The Harry & Meghan Saga has Something to Teach Us
It looks as though I may have some new neighbors shortly. The soon to be former HRHs (a.k.a. Duke and Duchess of Sussex) may be moving to Vancouver Island in the not too distant future.
As far as I can tell the locals are taking the news in stride. This should surprise no one. Even though the City of Victoria is named after Prince Harry’s great-great-great-great-grandmother and its hockey team is named the Royals, people around here are generally as ambivalent about royalty as people can be.
But whether the resigning members of the Royal Family move up the road from me to North Saanich or somewhere else, it’s not where they eventually settle down or what they choose to do for a living we should be focused on. Even what their rather abrupt departure means for the future of the monarchy is secondary. Unfortunately, so far that’s about the only kind of coverage their decision is getting.
A recent CBC story under the headline Harry and Meghan get their freedom, but at what cost? is a prime example of our misplaced emphasis on the financial consequences of the couple’s decision instead of what it might have to say about their (and our) values. Raising money for charity through Harry’s foundation is doable, a “British public relations expert” speculates in the article, but “it won’t give them the lifestyle money, and the further they get away. . . they lose that royal sheen.”
But “that royal sheen” is offered as compensation for living a glorified form of involuntary servitude. Perhaps this wasn’t always true but it certainly has been since the monarchy was stripped of all meaningful power and relegated to symbolism alone. The royals are ‘rewarded’ with such a lavish lifestyle because were it not for the money, palaces, and staff no one would want to fill their shoes.
Monarchy is a kind of caste system. While in its modern form it certainly harms far fewer people than the much better known and more comprehensive Indian version used to, it nonetheless still condemns people to predetermined roles from birth. To assume that because it comes with great wealth the monarchy is a just institution, or at the very least a tolerable one is to ignore the toll it takes upon the soul of those trapped within it.
Any justification for using accidents of birth to determine a person’s revered place in society inevitably requires us to also accept the premise that money and/or status can somehow provide adequate compensation for the loss of liberty that comes with their title. But a gilded cage is no less a cage than an iron one. Once we realize this, the royals become deserving of our sympathy rather than our adulation or envy.
How much money is your right to vote worth? The Queen doesn’t get to vote in her national elections lest she is seen as having a political opinion. How much money is your freedom of speech worth? While the commoners who bow before Her Majesty and line the streets waving Union Jacks each time she visits them can post just about anything they want on the Internet and proudly wear buttons proclaiming their views on everything from Brexit to UFOs, Queen Elizabeth II, and her immediate family are expected to remain silent and avoid controversy. As the titular head of the Church of England, even the freedom to worship (or not) as she chooses was never in the cards.
Harry and Meghan, at least, appear to understand a little something about the value of freedom. That they are giving up about £2 million a year in exchange for the ability to live life on their terms should remind all of us that money and all the material benefits that come with it don’t enhance freedom if it has lots of strings attached.
Of course, there is a chance the former royals will fail, perhaps even profoundly. That they are willing to take that chance indicates that Harry and Meghan might realize something else that too many of us have conveniently forgotten: with greater freedom comes greater uncertainty. The number of ways we can screw up grows the greater our opportunity to make our own decisions. If what you crave is security then perhaps democracy, to say nothing of adulthood, isn’t for you.
At least initially, British Columbia’s new residents will have the means to screw up in a great many ways given Harry brings with him a large inheritance from his late mother’s estate. Regardless, as a relative newcomer to Canada myself, I can’t help but admire their willingness to exchange the certainty and security of royalty’s gilded cage for the right to come out here and roll the dice with the rest of us.