LONDON — Here we are on the second anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, and neither her life nor her death seems as momentous as it did this time last year. Does this mean she really was just a media phenomenon, ephemeral, superficial, appearing and disappearing in our lives without consequence?
The anguished relationship between the British establishment and Mohammed Fayed — the owner of Harrods and father of Dodi, who died in the crash with Diana — hasn’t lessened by one jot. This year, his application for British citizenship was once again turned down for reasons neither he nor Home Secretary Jack Straw will make public. All this thickens the suspicion and air of mystery that still surrounds Diana’s last months. How this mystery will alter her place in our memory will only reveal itself over time. But her relatively fast disappearance from public life — the unexpected failure of her image to sustain its potency in popular imagination — does point to the central importance of her physical presence. She wasn’t just an idea, as some have thought; it was the troubled substantiality of her body and her behavior that so entranced people. Without that, she seems just a dream.
This phenomenon marks her out from most of the denizens of the public realm. Whatever else we demand of our politicians (and God knows what that is in this cynical and disillusioned age), it is not physical beauty or a healing touch. It may be part of the conceit of a few charismatic politicians that they have the healing touch. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher liked to make visitations to those injured in some ghastly accident, but the jokes about the deadly prospect of coming back to consciousness in hospital to find Thatcher looming over one showed this notion of healing was entirely her own fantasy.
Interestingly, the politicians most lauded in Britain for having that best of qualities — authenticity — are all women and are all plump and unglamorous. Clare Short (minister for overseas development) Mo Mowlam (Northern Ireland secretary) and Anne Widdecombe (Tory shadow home secretary) are admired and trusted for their “plain speaking.” Their comparative plumpness is an asset, for it suggests they cannot be bothered with the trivia of fashion, having more important things on their minds than the frivolity of achieving thinness.
All this is in absolute contrast to Diana, whose own super-anxiety about her looks helped mold the preoccupations of young women with achieving thinness and glamour. So what is this double standard that appears to operate in public life? Authentic plain looks and plain words vs. artificially achieved beauty and arch talk about “helping”?
Of course, it’s not a double standard in that the people who admire Mo, Clare and Anne are not the same as those who admired Diana. The split represents two different ideals of how to be a person in public life, and most individuals do not hold both ideals in their hearts at the same time. But some do. What does that mean?
One of the meanings is the language of love and hate. Conservative Widdecombe, a well-known active Christian and convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, barely opens her mouth in public without vitriol and contempt pouring from it. This is exciting. It is what Margaret Thatcher did so well. It is the true language of politics: Hate your enemies and hate your brothers (most of them). Short also does it quite well, barely bothering to conceal her impatience with others when they will not face the truth of a situation.
Mowlam, however, is different. She has walked purposefully into that part of the United Kingdom where there appears to be nothing but hatred, violence and death. And there she speaks the language of reason, compromise, hope, faith and enjoyment. This is what makes her so loved in mainland Britain, where there is now near-total psychic exhaustion at the intransigent clinging to hatred of the Northern Irish. In response, the Protestant unionist communities are insisting that Mowlam must go as Northern Ireland secretary, that they cannot speak to her, and that they hate her “touchy-feely” qualities. Worst of all, said one unionist spokesman, she proved her utter unsuitability for the task of Northern Irish politics by going to a pop concert. Good Lord! What can the woman have been thinking of?
This condemnation of Mowlam of course tells us more about the character and attitudes of Northern Irish Protestants than it does about her. It tells us why they have so few friends in high places (and why Mowlam has so many, at least in the Labor Party.) The dour, antiwoman, antibody, antipleasure quality of sectarian Protestantism is found wherever that particularly unlovely brand of Christianity flourishes — from the Calvinist Christianity of South Africa’s Boers to the hard men of Holland whose one creative act was to build a commercial network out of Amsterdam in the 17th century.
It is an irony, or perhaps just a paradox, that those whose professions of Christianity (the religion of love and forgiveness) define their presence in public life are those who almost invariably act out of hatred and self-righteous unforgivingness, whereas those who make no claims for Christian belief — including Diana — should retain their belief that love is at the heart of the meaning of life and must, in the end, triumph. An important element of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s charisma has been his readiness to speak the language of love (and he’s another public Christian.) He uses the word love in his speeches more often than other politician this century. And his tribute to Diana and her lovingness and the people’s love for her on the day she died two years ago shifted some key distrust that many conservative people had for Labor. It did not, of course, shift the distrust that committed socialists and conservatives have for Blair, who is often christened “phony Tony” — an assertion that any politician who speaks the language of love and hope rather than hate and misanthropy cannot possibly be sincere.
According to this rule of public life, the most honest public domains are to be found in the Balkans, Algeria, Israel and Palestine, Guatemala and Peru . . . wherever naked and murderous hatred drives life on, or away. The deaths from such hatred have the power to shape public life long into the future.
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