March 2024
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan


I’ve been watching The Crown on Netflix since that story of British royalty first appeared — from Victoria to Diana, a dreamy soap opera designed to entertain viewers like me with tales of wealth and scandal. I love those accounts of romances and castles, and I marvel at the trappings of riches. I know the scenes of beauty and ballrooms are contrived, but I still watch the stories and read the absurd newsfeeds about the latest gala, just as if it mattered.

I suppose turning to those royal narratives allows me to ignore news of cruel war, suffering children, and horrific climate events. Television provides an escape, and I’m grateful for the shows that keep me watching, though I can’t defend my looking away from situations in the world that are all too real.

Royal lives have mattered to people forever, and I’ve been pondering the reasons for our fascination. How can it be that people think royals are endowed with special qualities? Why do we rush to buy Spare, a bestselling memoir by a British prince? How can the Japanese have worshiped their human emperor? I can’t fathom such a thing or understand, but if you can watch televised football, I can watch The Crown.

We have no royalty here in America, no king who’s been trained from birth to model our values. The fact that the British support a royal family is amazing, but even we Americans find it fun to adore, even emulate, some people as if they’re better than the rest of us. We’ve worshiped sports heroes, movie stars and the King of Rock’n’Roll. Like children, we choose to endow teachers, generals, and preachers with heroic attributes. Worshiping any showy figure like Taylor Swift or Tom Brady — not to mention Princess Diana — is foolish, of course, and it’s childish to expect elected leaders to be heroes who can fix everything.

I think we’ll always long for a ruler. We hope for a person above us who stands for love over hate, peace over war, forgiveness over revenge. Such a fictional leader uses selfless judgment, negotiates with the opposition, inspires worthy projects to improve lives, and exerts power for the good. He or she is not real, of course, but an imaginary figure we find in religions or in movies with superheroes who can fly over our cities and save us from danger.

The real danger is that we might give in to our need for a superhuman leader. Our longing could lead to the election of a politician who promises the impossible despite the limits of his skills, his lack of wisdom or commitment to the welfare of the people. I think our wishful, magical thinking could lead us to choose the stupid over the wise, the colorful over the dignified, the noisy over the sensible.

When we look over the history of kings, the story is not pretty. The Caesars were cruel; the Czars were violent; the Plantagenets were foolish and lazy; the Hapsburgs were oppressive; the Hohenzollerns were tyrants; the Médicis were wicked. (That was fun to write.) It looks like royalty have mostly used their power to benefit themselves. No surprise there, we know that power corrupts.

We Americans are smug about corrupt kings because in the early days of our republic we knew better than to choose a king. Instead we devised a system to check too much power in any part of government, keeping our leaders within bounds. And we’ve codified those ideals in our Constitution. I’d like to say those laws have protected us from unscrupulous leadership.

They have not. We’ve not always been able to avoid unqualified leaders who surround themselves with people who can manipulate the media and stay in power. Such autocrats can be successful if there are not enough brave people who will oppose dangerous rhetoric and distorted truth.

Like our adoration of the royals, we can give in to manipulation. I’ve watched us admire the politician who assumes the posture of a king, speaks with the loudest voice and triggers our love for glittery settings. He can persuade us by appealing to our love for splendor with his handsome wife and son, his flashy home and famous friends. We’ve imagined him to be exceptional, to embody our vision of a royal leader.

But the flash isn’t real. His golden castle and promises are grotesque stories that feed our love of the magical, and magical thinking is dangerous. It’s as if we put our hopes into a basket and hand them over to the tallest, the loudest, the richest among us, and then turn away to watch the British royal family on television.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.