Why We Care About the Royal Family Feud
That wasn’t just a high-charged celebrity interview that everyone talked about and then it went away.
conversation last weekend with the duke and duchess of Sussex will reverberate and last. It was history, a full-bore assault on an institution, the British monarchy, that has endured more than 1,000 years.
Harry and Meghan famously leveled two big charges, that the House of Windsor is racist and that it is weak. Previous incarnations of criticism painted it as invincible—the sharp-elbowed courtiers, the coldhearted family, they can crush you like a bug. No, Harry said, they are the bugs, trapped in fear of the tabloids that control whether they’ll keep the throne. “There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations. I mean generations,” he said. “My father and my brother”—Prince Charles and
—“they are trapped. They don’t get to leave. And I have huge compassion for that.” That must be a comfort to them.
No immediate-family heir to the British throne has ever talked like this. You are made quite vulnerable when people suddenly see you as weak. What remains of your mystique is lessened when you’re seen as just another group of frightened persons.
Meghan charged that her infant son, Archie—the “first member of color in this family”—was treated differently and denied things due him because he was biracial. There were “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.” She wouldn’t say who was involved. “I think that would be very damaging to them.” So she knew the power of the charge she was bringing. Harry, asked about it, said, “That conversation I’m never going to share, but at the time—at the time it was awkward. I was a bit shocked.” His refusal to name the person with whom he had the conversation didn’t limit guilt but dispersed it.
The queen’s response was a small masterpiece of blandness that sucked the heat from the moment: Accusations of racism are “concerning” and will be “taken very seriously,” but “recollections may vary.”
This is a story that will evolve for some time. Some observations:
Public life has gotten extremely, unrelentingly performative. Have you noticed you keep hearing that word? It means everyone is always performing—the politician, the news anchor, the angry activist. This gives natural actors an edge, and leaves those who aren’t by nature actors at a disadvantage. Meghan was a professional actress.
Both Meghan and Harry speak a kind of woke-corporate communications language that is smooth and calming but also slippery and opaque. You can never quite get your hands around the thought as you grab for meaning.
They spoke a great deal about their pain—it is a subject that animates them—but they seemed also to wield that pain as a weapon in a way that left you wondering if pain is really the word for what they experienced, as opposed to anger followed by cool desire for revenge.
Some of what was said beggared belief. Meghan claimed that going in she didn’t really have any idea what the royal family was, didn’t Google or do any research. “As Americans especially what you do know about the royals is what you read in fairy tales.” Actually, no. When Princess Diana died in 1997 it was a world-wide, epic drama. Diana was raised to heroic status, the people’s princess, roughly treated by royals who didn’t deserve her. Her funeral was watched by 2.5 billion people.
home in California, was 16, presumably loved media, and went on to study acting. Is it believable she didn’t know this story, follow it, see who had the starring role?
As I watched I got the sense she knew more history than she said, that perhaps on some level she wanted to be Princess Diana, only she wanted not to die.
She sees herself as a moral instructor, an ethical leader. She and Harry were originally “aligned” by their “cause-driven work”: “I’ve always been outspoken, especially about women’s rights.” She wishes to “live authentically,” “just getting down to basics.” This apparently involves rescue chickens. She and Harry spirited them from a factory farm. “Well, you know, I just love rescuing,” she said. This was perhaps meant to underscore the idea that she rescued Harry from his charnel house of a family.
She is good at underscoring. She watches “The Little Mermaid” and comes up with a handy metaphor for her journey: “And I went, ‘Oh my God! She falls in love with the prince and because of that, she has to lose her voice.’ . . . But by the end, she gets her voice back.”
This is performative to the nth degree.
They have a foundation and a media-content company called Archewell. Asked about the latter, she said, “Life is about storytelling. About the stories we tell ourselves, what we’re told, and what we buy into.” Well, that’s part of what life is. “For us to be able to have storytelling through a truthful lens, that is hopefully uplifting, is going to be great knowing how many people that can land with.” Can land with? That is practiced show-people talk. She wishes to “give a voice” to those who “underrepresented, and aren’t really heard.”
Why should an American care about any of this? I suppose we shouldn’t. In a practical way we’re interested in the royal family because we don’t have one, don’t want one, and think it’s great that you do. We get the benefits—the pictures of clothes and castles, the horses and military outfits, the stories of backstairs and love affairs—and you pay the bills.
But I think there’s something deeper, more mystical in our interest, a sense that however messy the monarchy, it embodies a nation, the one we long ago came from and broke with. The high purpose of monarchy is to lend its mystique and authority to the ideas of stability and continuance.
Mad King George, Victoria—these names still echo. It is rare and wonderful when you can say of a small old woman entering a large reception area, “England has entered the room.” Someday
will leave us and the world will honestly mourn, not only because of what she represented but because she was old-style. She performed but wasn’t performative. She was appropriately, heroically contained, didn’t share her emotions because after all it wasn’t about her, it was about a kingdom, united. You could rely on her to love her country and commonwealth; she was born and raised to love them. And so she has been for the world a constant. And in this world, a constant is a valuable thing.
I keep thinking of the special predicament she and her family are in. Diana did them a lot of damage in her life, and her death, but their feelings about her were mixed. She wasn’t born into the family, she was a thing that happened to the family. But Harry—Harry they would have loved, as brother and son and grandson. They would miss him. And now he has done great damage to everything they are and represent.
The old queen must be grieving. Not that she’d say it, or share the wound. There’s something so admirable in that.
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