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Meghan, Harry and the power of victimhood

Meghan and Harry in Lego : Photo Credit: Matt Brown on Flickr under CC licence

It is an interesting thing that the family squabbles of the rich and well connected should be of such universal and compelling interest. When RTE, along with networks across the globe, screen a two hour long interview with two exiled royals on prime viewing time, it must say a lot about the extent of our interest in the private lives of others. Voyeurism, schadenfreude, fascination about how the other half lives are all in the mix. So is prurience, it must be said.  But there is also a sense that the private opens to the universal and the big issues of life are somehow capsuled into the lives of every family.

Culture clashes when one family joins another in marriage are a common theme. Even where nationality, race and religion are shared, there can be some sharp differences in the family culture of the respective clans. Obviously the Harry, Meghan match goes way beyond the usual spectrum of potential friction points. Still everyone can relate to the fundamental dynamics of a new assertive spouse taking exception to the way things are done in the more staid family in-law.

There is also the real or imagined pecking order and how a new family member perceives herself to be ranked among pre-existing in-laws.  And so on and so on. There is so much that plays out in much the same way whether the family lives in a castle or a semi-d.  It is rare however, to get a grandstand view of the travails and turmoils of other families’ dramas. It is unedifying and should be embarrassing, yet it somehow reassures us to find that those with everything sometimes don’t cope as well as those with very much less.

But there is much more in this story that reflects our generation’s attitudes to issues that go beyond the domestic sphere even when they are rooted there. Issues around race and identity and personal freedom within the demands and expectations of family and wider society.  Most of all the struggle with objective, obstinate, concrete truth when it does not align with ‘our truth’ or ‘my truth’.

Oprah’s interview technique focuses exclusively on this subjective and relativized notion of truth. Truth that is about feelings, our own first of all and then those we project onto others. The latter are usually far from flattering and for Meghan and Harry they are all centered on jealousy and prejudice, racist prejudice for the most part. The imperfect alignment of the couple’s respective narratives shows as much as anything that their versions are incomplete. Possibly not just incomplete, possibly inaccurate. Only clarification or rebuttal from the other protagonists in their story will settle matters or at least leave key questions open.

Interviews in Oprah Winfrey’s style are more and more the norm in our post-truth world.  Well connected interviewees get invited to set out their stall, tell ‘their truth’, ‘set the record straight’ in soft interviews. In chat shows like Oprah’s this is frustrating. When it happens, as it increasingly does, in current affairs programmes, it does a serious disservice to truth and damages democracy.

It is really symptomatic of our age that emotional truth, whether the emotion is genuine or played up, carries more authority than the actual facts surrounding it. It matters not that Meghan’s and Harry’s tale of woe is loaded with self-absorption and narcissism because their story falls neatly into approved categories of victimhood. It not only places them beyond scrutiny but gives them licence to seriously damage others. Those newspapers that criticised the gas guzzling, high spending lifestyle of the royal climate ideologues may now be accused of racist intent.

The tabloids that allowed Meghan’s estranged family to bad mouth her across their headlines are likewise open to charges of racism.  Never mind that they did the same for a dodgy uncle of Kate Midleton’s. The courtiers who pushed back on her allegedly unreasonable demands and the royal grandmother-in-law who failed to approve a princely title for her son are also open to charges of racist prejudice. Again, never mind that the children of Princess Anne are plain Ms and Mr Philips.  Was there the added factor of racism or at least the relish of racist sentiment when it was Meghan that was getting less than royal treatment ?  The lack of actual evidence counts for nothing against the hand wringing assertions of the aggrieved couple.

Feelings may be very genuine indeed but still lack legitimacy. We all are selective in how we form impressions of other peoples’ motives.  It is easy to misinterpret and misunderstand.  One thing that can hardly be disputed is that ‘the voice’ that Meghan Markle claims to have lost on marriage to Harry is nothing like the voice she now has. Thanks to her royal connection and the royal title she still adopts, her voice now has global reach and recognition. It has also led her to wealth beyond anything she might have previously aspired to. What a shame she is only using her new platform to settle scores with the in-laws and their entourage instead of using it to support those who cannot walk away from oppressive situations, prisoners of conscience, victims of undisputed, unquestionable racism. Many of them women. One at least a princess like herself, holed up for years against her will in a ‘villa’ in Dubai.

The problem with ‘tell alls’ is that they sometimes let out more than intended. One of the amazing take-aways from the interview is Meghan’s admission of the falsity of the smiles and pleasantries in royal engagements. All performance. ‘ Nothing is what it looks like’, she said in reference to a photo of herself and Kate Middleton chatting amiably at a Wimbleton match. So are we to view the whole Oprah event in that light too? Where does fakery stop when we are in southern California, the very heart of modern make belief?

Harry said much the same thing in admitting that once the public and cameras come into view ‘you are on’. Performance pure and simple so hardly surprising that actress Meghan was such a success during her brief spell in the royal spotlight.  The other interesting admission was that the royals like other big players in public life have influence with the press. They can ‘kill’ stories. She gave it away by frankly acknowledging that the media ‘make the news, they don’t just report it.’  She was talking about the tabloid press. But why does it stop with the tabloids? This is an interesting admission from the liberal perspective. Something conservative opinion has claimed for quite some time. The other even more amazing bit of fakery was Meghan’s claim that the Archbishop of Canterbury went through a charade by ‘marrying’ the couple in a grand public spectacle that cost 40million even though he had actually married them in a private ceremony three days earlier in their back garden.

Family stories are rarely so complicated or contradictory for ordinary folk but in the final analysis we are still dealing with the raw stuff of every family to one or other degree. At the centre of it all is a confused man still traumatized by his mother’s death, missing his family and probably homesick for his native land, and a woman who may be his saviour or his nemesis.  She has taken him from what he called ‘the fishbowl’ of royal life to the circus ring of global celebrity.  By any reckoning a far more exposed and dangerous place.  There will be plenty of other ring masters to follow Oprah and exploit them for profit even as they exploit themselves. Is this their truth?

There are many more episodes to play in this saga and it would be best for all if they played out with more dignity and discretion.

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