to obey the legal system, and you want a stable society, it probably helps to have this sort of ceremonial tribalism binding people together.

At the very least, it seems better than the sort of system where people see those in power as a disposable jerks, and stage a violent coup every few years. Generals are probably less liekly to stage a military overthrow of a democratic president if they see him, to an extent, as the "temporary God-priest of government" or whatever.

13:

In the venerable "monkey-see, monkey-do" tradition, humans are genetically programmed to learn from high-prestige individuals. We don't want to copy everyone, just the seeming alphas or winners. Our ape brains can't help but be fascinated by every detail of an alpha's life, because we unconsciously want to imitate them, in the hopes of being as successful, no matter how impossible or illogical that actually is.

14:

Dictators' homes / Peter York ; foreword by Douglas Coupland. London : Atlantic, 2005. xii, 119 p. : ill. (some col.), ports. ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781843544302 (hbk.)

It contains photos of Saddam Hussein's palaces, someone notes the really cheesey fantasy art (I mean, awful stuff) and the fact that they're like airport lounges, which, considering he kept moving from palace to palace and never stayed still, is exactly what they were....

Some dictators had awful decor taste...

15:

No countdown timer then ?

(humour)

16:

My two sense is that people have an instinctive need to put a face on impersonal organizations. Whether or not having a single pair of hands at the helm is good government (and I would argue that at times it is), we need to be able to point at a single person and say "that guy IS America." I'm not sure if there's any way to escape the tendency, but I think we can control it by (a) placing popular attention on cultural ambassadors (like celebrities) who have very little temporal power (b) replacing our leaders periodically and (c) setting up enough counterbalancing forces that prevent any individual from seizing too much power.

So look at Vladimir Putin. In addition to being a politician and powerful individual, he is also a widely recognized action hero (the man Fought a Tiger with his Bare Hands!).

As annoying as the British obsession with the royal family might be, I think they do a real job: performing as representatives of their nation while the real job of government can go on.

17:

I still believe that you can largely ignore "the wedding" if you concentrate really hard. I couldn't manage not to know the date, but I think I have avoided most of the sordid details by watching almost no television (and certainly no news programs) and resolutely turning my face away from newsstands. Still, I plan to be out of the country on the day, just to make sure.

18:

My suggestion: Dunbar's number limits the number of 'interesting' people that will appeal to the lower common denominator.

Then, of that limited set of people, only a few will at any given time be doing something worth gossiping about. (You can only get married so often; they are not usually involved with revolutions and meltdowns.)

Then, when one of them *is* doing something interesting, network effects come into play. It's easy to get information about the royal wedding, reporters are not sticking out their necks covering it, the 'news' is happening in comfortable modern places, and being a big event means that you can choose from a great deal of photographers and commentators, so it's easier to write a 'new' news article on the topic (think of all the possible permutations).

19:

"Dictator's Palaces" is an excellent read, and belongs on the research shelf of anyone who aspires to write SF/F or thrillers that deal with pomp and potentates. The psychological implications of the statements made by those palaces goes a long way towards explaining why presidents and dictators go bonkers.

20:

With rare exceptions, people and their rulers develop symbiotically. Sturgeon's line that the old-shoe lover loves loving old shoes comes to mind.

To complain that the PR of a near-meaningless celebrity event is displacing disastrous news is to be oblivious to the fact that that is its purpose, minus the not-inconsiderable knock-on economic effects of moving merchandise.

(Cue theories of sf/fantasy as "escape literature".)

21:

"Why are we — as a species — so prone to empathizing with remote figureheads?"

I think we as a species are prone to empathizing with remote figures. not just remote figureheads.

Some person I only know remotely is hurt, and I feel an impulse to send a get well gift. Why is that? And is empathizing with remote figureheads just a special case of this?

22:

Well one possible theory to explain the appeal of monarchs is that they provide a human face to our institutions of power. When we watch the posturings of someone like Gaddafi we see ourselves, with all our primate idiosyncracies, and are comforted. Compared to the inhuman, bureaucratic facades of socialist and democratic institutions, the antics of monarchs makes us feel that the machine still has a human soul at its heart.

I have a vision of a future technocratic society largely run by computers, but if its leaders are really smart they will create avatars who parade around like Prince William to fool us into thinking that people like us are still in charge.

23:

Golly gee, empathizing with the alpha chimp. Why could that ever have possibly evolved?

Some random thoughts: Edward VIII abdicated because the archbishop of Canterbury threw a fit over marrying him to a divorced woman. Whether this was a case of monkeying with CoE doctrinal boundaries too much to bear, or whether Wallis Simpson was a convenient pretext for getting rid of an unsuitable monarch, it's impossible for me to say.

While being filthy rich makes up for a lot of pain, I'd point out that being a symbolic figurehead probably isn't fun either, much of the time. In this blog, people blather on about how the future will be panoptic, but really, the only people who really live that way are celebrities and prisoners, and most of us wouldn't want to be in either position. Being under the camera 24/7 does seem to promote various personality disorders, doesn't it?

What I find interesting is how the monarchies of England and Japan have both evolved into sort of "head of the land's religion" positions, rather than offices of temporal power. If we throw in the Pope and the Dalai Lama as two other examples, while I like the Dalai Lama best as a human being (after all, that's what he practices being), I think that William and Kate are the most normal and human of the whole bunch. I do wish them the best with their new life in the fishbowl.

24:

I'm cribbing from someone, and I can't remember whom -- but I recall the book talking about the rise of agriculture and the creation of the first cities, and their point that the "sacred ruler" phenomenon was a response to the problem of how to create a stable society larger than a hunting-&-gathering troupe or small village. There's something perversely appealing to me about the notion that Let-Us-Praise-The-God-King is actually functional...

25:

You have it the wrong way arround, Charlie....first they Go MADDD !!!!with over extended Power and Then, and only then, do they go in for Palaces and the furnishing thereof.

There is probably room on TV for a -virtual reality ? - TV program based upon the various Property Progs that still haunt cheap reality TV but focusing upon The Palace of Your/Their Dreams. Perhaps I should submit it as a Product Development IDEA to the B.B.C. ?

As for Royalty and the longing for Sparkly Princes Lurve tm ? That's easy peasy ... we are Pack Animals and have yet to out grow our basic Ape/Wolf pack hierarchy .... Oh Paws Up Respect to Pack Leader Charlie !

We should now have a Pack Howl ...all together now ....

26:

I'm really reluctant to fall in with any evolutionary 'just-so' story. So, how about 'this is the way power works.' You claim legitimacy from 'God' or 'The State' or 'Lucky Genes,' you collect wealth, you find people whose self-worth depends on nearness to 'power' and make them into a retinue. You're mean to the help, because it's your right (see above). Etc.

27:

I sympathize with your pain. However, over here in the USA we've recently been suffering something similar about an actor named Charlie Sheen. He isn't even remotely in any position of leadership yet coverage of his antics was non-stop... I don't think there is anyplace where the grass is greener, unfortunately...

28:

I thought the heir to the throne was already on to his second marriage. His son is getting hitched though.

29:

The Danish monarchy is not entirely ornamental.

The regent gets to decide who gets to lead the negotiations to form a government.

And ... that's about it.

The rest is purely ceremonial.

Usually this one act of government takes the form of a quick series of visits by the leaders of the political parties after the election and the appointment of the majority leader, although there have been exceptions where no clear majority was visible or where interpersonal quarrels made things complicated.

For all I know, this could be decided equally well by lottery or water-bike race in the harbour.

The other role, which totally unscripted by our constitution, is the "new years eve lecture", where the queen will deliver a stern motherly lecture to the nation, usually sporting a higher tv-viewership than any other broadcast throughout the year.

In both cases, there is absolutely no doubt that the actual function is to plug a worrying vacuum, and that it works.

For instance, we don't have government crises in Denmark, because everybody, including the prime minister, know that he can and must "go to the queen", the constitution says so.

There is a lot of debate about the actual cost/benefit, and while the danish industry loves to get the queen or the prince along for a trade-fairs abroad, and while the palaces are national heritages that would need to be spent money on anyway, it is probably a pretty damn expensive PR-service.

But you also need a good reason to dismantle an institution that has been around for 1000+ years, so as long as they behave sensibly, they're on the gravy trail.

Poul-Henning

30:

"Why are we — as a species — so prone to empathizing with remote figureheads?"

Having a touch of Asperger's, I'm not.

31:

Ah, but wasn't his dad, Martin Sheen, POTUS in an alternative reality? Thus Charlie Sheen is President Josiah Edward "Jed" Bartlet's son ...no wonder the Citizens of the US of A are interested in his plight.

32:

I concur with dirk - as a self-diagnosed Aspie I must say I find this fascination with celebrities and their weddings baffling to watch. I have never felt the slightest need to keep up with what celebrities or royalty are up to, and completely ignored the royal wedding here in Sweden, even though I live close enough that it would have been no effort to go watch.

33:

Tony, you know perfectly well that Speaker To Houseplants is either going to be passed over, or will be a short-term placeholder monarch like Edward VII. Age alone probably precludes his sitting on the throne for much more than a decade -- his mum's trying to break Victoria's record: she's got just over four years to go. If she succeeds, Charlie will be 66 or 67 before he even gets a chance at the hot seat, like his predecessor Eddie VII, who ended up on the throne aged 59. Even if he reigns until he's 80 (bearing in mind that men tend to have a slightly shorter life expectancy than women), he'll only be there for 13 years. William the Thingummy, in contrast, will be 32 when his granny beats the previous record holder, and in the hypothetical scenario above would end up on the throne aged 45.

So unless we declare a republic first, we're going to have a lot longer to get used to the sight of Wils wearing a crown than his dad.

34:

Hmmm..

Some people argue that some of these social structures relate to patterns of socialization and learned behavior that go with the organization of agricultural households.

In most agricultural societies, households are hierarchic organizations with internal specialization of highly disciplined labor. A household productivity is directly tied to labor inputs, and the more successful households acquired and disciplined labor more efficiently.

In China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc., the household was the fundamental social/economic unit, and state structures tended to build upon these doing them on a bigger scale (maybe sorta "fractal"?), but often using a "household" as an organizational metaphor. In Egypt the term "Pharaoh" meant "Great House" (the supreme household dominating other households in Egypt). Similarly, in ancient Sumer where temples where dominant economic / state institutions, the temples were metaphorically households of a god (and the chief priest was essentially the god's butler though whom the god's will was expressed). Patrimonial households were pretty ubiquitous in the Ancient Near East / Mediterranean world.

I suppose that it's easy to relate to the head of state as the head of a household. It gives a common sense of identity and may tie into some emotional and social patterns relating to how we relate to heads of households. I'm thinking "George Washington as the father of our country".

With industrialization and now the knowledge economy, households can have wildly different structures and meanings. So perhaps, some of the underpinnings of power, via the "state as household" metaphor may be slipping.

Neat topic Charlie!

35:

Look on all of this as a narrative.

Politics is based on communications. Political communications, all communications are more efficient when there's a story.

There are some who say that a character based narrative the best form of narrative.

Then, you have the fact that Clarke and Asimov were often castigated for writing novels with no heroes.

P.S. I have a friend (a computer programmer) who wants to yell MAKE IT STOP like you do but in his case it's the media overdose of Celine Dion in francophone Montreal. The queen of England stopped visiting us about forty years ago when Canadian politicians finally noticed that the constant riots against her were not positive things and rearranged her visits to avoid Montreal and other places where people speak French. We had to replace her with something else and for the last ten years or so it's been Celine Dion. My friend is thinking of buying a sea going sailboat in order to make his escape.

36:

Contrast with Sweden, another constitutional monarchy, where the late PM Olof Palme lived a very simple life and took the metro to work. Sadly his assassination, as well as Anna Lindh's, ended the legendary approachability of Swedish politicians. The US used to be that way, it certainly still was in Truman's time.

37:
Is this necessary? Is it even useful?

Necessary? Of course not. Inevitable? Probably. Useful? Actually at times it is useful, look at the way the King and Queen acted as a focus of determination against the Germans during WWII. You've just got to be careful when determining who it's useful to.

From the point of view of the ruler, getting as much pomp and glitter wrapped around you as you can has a number of useful consequences. First, it acts as a sign that you are somehow better than your subjects, so there must be a valid reason why you deserve to be ruler. Second, it helps to insulate you from the constant demands of your subjects; it's hard to get the King's ear when there are 10 levels of undersecretary and persons-in-waiting to get through (see Swift's "flappers" for a clear description of the process). Third, it helps to keep a leg up on the people close to you, the ones who might be motivated to stage a coup or start a succession war if they perceived you as weak, i.e., not willing to grab everything not welded to the load-bearing structure.

From the point of view of the subjects, it gives them something to celebrate on the holidays, something that's more concrete than the average historical event or abstract holy spirit in a bathrobe. And when things go bad the King is easy to spot in his royal robes, and a handy rallying-point and/or scapegoat (in a lot of cultures the King used to get offed if the harvest failed one time too often).

Of course, from any rational economic point of view (and here Adam Smith and Karl Marx would probably agree) the Royals are bloody useless social appendixes who waste far more value then they can possibly return.

38:

I think the cult of personality extends to more than just figureheads— based on the covers of tabloids I see at the supermarket checkout, there is considerable interest in the private lives of actors and musicians, as well. In a smaller social group, the more popular people have power to make your life better or worse by getting their followers to praise or condemn you; perhaps this notion is being extended to celebrities because there’s a perception that they’re in a person’s social circle (after all, they show up on a screen in the living room all the time!)?

39:

The pageantry of monarchs, like the ceremonial drama of religious observance, distracts us from the chaos of real life by presenting us with a facade of rational control. We may not be able to do anything about the Japanese nuke meltdown or the Spring Awakening but by golly, we'll get through this, because there's the handsome new king-in-the-wings getting hitched! We may not believe in God any more but His representative on Earth will do in a pinch.

40:

I feel for you. We had a royal wedding here in Sweden last summer, and it was a pain. It was all over the news in that way thats usually reserved for the latest "Big Brother", "Lets Dance" or "Idol" bimbos divorce, drug addiction or whatever attention-seeking activity theyre involved with at the moment.

I guess its a couple of orders of magnitude worse over in the UK. Be strong, it will end eventually.

41:

Might it have something to do with our background as pack animals and the need for an alpha figurehead....or then again do most people have such miserable lives that they need the exalted "other" as something to yearn towards?

42:

As mwt@13 suggests, this is by no means unique to humans; the same thing has been reported in monkeys. See e.g. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/01/050128213439.htm

43:

"We had to replace her with something else and for the last ten years or so it's been Celine Dion. My friend is thinking of buying a sea going sailboat in order to make his escape."

Crikey! Tell him not to hit any icebergs, or he'll be listening to her for the rest of his life!

44:

@JSBangs

I agree. One of my arguments in favour of ditching the monarchy for a ceremonial presidency is that we would have an inauguration holiday every 4 or 5 years, instead of having to wait 25 years for a jubilee with the occasional wedding now and then.

Charlie, I know this doesn't affect authors, but the wedding of William Windsor of the line of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is for many of us a Day Off Work. I'm willing to put up with another ignorable news story in return for that small, cherished, prize.

45:

I'd sympathise more, but I've managed to get a role playing game and some of my funniest reviews out of this obsession, and I'll be getting a day off because of the wedding, as well as the bank holiday the following Monday - of course it's bread and circuses for the masses, but I'm not going to turn down a four-day weekend because I personally think it's a bit silly.

47:

"Countries are big, complicated things; why do we need one man (and it nearly always is a man) at the reins to run the country?"

We need "one" specifically because it is so big and complicated. Breaking it up would lead to the boat with oarsmen rowing against each other. (Maybe not a bad idea but then again.) But with all the power in one person you get into other issues. Which is why we, in the US, implemented term limits on Presidents (but no one else) and passed a not too old amendment detailing a bit more about how power passed.

Then Al Haig show up and decided HE was in charge.

48:

We hairless monkeys want to put a face on everything. We want personal relationships with our leaders, entertainers, objects of charity, even natural forces (deities) and the implacable randomness of fate (God).

We respond to individual cases (starving child!), but we do not respond to abstractions (thousands of starving children). This extends even to animals: we'll donate to save charismatic megafauna but won't give a penny to save an ecosystem.

Organizations trying to get our charity dollars/pounds know this.

49:

Even if he reigns until he's 80 (bearing in mind that men tend to have a slightly shorter life expectancy than women), he'll only be there for 13 years.

His father's 89, and has a heart condition but otherwise appears to be reasonably healthy for an 89-year-old.

50:

Age alone probably precludes his sitting on the throne for much more than a decade -- his mum's trying to break Victoria's record: she's got just over four years to go. If she succeeds, Charlie will be 66 or 67 before he even gets a chance at the hot seat, like his predecessor Eddie VII, who ended up on the throne aged 59.

Yes but charlie you're overlooking that Prince Earhandles is head (ironically enough, his title is "President") of an organisation called The Prince's Regeneration Trust, which would indicate he has plans to get around the limitations of mortality by having himself be played by a new actor after death.

So prepare for King George VII through XX (assuming this is his first incarnation).

51:

I feel your pain, I think I've already said it but one of the few things for which I'm still proud of my country is that we booted off the king in 1946.

52:

I like the Canadian solution. We have our Governor General, which is by tradition appointed for merit and limited to a five year term (thus unlikely to get married or otherwise draw attention).

If you accept any other noble title, you'll likely be stripped of your citizenship and fed to the Americans.

53:

I sympathise. Its a bigish deal in Australia but having lived in London I know the media will be choking with it.

54:

cultural inertia is the only thing I can think of to explain it, aside from the old monkey habits of arranging ourselves into social hierarchies by default. Even after the USA broke away from Britain we still tried to make George Washington into a king, and we can't stop blubbering about how great the rich are even as they screw us in the ass.
Also there was a psych study that showed that having wealth and power is seen as the mark of high competence, i.e. they know how to get a "secure" life and so we envy that, while we hate on the poor for the opposite- because they have low power we see that as low competence and so we think they are incapable of surviving in this society and thus not worthy of assistance.
Maybe it's just an american thing to hate the poor?

55:

You wrote
... due to unforseen family circumstances I find myself unable to flee overseas to a suitably non-anglophone anti-monarchist haven...

Frankly, I doubt you'd be able to escape it entirely unless you secured passage to the Antarctic (and even then, I'm not sure). I'm presently in Gemany, where weddingmania(tm) is in full swing.
For example, one of the big weekly news magazines recently plastered royal family photos over its front cover, announcing, "Only four weeks to go until the wedding", and launching a series about the UK royal family. And this in the week following a major political upheaval (big regional elections, Greens gain power: got a strapline at the bottom of that front cover). My local news radio station keeps going on about it. And an English-teacher friend was recently given some royal wedding tea for her birthday.

Any royal wedding can be sold as a kind of fairytale, and this one was always going to get plenty of attention. The otherwise dire times (wars, economic trouble, natural disasters), plus the internet, are just making it more intense.

FWIW, I think you have opened two related-but-different cans with your subsequent questions. The first is about the cult of personality, the second about the trappings and pomp of office.
To the first, humans are a storytelling bunch - homo fabulans, as one academic put it. It's much easier to tell a story about a person than about an abstract concept. Thus a fixation on individual(s) is unsurprising. It's also part of our nature to look to imitate people who seem to be being successful: by paying attention to them, perhaps we can learn to be more successful ourselves. Over time, these factors have led to European cultures developing a strong tendency to 'look up to one's social betters', a phenomenon that I suspect is more pronounced in places with long traditions of monarchy.

To the second, I think bellinghman @1 is pretty much right with the peacock-tail explanation. We celebrate ourselves by, amongst other things, providing high office holders with conspicious luxury. It just so happens that old imperial palaces have developed into a symbol of just that.

I hope the family circumstances are of the pleasant sort.

56:

Celebs, I think, are part of the sophisticated grooming process we macrocephalic apes have developed. We need celebs in order to discuss certain social issues without giving away too much of our own private lives or having to negotiate a shared reference with strangers (that is, having to check who the people you're grooming have in common with you). Instead we can jumpstart the conversation by going straight to the latest exploits of Ol' Jugears, Charlie Sheen, Celine Dion, Paris Hilton, etc.

The Royal Family are useful examples of how to use and abuse power, for example, or grace under pressure or gracelessness, for cautionary tales about interfering with one's children's love-lives, and all manner of things whereby one can communicate one's values with one's fellow apes.

As to concentrating power into one pair of hands, that's part of the solution to the intractable problem of how you make a government collective and decisive and consistent, when no single system can actually deliver all three of those aims. You identify which processes need to be decisive on a national level and put the reins of those processes into one pair of hands. Or when that's too much for one pair, you split the processes up into several pairs of hands, and give the one guy the whip. Or something like that, I think I strained my metaphor.

There's a thing I wanted to say about how useful it is to give symbolic power to one figure as a way of getting the nation moving in the same direction at certain times, vital even. Tsunami, earthquakes and nuclear fallout? The Emperor speaks to the nation, and everybody quiets down, pulls together and gets on with tidying up the mess. The guy in the blue workcoat, who's been in the job for less than a year, and probably won't last out this year? He's not going to inspire the same confidence even when he tells everyone what they know they have to do already.

This is the thing that Charles will learn when/if he takes over, all the ceremonial power in the world won't make anybody listen to him if he tells the people to do things they don't want to do. David Cameron is learning the opposite lesson, about how little his political power avails him when no-one thinks his hot ideas are all that.

57:

I was putting this forward for Australia, but I'll loan it to you. It's a variant on the Chesterton solution outlined in The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

"It is now generally accepted that
• The majority of Australians want an Australian to be head of state:
• The majority of Australians are averse to any very large changes in our constitutional arrangements;
• The web of accumulated, derived, and developed constitutional roles and functions of the crown in Australia cannot be transferred from the royal family unless they can be defined, and any attempt at definition brings forth such disagreement as to split the parties into mutually repugnant and uncooperative camps.

This being the case, only the arrangements I propose can square the circle and allow Australians to have what they agree they want.

1. Australia shall be ruled by a titular monarch.
This permits all existing constitutional structures, understandings and conventions to be carried on unaltered, with the governor-general standing in for the monarch and his or her powers and duties to remain as they have been, whatever that might be, with all existing ambiguity and uncertainty retained unaltered.

2. The monarch shall be chosen by computer by random selection from all persons on the Australian electoral roll born on a randomly chosen day .
This ensures that
a) the monarch will be an Australian citizen and
b) the election or appointment of the monarch will not cause divisions among the populace.

3. The identity of the chosen monarch shall remain in the custody of the computer, neither the governor-general, the government, the public, or the person concerned being informed.

This means that
a) every Australian could not only aspire to being King or Queen, but every 365th Australian could believe that they might already be King or Queen – producing that pleasant tickle existing at the back of the mind in the time between buying a lottery ticket and the draw, only indefinitely prolonged for no expense
b) the person chosen would not be stressed by sudden fame or corrupted by unexpected power.

4. The only possible objection to this plan would be that as the law now stands the monarch cannot be tried in his or her own courts, and unless appropriate arrangements were made every 365th person brought into court could plead that as it could not be proved they were not king or queen the matter would have to be dismissed; this defect could be cured, however, by introducing a constitutional fiction – the only significant change in the constitutional fabric required by my scheme – to the effect that Australian citizenship involves the waiving of any rights under this head.

Any nation that can give a real Queen an imaginary birthday should have no problem giving a real birthday an imaginary Queen.

While it might be objected that this proposal is ludicrous, its great merit is that it is considerably less ludicrous either than the existing system of privileging the heirs of Guillaume le Conquerant or the alternative proposal of going through all the trouble and expense of electing a president empowered to do no more than open fêtes."

58:

No time to think it through, but from an American perspective, where my fellow countrymen are finally coming around to the realization that concentrated wealth and the concomitant emergence of a de facto aristocracy are not a great idea, perhaps the tendency of most people to be okay with that is related to these ostentatious displays you've highlighted.

59:

David.given writes:
(Compare with, e.g., the USA, where the guy with all the secular power is also the head of state. That's not at all a recipe for disaster, is it...)

We're really big on Separation of Powers over here, we are. Really.

The European style separation of head of government / head of state strikes us as somewhat silly over here, though. We take it to be some lingering sign of the classism that we fundamentally distrust that you even want a head of state per se.

Either that, or a failure of separation of powers that your executive isn't far enough removed from your legislature...

60:

Be fair, Charlie. The last royal wedding the Murdoch Media had to crow about was Edward's, and he married someone eminently sensible who showed no signs of wanting to become a Media Figure, and promptly settled down into wedded domesticity with nary a scandal, shock or spare girlfriend around the edges. Edward was always a disappointment for the media, though - they were hoping for another Prince Andrew (multiple girlfriends, constant visibility etc) and they were very disappointed when they wound up having to scare up column inches by implying he might not be strictly heterosexual. Now they have their first "big" royal wedding in years, and they're trying to make it just like the one for William's Mum and Dad (and we all know what a big seller that was in media terms - not just the wedding itself, but the ongoing fuss and bother about how the marriage is going, who might be interfering in it, etc etc etc.

Honestly, I sometimes believe the greatest service which could be done for mankind as a whole would be for the various governments of the world to get together and forcibly discorporate News Corporation, as well as putting in simultaneous legislation and rulings making it impossible for another media behemoth of such a scale to form again.

61:

royal wedding, well , its a day off work.
just have to find a pub with no tv on

62:

@ 49, 50 et al ....
Charles Windsor looks a LOT less healthy than his father at the same age .....
Re-iterating, the Nazis were regarded with extreme suspicion, BUT NOT IN PUBLIC, as early as 1935 ...
Edward VIII's infatuation with W. Simpson was a wonderful excuse. Also, he's started meddling in internal politics, after seeing the ghastly unemployment and deprivation in S. Wales during 1935-6, but was tending towards guess-whose "solutions" to those problems.

@ 60
"Separation of Powers"
Resulting in TOTAL PARALYSIS, because the Tea-Partyers refuse to accept that SOME taxes and guvmint are, unfortunately, necessary.
What a wonderful example (not)

nelc @ 58
That happend here, too.
look up the Aberfan disaster.
Lizzie simply cancelled ALL her engagements, and went to the valleys. She wanted to show sympathy to the stricken people of that village, deprived of almost a whole generation of children in seconds.......

63:

If anything, you have to feel a bit sorry for the participants, having practically every camera in the country pointed at them.
Actually, perhaps the readers of this blog can answer a question: Does the queen get a vote?

Otherwise, roll on my free day off, where I will be getting drunk and not watching tv :)

64:

Celine Dion - I feel your pain! Even so, I still expect you to apologise for her and for Justin Beiber! ;-)

65:

The adoration of / submission to iconic leaders is standard primate stuff, and not new at all, we've been obsessed with tribal leaders since we've been able to write obsequiously and presumably long before that, all the way back to the silverbacks. Nowadays we have high bandwidth communication infrastructure coupled to clever capitalism, and this has led to many ways of exploiting our basic social drives for profit. Notably the rise of celebrity obsession. Royalty and celebrity are largely overlapping. The palaces thing is interesting; I guess royalty-flavoured celebrity hits on backward looking tendencies (or an avoidance of modernity), so the trappings are all hyper-retro. With slebs the market is less constrained, so they live in all manner of tacky pads, not just castles.

Anyhoo, that wedding is just the ticket for a muppet-free day out. I plan to drive the Whitstable, the roads will be empty of dickheads and so will the beach I hope.

66:

"Palaces" etc - I'll concede that in Africa and Arabia there may be some "new build" palaces, but in most of Europe and the Americas (and I thin Asia), I think the "palaces" (and I'm including things like 10 Downing St and 5_000(?) Pennsylvania Avenue as palaces) are of historically significant age.

67:

No! In fact, IIRC, none of the monarch, their spouse, their descendants who are in line of succession, their spouses, and the widow(er) of the previous monarch(s) are allowed to vote.

68:

Marcus, given the wedding's juxtaposiiton to Easter and May day, we get 2 successive 4-day weekends (although you might not have noticed this so much, if you're still a school lab tech?)

69:

The Cult of Personality isn't just leaders, though they are the ones who benefit from it most. "Politics is show business for ugly people" and the excess of palaces and miles of shoes may be in part to keep upstaging other charismatic challengers.

70:

So are those rhetorical questions? This is not a rhetorical question as denoted by use of question mark

71:

On the cult of personality thing, I had a friend, who when Diana died, said she felt like she'd lost a sister! I really struggled to get my head round that.

OK if you're into a band,actor or writer and they die, it's a bummer as they're not going to be around to create any of those albums/movies/books you love, but to me as a purchaser, that's all it is. I'll have to go elsewhere for my entertainment fix. But getting all tearful because some celeb you've probably never met, and are even less likely to have been friends with? Sorry, just don't get it.

72:

On the Royal wedding thing, hey it's a day off work, during which I will be doing anything that lets me avoid the reason for said day off work.

73:

re 68 - I'm well aware that the close juxtaposition of this holiday and Easter gives me two successive long weekends off work - unfortunately I have to work the three days in between, but will somehow live with this tragedy...

74:

Or you could live in that benighted corner of the UK known as Northern Ireland. In which case you get to suffer one half of country frothing at the mouth with enthusiasm for the wedding, the other half frothing at the mouth with loathing for the royal family, the same irritating saturation coverage of the whole bloody thing, and to cap it all, the holiday is optional here and my employers have opted out! (Bonus is that while in the office, I might at least be able to tune the damn thing out!)

75:

Hell if I know. Some answers about how they get away with it can be found in the book "The Authoritarians," on research into the kind of people that follow dictators and the like.
The trappings of royalty sneaking in: "to give it a bit of dignity, y'know," or some other completely plausible reason. You don't want to know how often the idea of an Irish honours list comes up in the context of acknowledging (achievement|sacrifice|whatever), f'rinstance. Usually precipitated by an Irishman accepting some honour from the Queen.

76:

An interesting book on the topic is Phänomene der Macht (power phenomenology) by the late Friburg university sociology teacher Heinrich Popitz.
Unluckily it seems his work is almost unknown in the english-speaking world, I've been unable to find even brief references to him in english websites... even wikipedia have only an article on him in the german edition.
Pity because his work, while not revolutionary like some other sociology and philosophy giants, represents a nice summary of the dynamics of power, nailing the most important dynamics of it in a clear, understandable and concise way.
For those that understand german or one of the other languages it was translated to, it's a really recommended reading.

77:

Indeed. The proximity of the two long weekends prompted my booking of the intervening three days as holiday. I too am going to avoid the television and put my feet up for a bit.

78:

I might be egalitarian in spirit, but I really wasn't that impressed by most of the politicians that I met - I'm a pragmatic monarchist ("you had me at President Thatcher").

I've met a First Minister of Scotland who looked as if he rather liked the "adore me, I'm in charge", had an entourage who thought they were appearing in "The West Wing", and who treated people according to whether it was politically convenient or not (he decided in the runup to the 2002 Commonwealth Games that he'd love the photo-opportunity of talking to the athletes, but couldn't possibly be seen talking to the shooters).

By contrast, the Royal most seen in Scotland is Princess Anne - who made sure that her children didn't have titles. When in Edinburgh, is entirely likely not to stay in Holyroodhouse (too much hassle, uses somewhere else that's a lot less grand, and no it's not a four-star hotel), and who has occasionally used to give her protection officer a shock by dashing into her favourite delicatessen. Her daughter is getting married in Edinburgh, but no-one is ever going to call the Canongate Kirk flashy.

I'll suffer the extra day of holiday, and console my self that a serving RAF officer is getting married. Working as a rescue helicopter pilot is a worthwhile job - it beats "political researcher" hands down.

Meanwhile, I will continue to grind my teeth over the fawning coverage of a bunch of prima donna footballers who drain more out of the economy than the Royal Family could ever dream of...

79:

"Personally what I find more worrying is that every single country on the planet has a single secular leader."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Federal_Council

80:

a bunch of prima donna footballers

I would say what I think of them, but that is almost guaranteed to start a flame war, and probably breach obscenity and libel laws, as well as site policy!

81:

Its worth a read of Wilhelm Reich's "The mass psychology of facism" which discusses in length the psychology of following leader figures.

82:

@ 67
The immediate Royal Family do not usually vote, and I think the monarch is not supposed/allowed to.
BUT
All the others can, and many do, they may have titles, but we no longer have hereditary peers in the House of Lords, so a title is no bar to a vote.

83:

@ 60
"Separation of Powers"
Resulting in TOTAL PARALYSIS, because the Tea-Partyers refuse to accept that SOME taxes and guvmint are, unfortunately, necessary.
What a wonderful example (not)

That's absurd. Thinking government should be less than 45% of GDP doesn't mean you want NO government at all.

84:

I happen to agree with Greg on this one. There are a bunch of things that government does do better than the private sector does. Worse, no one in the US politics is, well, never mind. History's rhyming again, this time with the 1920s.

That said, I've been following the rampaging idiocy of the Republicans in Wisconsin (I don't like blatantly illegal votes), and found that much of the so-called "populist tea-party" movement is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, who will, if Walker gets his way, get ownership of at least one major Wisconsin power plant at below cost as a gesture of gratitude. Oh, and have many of their taxes repealed. Anyone in Wisconsin reading this really should vote today.

Personally, I'd like to see the Koch brothers knighted and possibly given nice, ceremonial dukedoms. And stalked by hordes of paparazzi. After all, men of their stature, and men with their dingbat politics, really need to be one the fullest public display, where everyone can see them. Perhaps Obama could give them some nice white elephants to take care of too. Care and upkeep of a couple of civil war battlefields, for instance.

That's one advantage of having a nice ceremonial aristocracy. It's a form of sunlight, and if you make the robes properly anachronistic, it can be really embarrassing and uncomfortable, too.

85:

The Queen doesn't get a vote because she is technically part of Parliament ("The Queen in Parliament"). Similarly the permanent members of the House of Lords (life peers, bishops and the remaining 92 elected-by-their-peers hereditarys) don't get to vote in Parliamentary elections because they are members of it.

MPs running for re-election do get to vote in Parliamentary elections because they are not MPs at that point; their membership ends when the old Parliament is dissolved.

86:

@84:

There are a bunch of things that government does do better than the private sector does.

Indeed. It's noticeable that apart from the anarchists, even the most rabid privatiser never mentions policing or defence.

Mind you, I quite like the idea from Ken MacLeod's first few books of a private insurance company with nukes offering second strike coverage to anyone who wants nuclear deterrence but doesn't want the cost. It's got to be better than a white elephant like Trident and its costly replacement.

87:

@85:

The Queen doesn't get a vote because she is technically part of Parliament. Similarly the permanent members of the House of Lords don't get to vote in Parliamentary elections because they are members of it.

I thought it was decided a few years back that removing anybody's franchise because of an accident of birth was contrary to the Human Rights Convention/Act, and that the queen and the hereditary peers simply didn't vote nowadays out of convention?

88:

66:

The White House is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 5000 Pen is a falafal stand outside a Starbucks, and while it's a more fitting indicator of our culture and priorities, would not be able to handle State Dinners with quite the same finesse.

89:

You're posing this all upside down -- as if this was something demanded by society, rather than a cult coming from the top.

Is ALL of the UK simpering to kiss the rears of this particular set of inbreds? Or is it a smaller demographic taken advantage of by profiteering SOBs and the leaders of the cult itself?

The show is largely driven by the actors, at some level or other.

90:

If you want to escape the media excess on Royal Wedding Day here's a few alternatives:
April 29th is also World Save the Frogs Day and there are amphibian-related events planned in several countries.
It's also Arbour Day in the US, so you've an excuse to hide out in your local forest (hugging trees is optional). Also in America, the very last launch of the Endeavour Space Shuttle is taking place; if you can't get to Florida to see it in person, NASA will be doing a live feed.
April 30th is Queens Day in the Netherlands. It's a big national streetparty-type celebration that takes over Rotterdam; people start partying on the evening before and will probably be amenable to the idea of getting into the spirit a few hours earlier this year.

91:

Who's "we", kemosabe?

Not all of us worship the idols of the founders. Some of "us" think that the idea of separation of powers is a failure for a modern state where the executive bureaucracy outstrips the power of the legislature.

92:
His father's 89, and has a heart condition but otherwise appears to be reasonably healthy for an 89-year-old.

Which raises a research grant question!

Do monarchs live longer that other people when corrected for access to state of the art medical services, and if not does the C of E daily prayer for the health of the monarch have any effect?

93:

"Why are we — as a species — so prone to empathizing with remote figureheads?"

Having a touch of Asperger's, I'm not.

Same here. I understand WHY it is a common desire, but I completely lack it.

With apology for going off-topic: most common motivational techniques do not seem to work in Aspergers because they appeal to the very drives we lack -- drives to be "king of the hill" or "part of something bigger than yourself".

Never in my life I felt the need to accomplsh something merely because someone else has accomplshed it. Which is not to say I am lazy or aimless -- once I decide to work on something, I can be very persistent, -- but matching/beating someone else's achievement is just not a motivation for me any more than a lavish dinner of steamed broccoli would a motivation for someone who prefers chocolate.

94:

There are two straightforward ways of forcing an egregore upon the group it is meant to represent. The first is that wherein you force everyone in the group to behave (and usually, in a symbolic fashion that benefits significantly the identity) dress in the way prescribed by the egregore (or make it very difficult to avoid doing so). Examples of this method are IBM (during the socks-and-garters phase), the US judicial system (specifically in reference to the judges' robes), and Anonymous (who, though they do not necessarily dress in V masks while browsing the web, are far more importantly almost all identified by the same name). The second method is to elevate a real or fictional being into the seat symbolizing the nature of the whole group, and hope that the being so seated will behave appropriately and the group members will act in accordance with the personality of the group. Examples of this method include most nations (with or without monarchs, though monarchs and dictators are prime candidates) and many sports teams (mascots serve this function). The president of the united states serves first and foremost as mascot (which is partially why it is important that it's considered a civil office with a civil uniform, and also probably contributes to people both inside and outside of the united states believing that the president has powers that he is not allowed to have). While the office of the president is merely underpowered (especially compared to other politician-figurehead positions elsewhere), the british monarchy is almost completely powerless, which is a good thing. If your mascot makes poor (or worse, unpopular) decisions, it ruins the social power. Unfortunately, those european countries that still have vestigial monarchies are unfortunately represented largely by unemployed inbreds, which is something no state benefits from.

95:

My late mother a devoted monarchist, thought the Queen's children lacked class, and that Wills and/or Harry would be very lucky to have a throne to inherit.

96:

"... Europe and the Americas (and I thin Asia), I think the "palaces" (and I'm including things like 10 Downing St and 5_000(?) Pennsylvania Avenue as palaces) are of historically significant age."

This is the new guilded age. The ultra rich are building palaces all over the world. Crazy skyscraper palaces in India, helicopter accessible mega cabin's in the American rockies, giant mansions with parking for a hundred guests in california, huge ranches, etc.

97:

anura writes:
Who's "we", kemosabe?

Not all of us worship the idols of the founders. Some of "us" think that the idea of separation of powers is a failure for a modern state where the executive bureaucracy outstrips the power of the legislature.

Our political system has rather a large number of strong separation of powers structures in place, including the strongly independent US states vs the central federal government, and clearly the three-ring (or four-ring) circus that the federal government is (depending on whether you count the institutional bureaucracy as a functioning semi-independent leg or part of the executive branch).

If you think the executive branch controls the bureaucracy in a tyrannical manner, there are plenty of insider books from the executive branch with leaders tearing their hair out at the various departments going off and doing their own things, and of various forms of executive capture as cabinet secretaries "go native" rather than continue to work for centrally directed goals from the White House.

Those people do, in fact, live in rampant fear of intervention from either congress or the president, because even if tectonic shift is nigh-on impossible without focus and collaboration, it does happen (Congress has nuked departments before, and merged them, and zeroed whole arms' budgets; the president has on occasion reached down into operating areas and successfully replaced whole management chains, etc), and often happens due to political whim rather than incompetence.

And all the above live in a state of elevated fear of the Supreme Court, who have a nasty habit of carpet bombing someone else's working political consensus from on high.

There are plenty of anarchists who view the US Federal Government as an antagonistic monolith, and desire it to be more centrally controlled by the more replaceable Legislative branch, yes. But the folly of that is illustrated by the Tea Party effect.

Dynamic tensions abound and are important.

98:

"Not all of us worship the idols of the founders. Some of "us" think that the idea of separation of powers is a failure for a modern state where the executive bureaucracy outstrips the power of the legislature."

As long as the US legislature writes bills with things in it like: "Department of XXX will make rules so that all children under the age of 45 shall be protected from snakes when swimming in public pools" then YES the executive branch will have way more power day to day then the legislative.

Defining goals poorly and abdicating the rule making to others gives the power to the others.

99:

Why, oh why, do we watch Royals? Let's backtrack to a pre-royal stage, when you watched the important people in your band or village because they knew what to do, or could do you favors, or could threaten you.

When we were children, we all watched the King and Queen and senior Princes and Princesses and anyone else int he Royal Court (parents and siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents) very closely for much the same reasons.

Now add a population largely bereft of neighbors, who follow soap operas and long-running series because these give them virtual neighbors. They follow celebrities because gossip about celebrities is a substitute for gossip about neighbors. ("Oooh! Did you hear what Aethelfreda did last night with the cowman's son Alfred?")

Roll those all together into one big pre-rational ball, and there you have it, the entire vulgar, exciting, media-hyped mess.

100:

Oh, yes, and we also dearly love theatre. This is theatre at its grandest, outdoing anything except Grand Opera or a Bollywood musical. Or why if I attend an Anglican church, I far prefer a High Church one. Bring on the incense and nonsense and smells and bells!

101:

I recommend the book "Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge" by Michael Suk-Young Chwe. The first chapter is online: http://www.chwe.net/michael/papers.html

Common knowledge has a technical meaning in game-theory. It refers to knowledge that is not only known by everyone but that is also known to be known by everyone, and that is also known to be known to be known by everyone (and so on and so forth).

The media storm you are weathering is establishing common knowledge, a common enthusiasm for the symbolic embodiment of the nation. It's one way to create this kind of common enthusiasm, there are others, but there might be difficulties making them scale. For example, getting everyone together in an inward facing circle is quite good, but there is a limit on the size of the circle. Maybe there's a middle ground involving O(sqrt(n)) specially elevated people or so.

The reddit front-page is another interesting example of common knowledge. It creates a pool of websites and images the many people have seen, and can be referenced for lols, or leveraged into real political power. Perhaps the username I_RAPE_CATS is kind of like Colonel Qaddafi's flamboyant uniform. Perhaps a few more fast bred generations of this kind of website will yield a potent, spam-proof form of political coordination.

102:

What's interesting is that the basic carrot/stick method has been shown to have limited applicability, and the move to a thinking, creative, economy needs a different sort of reward system.

This video is a pretty good summary of the basic ideas, though it's worth thinking a bit about the context.

1: There's an authoritarian streak in management, which might have worked in older factory environments with intensely repetitive work patterns.

2: Most of these jobs have been exported the third-world countries. But even in the Good Old Days, large factories had such things as choirs and brass bands as outlets for the creative element.

3: There's a lot of this stuff in modern management ideas. And a good deal is consistent with such politically awkward ideas as anarcho-syndicalism. The sort of political thinking attributed to modern American Republicans, and to the fascist and communist states of the last century, looks to be a bit of a dead end (though all those examples are like over-simplified by the commentators).

A bit of context I have is that of farming, and anyone who thinks that isn't a business needing a lot of creative problem solving likely hasn't even been responsible for a window box. But it was the major organised activity of humanity until the industrial revolution, and you can point to the recession of monarchism coinciding with the rise of industry. Though it's not a good match.

So is the modern world shifting in ways which fit better with the patterns of a pre-industrial economy? Including monarchy?

103:

Voting and the peers.
Previous comments are out-of-date.
Since we now have NO "hereditary" peers in the upper house, they are all allowed to vote.

Conan E. Moorcock @ 92
Already been done by Francis Galton
Prayer dosn't work.
What a suprise.
Also in the unsurprising stakes, the religious have been ignoring this result for over 100 years.
Now, there is a target much more worthy of Charlie's ire than a ceremonial head-of-state, incidentally!

104:

"Speaker to Houseplants".

Oh, Charlie, I like that very, *very* much. Just had a quiet chortle at my desk.

Bravo, that man.

105:

Unfortunately, those european countries that still have vestigial monarchies are unfortunately represented largely by unemployed inbreds, which is something no state benefits from.

Don't let the facts ruin a good insult...

The dangers of corruption (or even the perception of corruption) reduce the number of avenues open to your European Vestigial Monarch's (tm) family. If Prince X benefits financially (see: Lockheed bribing their way to F-104 purchases), or their firm lands a government contract, there may be suspicion that the selection process was biased...

In the UK, this can only really be solved by packing off the immediate family into the Armed Forces or into charitable organisations. Given that soldiers normally swear their oath to the Head of State (in our case, the Queen), this has the benefit of showing that said Head of State is willing for her own children and grandchildren to go into harm's way in the service of the State. Our "unemployed inbreds" mostly appear to be employed usefully, and to have sufficient health and intelligence to operate complex machinery competently (it also has the benefit of bursting their social bubble and making them mix with us of the great unwashed).

The obvious downside is that if you're not in military service (i.e. Prince Edward failing to become a Royal Marines Officer), your contributions are open to criticism from those with an axe to grind. Most recently in the UK, it's been Prince Andrew (it's surreal hearing his performance as a trade ambassador attacked by News International, and defended by the left-wing MPs who worked with him...).

This "avoidance of the perception of corruption" isn't well-managed by politicians; the trip from political office to high-salaried non-employment in a corporate boardroom is a fast one (not to mention a recent newspaper sting on several former Ministers of State, revealing their willingness to peddle influence for cash). Our politicians fought a rearguard action against open accounting, both of their individual expenses, and of cash donations to their political parties. Strange, that.

Those same politicians appear only too happy to vote for war, and rarely happy for their own to join the Armed Forces. You can wonder about conversations between HM and Tony Blair... ("I've just waved my grandson off to Afghanistan. I understand your son now has a job with an investment bank?").

By way of comparison, look at the number of children of US Presidents who have joined the US military (I leave it to you whether to include the Air National Guard).

106:

Ilya: With apology for going off-topic: most common motivational techniques do not seem to work in Aspergers because they appeal to the very drives we lack -- drives to be "king of the hill" or "part of something bigger than yourself".

Not sure that's entirely true.
It's just a different kind of hill I want to be King of.
[Note preposition ending for aspiring self published authors]
As for not wanting to be part of something bigger than myself, that's not entirely true either. I just want to be in charge of it. Not really a follower, nor a leader generally, but an outsider.

107:

[cabinet secretaries] do, in fact, live in rampant fear of intervention from either congress or the president, because even if tectonic shift is nigh-on impossible without focus and collaboration, it does happen (Congress has nuked departments before, and merged them, and zeroed whole arms' budgets; the president has on occasion reached down into operating areas and successfully replaced whole management chains, etc), and often happens due to political whim rather than incompetence.

Not really -- no matter whether the executive staff leave on their own or are pushed, they almost always get jobs as lobbyists or for law firms that act as lobbyists.

108:

Look, obviously a national government is not merely a functional arrangement for organizing certain collective operations.

It's also a symbol of a larger unity, of the national community and its continuity through the generations, a shared history, a common "story". This we were, this we are, this we will be. Liz and her Corgis, her father working at that bench making aircraft parts during the Blitz, her namesake knighting Drake on the deck of the Golden Hind.

Part of the THIS IS US, in other words. My tribe, mi barrio, the thing for which the individual is prepared to kill and die. A group without this consciousness won't survive long; it makes perfect Darwinian sense.

(Which is why Asperger's isn't more common. That emotional connection is crucial; there's something -wrong- with people who can't feel it down in their bones, in the sense that they're lacking something which is, in the larger scheme of things, necessary.)

Heads of State, especially when they're not also Head of Government, provide a useful focus for this. The ceremonies (such as royal weddings) are a group dance, both a source of committment and a symbolic reenactment of it. This is home, this is us, this is one of the things we do together.

I like monarchy, myself. It's a pleasant spectacle, it fulfills the function defined above, and is both inexpensive and harmless taken as a whole and in comparison to the alternatives.

There WILL be someone fulfilling this function; why give it to some quasi-retired political draught-horse rather than a member of a family whose line goes back to Wodan?

109:

Interestingly, though, there's an article on the bbc news site today about (judging from headline) the fact that very few wedding street parties etc seem to be being organised. This matches well with my perception that pretty much nobody actually cares, as far as I can tell.

I think this is a little like when the media swung in to overdrive at the last royal death: they're doing it because they think we want it, and haven't yet realised that actually we don't any more.

110:

There WILL be someone fulfilling this function; why give it to some quasi-retired political draught-horse rather than a member of a family whose line goes back to Wodan?

Basic fundamental principle of equality before the law.

Viz: any of us could, in principle, aspire to be that quasi-retired political draught-horse. Just put in the requisite thirty years of boredom (thank you, Leonard Cohen). Whereas by definition we can't aspire to be a member of a family who etcetera because we weren't born to them.

By its very existence the instition of a hereditary monarchy explicitly sets up a two-tier citizenship, with certain rights reserved to one particular very small elite category.

(Note that this objection doesn't apply to elected monarchies -- at least, where the election is more than a pro-forma rubber stamp by the Tsar's duma.)

111:

Yes; I was amused to discover my local paper had decided to devote its front page to ranting about the fact that there were only n street parties planned in the whole county! (Where n was a single digit integer; five I think, but I couldn't swear to it.)

It seemed to have escaped their notice that even if there were going to be a hundred enthusiasts at each party, and all of those enthusiasts read their paper, that still meant that the vast majority of their readers were at best uninterested. I confess to wondering whether there was likely to be a noticeable impact on readership/subscriptions as a result of devoting space to berating readers for not caring about something they don't care about. (And whether the effect - if any - is different for things that matter, like climate change, and things that don't, like royal weddings....)

112:

For instance, we don't have government crises in Denmark, because everybody, including the prime minister, know that he can and must "go to the queen", the constitution says so.
I used to make a similar argument about the role of the monarchy in Belgian politics. It's quite similar to what you described, but it hasn't kept the formation of the government from degenerating into a regrettable spectacle, this time around... On the other hand, the current impasse has left us with a government that is only allowed to make urgent decisions, and can only get a majority in parliament for decisions that are so eminently sensible that even the opposition can't find fault with them. Arguably then, our parliamentary democracy is functioning better during this crisis than we are used to. And I do believe that the role of the monarch in this situation is important in avoiding a potentially dangerous power vacuum. None of this invalidates our gracious host's argument that the monarchy being hereditary is fundamentally unfair to those of us who might fancy that job, of course.

113:

I cannot resist this tangent, because I can't think of any elected monarchies other than the system which gave us Queen Amidala of the Naboo, and the Witanagemot ( which latter could only, I believe, select from a small pool of privileged candidates ).

Are there other examples, or are you cooking something up for volume XLV of the Merchant Princes?

114:

Charlie Stross: "Whereas by definition we can't aspire to be a member of a family who etcetera because we weren't born to them."

-- so? Why should I want to aspire to be a member of the Royal family? They've got their function, I've got mine, and I wouldn't have theirs on a bet. I have less money than they do, but considerably more freedom to do what I want.

I can't be President here in the US, either, because I wasn't born here or to US citizens abroad.

I am massively undisturbed by this. Also by the fact that Bill Gates could probably get away (literally) with murder and I can't.

A tradition, as the saying goes, is a solution to a forgotten problem; but the fact that the problem has been forgotten doesn't mean that the problem has gone away.

We don't know how our society works; we are almost certainly not -capable- of knowing how it works, any more than a dog can understand algebra. And I wouldn't want any human (or AI) to be that smart; they'd be too difficult to control.

This is one reason intellectuals, whose professional deformation is to overestimate their own knowledge and cleverness, generally make such bad political leaders.

Anything we do is likely to have unintended consequences, and those consequences will probably be bad because there are so many more ways to screw up than to get things right. The world isn't knowable, controllable, or plan-able, especially in the sphere of social interaction. Rule-of-thumb and accumulated experience is the closest we can get; as history (and the last century in particular) indicates, all else is vanity and hubris.

So if an institution has been around for a long time and hasn't been a continuous disaster, it should be presumed that it's a good idea to continue it, with an occasional minor tweak. It may not be ideal, but "the best is the enemy of good enough".

Unless there's some overwhelmingly strong reason to alter it, very good reason to believe this will not come back and bite you on the ass, and a sustained and broadly based consensus of nearly everyone concerned on the necessity of the action.

Change when necessary, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. You can't tell what the consequences of a fix will be, except that the chances are they'll be bad.

Also keep in mind that we are not morally better or smarter than our ancestors; apart from changing fashions in ideas (not to be confused with progress) we are, at most, somewhat better informed.

115:
Personally, I'd like to see the Koch brothers knighted and possibly given nice, ceremonial dukedoms. And stalked by hordes of paparazzi. After all, men of their stature, and men with their dingbat politics, really need to be one the fullest public display, where everyone can see them.

Oh, yes, absolutely. If the voters could see who they were really voting for, they might just change their votes. After all, if we couldn't see just how nutsoid he really was, we might have elected Lyndon LaRouche. Who, by the way, disliked the monarchy of Elizabeth II even more than our genial host does: he wanted to have her tried for crimes against humanity, as soon as the US could destroy her fleet of spaceships based on Mars. See, American politics hasn't changed all that much.

116:

"privatiser never mentions policing or defence"
Here in the Sates, Small Gov. lovers see it as reasonable for Small Gov. lovers to say the Navy should lease its ships and Contractors should run them. SAME WITH COPS. And once nobody cared much about who the boss was here. 1776 took care of Kings.

117:

One of the side effects of the hereditary peerage was that access to Parliament didn't depend on political connections. You still needed a certain amount of political ability to get something done, but you weren't there as a reward for sucking up to the government. (Your father might have been, and there are other biases.)

Of course there are problems. But having an upper house that is so differently chosen does have advantages.

I wouldn't be too eager for a radical change to another system which, as we can see in the USA, can have some pretty ugly failure modes. Not that monarchy can't get into a mess.

118:

@117:

But having an upper house that is so differently chosen does have advantages.

Agreed, which is why I've long thought the upper house should be filled by the equivalent of jury service (but with precautions to make sure nobody can wriggle out of it, unlike actual jury service). 18 month service period, with the first 6 learning the ropes, last 12 actually able to vote, with the house restricted to a purely revising capacity, but not subject to the Parliament Act of 1911 so the Commons couldn't force through legislation the country as a whole didn't want.

119:

18 months service/6 training/last 12 voting is ridiculously short, unfortunately. There's a reason why about half the House of Commons are lawyers by training or background: they're in the business of writing laws.

Convert from months to years then divide by two, and you'd still have a problem with underqualified members of the upper house: but at least you'd be able to give those who were willing to listen the equivalent of a barefoot law and politics degree before turning them loose in the chamber.

But that exposes another problem, which is that the job itself -- bulletproofing legislation in progress -- is intellectually challenging. If you take "precautions to make sure nobody can wriggle out of it, unlike actual jury service" you are going to end up with an upper house where 10% are totally illiterate/innumerate (severe learning disabilities), 30% are functionally illiterate/innumerate (viz: can't make head or tail of a bus timetable), 30% are functionally literate but quit education at age 16, and 30% have been to polytechnic or university. Of the 30% with any higher education, two-thirds will have vocational qualifications in, for example, Russian and Business Studies, or Archaeology, or Pharmacy -- stuff which will be very useful to the chamber once in a blue moon. And around 5-10% of the total intake, if you are lucky, will actually have a disposition and aptitude for the work and won't be harbouring a festering resentment at The System for arresting and imprisoning them in this madhouse a long way from home (80% of them won't be Londoners, remember) for a year and a half.

Here's my alternative version:

Make it a 12 year period of service. First four years will involve a lot of training and no voting, then a period of pupilage in which the jurors shadow an outgoing member of the house. And it will be very easy to flunk out. In fact, only 10% of selected jurors get to make it into the house. The rest will be rejected.

In return for the sacrifice, jurors get their previous level of pay, plus a London weighting, plus 50%, or an MP's salary, whichever is greater. Then they get a pension equal to final salary for one year after they complete their term of public service (but only if they put in the full term). And at the end of that year, if they haven't taken a corporate lobbying job or been charged with a crime of office, they get their choice of (a) final salary as pension for life, or (b) five million quid in cash.

Upshot: if you get tapped for service, you will be in the money -- if you work hard and keep your nose clean. More to the point, even if you have a promising practice as a doctor or lawyer you won't be worse off from serving -- and the pension means you'll never have to work again. But it's highly competitive, and the folks who simply can't cut it (the guy with Down's Syndrome, the pregnant junkie) drop out, albeit after receiving a sufficiently handsome payment to make it worth their while.

Main drawback is that running a system like this is going to be expensive. (Assuming a 400 person chamber and 8 year terms, the likely worst case is you'll be paying MP's salaries plus £500M in pension pay-offs per year. NB: I assume you're unlikely to recruit an intake of incomers in any given year where they average more two-thirds of an MP's wage. If they do, then you can control costs by paying members of the House of Commons more.)

120:

SMS: You are a Burkean conservative and I claim my five shillings.

Less flippantly -- there's a lot to be said for that kind of small-c conservativism ("don't fix it if it ain't broke") during periods when the pace of externally induced change is low, and in a system where an equitable distribution of civil rights has been achieved. However, I remain unconvinced that we are living through such a time ...

121:

I like your suggestion about a 12-years-of-service upper house. The £0.5B cost has to be less than just one badly-thought-through public policy idea (think of the IT system costs for the Poll Tax, or ID cards).

Basic fundamental principle of equality before the law. Viz: any of us could, in principle, aspire to be that quasi-retired political draught-horse. Just put in the requisite thirty years of boredom (thank you, Leonard Cohen). Whereas by definition we can't aspire to be a member of a family who etcetera because we weren't born to them.

I'm having a "Life of Brian" / "Judaean People's Front" moment. We fully support Charlie's right to be the Queen

I'm willing to trade my personal right to be Head of State against the probability that the post will be filled by a corrupt or egomaniac politician who serves self, not state; and who will inevitably have "a history" that alienates a significant chunk of the nation that they are supposed to represent.

How does a politician slough off all previous political affiliations (and associated dealings) in order to become the nation's mascot?

By accident, we have a Head of State whose family starts training for the role in childhood, and who are rich enough to be incorruptible.

Looking around the world, how often do we see a Head of State who has anything like the broad popularity of our current incumbent? To my mind, that's the measure for what is an apolitical, inclusive, "this is us" role. (Politicians would kill for a steady 70% approval rating; ironically, that's exactly how sundry Great Helmsmen and Presidents for Life have traditionally managed their 99%+ figures...)

122:

By accident, we have a Head of State whose family starts training for the role in childhood, and who are rich enough to be incorruptible.

There's no accident about it -- that kind of training has been SOP for monarchs-in-waiting since the early 19th century, if not before.

Despite which, it doesn't stop such fuck-ups as Wilhelm II of Germany from happening. (If anything, making it a lifetime hereditary office makes it harder to remove them.)

As for "rich enough to be incorruptible" I am sadly unconvinced that there is any such state.

123:

There's still some good eatin' on this thread.

My countryman Mark Twain chewed this one over roughly a hundred years ago.

From living here in the Netherlands and also observing the doings across La Manche, I gather that royals raised to expensive tastes but subsisting on small allowances can be trouble. Randy Andy's already been bandied about, but over here it's hard to beat the late Prince Bernhard. Bernhard, aka "Agent Orange," was a bit Nazi-friendly until the war (which was very short for the Dutch). In the 1950s he made time with Evita Peron, giving her some nice pieces of the family jewelry. In the 1960s, he founded the Bilderberg group. For conspiracy buffs, the Bilderbergers (named after their meeting place in the stuffy chain hotel in equally stuffy Oosterbeek), were a sort of really boring Illuminati, belonging to the 1970s of early Pink Panther movies and Helmut Newton backdrops.

In the 1970s, Bernhard shook down Lockheed for kickbacks (I think someone mentioned this upthread). His Evita fixation may also have had some influence over the amiably dimwitted future King Willem IV's choice of an Argentine (the daughter of Videla's agriculture minister, no less) as future queen.

Mostly harmless, but something of a rascal.

Huzzah for Queen's Day (30 April)! As a haunter of flea markets, I look forward every year. It's really the birthday of the previous monarch Juliana, as Queen Beatrix's birthday is 31 January. Besides the crappy weather you'd expect of that date, it's also inauspicious for crowned heads. One guess why.

(somewhat O/T)
I think "rich enough to be incorruptible" *by others* is more accurate. At some point, it's only meaningful for keeping score, and it means a lot. Giving chunks of it away is worth zero moral points when the pile was built up by warping the tax code and/or the playing field in one's favor, looting, loansharking, market manipulation, etc.

124:

Purely by accident, the Irish appear to have solved this recently (whether the solution persists is, of course, anyone's guess). The Presidency of Ireland occupies almost exactly the old Lord Lieutenant's position; having spent 10 years busily undermining that august office post-independence but pre-republic, the President is an almost completely ceremonial role (signs laws into effect, can refer a law to the Supreme Court for constitutionality, dissolves parliament at the request of the PM, gives ministers their seals of office. That's all of them). Given the essentially pointless nature of the job, the country doesn't get hugely hung up over it - it was where old party leaders retired to for decades. But someone made the terrible mistake of electing an independent (nominated by Labour, asserted her independence of the party about 10 minutes after getting the job) at the start of the 90s, and did some serious good with the role. And after her, no-one seems willing to let the old political hacks have it back.
You may have heard of that independent politician: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Robinson

125:

I wouldn't bank on Charles ever being King. Instead, I'd prefer we keep Elizabeth alive for an indefinite period (for certain values of "alive"). A Gibson-esque Thing In A Vat, occupying most of the interior of Windsor Castle. Tended by meritocrats such as Robert Winston.

126:

Bloody good idea. Any human can't be the Head of State - because no human IS the Head of State.
Roughly. ",)

127:

"if you're into a band,actor or writer and they die, it's a bummer as they're not going to be around to create any of those albums/movies/books you love, but to me as a purchaser, that's all it is."

I dunno. With an artist, sometimes their work expresses something that the "fan" feels very deeply but cannot articulate, something that isn't felt to the same degree by the "real people" that they know. Within that subset, it's a genuine personal tragedy to some people to lose .. for example .. Nick Drake. More positively for a younger generation, it was a very moving moment seeing Graham Coxon back onstage with Blur. I wasn't the only bloke in his early 40's who got a bit teary at that gig.

Art isn't "purchased". It's experienced.

128:

@ 116
"1776 took care of Kings"
Actually it took care of the amazingly incompetent Guvmint of Lord North.
And, of course pushed the slave-owning aristocracy of the new USA well up the pile.
Washington, and others, could quite well see the way the wind was blowing in the UK.
The emancipation of slaves, and the banning of slave-trading, and ... could be well seen as coming real soon, even then.
So, revolt to save your people-owning property rights!
Some would say that the USA hasn't changed a bit since then.
Didn't someone mention the vile Koch brothers?

Charlie @ 120
I REPEAT (and I've said it to you before ...)
Think of the alternatives: President Blair/Thatcher/Brown/Eden/Wilson euuuwwwww .....
& 122: Erm, for the umpteenth time: Edward VIII !!

Phil @ 125
Rather like the Pontifex Tyeveras do you mean?

129:

You want to take a look at the movie StarSuckers, which examines this very question - why we're drawn to celebrity - from many different (mostly unflattering) angles.

wg

130:

Even on the small and local scale, many (most?) people act totally differently towards someone who is a perceived authority figure of some kind. This seems as though it almost has to have some kind of instinctual component.

Personal experience: When I started an ISP with friends back in '94, suddenly I was "the President" of a company, albeit a tiny one. People (especially those who didn't know me) started reacting to me totally differently, and it really freaked me out. Within the company, as much as we tried to minimize hierarchy and do much of the decision-making by consensus (which was a major mistake for other reasons), some people would be very deferential and others disengaged and suspicious. Outside it, suddenly people were treating me as if I were a Local Business Executive rather than as a weird-looking geek. In retrospect, I think dealing with those changes in other people's perception of me was one big factor in why I started screwing things up and within about four years had a minor breakdown, more or less. Went to a role as System department manager/Systems architect, and suddenly that problem, at least, was gone.

I can only imagine how much this must screw up people who are treated as "dominant" on a larger scale, and particularly those who actually like it.

131:

If Bill's parents had named him John Arthur Louis it would probably be illegal under some bizarre 17th century law to even mention him in the press. We would be spared all of this.

132:

Looking at recent news from the USA, where some odd things have happened in the running of an election, I find myself thinking that there are benefits in having a personification of the State who is beyond Party Politics. I'm not so sure that something as abstract as a Constitution has quite the same hold on our psyche.

133:

It's also a lot to do with body language and confidence.
I first noticed it a few years ago when I went along to a local class to learn some Tai Chi.
By that time I had been teaching martial arts for more than 20 years. So, I arrived early in the hall and started mingling with other newbies - who immediately assumed I was the teacher.
It is also something that both public schools and the army teaches to the "officer class" - a casual air of authority that people immediately recognize. Our state schools, meanwhile, churn out surly inarticulate proles.

134:

Charlie Stross: You are a Burkean conservative and I claim my five shillings.

-- my God, who betrayed my secret?

More seriously, Burke was right.

Burke was VERY right.

The French revolution got rid of the bumbling late Bourbons, and brought in the Terror, the most vicious tyranny Europe had seen in centuries; genocide in the Vendee; the levee en masse (the Bourbons had never dared anything of the sort); Napoleon, the proto-Hitler/Lenin/Mao and his militarized police state with Fouche's spies under every rock; and 25 years of total war that left a trail of bones and burned villages and famine and inextinguishable hatreds from Cadiz to Moscow and beyond.

(Haiti is still suffering the consequences, for example.)

What a vindication of the Rights of Man and of the Enlightenment faith in Reason!

>and in a system where an equitable distribution of civil rights has been achieved. However, I remain unconvinced that we are living through such a time ...

-- and in the sense you're using the term, we never will.

If it's one thing that the past 100 years has shown, it's that egalitarianism is -impossible-. Not just undesirable, but physically impossible to achieve; and that the attempt does absolutely nothing but pile up corpses.

The squire, no matter how stupid or irritating, is infinitely preferrable to the People's Commissar, or his various equivalents.

(This is the hidden cost of meritocracy, particularly when it operates honestly; it sets up an institutional filter which ensures that everyone in charge is not just an asshole, but a clever, energetic, obsessively ambitious and amoral asshole with no interests in life except climbing the greasy pole. Give me a hereditary dimwit or someone's cousin any day.)

Social hierarchy is like war; it's always going to be there. The most you can do is put some limits on it, and even those will always be fragile.

Trying to get rid of either just makes them -worse-.

The problem with "fixing" a social/political system is that you're meddling with something you -don't understand-.

It's like fixing a clock by hitting it with a hammer. While blindfolded and drunk, and using a plan for the clock with large bits left out and many parts that are just made up and don't correspond to any of the actual gubbins.

Only the clock is made of people and it's them you're hitting with the hammer.

Catherine the Great corresponded with Voltaire. He once chided her on not introducing some reform they'd discussed.

Her reply deserves to be inscribed in letters of fire in front of every legislature in the world:

"You write on paper. I have to write on living human skin, which is infinitely more tickelish and twitchy."

135:

If it's one thing that the past 100 years has shown, it's that egalitarianism is -impossible-. Not just undesirable, but physically impossible to achieve; and that the attempt does absolutely nothing but pile up corpses.

But there's a flip side to that lesson, which is that increasing inequality leads to increasing civil unrest.

I'll agree that you can't achieve absolute equality: humans have a tendency to form social hierarchies and there'll always be winners and losers.

However, when you have a situation that creates hyper-winners and a large mass of the dispossessed, you create pre-revolutionary conditions. That's what the Arab Spring is reminding us of.

It seems to me that the best situation we can aim for is one where the losers can still aspire to have a stake in the system, and the winners can't secede from it (to the extent of being above the law, for example). And that is achievable, without mass violence or subsequent instability.

136:

Both Charlie & S.M. Stirling:
Equality of OPPURTUNITY is the phrase, I think?
That people should be given a FAIR CHANCE, and not deliberately ground down.
That failures "higher-up" the social/political scale NOT be covered-up, and allowed to get away with it.
That criminals in charge should be treated as any other criminal.
And so on.

137:

I can't help but think that a figurehead position is terribly frustrating for the person holding it, especially if the person holding it once believed his position powerful (or if the hoi polloi still think his position powerful, as in the case of the US presidency).

138:

Behold the majesty that is the Royal Pizza.

139:

Ooops, forgot the link. Sorry. http://bit.ly/hLpm5O

140:

It's not just the royals who have a cult of personality following.

Look at the 139 (now 140) comments on this thread. How many of the posters do you actually know well? (Yes, you've met me, and probably met most of them, but do you actually *know* them? I'll bet you couldn't pick me out of a crowd nor name me in a line-up.)

Why do your posts garner 140 responses whereas mine garner a few? Because, in a small way, you're famous. So, too, are the royals--though they've got a much larger following.

I've often come across people who are impressed by the fact that I know famous people. I suppose it's that "6 degrees" thing. We all need a goal to aspire to, something to look up to, and it's ingrained in us starting at an early age: first parents, then God, then superheroes (or Barbie), then outstanding peers, then those in power. The object changes, sure, but the desire to aspire to be more than ourselves, to have a goal, remains--even if that goal is unobtainable. (Really, how many teens lust after Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga?)

That, and it takes people's minds off the bad stuff--sort of like the comic relief in a downer plotline.

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