Column: I recently learned Princess Diana was my cousin. Sort of
The news arrived by email over the weekend: The late Princess Diana and I were cousins.
To be more specific, she was my half brother-in-law’s first cousin twice-removed’s husband’s brother’s wife’s sister’s husband’s second cousin twice-removed. I’m not making this up.
I was informed of this intimate connection by the genealogy site, Geni. Diana, it seems, is mishpuchah, as we say in Yiddish. Family. So are her kids, I guess, and arguably her ex.
Now, please, don’t get all weird on me just because I’m a member of the royal family. There is no need to call me Your Highness or to walk out of the room backward when I tinkle my little bell signifying that our conversation is over. I am merely minor royalty — yes, I’m still flesh and blood! — and I don’t expect my life to change all that much.
But I now understand my devotion to watching “The Crown.” I’m sure the Murdoch family finds itself irresistibly drawn to “Succession” in a similar way.
Truthfully, though, millions of Americans — and not just those of us with a personal stake — are fascinated by the monarchy, which accounts for the success of the TV series. Despite having fought a war to rid ourselves of the “abuses and usurpations” of King George III, Americans have always maintained a soft spot for the royals, one that was clear even back when Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert Edward visited the United States in 1860 to rapturous, adoring crowds, and which has only grown softer in recent years with the Disneyfication of our culture.
Of course, we know the monarchy is ridiculous and offensive and undemocratic and un-American and pompous — and, these days, mostly ineffectual. But we can’t help ourselves. We love the silly rules, the royal titles, the lavish real estate, the colored sashes, the unearned medals, the glittering tiaras and, of course, the queen’s corgis. We love the scandals — the tawdry philandering, occasional abdications and bitter rivalries. We love the fairytale stories of ordinary Americans like Meghan Markle (and Grace Kelly and Lisa Halaby) who ascended from normalcy into the ranks of royalty. Wallis Simpson, not so much.
So it’s no great surprise that Americans are breathlessly watching “The Crown.”
But I believe there is something else drawing us to this particular show at this particular moment in history, in the aftermath of the wildly disconcerting election campaign and near the end of Donald Trump’s reckless presidency.
The British royal family, which admittedly can seem dowdy and anachronistic (and, if you believe the TV series, cold and emotionless as well), has developed a sudden appeal precisely because our own democratic system feels so battered and vulnerable.
If the British monarchy stands for anything (other than world-class snobbery, imperial conquest and centuries of needless violence), it is tradition, stability and soothing continuity. At a moment when the United States feels riven and mildly hysterical and when many of us are experiencing a kind of collective post-Trump PTSD, it’s no surprise we are drawn to the values exemplified if not by Queen Elizabeth II in real life, then at least by Claire Foy and Olivia Colman on the show: decorum and duty and discretion and sacrifice in the name of the country, kingdom and commonwealth.
All that stiff upper lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on pablum which at other times seems faintly ridiculous feels comforting and reassuring in these times of COVID-19 and President Trump’s escalating tantrums.
One lesson of “The Crown” is that hysteria and panic are never called for. Welsh schoolchildren may die by the scores in environmental disasters, South African police may beat anti-apartheid protesters, IRA terrorists may blow up Britons and prime ministers may come and go, but as long as all’s right in Buckingham Palace, all will eventually be right with the world.
It’s wishful thinking at best. But we’re lapping it up.
Last year, the Guardian published an article that seemed to suggest that tens of thousands of Americans were posting to message boards on Reddit and elsewhere clamoring for a restitution of monarchy as “a noble and viable alternative to the crude and materialistic mob mentality of republicanism.“
I’m not sure it’s quite so dire yet. But in 2020, who could help worrying that we in the U.S. are simply not adult enough for democracy — not informed or engaged or serious enough for self-government? Who can doubt that we need a grownup in charge?
But it’s not the monarchy we need back. We need our democracy back, along with some of the dignity and decency that Colman manages to project.
And just in case that’s not in the cards, I’ll be leafing through Debrett’s to find out just where an 11th cousin by marriage stands in the line for the throne.
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