Thanks for reading my Sunday newsletter . . .
I’ve been watching: The Crown
Or rather, I’ve been binge-watching the Crown on Netflix. What seemed at first to be a rather uncomfortable intrusion into the private life of the Queen and her family became an engrossing exploration of a[nother] major inflection point in Western society – the middle of the 20th century.
I’ll leave you to explore the personal dimensions of the story yourself, and to marvel at the production values and the performances – especially John Lithgow as Churchill and Claire Foy as the Queen.
What fascinated me was the clash between tradition and modernity. We watch as the Monarchy, the ultimate symbol of British tradition, is increasingly undermined by social and economic forces beyond its control – technology and social liberalism, meritocracy and consumerism.
Doing things as they’ve always been done suddenly becomes debatable in the royal household. The modernisers want the monarchy to be relaxed and relevant, but traditionalists fear any penetration of the ancient veil of mystique that elevates the constitutional monarch above his or her fellow citizens. It’s kind of quaint but you get why they were anxious – the abdication of the Queen’s uncle had set LOVE above DUTY and they were determined this wouldn’t happen again.
If you’re trying to show how limited and time-bound we humans are when we try to gauge the future effects of current actions, there’s really nothing better than showing people from the past tying themselves in knots trying to stop things you now know were inevitable.
The British monarchy has survived but as we know now, there were other pathways they could have taken. Though they might not generate so many tourist dollars, the more low key monarchs of places like Sweden and the Netherlands have done just fine too. Maybe Princess Margaret could have married her slightly sleazy divorced lover. Or perhaps that would have ruined everything.
Talking of ruin, I’ve been reading George Monbiot:
Christchurch writer Greg Jackson’s tweet caught my eye: “The Guardian’s been playing “You Want It Darker?” a bit too often lately I think.” I guess he’s referring to George Monbiot’s attempt to see the future – a recent Guardian article called: The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces.
Don’t bother reading it – it’s stupid. The first three are: Trump, his security advisor and the rest of his team – which I would call ‘padding’. The other ten are either generally global or hopelessly anglo-european in focus. You have the ridiculous situation where climate change, global soil exhaustion and species extinction are listed alongside Brexit, but inhabitants of Asia, who constitute the bulk of this threatened humanity, are not mentioned at all.
Monbiot is determined to savour his moment in time:
“It is hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which governments lose the capacity for total surveillance and drone strikes; in which billionaires forget how to manipulate public opinion; in which a broken EU reconvenes; in which climate breakdown unhappens, species return from extinction and the soil comes back to the land. These are not momentary crises, but appear to presage permanent collapse.”
In the comments he adds a couple more crises to the list: antibiotic resistance and the global pensions crisis. But he doesn’t touch on over-population at all and is called out on that by the top commentator for this article, a man called Jim Freeman:
“And yet, George, you left out what I believe to be the cause of it all, worldwide population growth. I am 81 years old. When I was twenty, the population of the planet was 2 billion and it now nears eight. . . .Population growth is not a ‘politically correct’ topic, yet its ‘convenient avoidance’ renders the future of humanity as we know it unsustainable.”
Not your best work George. It’s hard to write well when you’re wringing your hands.
Meanwhile I’ve been thinking about World Values
The crisis of confidence happening in this moment in time in the Western World is surprising in the degree of convergence of the various forces of instability, but not inexplicable, and not insoluble.
The World Values Survey, for example, reveals how our values change in response to perceived threats. Their model of the world is based on two values dimensions – one which charts the source of a country’s source of authority [traditional v rational-legal values] and the other that reflects the underlying economic situation [survival v self-expressive values].
- On the first dimension, traditional values emphasize religiosity, national pride, respect for authority, obedience and marriage. Secular-rational values emphasize the opposite on each of these accounts.
- On the second dimension, survival values involve a priority of security over liberty, non-acceptance of homosexuality, abstinence from political action, distrust in outsiders and a weak sense of happiness. Self-expression values imply the opposite on all these accounts.
This comes from Inglehart & Welzel’s 2005 paper: Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: the human development sequence They suggest that people’s values change in predictable ways based on what they call their ‘sense of existential security’. As this sense of wellbeing and future security increases, their priorities shift from traditional to secular-rational values and as it decreases they shift back to traditional.
Here’s the map for 2010 and if you click on it or click here you get to see a video of how countries have shifted between 1981 and 2014..
The US has shifted towards survival and rational-legal values in that time, but obviously it is an enormous federation. Those Rust Belt industrial states may have been heading towards the bottom left even as most of the others were heading top left. What is important is noting that the US has always been an outlier. They aren’t like us.
We can revisit the Queen’s dilemma using the same idea of tradition v rational-legal shifts. Monarchs are at their most appealing in troubled times, but they become mere decoration when people feel they are progressing on their own. That may be why Edward the 8th’s abdication on the eve of World War 2 undermined the British monarchy so badly at the time.
On the other hand, rational-legal figureheads like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may be competent problem-solvers but they don’t necessarily resonate with people who feel lost and insecure, even if what they have still looks a lot like luxury to most of the rest of the world.
According to The Crown, Queen Elizabeth was taught as a young girl that the British constitution was divided into two components: the “dignified” (that part which is symbolic – which includes the Crown) and the “efficient” (the way things actually work and get done). I don’t see King Trump providing much dignity or efficiency as he attempts to make America Great Again, but he is a world expert in symbolism.
Now if only we can stop him from destroying us all in a fit of pique.
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