The Magazine

THE DEATH OF DUTY

Sep 22, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 02 • By DAVID FRUM
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"TELL US WHAT YOU FEEL!" That's the demand that has been barraging the British royal family for two weeks. Ah, you can imagine the Windsors thinking, if only we dared! This woman who broke up her marriage when it failed to live up to her Barbara Cartland fantasies, who then disgraced herself with her out-of-control personal life, who forgot her role as the mother of a future head of the Anglican church and consorted with New Age spiritualist cranks, who finally threatened our very existence by lowering herself to the same level of tabloid celebrity as a Gianni Versace or an Elton John -- oh yes, we have feelings about her all right. But what would happen to us if we ever expressed them?


All of those journalists and angry women-in-the-street reproaching Prince Charles and the queen for their excessive self-control, their hauteur and coldness: Did they not understand that it was only their self-control, their hauteur and coldness that permitted them to muster what little praise for Diana they did? Did the royal family's critics really imagine that, if liberated from the constraints of etiquette, the Windsors would rend their garments, hurl themselves to the ground, and howl lamentations, like Iranian Shiites observing the anniversary of the death of Ali?


Well, perhaps the critics did imagine it. It may be that all the demand for more "feeling" from the queen and the prince has been misinterpreted; it may be that what the editors and the women-in-the-street wanted was not real feelings of grief, but simulated ones. And why not? The British and the American publics, by electing Tony Blair and by electing and reelecting Bill Clinton, have made it clear that they expect their political leaders to be able to summon on demand an easy tear and a quaver in the voice. Why would any less be required from the royal family? The public is not fooled by Bill Clinton's moist eyes at Ron Brown's funeral or by the photographs of his hand- in-hand walks on the Martha's Vineyard beaches with his wife; it is not deceived by Tony Blair's "niceness." It knows a phony when it sees one, but it appreciates the effort these men are making to behave as if they cared for their friends and loved their wives. What the public wants is not authentic emotions -- which are frequently untidy and disturbing -- so much as a simulacrum of appropriate emotions; a simulacrum that proves that a public figure "cares."


We have come full circle. The "Oprah-ization" of public life, as it's being called, is talked about as if it were a brand-new thing, when in fact it is the return of something old. A hundred years ago, public life in Britain and America was bathed in the gush of emotions and the most florid language. Reread the poetry of Swinburne or the orations of Daniel Webster, glance at the paintings of Sir Frederic Leighton or old photographs of the obsequies of General Grant if you doubt it. The wry, laconic, anti-emotionalism of a Jimmy Stewart or a Prince Philip is a last relic of the early-20th-century reaction against the overwrought Romanticism of the Victorians. Bob Dole brought to his political speeches the same sensibility that Ernest Hemingway brought to his novels.


The generation passing from the scene is old now, but it was young once, and when it was young, in the years after the First World War, it learned to mistrust and despise the man who put his hand on his heart while wiping a tear from his eye. The historian Frederick Lewis Allen recalled the terse manners of his contemporaries: "During the whole three years and eight months that the United States fought [the Second World War], there was no antiwar faction, no organized pacifist element, no objection to huge appropriations, no noticeable opposition to the draft. Yet there was also a minimum of crusading spirit. . . . They" -- the men and women of the '40s -- "didn't want to be victims of 'hysteria.' They felt uncomfortable about flag-waving. They preferred to be matter-of-fact about the job ahead. . . . These people were unstintedly loyal, and went to battle -- or saw their brothers and sons go -- without reservation; yet they remained emotionally on guard, . . . disillusioned and deadpan."


We think now of the dislike of emotional fuss and show as generically "old fashioned," as if it had originated in the distant past and continued unmodified until the day before yesterday. It's probably truer to say that the suppressed, ironic style of our grandfathers came into fashion in the 1920s and has been going out since the 1970s. And the funeral of Diana denotes the final moment of its demise. We are all Victorians now, although the teary television interview has replaced the black crepe of the old queen's day.