Ed Driscoll

America's Princess Di Moment

In “America’s Princess Di Moment”, Wes Pruden writes:

The television camera misleads the masses to think they’re buddies with the objects of their fantasies. Princess Diana became “the people’s princess” because London shop girls imagined that “she’s just like us.” Hank Williams’ widow recalls how the death of the country-music legend became a circus when Nashville twinklies showed up with guitars and “everybody who could croak a note wanted to sing at his funeral.”

Timing is everything, and Michael Jackson departs with the bang he couldn’t have made with his remaining talent. He leaves behind a mountain of debt, feuding relatives, greedy promoters, angry creditors and the legacy of a bizarre, drug-addled life, of pursuing a walk to the moon with little boys, to what end nobody can be sure. We can well imagine. And of course the legacy of considerable talent.

Reading Pruden’s headline, and watching the crazed frenzy last week, I couldn’t help but think of Peter Hitchens’ The Abolition of Britain from 2000, and its subhead of “From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana,” which Hitchens explained further to Brian Lamb on C-Span’s Booknotes when the book was first released in the States:

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?

Mr. HITCHENS: The two–the–the crucial chapter and–and really the–the point around which the whole book revolves is the one which compares the two funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and–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–the difference in the–the self-discipline of the people and their attitudes, the way in which the–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–I did a sort of–the–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–to make the points that–that–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–in the–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–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–which is completely un-English, whereas in–in Churchill’s time, people–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–that’s one difference.

And the other–the other differences were really in–in–in–in the whole shape and face of the country. Britain in–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–in–in the afterglow of–of imperial greatness, also quite a lot poorer and, in some ways, the better for it in that the–the self-indulgence which comes with affluence hadn’t really begun to take hold. And this–this whole feeling of a country self-disciplined for a serious purpose as opposed to a frivolous country weeping and wailing about a–a princess who was really a glorified film star with a–with a–with a crown on her head.

Or in America, the man whom the cable networks “devoted 93% of their airtime” on Thursday and Friday according to TV Newser, and who a PBS journalist dubbed in 1993 (and I think she actually meant it as a compliment) “the crotch-grabbing self-appointed guardian angel of the world’s children” — about five minutes before the parents of one of the world’s children pressed charges.