Entries from September 1997

The Death Of Duty

David Frum September 22nd, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

“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

Parties Of The Right Must Point Conservatism In New Direction

David Frum September 20th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

This hasn’t been a good year for conservatives around the world. For the first time since 1978, left-of-centre parties are in power in Canada, the U.S. and Britain all at the same time. In fact, every major Western industrial country except Germany is now governed by a left-of-centre party — and the German Christian Democrats don’t look long for this world.

It seems strange conservatives should be so sunk in the doldrums electorally, when their ideas are in the ascendant as never before. But then, maybe it isn’t so strange. Maybe in fact, the reason conservative parties are out of office is because the big conservative ideas of the 1970s — balance the budget, cut taxes, introduce more competition into public services — have become the conventional wisdom of the 1990s, espoused by Chretien Liberals, Clinton Democrats and Blair Labourites alike. It used to be that the only way to get Tory or Republican policies was to vote for Tory or Republican governments; now, if you’re mad at the Tories or Republicans, you can safely vote Liberal, Labour or Democrat without fear that your taxes will be hiked up to 90%.

This means, if parties of the right hope to win power back soon, they need to modernize their principles, to give voters fresh reasons to support them by distinguishing themselves from the pseudo-conservatives of the old-line left-wing parties. It’s a big job. Next weekend in Washington’s cavernous Mayflower Hotel, several hundred conservative intellectuals and politicians from around the world will sit down to have a crack at it.

The conference is the brainchild of John O’Sullivan, probably the only man in the rancorous conservative movement who is liked by everybody, in all factions. O’Sullivan is the editor of National Review, and was before that a longtime aide to Margaret Thatcher. Which is how it came about that Lady Thatcher will co-chair the conference, sharing her gavel with William Buckley, the man who more or less invented modern conservatism. Delegates are expected not only from Britain and the U.S., but from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.

I’ve had a chance to glance at some of the preliminary materials for the conference, and I think the meeting does indeed point conservatism in a new direction. If the draft program is adopted, the old difference between left and right about economics is about to be joined by a new disagreement about politics.

Once, conservative advocacy of competitive enterprise and balanced budgets was pitted against the left-wing faith in state control and lavish spending. Now that the old left-wing dogmas have been shattered, former left-wingers like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Paul Martin claim to endorse free enterprise and fiscal sanity as wholeheartedly as the right ever did. So the new argument pits conservative insistence that political power must be accountable to national electorates against the left-wing fascination for putting power where the people cannot control it – into the hands of judges, bureaucrats and international bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.

Twenty-five years ago, the right championed democratic capitalism against a left that wanted democratic socialism. Today, the right must still champion democratic capitalism; the difference is it’s now the ‘democratic’ rather than the ‘capitalist’ half of the formula that is under siege. The threat to democratic accountability varies, of course, from country to country. In Britain, it comes from a European bureaucracy uncontrolled by any elected body. In the U.S.,
the trouble originates in the eagerness of a liberal administration to devolve control over its armed forces and foreign policy to multinational organizations, especially the UN. In Canada, the attack on the ideal of self-government is being launched by our increasingly arrogant and unchecked courts.

At bottom, the debate between right and left remains what it has always been: freedom versus control, the diffusion of power to the people versus the centralization of power in the hands of a self-appointed caste. Socialism may be dead, but the appetites that created it linger on. It is, as it has always been, conservatism’s task to resist them.

Originally published in The Financial Post

China Inches Toward Market Economy

David Frum September 16th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Chinese Communist Leader Jiang Zemin took a big gamble this weekend. At the 15th congress of the Chinese Communist party, he said China’s giant state-owned socialist monopolies will now go bankrupt if they can’t pay their way. With that, the Chinese Communists have taken another step toward the market economy. The gamble? That they will be able to maintain their dictatorial grip upon a country where business transactions are increasingly free.

Many in the West fear Jiang’s gamble will pay off. The pessimists point out that economic freedom and political tyranny have coexisted before — in General Park Chung Hee’s South Korea, for example, or Napoleon III’s France – and that there is no reason they cannot do so again. And in the short term, the pessimists are right. Yes, for a decade or two, a dictator can run a relatively free economy — just as, for short periods, it’s possible to combine socialism and democracy. But just as democratic socialism cannot last — you cannot sustain free speech in a society where the government decides who keeps his job and who gets fired — so undemocratic capitalism cannot long be sustained.

Look, for example, at Jiang’s latest initiative. Imagine this. State Steel Works No. 1 is losing money and closes down. The works has both debts (to suppliers, workers, lenders) and assets (unused supplies of iron, piles of finished steel, used blast furnaces, trucks, cranes and so on). The purpose of a bankruptcy law is to divide up those assets among the defunct firm’s creditors. Does the bankruptcy process permit politically powerful creditors — banks controlled by the army, for example — to throw their weight around, to jump to the head of the repayment queue? If so, State Steel Works No. 2 will quickly discover it cannot get credit. Who will sell it anything on 30-day terms, or lend it money, if Steel
Works No. 1 has proved only the politically powerful will be repaid should things go wrong?

So it will be in the interest of all the successful companies in China – many of which are also owned by politically powerful people and institutions – to devise a bankruptcy process that is fair and seen to be fair. But look at what that will mean A fair bankruptcy process requires bankruptcy arbiters who are seen as impartial. That means they will have to feel free to rule against the powerful, when circumstances warrant. In other words, an effective bankruptcy law requires an independent judiciary. And an effective judiciary takes away from the Chinese state another chunk of its
power to intervene arbitrarily in daily life: another big set of problems and disputes will be settled — not by the arbitrary whims of the dictatorship – but by independent decision makers enforcing rules that bind the state as well
as private citizens.

This does not, of course, amount to liberal democracy as we know it. It remains true the Chinese government can throw a man in prison for making a political speech or for attending a Catholic mass. But compare it to 20 years ago. Then the government allocated every grain of rice, distributed every shoe and shirt, and controlled every square foot of living space. If a citizen did not actively swear loyalty to the state — join in its parades, mouth its slogans, denounce his neighbors – he would starve, and go naked and homeless. Today, China prohibits freedom of speech; 20 years ago, it prohibited free thought. No would call China a free country. But it is a country where, over the past 20 years, the power and intrusiveness of a once-totalitarian government have radically contracted.

Jiang and his colleagues think they can stop the shrinkage — they can hold onto a monopoly of power in a society where people increasingly own their own farms and homes, work for private employers, use computers and modems, have high school educations, and have money saved in the bank. That’s what General Park and Napoleon III thought. But they both turned out to be wrong, and France and South Korea are both free countries today. It may take many years yet for China. But I’m betting that Jiang will turn out to be wrong too.

Originally published in The Financial Post

Diana Accepted The Benefits Of Royalty, But Not Its Duties

David Frum September 6th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, has detonated a blockbuster bomb of anger and resentment against the British royal family. Millions of people around the planet have made up their minds a beautiful, warm-hearted, modern woman was victimized by a cold, haughty husband — and it was this persecution that ultimately put her into the deadly backseat of a playboy’s automobile.

But grief for Diana should not lead us to do an injustice to the family she left behind — especially since that family provides Canada with its head of state. For while she certainly suffered injuries at the hands of the royal family, it’s also true that much of her unhappiness originated not in her resentment of them, but in her unwillingness to shoulder the
responsibilities of her situation.

Diana has been called the first modern royal. I suppose that’s probably true — but I don’t know that it’s an altogether good thing. Certainly she was the first member of the royal family to have gone through the quintessential modern experience of psychotherapy and she learned its lessons well. Pre-eminent among those lessons is that one’s own
needs must always come first.

Diana is now being hailed for her selfless charitable work. By all means, let us hail it. But we ought to remember that she did only a small fraction of the work done by her homely uncelebrated sister-in-law, Princess Anne — and that when Diana’s divorce became final, she quit nearly 200 charities of which she had been the honorary patron. As she said at the time, the main difficulty with life as a member of the royal family was it left one too little time for oneself.

Diana accepted the benefits of royalty, but she would not accept its duties. As part of her divorce settlement, she insisted she retain the title of Princess of Wales and the use of Kensington Palace. In time, she would have taken the seat of the mother of the king at the coronation of William V or Henry IX. But she did not see why she should have to curtail her freedom in order to enjoy those good things.

Diana never seemed to understand there was a difference between being the mother of the future king of England and
being just another international celebrity. The reason the public loves celebrities is because they are just like everybody else — only richer. They think the same thoughts, live by the same codes, talk the same psychological
babble. The reason the public has so disliked Prince Charles is because we suspect he is not like everyone else. However little he may personally be, he represents something great and grand. He commands our attention, not because he
is living a luridly interesting life, but because he is the embodiment of 1,000 years of continuity of the English nation.

Diana, on the other hand, was a lot more like Gianni Versace and Madonna and Barbra Streisand. She did not practise the reticence and discretion the British used to expect from their monarchs. If she was unhappy in her marriage, everybody heard about it; if she fell in love with another man, the whole world got to see the photographs of their
embrace. It was, of course, to avoid having further pictures taken she was racing around Paris at 120 miles an hour. And certainly we all condemn the jackal-like photographers who pursued her. But am I the only person in the world who thinks it was very, very wrong for the mother of the next king of England to be conducting so flagrantly public a love affair? Or to be alarmed she was on her way to making Mohammed al-Fayed, the man at the centre of the worst
corruption scandal in recent British politics, the step-grandfather of the next king?

After her divorce, Diana seems to have decided to live exclusively for her own happiness. That came naturally to her: she had always disliked conventions and traditions. Nowadays, of course, the untrammelled pursuit of one’s own happiness is considered a sign of psychological health. But Diana, as she pursued her giddy, doomed destiny,
never troubled to ask herself this: In a world without convention and tradition, would there be such a thing as a Princess of Wales at all?

Originally published in The Financial Post