I don’t follow the Harry and Meghan spectacle. It’s not my thing. But certain of their peripheral issues penetrate my conscious mind from time to time — by osmosis if nothing else.
For instance, I comprehend the very human impulse to air dirty laundry in public. I’ve done a bit of it myself in the pages of Palmer Report over the years. So I get why Meghan and Harry feel the need to explain themselves to Oprah and the world and write books and make Netflix videos and so on, however unfortunate the backlash for that impulse may be. But it has occurred to me of late that there’s something more going on here, and this recent trauma among the British royals has an eerie resemblance to American politics and, specifically, Republican politics of bigoted hatred.
Permit me to explain. I recently learned from my wife that the huge tsunami of tabloid disdain and outright hatred for Meghan Markle didn’t begin until the media learned that she was half black. Meghan’s agent noticed this. He noticed that the hatred, extreme criticism and unhealthy interest in Ms. Markel’s pedigree began shortly after a photo of her mother, Doria Ragland, came to light. Ms. Ragland is a woman of colour.
All this reminded me that, back when he was President, Barack Obama was hated in certain quarters of the United States with a virulence that Joe Biden hasn’t remotely approached. Hatred towards people of colour these days is necessarily disguised as something else. But it always comes down to the same thing. Racial bigotry.
Of course, if the person in question is female and intelligent then the hatred also becomes misogyny and is even more intense on that account. I’m thinking of the recent successful effort to remove Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar from the powerful foreign affairs committee. I’m thinking of the enormous fund of hatred (and death threats) that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez routinely attracts.
I’m thinking of other things too. Permit me to wander afield again. Back in 1974, when I was a lad of 18, I read a remarkable biography called “Thomas Jefferson, an intimate history,” by Fawn M. Brodie. Ms. Brodie was the first to publish (but not the first to notice) in an important biography the rumour that Jefferson had had an ongoing affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The book was brilliant, and Ms. Brodie’s thesis about Sally Hemings was compellingly and superbly defended.
The book inspired a virulent (there’s that word again) backlash among traditional historians, notably Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone. You could feel the white hot rage smouldering in the pages of Malone’s review. It interested me at the time that Malone was perfectly fine with Jefferson’s dalliance with the very married white woman Maria Cosway. But he would not tolerate the suggestion that his very own Saint Thomas would ever — there’s no other word for it — “stoop” to conjugal relations with a single black woman.
Of course, Malone didn’t put it that way. He was far too clever. Such talk would have been anathema, even back in 1974. But I could not escape the impression that I was right about the source of Malone’s indignation. That and the fact that the controversial book in question was written by a woman. And that impression remains unchanged to this very day.
Of course, the science of DNA has placed the certainty of Jefferson’s crime beyond mere speculation. It is proven that he used his position of enormous power to have his way with a woman who had no choice, willing or not. But the critical reaction wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about poor Sally. She meant nothing to critics — less than nothing. It was all about Tom and his precious, bleeding reputation.
And not much has changed since. Can you imagine, even if she’d done absolutely everything right, Meghan Markle rising to the beloved status of, say, Diana, Princess of Wales? Of course not. Not in a million years. And if you imagine otherwise your imagination might have a touch of delusion.
What’s more, have you noticed how much more intense Republican hatred for Ilhan Omar is than it is for her white, male counterpart, Eric Swalwell? Notice that AOC is constantly criticised while Republican criticism for the likes of Swalwell and Adam Schiff is comparatively light. There can be no doubt that not only is bigotry alive and well in the world, it carries us all in a kind of tidal wave of influence. It is so prevalent that we hardly notice it, the way fish hardly notice water.
There is a hierarchy of disdain. Greta Thunberg gets a certain amount of it precisely because she’s female (and highly intelligent.) Kamala Harris gets a little more because she’s both female and a woman of colour. But the fund of hatred, nurtured mostly (though not exclusively) by Republicans, has its unmistakable roots in extreme bigotry and loathsome white supremacy.
Ordinary hatred of the garden variety kind passes to white men who rise to the “error” of being mere Democrats. The most viciously hated people on the Democratic side of the 118th Congress are members of the so-called “squad,” composed of nine people of colour, seven of whom are women. Disdain is a measurable quantity for which its intensity is a function of race and gender.
In short, we are a long, long way from enlightenment. Anyone who thinks racism has no influence in today’s politics and personal associations needs to rethink that position. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.