The End of Prestige

To understand the damage the storm of scandal is creating in Hollywood, the media and Washington one must go back nearly a hundred years to a time when prestige ruled the world. Whenever a small group of people rule over multitudes coercion usually becomes an impractical method of subjugation. The only alternative to physical control, as 19th century Europeans found, was bluff, or prestige as it was then called.  Prestige made it possible for a few to govern numerous (and often violent) subjects.

Prestige was almost entirely psychological, based on instilling a genuine respect and admiration among the ruled.  The technological advantages of Western civilization gave Europeans a head start among the teeming millions but it was never enough. Much also depended on what the British called "putting up a good show".  Since empires relied on maintaining prestige, controlling Europeans who had fallen away from the 'image of the Raj as the Raj wanted to be seen' was of paramount importance.  Authorities kept a close watch on vagrants or bums who ruined the brand and removed undesirables from the colonies before they could bring "the side" down.

At its best carrying the "White Man's Burden" meant strict quality control, holding Europeans to an almost impossibly high code of honor.  That idea forms a large thematic part of the 1935 movie "Lives of a Bengal Lancer".  The protagonists (who have manfully endured bamboo slivers pushed under their fingernails by the odious Mohamamed "we have ways to make you talk" Khan) explain how the Code works to the wavering Lieutenant Stone.  It meant never showing weakness and being ready to sacrifice oneself at any time for something immeasurably greater than any individual.  Torture is nothing they impress upon the young officer because:

"Ever the faith endures, England, my England, take and break us we're yours, England my own. Life is good, joy runs high, between English earth and sky. Death is death, and we shall die, to the song on your bugles blown, to the star on your bugles blown."

Those themes are reprised in the 1937 movie, Wee Willie Winkie in full Hollywood splendor. It was the Raj as the Raj wanted to be seen.

European colonization was in some sense the longest running hit play in history. It was a performance that ended only by a humiliating eviction from the theater by the empire of Japan in 1942.  When Yamashita brought the curtain down he ended the suspension of disbelief so critical for the thing to work. Though the British eventually returned victorious to Singapore in 1945 the magic was gone.  Prestige had fled away. Ten years after "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" the bugles had ceased to blow.

In the unending exposes of financial, moral and sexual turpitude we are witnessing a similar humiliation of a ruling elite. The critical role played by prestige in upholding the current status quo was no less important for the Western elite than it was for the old District Commissioners. Not so very long ago the elites were accepted as woke, part of the mission civilisatrice; better educated, better looking, better dressed, destined to greater things, the smartest people in the room.  They could pronounce on matters of morality, politics and even the climate.  What a shock it was to find through the Internet and social media it was all a sham; and these gods of Washington and Hollywood and the media were deeply flawed and despicable people.