Skip the wedding, reflect on how Chicago once hated British royalty instead
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Are you kidding? Get up at 6 a.m. Saturday to watch a royal wedding?
Another royal wedding? Didn’t we just have one of these, what, just seven years ago? How many more do we need?
And no, I’m not drawn in by the bride’s Northwestern connection — hail to purple, hail to white and best of luck to all fellow alumni. But it’s important, with all the crazily obsessive media attention building for months, to give permission to ignore the festivities, even sneer at them. To remind ourselves that not only do Americans reject the notion of royalty — it’s kinda how our nation came to be — but Chicago has a particular history of despising British aristocracy.
The oft-cited quote is Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson’s threat against King George V: “If George comes to Chicago, I’ll crack him in the snoot.” The common assumption is that this was a tossed-off remark, perhaps to appeal to Irish voters.
It was not. Rooting out the British menace was the linchpin of Thompson’s 1927 mayoral bid, what one historian called “one of the most absurd campaigns ever waged in an American municipal election.”
“I will not rest until I have purged this entire city of the poison that’s being injected into the heart of American youth,” Thompson said appointing a gambling buddy as special commissioner to weed British influence from Chicago’s libraries and schools.
Needless to say, Thompson won. A reminder that Donald Trump didn’t invent getting elected by damning foreigners, he merely refined it.
Ridiculing the English is uniquely satisfying and consequence-free; I’m surprised people don’t do it far more often. While most nationalities have weaponized their cultural pride, the English can be mocked openly, boldly denounced as swine, provided of course you reach for the proper literary fig leaf, such as D.H. Lawrence’s deathless rant: “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates … the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today.”
Why can this be gotten away with? Maybe because after centuries of dominating the world as haughty colonial overlords, slaughtering indigenous peoples from Calcutta to Khartoum, the English have a hard time assuming a hurt expression and making a little speech about the essential respect due each individual.
I should hurry to point out that I myself do not consider the English to be swine. First, my books have been published by several British publishers and I’ve written for British magazines and websites, and they are invariably staffed by lovely, professional people. Second, I first went to London in the summer of 1977, and have nothing but positive memories — I remember a certain hulking punker in leather with a tall spiked Mohawk, working his way through the packed crowd at the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, a sloshing pint in each hand, muttering very politely: “Excuse me, pardon me, coming through.” I’ve returned to the city several times and traveled in the south, from Cornwall (they have palm trees!) to Sussex. A fun place.
The worst part of our current 0-or-1, us-or-them cultural moment is that you lose the actual nuances of life. We’re so busy boosting ourselves we hardly notice anybody else, and forget that no group is all good, no group all bad. All have their excellences and deficiencies. It drags us down, all this Punch-and-Judying, and we forget that the reason we have laptops and antibiotics and a modern world is because some people manage to peer through their fog of self and dimly perceive others, even sympathize with them.
On that note, disregard for royal weddings shouldn’t be read as a criticism of weddings in general. They are both beautiful and necessary. Every ship launched gets a brass band and a bottle of champagne smashed against its hull because the ocean is vast and mighty and who knows what wisp of protective benediction might linger from the launch ceremony when the vessel is tacking into a gale?
Ditto for marriage — you want to send off the little two-person boat as best you can, to weather the storms and sloughs that are sure to come. While I’m not watching them hitch, I do wish Harry and Meghan the same goodwill I’d have toward any couple lining up at the Cook County clerk’s office. Welcome to the club.