Duke & Duchess of Hearts
by Lillian B. McCall
The Heart has its Reasons—the Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor. David McKay. 372 pp. $5.00.
The Duchess has never been one of my favorite public figures. Still, I found myself annoyed that the New York Times’s British reviewer chose to sneer at the chutzpah of our most celebrated parvenu. It does get across that the most spectacularly successful social climber of the 20th century—and history demanded an American—was deadly serious about becoming Queen of England. So? It was a supreme and magnificently romantic example of Yankee enterprise and it is something of a puzzler that we haven’t taken the Duchess to our hearts.
Ordinarily we show a voracious interest in those of our heiresses or actresses who crash the haute monde, though we are not unmindful, indeed we are saddened, by the commercialism that often taints our international alliances. More reason to take pride in the Duchess, who made it in the fashionable world without any of the usual advantages of money, fame, or beauty. She came from an “old” family, but that was of no particular advantage. It is a truism of American society that old families on the way down are just as nervous as new ones on the way up. What appalling lack of instinct could have led the Duchess to deny that her mother once ran a boarding house in Baltimore?
Henry James was pained because the British aristocracy made no social distinctions among Americans, accepting all our rich as exotic barbarians like the Red Indians. The yearning of American millionaires to buy their way into hereditary exclusiveness is simply another manifestation of the status jitters that is perhaps the most toxic psychological by-product of the democratic process.
Caste in America tends to be local and parochial—and, therefore, ambiguous. An interesting example of the specialization of prestige occurs in the caption of a photograph of the Duchess and three friends taken when she was married to her first husband. It reads: “. . . Mrs. Neustadt, myself, Mrs. Sands (Admiral Fullam’s daughter), and Mrs. Chase.” To think that after all these years the Duchess, once a navy wife, should have taken the trouble to identify the Admiral’s daughter!
Because social climbing is easy it is frustrating. The thing a parvenu can least stand is the sight of another parvenu; it makes him feel as if he were treading on quicksand. The thing about the aristocracy is that they are supposed to be born not caring a fig for what anyone thinks of them. But there is more than one sign today that status anxiety has spread beyond our shores and up to the top.
As the Duchess tells it, the members of the haute monde are as depressingly gauche as any of our nouveaux here at home. Take the case of Sir Philip Sassoon, who once brought the Prince of Wales some prize delphiniums he had admired in Sir Philip’s garden. Sir Philip made the mistake of telling the Prince’s gardener where to plant them. “I arrived just in time to see a chastened Sir Philip directing a surly gardener who was in the process of relocating the prize delphiniums at a place a yard or so away that had been designated by an indignant Prince. While Sir Philip was thus occupied, David whispered, ‘As a matter of fact he picked out about the best place, but I couldn’t resist being a little difficult all the same.’” After a taken-down-a-peg Sir Philip had departed to make some additional offerings to the King and Queen at Windsor Castle and to the Prince’s brother at Royal Lodge, “David murmured thoughtfully, ‘Philip certainly isn’t missing any tricks this morning. He’s just about filled a royal flush.’”
The Duchess had a big time in her days of glory but she was under no illusions about why she was taken up by la crême: “The word had clearly gone abroad that the Prince was interested in me.” She was much impressed by the wit and brilliance that shot off like roman candles in Mayfair drawing rooms: “I remember one evening, after Sir Thomas [Beecham] had been playing Handel in his finest vein for a considerable time [Emerald Cunard, the hostess], going up to him with an expression of perfect innocence and saying ‘So lovely, Thomas. Now, if you aren’t too tired, won’t you give us a little Handel?’
“Sir Thomas blanched and almost despairingly blurted out, ‘But my good woman, I’ve been playing Handel all evening.’
“‘Have you?’ was the airy response, accompanied by a look of contrived contrition. ‘And to think I didn’t recognize it. We must have the piano tuned tomorrow.’”
I’d like to think that Sir Thomas airily, without a look of contrived contrition, picked up the piano, threw it at Emerald, and departed to return nevermore. Emerald, an American so thoroughly Anglicized you couldn’t tell her from the real thing, didn’t think her given name of Maud suited her personality and changed it on the advice of a numerologist. The Duchess herself leans to astrology.
And then there’s culture. Once, when time hung heavily on her hands, the Duchess went so far as to tackle Will Durant’s History of Philosophy.
The irritating thing about The Heart Has Its Reasons is that it makes High Society, still one of our symbols of carefree elegance, seem as interesting as Scarsdale on a wet Monday afternoon. The Duchess lets us into her domestic secrets—she always gets game birds of the same size for her dinner parties, she checks the chef to be sure he’s varied the color of the menu, she never seats more than ten at a table, she limits the number of brilliant guests, she prefers short evening dresses, and so on, and on and on. Fascinating.
It drove Proust to despair. In the end Mme. Verdurin married a Guermantes and Rachel and Bloch were received in the same drawing rooms he had himself worked so hard to enter! But for all his disenchantment Proust could still take pride in one accomplishment. He never tires of telling us, nor does he seem to realize how often he repeats it, that Swann had lunched with the Prince of Wales.
The Duchess’s husband was the Prince and his family our last remaining symbol of Supreme Status, a monument to our own morbid vanity. We feel sorry for that fallen angel and blame the Duchess for his fate. But the abdication was the result of the Duke’s obtuseness in believing his own legend and not understanding it. The royal family must remain inviolate because the public will not tolerate a symbol that can be contaminated by itself.
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The Heart Has Its Reasons-the Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.