Thu, May

Queen Elizabeth II and Finding the Common Lesson


GELFAND’S WORLD - It's been a long time coming. The longest reigning monarch in the history of the United Kingdom has died at 96.

If there were just one thing I could say about her, it would be that she did her service in WWII by joining the motor pool. It was an era when monarchs such as her mother and father engaged in vigorous ceremonial leadership even as they left the real leadership to Churchill and Parliament. Elizabeth, a princess at the time, worked with her hands, drove trucks, and competed with Rosie the Riveter in doing her war service. This was in keeping with a feudal principle that princes were warriors before they became kings. 

I was raised as an American, learning in history class that we reject the idea of the hereditary monarchy and of the lifetime leader. I've always viewed the British monarchy as the remnants of an empire, essentially without power other than to lead a few national rituals, but otherwise equivalent to any other tourist attraction. There is some evidence and testimony that Elizabeth II was, in her own way, cordial and hospitable. Certainly it was her lot in life to host many leaders who weren't known to be such decent human beings, and she did so in a competent and (let's get this word out of the way) regal manner. 

I suspect that the most contact that Americans had with the late queen came as we waited in line at the supermarket checkout counter. I can remember how the National Enquirer used to run headlines about the British royal family. I cannot at this juncture remember exactly which tabloid it was, but a standard headline was how "the dying queen" had reshuffled the rules for inheriting the crown. A common line was that she had moved Charles out of the succession and replaced him with William. This of course represented a stark misunderstanding of how the royal succession is determined in the UK, or how the Parliament would have felt about its own prerogatives being replaced by an American tabloid. 

Even as the news was being broadcast over American television networks, it was a topic of discussion that newly minted King Charles III had been a disappointment to his parents for most of his life. And here is the take-home lesson: It hardly matters what Charles is as a human being, scholar, or leader of the Commonwealth. The job is now, and has been for a long time, a ceremonial role which does not get to determine whether the U.K. builds another nuclear submarine or even where the current ones are placed. 

So good luck to Charles III, even if I can't bring myself to type that title His Royal Highness. There are those who study the royal genealogy and love to condescend to those of us who don't care who has what title. To me, it is all an artificial lot of fluff to begin with. You have to recognize, though, that this is rather a late time in life for any man to take on a task of this enormity, as meaningless as it may be. 

Trump kept nuclear secrets at Mar a Lago, or so it is now alleged 

My generation spent its formative years living in fear of a sudden nuclear strike that would kill us on the spot or burn us unimaginably. The reality became the stuff of fiction -- On the Beach, Failsafe, Dr Strangelove, and hundreds of science fiction novels, novellas, and short stories. One writer by the name of Jerry Pournelle developed a whole series of futuristic literature that he put out as a series of books under the title, There Will Be War. 

One of the standard plot lines was the man who went off the deep end and started a nuclear war (Dr. Strangelove) or a nuclear strike happening by accident. Another plot line was the western high command playing war games and discovering that just about anything they did led to the death of civilization through nuclear war. And then there was the movie Wargames, which put most of the other plot lines together into one mashup. 

One element was pretty universal in that fictional universe and in the real world that ran alongside it. Nuclear top secrets were treated as exactly that -- top secrets to be kept under guard, limited to the very few. The soldiers who were to be entrusted to the weaponry were vetted through multiple layers of personal history and psychological testing. Sometimes a person with genius and psychological instability made his way up through the ranks of the physics profession or the Strategic Air Command -- after all, the authors needed to build their plotlines -- but this was treated as something that should ordinarily be unheard of, the generator of a precipice that we as a civilization would skirt closely and then step back from. 

But more than that, it was expected that, as each plotline resolved, the world would have learned something and would take appropriate steps to make sure that such a thing never again occurred. 

This real world of ours has just delivered up a modest variation on those 1950s nuclear apocalypse movies. The question is now the following: Have we learned something useful, as those fictional characters did when somebody tried to steal the nuclear codes? When giant ants swarmed out of the New Mexico desert and colonized the L.A. storm drains, there was a lesson to be learned. (Stop creating horrible, giant mutants through above ground nuclear testing.) 

Here's my briefest summary of the lesson to be learned from our own real-world plotline: 

Nuclear arms information is to be kept with the highest possible level of security. It isn't taken to somebody's vacation home and left in an unsecured desk drawer. Any idiot should know this. Apparently this wasn't just any idiot. So the question is whether or not the news leak is true. I expect that the Trump supporters will claim that it is just one more hoax. But suppose it is true, and that the evidence and testimony builds up to the point that it is compelling. For example, the Department of Justice could present the cover in evidence or show it to the special master, and achieve a level of definitive proof that way. At that point, would Trump supporters recognize that the man is beyond redemption and should never again be considered for public office? 

The lessons of the past couple of days 

We come full circle. The message in Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples (even though Churchill himself seems to have missed the point) was the danger of having to live under a hereditary monarchy. Every once in a while, the competing heirs got to squabbling and then warring over whose interpretation of the rules would hold. 

Likewise, we developed a system in the United States in which no one man gets to remain president forever. We have rules and systems, and among those systems are our national elections. It may be that no election is perfect, but we have developed systems which are as honest and careful as we know how to achieve. No man should attempt to hold onto the presidency beyond his lawful time, and no man should hold onto our highest secrets beyond that time. It would be equally absurd to give the nation's highest military secrets to Mad King George as to Mad ex-President Donald. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])

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