23 Dec 2014

Save me the talk about ‘rebellious’ aristocrats

James Dean in 'Rebel Without a Cause..'
Due to different commitments I haven't been able to blog as regularly as I would have liked in the last three months. To make up for it, here is a 'longish' post/whinge. It doesn't focus on the Christmas season but, hey, everyone else is already talking about that. Enjoy.

‘Bon viveur’, ‘unique’ and ‘rebellious,’ were some of the words used by international media to describe Spain’s Duchess of Alba, the world's most titled aristocrat, who passed away on 20th November.
Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart was a descendant of James II (VII of Scotland) and his mistress Arabella Churchill. Her titles gave her several arcane privileges, such as not having to kneel before the Pope and being permitted to ride a horse into Seville Cathedral.

It is understandable she caused some curiosity among the general public.

In case you are wondering how she earned the description of ‘rebellious,’ it didn’t involve her leaving her palace, becoming an anarchist and giving up her titles. She was considered a rebel because she enjoyed mixing with artists and two of the three men she married during her lifetime didn’t have any titles, were much poorer and, in the case of her latest husband, much younger than her.

‘Walk on the wild side’ reads a headline in the Daily Mail, referring to how Princess Mary stepped out in leopard print heels before visiting heart patients at a local hospital.

In slightly more reserved style SMH noted recently: 'Duchess of Cambridge praised for being a pregnant fashion rebel.'

I always thought being described as wild or a rebel would require more than any of the above actions.
It is not unusual for newspapers to use eye-catching headlines, but I feel frustrated every time an aristocrat gets ridiculous praise for an unremarkable act.

There are times when aristocrats are not only described in hyperbolic terms; we are asked to transform the reality about them by ignoring important elements of that reality.

Take the example of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In 2011 US Vogue published an article headlined "A Rose in the Desert" praising her beauty and philanthropy. It caused a storm of criticism and was pulled from Vogue's website in May that same year, when Syrian security forces entered Tell Kalakh, near the Lebanese border, following an anti-Assad demonstration. This, according to Amnesty International's report, led to deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detentions. Assad is also thought responsible for the chemical weapon attack that took the lives of hundreds of Syrian people in 2013.

We can’t expect all aspects of someone’s life to be reported in every article but turning a blind eye to significant aspects of that life, focusing only on the neutral or positive ones is a form of lying. I could say that Hitler was an Austrian-born, German-bred, man who ran Germany for a significant period of the 20th century, but if I said nothing else I would be distorting the truth about him.

But some of the women I’ve referred to in this article haven’t done anything that bad, I hear you say; there is no harm in reporting on their deeds in hyperbolic terms.

Using the terms ‘daring’, ‘brave’ and ‘rebellious’ to describe trivial acts places the people undertaking them at the same level as people who really undertake rebellious acts worth reporting on. Misusing these words diminishes those people who take serious risks to go against the current for things that matter, such as journalists and activists Lydia Cacho and Caddy Adzuba. Cacho, in Mexico, and Adzuba, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are committed to defending human rights and building peace through their efforts as journalists in countries with high levels of violence against women and children.

When we overuse the word ‘rebellious’ in a trivial context, it means we then have to go searching for new, stronger words to refer to individuals and organisations that would have been described as ‘rebellious’ a few years ago. An example of this is the fact that, as Dennis Hayes discusses in his recent article, the Socialist Workers Party may nowadays be labelled as ‘extreme.’

Perhaps the most important question is whether we are happy, in the 21st century, to continue idealising aristocrats.

Our love for works of fiction like ‘Game of Thrones,’ would seem to indicate so. The level of coverage and the excessive praise given to aristocracy by institutions and media perpetuates a society of ‘them’ and ‘us,’ where any decent behaviour by the powerful is considered worthy of our praise, admiration and if necessary, submission.

This poses a significant problem for Australians as recent studies indicate that one in three Australian elderly people live in poverty.

At the beginning of the 20th century this wouldn’t even have been reported. At that time common lives deserved little attention, apart from when they involved crime.

The balance between news focused on the aristocracy and news focused on common people has changed dramatically since then. Reducing the space devoted to royals and other aristocrats even further seems only as natural as the progressive decline of royal houses across the world.

If we can’t resist writing about them, at least let’s stop calling them rebels when they don’t
deserve it.