Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Exploring questions of public disclosure and private secrecy...

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. (David Brin)

England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr. Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes ranks. A family with the wrong members in control—that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase. (George Orwell)

The collision of the public and the private is one over which there is not, and likely never will be, an agreed formula for reconciling the two. And, as one might expect, when the details of a private (high visibility) life and marriage and family are shared with some 30 million (17M in the U.S. and 14M in the UK) over two days, that collision reverberates like a trans-Atlantic thunderstorm. Harry and Megan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex (at least for now), engaged in a public pulling back of the veil of secrecy and privacy that has enshrined the royal family for centuries, not with the compliance of the very public, and highly sensational, tabloid media. Specifically, the issue of racism through off-the-record discussion of baby boy, Archie, and the prospective colour of his skin, as well as the allegedly rejected plea for help from Meghan who obviously felt constrained (to put it mildly) in what she was permitted to do and to say, as a newly minted bride of the House of Windsor. She was not only a mixed-race woman, of ‘common class’ marrying a British prince; she was also a divorcee and a professional American actor prior to her engagement to Prince Harry. For those who casually criticize her for not having “googled” what it might be like to attempt such a canyon-like leap, suffice it to say that whatever Harry shared about the prospects of life inside the royal family would have been incomplete, at best, and relatively empty and prettified at worst.

Without adequate ‘orientation’ for such a conjugal union, or for the many expected rituals, rigours and disciplines of royal performance, it is nigh onto impossible for the rest of us to being even to imagine how treacherous her path was, and potentially still is. And, at the intersection of the history of Harry’s life (as Princess Diana’s second son), including the trauma of her death and the protracted and merciless pursuit by the paparazzi and the renewal of such pursuit for Meghan, in a nation that quite literally feeds on gossip, (whatever else Orwell and others might say), the divorce between the young royals and the palace was no surprise to millions. Whether or not private security was to be paid by the palace, or the British government (or for that matter by the Canadian government, should they have remained in Canada), or whether Archie was to have a royal title, as many of his cousins equally removed in the line of succession to the throne were given, seems both irrelevant and dismissible following the furor of “the interview”.

What is not irrelevant, or dismissible, however, is the profound intersection of the interview/divorce, and the global tide ofooverwhelming consciousness of racial discrimination and bias, both explicit and implicit, personal and structural, familial and organizational. Although the U.S. government may have experienced a significant decline in mature governance, including responsibility for many of the factors that comprise “world order,” over the last four years, the penetration of the American reality television show (the narrative of the capital and former president) into the farthest reaches of the minds and hearts of people everywhere has never been deeper or more indelible. Raised in the culture of stardom, Hollywood, klieg lights, tabloid and personality media industries, and having participated in the theatrical culture on both sides of the 49th parallel, Meghan was like that proverbial ‘hire’ from whom high accomplishments can and will be expected, along with the possibility of significant failures. I such a ‘hire’ too risky for the royal family? The answer is most likely. Were both Harry and Meghan fully conscious, or apprised, of the risks and the dangers? Unlikely. Was the royal family, still eager to adopt and embrace a ‘new’ bride, of mixed race, into a family that serves as the Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, of which group of countries more than half the people are black or brown. (of the “54 member countries, 19 African, 13 in the Caribbean and Americas, 8 Asian, 11 Pacific and 3 European…Commonwealth countries are diverse—they are amongst the world’s biggest, smallest, richest and poorest countries” …from thecommonwealth.org)? Undoubtedly…marketing of the royal “brand” translates into the cliché, keeping up with the trends of the world!

While racism gets top public billing in the headlines, right next to it squirms, mental health….an issue in and through which there is not a country, province, state, city or town on the planet is not wrestling to comprehend, to manage, to ameliorate, and to integrate into the public conventional conversation. And some countries are much more sensitive to the needs and the demands and the costs of mental illness, while others, especially the United States, are far behind in their national embrace of the issue. One of the primary arguments raised in opposition to government budgets that incorporate and provide funds for support of mental illnesses, is that one’s privacy is inextricably enmeshed with one’s freedom. To disclose a mental or an emotional distress, for many, especially North American men, is a deplorable indication of weakness, verging on a denial of one’s masculinity, akin to femininity. At the same time, many women, and many “evolved” (we dislike ‘woke!) men take an antiquarian view, that to acknowledged one’s fears, anxieties, depressions, and even suicidal thoughts is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication of courage, strength, truth-telling and an will to confront whatever ‘demons’ that need to be neutralized (not surgically or pharamacologically removed!)

And while the queen’s public statement expresses sadness that Harry and Meghan have had difficulties over the last few years, and that they will always be loved members of the royal family, the issue of racism will be carefully assessed “privately”. Many pundits point immediately to the discrepancy between the “public” investigation by the palace of Meghan’s alleged “bullying” of staff  while she was still ‘inside’ the royal ambit. So, the monarch has both discerned and segregated the public from the private…something no sentient citizen of the Commonwealth can or will miss or ignore. Workplace conditions warrant public investigation, while scuttlebutt (confirmed and affirmed by both Harry and Meghan) about the colour of Archie’s skin, and the implications of that potential blemish on the reputation of the royal family, will remain behind the velvet crapes of the palace windows and walls.

Whether the public will remain passive, silent, accepting and tolerant of that position, however, will be answered in many quarters, by many figures, including public leaders, royal watchers, social columnists and, in the long run, the historical doctoral theses that shine light on Elizabeth’s reign.

In the meantime, there remains the looming question of how the secular, and the ecclesial cultures will address the issue of both racism and mental health. “Let’s talk,” the well-dispersed cliché promoting Bell Canada’s investment in the cause of improving the mental health of Canadians, is a beginning, and a meagre one at that. Individual athletes have come forward to acknowledge their depression, their anxieties, fears and even thoughts of suicide. LGBTQ individuals, especially, have publicly voiced their victimization in all aspects of public life, giving both volume and clarity to the collective cries for sensitivity between and among human beings, of all races, genders, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

However, Asians have experienced a spike in hate crimes, including hate speech in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blacks have reared up in a cacophonous plea for respect, dignity, honour and trust, in the midst of the multiple injuries and deaths of black men and women, at the hand of white law enforcement officers. The American military has taken to investigating and exposing white supremacists who have already enlisted in their ranks, and presumably will also screen for similar traits among new recruits. Anti-Semitism, too, continues to find voice, weapons and both injuries and deaths in a spirit of contempt, bigotry and a rise of fascism, in North America and in Europe. At the same time, not to be ignored or dismissed, governments, like China, are abusing Uighers in their own country, and repressing activists in their determination to liquidate the 50-year agreement they made with Great Britain in 1997, over the governance of Hong Kong. The dramas, including murder and injury to democratic protesters in Myanmar, also play out on television screens around the world. And the Pope meets with a Shia cleric in Iraq, as a signal that both Christians (whose numbers have evaporated in the Middle East) and Muslims need to respect each other…in a world in which physical sickness, poverty, disease, refugees, and tyrants and their sycophants continue to abuse their power….

The spectre of the British monarchy being involved, regardless of how seriously one considers the issue, in a family investigation of both racism and a refusal to support a human request for mental health support, seems historic and tragic at the same time. It is not that British history books have not recorded appalling behaviour and attitudes from royals; some suggest legitimately and with considerable cause, that the Commonwealth itself was an instrument of racism designed to favour the white people under its umbrella. Similarly, the Queen, as head of the government, the Commonwealth and the Church of England (and all of its many iterations around the globe), carries a heavy burden of a symbol, not only of peace order and good government, (as the Canadian constitution reads), but she is also considered a shining symbol of racial, social, gender and ethic equity to millions around the world. Her ceremonial rituals, including births, weddings, christenings, knightings, funerals, anniversaries are all both calculated and performed as acts of unifying various political, religions, ethnic, and cultural groups, beliefs, perspectives and values.

And while many will consider her 70-word public statement to be a masterpiece of diplomacy, ‘buying time’ in order to gather time to reflect on what next steps might look like, as one commentator put it, nevertheless, this is another bruise on the global good name and reputation of the monarchy. And some, like Barbados, are currently moving toward republic as a preferred state for their nation, rather than to continue to operate inside the British Commonwealth of Nations. New Zealand’s prime minister indicates that such a move is unlikely for her nation. However, questions will continue to swirl around how the private “truth” of such a gold-plated (self-administered) institution can continue to keep its dirty laundry locked in the vault of its diaries, archives and internal discussions.

A similar question has to be asked of other public/private institutions, including the Church of England, as one of many organizations striving for a kind of balance and harmony in its capacity to carry out its spiritual and ethical obligations without selling out to the corporate manifesto of secrecy, privacy, and processes not subject to appeal or even to the right to due process.

Of course, it will be argued that Harry And Meghan have already surrendered their right to appeal and their right to due process, both by leaving and by speaking out. However, their voices, their faces, and their children will continue to shine a light (enhanced and supported by a public appetite on both sides of the Atlantic) into the questions of how individuals relate in and to large organizations, including family and how or even if “truth” will matter to people who do not exhibit attitudes and beliefs displayed by Piers Morgan. There are still armies of his type in positions of responsibility in corporate hierarchies, as well as in church and educational establishments. 

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