Thursday, June 11, 2015

Royal Visit Has Me Thinking About Heritage, Human Nature

(From the June 11, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The King and Queen of the Netherlands came for a visit to West Michigan recently. As the son of a Dutch immigrant, but a man who considers himself fully American, this was an event that struck me as both interesting and odd.

It was interesting because of my ethnic connection to the Netherlands. My mother told a few stories about Queen Juliana, who was on the throne when my mom’s family was still in the Netherlands.

It was also interesting because I know less than I should about my ancestral homeland. Typical of the offspring of immigrants, I did not learn the history, culture, or governance traditions of the land from whence my family came. I have visited a half dozen other countries, but only set foot in the Netherlands once to change planes at the airport. I have studied three languages in addition to English, but none of them are Dutch.

So it became interesting on the occasion of the Dutch royal family’s visit to learn from media accounts things my family did not pass on to me or my siblings and cousins in favor of assimilating as Americans. But as I followed the accounts of the visit in the media (I was not invited to meet King Willem and Queen Maxima, in spite of my heritage), the spectacle struck me as odd. Several questions came to mind.

One question I had was why we know so little about Dutch royalty and so much about British royalty. With the Brits, we know about every act from dating to proposal to marriage to pregnancy to birth. We hear about royal scandals and rumors. But it took the Dutch royals’ visit to learn their very names, and details of their family.

There are several reasons for this. The British prevailed over the Dutch as a world power at the time of the American revolution. So while the Dutch had much to do in American history, the British were more prominent and recent. For example, the British power allowed them to rename New Amsterdam to New York, and it was from Britain that the U.S. sought independence.

There is of course the advantage of language. While the English spoken in England can sound different than they way we speak in the U.S., it is certainly more understandable than Dutch. We Americans can understand comments made by the British royals, an we can follow British media. The British also tend to cultivate the attention a bit more than the Dutch. King Willem, who only became King in 2013, has an understanding with the media that he is only interviewed at official occasions. Otherwise he and his family are off limits for questions and photographs.

The British royals also garner more attention because they typically keep the throne for life. The Dutch more traditionally willingly step down or abdicate the throne. This makes the change of power more dramatic in England, where there is a large, public and dramatic public funeral and coronation when royal power changes hands. The Dutch have a more routinized transition, a form or royal retirement and promotion.

By the way, I have three thrones in my house. I abdicate them often. I understand the regularity with which I do this is healthy medically (it is best to willingly step down than to die there), but I had not known it to be an activity of royal significance until the visit of the Dutch King and Queen recently brought attention to it.

Seriously, the Dutch royals’ visit also made me wonder why we Americans get excited about royalty at all. Is it not in our national fiber to resent the monarchy? Perhaps we are less offended by the modern monarchy because they play more of a ceremonial than an authoritative role. As such, they are more akin to ambassadors and democratic representatives of foreign countries than persons ruling by “divine right,” as was assumed hundreds of years ago.

But I also think we humans are fascinated by and have a need for persons to admire, exalt, and even worship. This was evident prominently in the Old Testament, when the people of Israel built golden statues to worship even as God spoke to Moses, or they begged the prophet Samuel for a king, as opposed to being satisfied with God, so they could be like other nations. Today, we Americans raise up athletes and actors, musicians and politicians, and others to be our ceremonial monarchs. We proclaimed Elvis to be King, we have our Queen Latifa, we gather around our “American Idol.”

Nevertheless, King Willem and Queen Maxima flew home to the Netherlands on a royal jet. There they will continue to live and serve within the limits of the Dutch constitution, one-third of which addresses the monarchy. We in West Michigan can return freely to being kings and queens of our respective castles, doing what we do unceremoniously, attending to our duties and responsibilities both small and significant.