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July 3, 2007

celebrity culture (and Diana)

Eric Goodman sent me the following movie, prompted by my post on celebrity culture and politics.

Goodman's movie is about paparazzi and celebrities and the case of Princess Di. (The end is especially strong and thought-provoking.) Coincidentally, on Sunday, my wife and I watched Stephen Frears' film The Queen, which is about the same subject. I think The Queen presents complex contrasts that are worth considering.

First, there's the contrast between the stoical, laconic, stiff-upper-lip mores of the Royal Family and the outpouring of popular grief when Diana dies. In the film, Prince Phillip expects his grandsons to handle their grief by waking up early to hunt stags in the cold air of the Highlands. Meanwhile, millions of Britons who had never even met the princes' mother sit in public with tears streaming down their cheeks.

I recognize the attitudes of the Royals from my days in an English school during the 1970s. There is much to be said for the franker and softer emotions that now prevail in Britain (and which Diana Spencer displayed). Among other things, the old stoicism could be bloody-minded; it was a military virtue that underlay imperialism. Today's Britain, being softer, is a relatively benign global presence.

Yet the outpouring of public grief was not entirely praiseworthy, in my opinion. The public's view of Diana could surely be called "sentimental," meaning excessive, self-indulgent, idealized, and untempered by any critical thinking. Incidentally, there is nothing new or un-British about sentimentality, especially when its object is a reasonably attractive young princess. Consider Edmund Burke--that great conservative Englishman--writing on Marie Antoinette in 1793:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

Burke weighs the emotions of the young Queen much more heavily than the great issues of social justice that impelled the Revolution. He sounds a lot like the Londoners quoted in The Queen, who wish they "could 'ave done somefink for Di." We should seek, I think, some balance or median between the frostiness of Prince Phillip and the emotional indulgence of the British and American publics.

A second opposition is between the private world of authentic human relationships and the public world of "the media." In the movie, the Royal Family seems extraordinarily private, surrounded by 65,000 acres of wilderness at Balmoral. We also see inside Tony Blair's private, middle class domestic sphere as he "does the washing-up" and tousles his kids' hair. In contrast, we see Princess Diana, hounded on a private date by paparazzi until her car crashes. Surely the private zone is what we should prize and protect.

But again, the contrast is complicated. All the characters in the movie--certainly including the princess--use the mass media for their own ends. They even use it to influence their private relationships, as when Charles tries to get the press on his side as part of a classic struggle with his mother. It's possible to lead a private life, but not after you've appeared all over television and issued press releases about your emotions.

The Queen is appalled by public spectacles of grief. She prefers dignity. But the monarchy has always been a show. Long before television was the medium of choice, monarchs used stone to send messages about their majesty and might. They built Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace to communicate to mass publics. Once the British crown lost most of its political power, it became almost nothing but a public spectacle. In the film, the Queen Mother is deeply offended that Princess Diana's funeral might be based on plans for her own. But that is not because the Queen Mother is a private person whereas Diana is a public figure. It's because Diana is threatening to take the Queen Mother's spectacle away.

Anyway, public affairs are important. Because The Queen is a movie, it drives our attention to human dynamics--for instance, to the blossoming relationship between Blair and the Queen. But it's also very important that the Labour Party gained political capital from the funeral of Diana. How they used that popularity is a more significant question than whether Tony Blair saw the Queen as a mother figure. Labour's "spinmeisters" are depicted as villains in the film, but if they gained popularity in order to use it well, maybe they weren't so bad.

A third opposition is between serious people of merit and talent and empty celebrities. Prince Phillip is horrified by the thought of Elton John at Westminster Abbey. Of course, Sir Elton has some talent as a singer, whereas Phillip is famous basically for impregnating the Queen. Movie stars and singers are unreliable role models and sources of wisdom on matters of public importance. Then again, so are hereditary monarchs, yet the British constitution now treats the sovereign as an official adviser to the Prime Minister. Once again, there is nothing completely new about celebrity culture. Queen Elizabeth I was already a kind of celebrity. But the scale and scope have expanded during the reign of QEII.

In the end, I suppose I'm worried whenever there is a politically significant relationship between a great mass of people and very few individuals. This is always a fake and easily manipulated relationship, because we millions cannot really know those few famous ones. We millions appear fickle--a major theme of The Queen--because we are working from little information and much imagination. This is not an argument against democracy. It is an argument against forms of democracy in which the central question is what great numbers of people think about a few "leaders." A healthy democracy is rather a complex set of relationships among people and organizations.

July 3, 2007 7:20 PM | category: none


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