From Brian Lamb’s 2000 C-Span Booknotes interview with Peter Hitchens (Christopher’s brother) concerning his then-new book, The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana:
BRIAN LAMB: One of the things in your book, you have as a subtitle, “From Winston Churchill to Princess Di”–or Princess Diana. Why did you bracket this book between Winston Churchill’s death and Princess Di’s death?
PETER HITCHENS: The crucial chapter and really the point around which the whole book revolves is the one which compares the two funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana. And the difference between them seems to me to sum up very eloquently the way in which the country has changed; the difference in the self-discipline of the people and their attitudes, the way in which the two things were …(unintelligible). It’s obviously two very different kinds of people, but here were two funerals in London of revered and much-loved figures. And they were utterly different, as if they’d taken place in different countries, and, in fact, they had taken place in different countries. The Britain of Princess Diana was an utterly foreign place to the Britain of Winston Churchill. And it seemed to me to be a good starting point.
This actually came to me during the bizarre weeks after Princess Diana’s death, when voicing any kind of criticism of the hysteria was pretty much taboo. And I did the sort of thing that Chinese dissidents used to do in the days of Mao Tse-tung. If they wanted to write about a political controversy, they’d actually write about one that had taken place in some dynasty 3,000 or 4,000 years before which they felt paralleled it. And I wrote about Winston Churchill’s funeral to make the points that it had been so different. And everybody got the message.
LAMB: What were the differences?
Mr. HITCHENS: The differences are in–first of all, in the open showing of emotion. Now some people might say let it all hang out, show exactly what you feel. The trouble is that, in the case of British people, if they let it all hang out, quite a lot of what they let hang out isn’t very nice. We are a pretty bloodthirsty and violent lot, especially when we get outside out own borders and start misbehaving. And we need to restrain ourselves. And one of the reasons we’ve been so peaceful for so long is that we have. That was very much in evidence at the Churchill funeral and very much less in evidence at the Diana funeral when people applauded, for heaven’s sake, at a funeral, which is completely un-English, whereas in Churchill’s time, people queueing up to file past his coffin might occasionally dash a tear away from an eye and consider that to be slightly embarrassing. That’s one difference.
And the other differences were really in the whole shape and face of the country. Britain in 1965 was still a serious country, still scarred by what was seen by most people as a recent war, still very much a country living in the afterglow of imperial greatness, also quite a lot poorer and, in some ways, the better for it in that the self-indulgence which comes with affluence hadn’t really begun to take hold. And this whole feeling of a country self-disciplined for a serious purpose as opposed to a frivolous country weeping and wailing about a princess who was really a glorified film star with a crown on her head.
Flash-forward to 12 years later in the Colonies, where New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie has ordered the flags to fly at half-staff in honor of Whitney Houston. Like Peter Hitchens in the late 1990s, Jazz Shaw of Hot Air is not amused:
There’s no sense sugar coating this, so let’s get straight to it. Whitney Houston was not unknown to me, though I never saw the movie “The Bodyguard.” She had one heck of a set of pipes. But at the same time, she wasn’t kidnapped and murdered by terrorists. She died under some set of circumstances which the police are not yet even listing as suspicious. She had a troubled marriage and a history of problems with drugs and alcohol. Neither of these things make her any better or worse than the rest of us, though it is still tragic when someone passes at such a young age.
Lowering the flags for her? She was a singer. As the WCHS report notes, after researching previous executive orders, the flags were not lowered for Frank Sinatra. In fact, the first “celebrity” person (as opposed to military or elected leaders) for whom the flags were lowered was Clarence Clemons, and that was done by Christie also. (For the record, I’m a HUGE fan of The Boss and the Big Man, but never heard that he had lowered the flags for Clemons, which I would have objected to as well.)
Lowering the flags for national disasters, etc. is fine. But for this? Whitney Houston was a wealthy woman who achieved fantastic success in the field of opportunity which is America. She was a great singer. She died in a tragic fashion as far too many Americans do. But this is not a national tragedy.
This is getting far too much like the recent decision to name a US Navy warship after Gabby Giffords. I’ve been a huge supporter of her tremendous effort to come back after that horrific attack, but naming a ship after her? We have a massive list of dead Marines who are in line first. I’m just saying we need to keep our priorities in order.
The England of 1965, the date of Churchill’s death, was already in decline, having surrendered most of its colonies in the aftermath of World War II, and had already begun the process of replacing empire building with the narcotic of pop culture. Over the next few decades, it would jump from the happy, cheerful nihilism of the Swinging London of the mid-1960s, to the grim, gobbing nihilism of punk rock a decade later, to the maudlin demise of Princess Diana, as Hitchens wrote above. What does America’s recent pop culture trifecta — the election of a president who struck rock star poses in 2008, and the Diana-style death cults in the wake of first Michael Jackson and now Whitney Houston portend for our own future. Or the lack thereof?
Related: “Whitney Houston’s fans will be given a virtual front-row seat for what’s shaping up to be a star-studded funeral,” New York’s NBC affiliate breathlessly observes. “Houston’s publicist, Kristen Foster, announced Wednesday that The Associated Press will be allowed a camera at Saturday’s private service at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ,” and that it will be streamed live online.