Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

15 Jan

I just heard Ari Shapiro report on NPR about an effort in Britain to “modernize” the aristocracy by allowing women of the nobility to inherit the titles and estates of their fathers. Current British law requires that all heirs to titles and estates be male. No one on the show mentioned the most obvious step to modernity: abolish the titled aristocracy altogether.

There was a time when the battle against sexism and the battle against the aristocracy were thought to be one and the same. No more. As Lady Liza Campbell, one of the aggrieved heiresses-in-waiting, told Shapiro:

Nowhere should girls be born less than their brother. Yes, it’s the aristocracy. You may want to hold a peg over your nose. But it’s still sexism. You can be an atheist and support the idea of women bishops, I think.

It’s easy to pooh-pooh and laugh at this sort of talk, but as I argued in The Reactionary Mind, one of the chief ways that the right defends against the left, and preserves its privileges more generally, is to borrow the tropes and tactics, the memes and methods, of the left. Sometimes, as I said in the book, this act of borrowing is self-conscious and strategic; other times, it happens un-self-consciously, with the defenders of privilege coming under the influence of their antagonists, without even realizing it. This current case seems to be a bit of both.

As if to prove my point, Campbell tells Shapiro at the end of the report that if she and her comrades are not able to change the law in Parliament, they will take their cause to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. The British aristocracy pressing its case before an international human rights tribunal. Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine.

Indeed, Campbell’s comment reminded me of that moment in Burke where he drops all talk of little platoons and local tradition and starts insisting that the aristocracy and the counterrevolution reinvent themselves as “citizens” of Europe. So “sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs,” and certainly nothing in revolutionary France, would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

10 Responses to “Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.”

  1. P.M.Lawrence January 15, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    That first paragraph is a 100% misunderstanding.

    First, it has nothing to do with a “law”; each title is controlled by its very own “patent of nobility”. Simply changing the law would have all sorts of unintended effects on many individual patents, as well as (definitely) overriding the actual intentions of the founders, which we can see because…

    … Second, many titles do have arrangements for female succession, because the people who set those ones up actually wanted that and did so deliberately (it’s called “special remainder”, in that it had to be spelled out as it was not the default).

    • Corey Robin January 15, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

      I was merely basing this on the NPR report, which does allude to there being a law prohibiting women from inheriting titles and estates (admittedly, that reference comes up in the context of Downton Abbey). Perhaps at some time there was a law requiring all titles to contain the provision of a male heir, and so that requirement was ultimately written into the title itself. Anyway, just going off the NPR report. If it’s wrong or misleading you should perhaps take this issue up with them.

      • P.M.Lawrence January 15, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

        Huh? I’m not trying for tikun olam, I’m just putting a correction here so that people who come here will at least know there is more to it than is in the secondary material presented here.

        (Oh, and no, there never was an over-arching law constraining the titles issued under the monarch’s authority; those could be controlled much more simply, just by the advice the constitutional monarchs received – and before they were constitutional monarchs, the issue couldn’t be controlled by anyone else anyway.)

  2. Corey Robin January 15, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    I’ve deleted the sentence in question.

  3. BarryB January 15, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    “…sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs,” and certainly nothing in revolutionary France, would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.

    For some strange reason, I keep hearing an echo of Obama’s pleas begging the wealthy to give a little and help the great unwashed.

  4. robtopinka January 16, 2014 at 3:29 am #

    Maybe this is dumb to point out, but Burke and Paine probably knew each other, or certainly of each other, since they were the two of the most influential writers at the same historical moment commenting on the same issues and events from the same country (at least before Paine went to America). I just mention it because you wouldn’t be like O’Reilly, meet Maddow, even though that’s probably a bad analogy since they’re both hacks and obviously this entire comment is a feeble attempt to anonymously display my knowledge of history to strangers.

    • Corey Robin January 16, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      They definitely knew each other. The “Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine” conceit is merely a turn of phrase. Paine had long gone to America; he was now, for a time, back in Europe. In France in fact for part of the time.

      • robtopinka January 16, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

        oh, cool, thanks for the clarification. After reading the subtitle of The Reactionary Mind, I realized I probably didn’t need to leave that comment. Ya, Paine couldn’t really go to England when Rights of Man was circulating. Apparently some powerful folks didn’t like it. Anyway, thanks for the post–first read about the attempts to ‘modernize’ the aristocracy in the New Yorker, where it annoyed me, so I’m glad to see you taking it on.

    • P.M.Lawrence January 16, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

      … Burke and Paine … were the two of the most influential writers at the same historical moment commenting on the same issues and events from the same country (at least before Paine went to America).

      Paine wasn’t influential at all until he left England. That is, although he was writing earlier, it didn’t catch much attention until then.

      For what it’s worth, if anyone reads that as “Burke and Paine were from the same country”, Burke was from Ireland and Paine from England.

  5. Benjamin David Steele January 16, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on Marmalade and commented:
    “Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine.

    Indeed, Campbell’s comment reminded me of that moment in Burke where he drops all talk of little platoons and local tradition and starts insisting that the aristocracy and the counterrevolution reinvent themselves as “citizens” of Europe. So “sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs,” and certainly nothing in revolutionary France, would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.

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