Over the weekend, I took my son to the Burnsville Fire Muster—a local small-town parade centred, as its name implies, around the fire departments of the various nearby municipalities. It is really a lovely little event into which a lot of love and care has evidently been poured by the community. My son had a delightful time (the demonstration by the police K-9 unit was his favourite, since right now he wants to be a policeman when he grows up) and I rather felt as though I got a little window into… I hesitate to say, “an America that once existed”, because it does still exist here and there. Perhaps better to say, “an America that was once much more prominent”—an America before Robert Putnam had to write Bowling Alone.
The very fact that the Burnsville Fire Muster does such a good job of capturing a sense of civic engagement and pride in the local community, however, is what made one particular detail so glaring as an omission. While there was no shortage of people atop trucks and parade floats, there was no one dressed to be on one. The smiles and waves that poured down upon the crowd came, vehicle after vehicle, from seemingly random assortments of plain-clothesed well-wishers, none of whose faces gave any indication that they themselves understood why they had been chosen from among so many to crown their respective displays. Certainly, nothing gave any indication to the onlooker.
I realize, of course, that the designation of parade queens and similar offices is no longer considered consonant with the values of the Republic. I work in state government (for the next week and a half; more news on that to come) and the department for which I work used to hold an annual pageant whose winner served for the year as the public face of the department, attending ribbon-cuttings and engaging in PR work to connect with local communities. The only time this custom, which was discontinued decades ago, is ever mentioned now is as an occasion for derisive laughter and an opportunity to criticize the sexism of the mid-20th century.
Now, the sexism of the mid-20th century was certainly worthy of criticism, even while one is aware that much of it was so invisible to people of the time that it not infrequently appeared to them in quite a contrary light (just as some of the most heinous sexism of the 21st century is actively praised by our cultural elites as exemplary feminism). I don’t doubt that many such events were treated by the men involved in them just as the office cooler talk of today alleges—as a kind of socially sanctioned opportunity for objectification and as a paradigm used to frame women’s potential range of contributions to the department’s work within an unjustifiably narrow lens. To the extent that, for many, such traditions had decayed to the point where they might have consisted almost entirely of such abuses, their loss is not to be lamented.
However, we should not lose sight of the fact that every abuse is parasitic on a legitimate use, even if it sometimes so obscures it as to conceal it from us altogether. The pageant winner and the parade queen, even if reduced in some times and places to objects of the male gaze, have their origin (and thus their true nature) in the same fundamental impulse of the mythic imagination that draped the honoured sacrifices of the Andes (woman and men alike) in gold and gemstones, parading them on palanquins sometimes hundreds of miles before sending them to the gods. Our sensibility rightly recoils in some measure from the means of their dispatch and certainly, as a Filianist, I am not about to wax nostalgic over human sacrifice (cf. Teachings 10:1), but what the cultures of pre-Columbian South America (as of countless other places and ages) exemplified was their fundamental belief in the ability of a human being to embody something more-than-human. To them, a human being could be more than merely beautiful; she or he could, at least for a moment of ritual time, be Beauty itself.
The modern parade queen arose from this same reflex of human understanding, assuming a more humane (and often more metaphysically accurate) form in a different cultural context. It is precisely because modernist materialism has so thoroughly deadened that reflex in so many that it has become possible for them—in keeping with the broader modern tendency to understand all human things as gaudily overdressed “natural impulses” rather than as imperfect reflections of higher principles—to think of pageants as a misogynistic eugenicist’s version of a state fair livestock competition, rather than as a distant and secularized echo of both the designation of a sacrifice and the consecration of a monarch (which, in ancient Bronze Age cultures that often ritually sacrificed kings at the end of a set reign, were two parts of the same action). We call them “queens” and not “specimens” for a reason—the designation is not a means of selecting a person for a pre-existing quality, but of marking a person as the recipient of a grace that renders them, during ritual time, “open behind” (to borrow Thomas Mann’s phrase) and thus enables them to mediate graces in turn, as the temporary cameo-icon image of Our Lady, Who is Mediatrix of All Graces.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to ‘rejoice’ as much as by anything else.” A parade is not merely an occasion of fun or a show of a community’s strength and solidarity (though it is certainly those things also); it is, when done properly, a kind of divine service in which we fulfill that injunction, rejoicing in the divine blessing of community, from the most fundamental unit of the family to the village, the city, the province, the nation, and, in those places and times fortunate enough to see its true existence, the Empire. The Parade Queen, likewise, is not just a pretty face for men to gawk at, though she will certainly be pretty and men will therefore unavoidably gawk, which may be excused in such measure (and only in such measure) as they manage to do it with a chivalric courtesy and civility (chivalry itself being largely constituted so as to gently refocus this gawking tendency on the higher principle that the gentleman’s Platonically longed-for lady represents). Rather, the Parade Queen is, for an afternoon, the living embodiment of the community, whose smile and wave returns to the crowd their own sacred joy in one another, impressed upon and by a figure that can humanize and realize (in the most literal sense) the inchoate emotion of their shared pride and mutual belonging. The town of Burnsville has erected huge metal letters at the end of the parade route reading, “You Belong Here”, but it is not in the nature of maid to feel that from the slogan of a city council’s bureaucracy. Only the warmth of a human being, who simultaneously speaks (with or without words) in the royal “we” of the community as a whole, can convey that message in a way that reaches the heart and imbues the members of the community with an inalienable conviction of its truth.
Without a parade queen, there is no parade, but only a convoy to show the power and wealth of “leading citizens” who like to be gawked at.