We live in a country that is touchy about money and is deeply concerned, if not obsessed, with lavish displays of wealth. When the CEOs of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were summoned to a congressional hearing, they were reamed by the presiding representatives for arriving by private jet. Newt Gingrich criticized Mitt Romney in the recent Republican primary for being too rich to care about the concerns of the average American. And Mitt Romney himself, co-founder of Bain Capital and proud owner of 250 million U.S. dollars, accused President Obama of spending lavishly and recklessly. Romney quipped that, as president, “I would not be jetting around the world and using four years in office to see the world, but instead I would consider the four to eight years in office as a time to get America back on track.”
The British, it seems, aren’t so worried about ostentation, and proved it with Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. The June event began in London with a four-day celebration of the 60th year of her reign, the crown jewel of which was the flotilla parade that went gliding down the Thames. Royal barges, single-man canoes, military vessels, boats with names like Gloriana, Havengore, and Spirit of Chartwell could all be seen floating in unison, surrounding the waving monarch and set to the regal music of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also floating. Even for Britain, the event was one of uncommon grandeur—the last times the Thames hosted such extraordinary pageantry was in 1662 for King Charles II, which accounts for the 1.2 million citizens that flooded the banks of the river to watch and be waved at by the passing parade.
Of course, all this ballyhoo comes at an interesting time in Europe, and “interesting” is putting it nicely: Spain is now asking for an EU bailout and Greece is threatening to cause ever more problems for the eurozone. The economic turmoil on the Continent and in the UK itself is probably the cause of the mixed reviews of the diamond jubilee. The celebration was criticized in a number of forums, but nowhere more stridently than in The Guardian, where Tanya Gold wrote, “[the] rightwing press was so prostrate, so drooling, so repulsively horizontal that its coverage felt like a spoof, a four-day-long Chris Morris gag. When national newspapers and broadcasters fight over exactly how to kiss the royal arse, you wonder if the Enlightenment ever happened.” Other criticism was less indignant, but expressed a similar dissatisfaction with the way outlets covered the event: Actor and comedian Stephen Fry tweeted, “This is eggier and cheesier than a collapsed soufflé. Expected better of the Beeb [BBC].”
Of course, the question has to come up with an event like this: Was the jubilee an unnecessary, self-celebratory display of wealth and patriotism? Was it an antiquated ceremony presumptuously performed at a time when serious hardships have made the people detached from the object of their ostensible admiration? Well, it depends on whom you ask. BBC director general Mark Thompson adamantly defended the jubilee against its many detractors, stating, “This was a weekend when most British households put understandable cares and anxieties aside and celebrated a moment of national reflection and thanks for the Queen’s lifetime of service and devotion.”
It seems that there are two diametrically opposing viewpoints from which to see the jubilee. You can choose to see it as the much-deserved lauding of a tireless civil servant, or you can view it contemptuously as the fetishistic worship of a remote octogenarian decked head to toe in silk and diamonds. Either way you see it, solidarity-booster or slap-in-the-face, the tremendous amount of money that was evidently sunk into the celebration and spectacle could doubtlessly have been spent better elsewhere, and it seems that the whole thing was oddly and wistfully redolent of the bygone empire. In 1897 when Queen Victoria celebrated her own diamond jubilee, the entire British Empire was unknowingly celebrating the mentality of staunch jingoism and national fervor that would result in the destruction of Europe some twenty years later. And even though this jubilee might perhaps have been more innocuous, Queen Victoria’s celebration does serve as a reminder of the fact that nothing good ever comes out of vehement praise of a monarch.