The Death Of Duty

Written by David Frum on Monday September 22, 1997

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?

"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.

While it's true that Bob Dole was the last throwback to the old style, the new sentimentalism is transideological. It is the style of Bill Clinton, explaining how this or that policy will "save the life of a child," and the style of the 1996 Republican convention. It is equally the style of the most talked about conservative mass movement of the 1990s, the evangelical Promise Keepers, who bring stadiums full of middle-aged husbands and fathers together to weep and hug.

But as ubiquitous as the new sentimental style has become, it still remains a shock to see it conquering the English, a people who once prided themselves on their self-command. When Elton John played his schlock anthem "Candle in the Wind" in Westminster Abbey, on a piano placed atop the grave of Jane Austen, all one could say is that one's last lingering hope that some small corner of the world might remain untouched by the voluptuous kitsch of the new style was finally, definitively dashed.

However, if the week of mourning for Diana -- and the scolding of the royal family for its half-heartedness in joining the mourning -- was a throwback to something old, the celebration of Diana herself betokened something new. In the past few years, public figures have been able to survive derelictions of duty that would once have sunk them: They have been able in fact to win the presidency of the United States. But it's still amazing to see a billion people make a heroine out of a woman whose claim to fame is based on her unwillingness to do her job.

For sixteen years, Diana kicked and mutinied against the inconveniences and unpleasantnesses that notoriously accompany the prestige and palaces of the English monarchy. She didn't see why she had to endure the tedious ceremonies and perform the tiresome good works that her husband and his family have endured and performed. (Immediately upon her divorce, Diana chucked her sponsorship of some 200 charities -- she said they took up too much of her time.) She didn't see why she couldn't enjoy an anonymous lunch at McDonald's with her sons when she felt like it, refused the irksome security that other members of the royal family tolerate, and was in her last weeks furious that the English newspapers thought the English people had a right to know that she was planning to make a notorious foreign playboy the stepfather of their future king. Diana always insisted that she wanted to lead an ordinary life. She was the first member of the British royal family to insist that her friends and acquaintances call her by her first name. But to her, an ordinary life did not mean life as it is ordinarily lived by the English middle class: She certainly didn't mean that she wanted a job, and a flat in Islington, and a cleaning lady once a week. She wanted to live as her friends did -- as an international multi-millionairess, enjoying the vast wealth and infinite fame of the British monarchy but without its onerous formality. She wanted all the quids of her 1981 deal with the British monarchy, but none of the quos.

And amazingly enough, her public seems now to agree that she was indeed entitled to all this. What made her a romantic heroine -- an icon as they are now saying -- was precisely her insistence on enjoying all the benefits of her position while carrying out none of its duties, least of all the duty of soldiering on in a less than perfect marriage. Diana has been called the first feminist royal, and while that might seem an absurd thing to say about a woman who owed everything initially to her beauty and then to her husband's position in the world, in fact it contains much truth. Carol Gilligan, the famed Harvard feminist psychologist, contends that duty is a male concept. Women, Gilligan claims, think in terms of emotional needs, and the job of feminism is to teach men to accept the needs of the self as an equal -- or actually superior -- basis for morality to the dreary dutiful systems of the past. That was how Diana thought too. And the fantastic accolades she has received over the past two weeks tell us that Gilligan and Diana are not alone; that millions of women think as they do: That one's own feelings always come first, no matter who one is, no matter how fantastic the privileges showered upon one.

And not just women. At Diana's funeral, her brother, the Earl Spencer, delivered one of the most astonishing eulogies ever heard under Westminster's vault. That was the speech in which he asserted that he as uncle expected an equal role with their own father in the raising of the two young princes Diana left behind. (The Spencers are a famously unbookish crew; otherwise the earl might have recalled that the last English aristocrat to try this, Edward Seymour, uncle of King Edward VI, lost his head for it.) What did he hope to do for his nephews? To teach them that, above all, it was important for them to express themselves, "so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly" -- that the duties that flowed from their remarkable position finished a bare second to this paramount duty to themselves. This was the creed their mother had lived by. The stunning response to her death, the even more stunning vilification of the husband she left behind, the teetering of a thousand-year-old monarchy because of its disinclination to weep and wail, is the loudest declaration yet that it is indeed Diana's creed that holds sway over the whole modern world.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard