Bogus emotion and mass credulity

Christopher Hitchens is relieved to note that a bulimic reaction is beginning to set in after last year's nauseating emotional binging over Princess Diana.

Published August 31, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interred with their bones."

Mark Anthony's valediction to Julius Caesar is fictional, unlike the graveside oratory of Pericles or Lincoln. But this time last year, the fictional had easily surpassed the real in the obsequies for Diana, Princess of Wales. Instead of a hyperactive debutante who had ricocheted around the scene with a series of ill-chosen but well-born or well-heeled boyfriends, alighting here on an astrologer, there on an aromatherapist and there again on a signature charity, we were presented with a Lady Bountiful or Fairy Godmother, without whose luminous presence the poor of the world were left unfriended, untended and alone.

"What a Difference A Di Makes!" chortled the headline writers of the tabloids when she erupted, blinking like a doe, onto the scene. On the contrary, what a difference a year makes. Twelve months on, and the whole diaphanous veil has melted away. In Britain, increasingly irritable and frayed groups of fans debate which memorial "she" would "really have wanted." Let's see now: There's the Graceland theme-park that has already ruined the bucolic village of Althorp, which her thuggish brother happens to own. Since Lord Spencer publicly refused to have her to stay on the estate after her divorce, that perhaps won't quite do -- even if she is buried there. Well then, what about turning Kensington Gardens, home of the Peter Pan statue and a refuge for generations of London children, into a tourist destination, complete with moist and sincere guides and concession stands? The locals won't stand for it. Tell you what -- how about a special, pocket-splitting five-pound coin, with the queen's head on one side and hers on the other? (I'd like to see the queen's fixed expression, admittedly, but talk about being two-faced ...) The latter proposal has, as it happens, been accepted by Tony Blair's "New Labour" regime, which always likes to be right on the money. After all, if Blair could intone so sincerely that she was "the People's Princess," he can hope to gain vicariously as the People's Prime Minister.

You can't make a souffli rise twice. This inflexible law is beginning to tell. As the efforts to recapture the lost rapture become tacky and second-rate, so they raise the inescapable question: What was that all about in the first place? I spent a few weeks this summer trudging around the British Isles to see what was up, and to make a television documentary heartlessly titled "The Mourning After," and was quite encouraged by the widespread evidence of popular bulimia consequent upon last year's frightful binging and gorging of sentimentality. As a matter of fact, a good deal of the revulsion wasn't "after" at all: It had been plentiful at the time but didn't stand a prayer of being reported by a deferential mass media that became an echo chamber and feedback loop to the blubbering classes. (Half the television sets in the United Kingdom weren't even turned on for the funeral; a fact that no TV set managed to report. Did the New Yorker really publish a special issue that week, or did I fucking dream it?) This hysterical substitution of the manipulated assumption of "us" to describe "them" -- which incidentally makes a shambles of the official pretense of "objectivity" -- is well described by Glen Newey in his contribution to "After Diana: Irreverent Elegies," just published by Verso:

"[In] Diana's smooth passage from princess to honorary prole, in a form
of inverse Peronism,
the subversion works deeper, turning the very idea of popular legitimacy
on its head. Self-
styled tribunes give tongue to popular "feeling" on its own behalf,
which thus confers
legitimacy on a containing operation to rescue the status quo. This
ventriloquises the general
will ...

At shoe-leather level, I was able to confirm the existence of numerous people who objected to being conscripted in this way. By no means all republicans, they included a supermarket manager and an amateur sports organizer (both of whom had been intimidated into shutting down their regular work), a stand-up comedian (who had been subjected to intimidation but hadn't shut down or shut up), a scribbler in East London, a PR man in Stratford-upon-Avon, a couple of professional journalists subjected to the crudest kind of censorship and a musician. She had recently lost both her parents in a road accident overseas, and couldn't believe that vicarious spectators who had never known Diana were passing themselves off as authentic "mourners."

The divine one's will, when published a little later, reserved not one penny for charity and redistributed a huge fortune among the richest families in the country. The queen, famed for her public composure, did not weep before the cameras until the moment when her Royal Yacht was towed away to the scrapyard a few months after that. Mohammed Fayed has been exposed yet again as a vulgar influence-peddler and distributor of thick envelopes. Lord Spencer's divorce proceedings have revealed him to be the centerpiece of one of the nastiest bunches of upper-class bastard-dom since the disappearance of Lord Lucan. Every leading character in that dreadful week of bogus emotion and mass credulity has since been unmasked -- as if any removal of camouflage were necessary. (I exempt "those poor boys," who are now wholly owned by the gruesome House of Windsor, to be stored as a blood bank for the replenishment of an exhausted line, and kept in perpetual training for the job that ruined the lives of both their parents. Monarchism, as well as being a fraud on the crowd beneath the balcony, is a human sacrifice of its hereditary representatives.)

Interest declared: I too have an essay in "After Diana." But let me give Glen Newey the last word:

Utterly humdrum deeds became the stuff of eulogy. Breathless
sophomorish columnists
continue to pant over her ability to walk and talk at once. Diana's
postmortem canonisation
didn't occur despite her faults, but because of them. For this reason,
there's little bounty in
asking why she should now be touted as a role model for our times.
Flailing around in
search of the adult within, Diana immeritously rose to her bad eminence.
In its more besotted
manifestations, Diolatry drags mediocrity before the public gaze, and
shows it reflected there
in gilded splendor. Who could fail to be captivated?

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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