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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Web of Contradictions: Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan's Christmas Card

There are different ways to look at the Christmas card sent out by newlyweds Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle.
If you have not seen the card or the image, it is of the newly married friends and his wife, the new Duchess, standing on the edge of a pond and looking at a fireworks display so immense it covers the entirety of the sky.

There is so much smoke in it that you can’t really see the points of light and ornate formations that you might see at a Fourth of July fireworks display. But the smoke to acts as an eliminating cloud so one feels that one is either transported into the heavens or looking into the jaws of apocalypse
And that duality informs everyone’s interpretation of the image.
The most innocuous of the interpretations is the idea that you are sharing the joy of the new couple and that the way that the landscape and skies appear parallels their internal landscape.
That, too, has its duality as they either feel joyous eruptions of life changing chaos or grinding raw fear of the battlefield. One cannot help but think that think that the smoke and rockets red declare look a lot like a firefight or mortar attack in Afghanistan. Harry is a veteran of Afghanistan and used to being on the battlefield and not in the air, since he was a soldier in the Army.
And, I know that many Marines and soldiers who went through combat in Afghanistan do not enjoy fireworks. So, it seems rather odd to see that Harry might actually be enjoying that scene. I would imagine that if it does reflect his interior landscape, it is one of raw fear that he then attempted to blot out, self-medicate, and avoid the great enemy, sleep.
There is a flip side, of course.
A more common interpretation of the people who voyeuristicly enjoy anything having to do with a glimpse of the inner workings of the royal family is that they want to see the royal family acting like normal folks and inviting them in two their living rooms or a play date where they wear hand-me-down sweaters and kick up their heels in a woodsy setting.
I think that to reduce the royal family to regular folk is to reduce their ability to affect great change in society and, especially in these moments after Brexit – the exit of Britain from the European Union.
It marks a moment for Britain to strengthen the Commonwealth. To do that requires the Machiavellian scheming of an Elizabeth I or the boundlessly ambitious Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York. It doesn’t need a “Hey, come hang out with us!” approach.
But those who like to voyeuristicly insert themselves or feel titillated by vicarious intimacy or invasions into privacy of the royal family have the feeling that with backs turned, Harry and Meghan are perhaps communicating that they are cold, unfeeling, and are profoundly indifferent.  
Having one’s back turned communicates a message that always has two sharp edges just like Melania Trump’s message to the world with her “I don’t care coat” as she was going to visit the boder and the scene of tragic separations of vulnerable children and their mothers.
If the idea of backs turned means that you’re not invited into their inner world, if their inner world includes either joy or apocalypse or battlefield horrors, you should thank your lucky stars that you have not been invited into that.
At any rate, it’s a photo with many conflicting and contradictory interpretive possibilities, and we just cannot know with certainty.
What we do know is that with Britain’s exit and the continuing disintegration of the Royal Family’s impact and relevance, something powerful needs to be done.
It’s a leadership, and not fraternity or confraternity. Leadership in history has usually been ugly and not necessarily in the right direction.
Think of Henry VIII. I remember visiting a Cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds that contained the ruins of an abbey destroyed by Henry VIII. To be honest it was one of the saddest and most gripping feelings I have had and I imagine it is similar to going to places where beautiful works of architecture or sculpture have been destroyed because they were unfortunate symbols of an ideology and a group of people who needed to be exterminated at least from the perspective of the usurpers.

Needless to say, this is not a time for destructive leadership, but constructive leadership.

William Hogarth and the “Social Media” of 18th Century England: What Would Hogarth Say About Brexit?

Starting around 1711, with the launching of the one-page news and gossip sheet, The Tatler, London suddenly had an explosion of daily information that was liked, shared, trolled, and sometimes even “demonetized” in ways that profoundly parallel today’s social media. The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Guardian were the most influential, but there were many competitors and upstarts, all competing in a London hungry for outlets to protest conditions, rail against the leaders, and promote the theatre, arts, and literature.

Much of the content was social and political commentary – and disinformation was as popular as truth, and more so if the truth was not very interesting.

In addition to stories and journalism, ink prints, often hand-colored, were extremely popular, and of all the artists, William Hogarth (1697 - 1764) was by far the most the most popular with his satiric and moralizing visual narratives.

Hogarth Self-Portrait with Pug (17457)
The most popular were lurid cautionary tales: A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress (1733) were sold, and virtually all of London was encompassed in the expansive den of sin:

Hogarth Rake's Progress:  Part I 
Hogarth’s depictions of society and the kinds of characters people knew in their own society told biting stories that were built on truth. They illustrated much of what one would see in the novels and theatre of the time as well, in such classics as Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.  In his paintings, Hogarth shows a great deal of admiration for the Dutch and Flemish realist traditions, with small details showing the humanity of the subjects, such as children teaching their dogs to shake hands, as in the case of Hogarth’s oil sketch of the family of George II.

As in the social media of the 21st century, Hogarth’s prints had an immediate impact on public opinion.  They were reproduced, shared, and commented upon in the news and widely circulated daily broadsides. They had the ability to influence public opinion of public figures, as well as to openly acknowledge the darker aspects of a modernizing, industrializing center of an emerging empire.

The Role of Technology and Free Speech
As almost always is the case, technology made the breakthrough in communication possible.  New hydraulically-powered milling technology made cheap paper possible, along with printing presses, good ink, and distribution systems.

And, also there was the willingness of the government to tolerate a free press, and even though libel and slander laws were in place, the overall atmosphere was one of freedom of expression. The public loved the lurid depictions of their own society, and they had more disposable income than ever.

The Spectator
Part of the willingness to tolerate a free press could have to do with the fact that the new Hanoverian king, George I, did not speak English very well, and in fact, did not even feel comfortable in England. He was king by a trick of fate. The previous monarch had no living offspring, despite his wife’s 14 pregnancies.   The King was willing to delegate authority and take more of a hands-off approach, recognizing the role of parliament in day-to-day government. Hogarth depicted Georgian society with satire, which may have displeased the Hanoverian monarchs.

King George II (source: Wikipedia)
Under the Hanoverians, England grew, but not without controversy. With the new social media, aspects of society that could have been kept under wraps were free to be exposed, and an entire population could be awakened to what really transpired in their midst.  Hogarth’s Gin Lane and The Marriage Transaction were hard, honest, and humorous looks at the realities of London:

Jump-start to Brexit: What would William Hogarth do?
England is on the cusp of a dramatic change, but instead of growth and expanding influence, the change involves a rather startling potential shrinkage. Brexit could open new trading relationships. In 2016, trade with the European Union constituted 48% of UK’s total exports (  In 2016, trade with the 52 nations of the British Commonwealth constituted only 9% of total exports. (

Brexit does not mean that there will no longer be trade with the nations of the European Union.  However, it does mean that trade will be slower, more complicated, and subject to protectionism without the hard-won trade partners bloc harmonization protocols that are not easily replicated individual countries on a piecemeal basis. So, even if the U.K. maintains a 48% percentage of exports to the U.K., the profits are likely to be much lower.  Most economists predict that a Brexit without any sort of trade harmonization with the E.U. will result in an immediate collapse of exports to the E.U. as tariff and import ambiguities constitute a powerful barrier.

With such disastrous potential consequences, what was it that induced members of the U.K. to vote to leave the European Union?  Two factors were portrayed by social media, and they had a measurable impact on popular opinion: first, fear of immigration, and second, the resentment of external standards that resulted in very high production cost, especially in food and agricultural sectors.

One can imagine Hogarth’s depiction of U.K. farmers, shopkeepers, city-dwellers terrified by violence, and then also of immigrants and the E.U. as seen through the eyes of English nationalists.

Background Readings

Bury, Stephen. (2015) “British Visual Satire in the 18th-20th Centuries” Oxford Art Online.

Office for National Statistics (3 March 2017) Commonwealth Trade in Focus as the U.K. Prepares for Brexit.

Office for National Statistics (2 Feb 2017) Who does the U.K. Trade With?

William Hogarth. (n.d.) National Gallery.

William Hogarth.  (n.d.) New World Encyclopedia.

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