Saturday, May 4, 2013
Much Ado About Nothing? [Abdications of a Modern Day Benedict & Beatrix] -~~ or ~~
Is It Time for Queen Elizabeth to Step Down?
No, this isn't Benedick and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing fame.This Benedict and this Beatrix are definitely not a pair of sparring lovers
in a Shakespearean comedy though both appear to share the wisdom and wit of these classic characters. Within a few months of each other, each had the fortitude to resign their respective offices, Benedict breaking with precedent and Beatrix continuing a modern tradition.
This week, the former Crown Prince Willem-Alexander became the first Dutch king in 123 years, becoming one of the youngest crowned heads in Europe. He succeeded his mother, the former Queen Beatrix - now designated as "Princess Beatrix" - who, after 33 years, continued a latter-day, 20th century practice of abdicating the throne of the Netherlands' ruling House of Orange-Nassau, being the third consecutive Dutch queen to abdicate. Though the position is primarily ceremonial, the monarch plays a major role in all parts of the Dutch government, the primary one being within its executive branch. Perhaps more compelling, and in the words of one online commenter: "the Constitutional Monarchy is a symbol of our national unity". Continuity, culture, history and tradition: sovereignty is something that some of us here in the States, in spite of our pride in America and our amazing Founding Fathers, sometimes wish we could have too! The House of Orange-Nassau "is a cornerstone of national identity....and it is above politics."
Looking back two centuries, The United Kingdom of The Netherlands was born in the post-Napoleonic era of 1815. PR consultant and royalty commentator Richard Fitzwilliams correctly notes that 'the Dutch royal family is symbolic of this nation's spirit....over the centuries it has experienced much religious strife, acquired and lost an empire and is now governed by a series of coalitions". Some of this sounds similar to the Netherlands' northwestern neighbor across the channel, Great Britain. One aspect that's crucially dissimilar is the choice to abdicate, a prime feature of the Dutch monarchy but - apart from the unique circumstance and constitutional crisis of King Edward VIII's resignation (1936) - not of the British.
Which brings us to a salient point: that of British king-in-waiting (Heir Apparent) Charles, The Prince of Wales. The Netherlands' monarchy, a model of adaptability, has been flexible and empathic in ways that Britain's has not, exerting a commanding influence on its natives' loyalties with their protocol appearing a bit more easygoing and informal. Though former Queen Beatrix retained characteristics of the traditional monarch (it's reported she reintroduced phrases such as "Your Majesty"), the popular image of the bicycling monarchy remains a potent one, even when reality wasn't always in sync with perception. Willem-Alexander's ascension was not actually a coronation but an investiture. He wishes to be a king who "puts his people at ease"; in his last major interview before becoming king he said that his subjects will not have to address him as "your majesty".
Lucky for him, Queen Beatrix left her nation in quite decent shape: in spite of Dutch unemployment hitting a 20-year high of 6.4%, it remains below the EU (European Union) average. With the ongoing problems of (mainly) North African immigrants failing to assimilate into Dutch society, many of The Netherlands' well-known tolerance policies have been cut back, successfully curbing some of the extremist tendencies in various ethnic groups. And their credit rating remains at Triple A - something the USA can no longer claim!
Compare this to Great Britain. Though the British monarchy remains as popular among their citizens as that of the Dutch, its spiritual health, material prosperity and future global prospects remain questionable. The unemployment rate currently stands at 7.9% and may well be higher. "The nation is running a global race against much nimbler competitors". Immigration issues (e.g. government policy) are ongoing and, in the definition of some politicians, downright disastrous. Some business-minded Conservative MPs complain that the country's growth strategy is undermined by its immigration strategy. Others believe that the very quality of British life has spiralled downward in the post-World War II era, particularly since the 1960s. Simon Jenkins states: "British monarchs do not abdicate voluntarily. The Dutch abdication showed an appealing informality. As the Dutch this week give monarchy a touch on the tiller, the British would do well to take note."
Spot on! If the definition of "generation" means a term of (roughly) 30 years (the average period between birth of parents and birth of their offspring), then Queen Elizabeth's reign (in 2012 celebrating her Diamond Jubilee of 60 years) has been about two generations. Every generation needs its own torchbearers particular to their age. Great Britain today, especially, very much needs figureheads "in tune with the mood, style and outlook of their citizens", Simon Jenkins rightly says. Since we in the States don't have a monarch as a rallying point for American identity, on a lesser level Hollywood has provided that for nearly a century. And some might argue the American presidency has become a major focus for national identity, though perhaps too much in the Tinsel Town mode.
The leader of the world Roman Catholic Church is the Pope (from the Latin papa), also the Bishop of Rome. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was the first pope to abdicate the office since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, nearly 600 years ago. An unconventional - some might also say unorthodox - move, Benedict (now age 86) cited his declining health and strength due to advanced age, amid the mental and physical demands of the papacy. At the time of the resignation, a Vatican spokesman declared that the pope "had the right and potentially the duty to resign." Though resignation is deemed unacceptable to modern popes, "the decision wasn't due to any external pressure". Stepping down as a pope means returning to a simpler, more contemplative life, one of humbility and, in Benedict's words, "time for reflection....to devotedly serve the Holy Church of G-d in the future through a life dedicated to prayer." It also means a return to being known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his former title.
Will there be a tug-of-war power play between the former pontiff and his successor, Pope Francis I (the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) the first Latin American pope known for his common touch and already markedly popular? Benedict will no longer be involved in an administrative or decision-making capacity, and though his new residence will be in a monastery on the grounds of Vatican City, both men have wisdom and humility enough to each "understand his place". To Roman Catholics who witnessed the health difficulties of Pope John Paul II in his last years, Benedict has accepted that his mission is complete and the torch must be passed on to the "next generation" - in this case, a "youngster" of 76 years!
For the former Queen Beatrix (now to be known as Princess Beatrix), a precedent was already set starting with her grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, who, due to her failing health, relinquished the throne to daughter Juliana in September 1948. Juliana's reign was one of colorful episodes both nationally and personally, a roller-coaster of periodic defeats and successes. Her very strong-minded disposition was similar to mother Wilhelmina. As the song goes, she preferred to do things "her way". Without her mother's or government's guidance, she singlemindedly chose her spouse: Bernhard von Lippe-Biesterfeld, a German prince from a minor royal house, marrying in 1937. Four daughters followed, starting with Beatrix in 1938.
The German invasion (May 1940) had Juliana fleeing the country, first to England and then on to Canada, remaining there for the war's duration. The post-war years were difficult times, with the struggle to rebuild a destroyed nation and the independence of the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] in 1949, after almost 350 years of colonial rule. Catastrophic floods caused by the worst storms in 500 years (1953) saw the death of thousands. Displaying genuine courage and compassion, wearing boots and an old coat, Queen Juliana waded through water all over the devastated regions, bringing food and clothing to those in dire need. This would endear her to her subjects for the remainder of her reign.
But scandals also presented their own challenges: in the mid-50s Juliana had her own Rasputin-equivalent episode when she came under the influence of a cagey faith healer. A constitutional crisis erupted, causing a breach between the court and the royal family. The Dutch public was shocked when, in the 1970s, it was revealed that Prince Bernhard had been taking bribes from a major corporation. Despite these and other setbacks, and largely due to a booming economy and her ongoing history of unflinching public service to her citizens (whose devotion she had earned over the years), the throne remained firmly in Juliana's hands when she passed it on to Beatrix in 1980.
As popular as Queen Elizabeth II remains, "Monarchy must regularly recalibrate its ceremony, its call on the public's emotional support," Simon Jenkins writes. And in the 21st century, this is critical if we wish to ensure the West's survival. The unravelling of the West which started in the 20th century (a direct line can be traced back to World War I and its aftermath) continues its erosion today. The Dutch monarchy has shown a peculiar skill in mirroring the zeitgeist of the times.
Wouldn't the British monarchy also do well to seriously remember that, despite Prince Charles's naysayers, once upon a time in the 1970s the man was wildly popular? And not just among his subjects but internationally. Lauded to the skies, the British adored him and he could do no wrong. I know, I was there. Not for the entire period but, during my prolonged sojourn, it was obvious that people were just wild about Charles, similar to Prince William and Princess Catherine today. I saw The Prince of Wales close up: he was witty, he was charming, he was - YES - good-looking too! He seemed to possess in abundance that "common touch" similar to Queen Juliana.
"Time heals everything and people see he has been acting in a fit enough manner to be King" claims David Wooding in British tabloid The Sun. Britain now seems ready to accept Charles and his consort, Camilla, with the largest support among the 45 to 54-year-olds. Charles and his generation of Baby Boomers came of age in the same tumultuous times; his divorce experience reflects that of many in his generation: an unfortunate fall-out of the tumultuous 1960s. And yes, Charles DOES indeed have some smarts, contrary to what the caterwauling chorus of Cassandras continuously bellows!
The press delighted in making a most ridiculous figure of him in the heyday of his marriage to Diana. Admittedly, his candor tended to the unfortunate at times. When one thinks back to his "talking with the plants" episodes and his AlGorish hypocrisy concerning matters environmental, there is an unfortunate cringe of exasperation. But why berate Charles's beliefs about London's contemporary architectural environment (he doesn't always appreciate la mode moderne) - it's not as if his criticisms have absolutely no basis in reality. He has been trained in navy combat (how many recent Presidents of ours can claim any military experience?) and is the first member of the Royal Family to earn a college degree. In my online observation (a bit restricted of course) of photos and videos of The Prince of Wales among his subjects, there seems to be much mutual respect, enjoyment and good cheer. And yes, though Diana receives due credit for raising two fine young princes, wasn't Charles the other half of that equation? Should he not justifiably share in that approbation?
It takes no small dose of "humbility" to resign a throne, as Pope Benedict and Queen Beatrix have demonstrated. Their reasoning conveys authentic consciousness for the future welfare of their institutions and a desire to see those institutions prevail and flourish. "You cannot retire from a sacramental oath," it is said. Queen Elizabeth is "dutiful in a way the modern mind can barely comprehend." That can't be refuted. But the thought of a 75-year-old Prince Charles finally ascending the throne is a troubling one. The West has now entered a new and perilous (st)age where its very existence is at a critical crossroads. Institutions periodically need a jolt of new energy to endure and thrive. An ossified monarchy can be detrimental to both royals and citizens. The next generation of British royals wait in the wings and just might be the *Red Bull* Great Britain so very much needs. After all, Charles was born to be king!
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