For you readers who are sick and tired of the attention I pay to the Harry and Meghan drama, well, you are going to have to avert your eyes, because here I go again. On Monday, the day that the Queen held her Sandringham summit, Freddie Sayers has the best explanation I have yet seen for why this matters. It’s not about racism, or sexism, or any of those convenient woke-politics designations. Here’s what it’s really about (and why I find it so fascinating):
The Royals traditionally function as ciphers: representations in human form of entire world views that are otherwise hard to talk about. As Henry VIII represented the break from Rome, and Victoria represented Empire, they put a face on the big ideas of the age, and people line up behind them. In this clash, things are no different.
Today, we are told, in a drawing room at Sandringham, a showdown is taking place between Meghan, the unhappy American princess dialling in from Canada, and the 93-year-old Queen — mediated by their various princes. It would be hard to find two more suitable representatives than these two women of the clashing philosophies that, in different ways, have dominated British and European politics for the past decade. Tradition versus progress, duty versus self-actualisation, community versus commerce, nation versus globalisation.
Sayers points out that the British public is pretty liberal about most things. According to polls, they believe that if Harry and Meghan want out of the Firm, then they should be allowed to go. But they should be made to pay a price. Sayers:
But on another level, there is a growing fear that this same logic, in its relentless ratchet towards ‘progress’, will inadvertently destroy the things we hold most dear. It’s an uneven conflict because where the liberal world view is coherent, defensible and ostensibly virtuous, many of the things it threatens are hard to defend in the same terms. This mismatch makes people defensive and angry, as the Sussexes are now discovering.
In this competition of world views, the monarchy is highly vulnerable. In yesterday’s poll, even millennials are still clearly in favour of keeping the monarchy, and boomers even more resoundingly so. But there can be no logical liberal argument either for raising up an arbitrary family through birth, or for denying their individual rights once they’re there (denying them a political vote is already a breach of their human rights). If the monarchy has to justify itself in this way of thinking, it will eventually fall.
Meghan was initially welcomed with open arms by the British public, and her Hollywood backstory and mixed-race background brought something new to an institution people like to see gradually evolve. But she has recently come to represent precisely the combination of woke politics and global corporate power that a majority of British voters are trying to find ways to resist — instead of modernising a beloved old elite, she now seems to be dragging her husband into to the hated new elite, and it feels dangerous.
Sayers goes on to say that if the monarchy is to be defended, it can’t be on the grounds that the Sussexes are behaving badly. There is no way to rationally justify the monarchy in a world of liberal individualism. It has to be taken on what amounts to faith. Read the final paragraphs of the Sayers piece for his explanation of the great good the monarchy does for Britain simply by existing.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to this Buzzfeed piece comparing and contrasting UK tabloid coverage of Kate Middleton with Meghan Markle. This is prima facie evidence that there is a double standard. But why that double standard? Some say racism, though there’s no proof of that. It could be anti-American snobbery; there’s at least as much evidence of that as of racism.
But there might well be something else. Decades ago, I had a collection of essays by the film director John Waters, published under the title Crackpot. In the book, there was a shrewd piece called “Why I Love The National Enquirer.” It’s the kind of thing you would expect John Waters to write, but as ever with Waters, there’s often a serious point beneath the satire. I can’t find the essay online, but as I recall, Waters argued that tabloids were an unfailing expression of the vox populi. Not the respectable vox populi, but what the masses really think. He talked about how tabloids both make gods and goddesses of celebrities, and then savage them mercilessly, by focusing on their real weaknesses. The point is to bring them down into the muck where The Rest Of Us live.
I defer to British readers on this point, but it strikes me as plausible that the tabloid editors, with their intuitive grasp of what their readers think, gave Kate the benefit of the doubt not necessarily because she was white, or British, but because as a Briton, she intuitively grasped the monarchy’s role, her own place in it, and what was expected of her. Into this very particular and rarefied world walked an American television actress, who has been accustomed to living out her privilege in a different way, and she rebelled against it. Perhaps the British tabloids sensed that Meghan wanted to set her own rules for how she was going to be a Royal, and they decided to take her down a few pegs to teach her what it meant to be a British Royal.
Plus, you can be sure that the British tabloids resented her for changing Harry. From the New York Post‘s Page Six, a year ago:
Larcombe told The Post that this is just another example of how the once-jovial, beloved prince has changed since his marriage to the American actress and how his longterm relationships are suffering as a result.
“All of Harry’s staff have always thought he was fantastic, but the two of them [together] are high maintenance,” said Larcombe of the royal couple, adding that the prince has become “quite grumpy and aloof from his own inner circle of staff. Harry was always very pally with [them], so this is very unlike him.
“What people love about Harry is that he wears his heart on his sleeve,” Larcombe added. “He’s down to earth, a normal guy trapped in the royal world, and he doesn’t take himself very seriously. But now he is.”
The difference, sources say, is Meghan — whose American independence is rubbing some royal insiders the wrong way. They add that it’s been tough for the strong-willed duchess, who is expecting a baby in April, to go from controlling her own personal and professional life to not being allowed to make all her own decisions.
As a result, she is allegedly taking her frustrations out on those around her.
… “As an actress, Meghan expects perfection,” he said. “But when you’re in the royal family, you have to learn that it’s not about you, it’s about what you represent.”
If this is an accurate read on how Meghan clashed with British tradition, then you should not be surprised that the tabloids had it out for her. It’s because she was a duchess, but also wanted to be a prima donna. On this account, she thinks the institution ought to bend itself to fit her, not the other way around. If that’s true, then if I were British, I would resent that too.
Whatever the truth, Freddie Sayers is right: the Queen and Meghan Markle symbolize a clash of worldviews. You might not give a toss about the soap opera that is Windsor family life, but Sayers explains why the outcome of this conflict really is important, not only as a matter of cultural history, but geopolitically too.
UPDATE: Reader Jonah R. nails it:
I usually see it as my duty as a small-d democrat and a small-r republican not to pay attention to the British royal family.
But since this post is here and I read it, I can’t help but notice what Meghan has done in her time as a royal:
– clashed with the 93-year-old woman who rallied her helped rally her nation as a child during the worst war in human history
– devoted her energies to fighting for independence for her filthy-rich husband against his own family
– started a trademarked royal lifestyle brand
I was no fan of the maudlin cult around the very weird Princess Diana, but at least she was out there trying to do good in the world, and at least she got the lay of the land before going rogue.
I don’t bow to royalty, but it sure is unseemly to see Meghan repeating one of the worst trends of modern America: joining a venerable institution solely to ruin it.