Heroism ain’t what it used to be

The Sussexes were hailed last night at an awards ceremony in New York for their “heroic” stand against “structural racism” in our monarchy.

Group Captain and Mrs Douglas Bader

While in no way doubting either the couple’s heroism or the royals’ structural (also superstructural and infrastructural) racism, I still have to marvel at how words, like money, can suffer from inflation. Don’t get me wrong: I realise this is part and parcel of progress, which, as we know, is, well, progressive.

Still, fossils like me can’t help remembering the pre-inflationary times, before the word ‘hero’ expanded its meaning to include Harry and Meghan. For example, it was used to describe Group Captain Douglas Bader.

He joined the RAF in 1928 and three years later lost both legs in a crash. Nevertheless, Bader rejoined the RAF when the war started. Piloting his Spitfire, he won 22 individual victories plus several shared ones.

In 1941 Bader was shot down over occupied France and taken prisoner. Despite his disability he made several attempts to escape from the Nazi POW camp. When eventually freed by the US army, Bader was feted as a hero – as Harry and Meghan are now.

Since the couple have all of their combined eight limbs emphatically intact, they evidently haven’t suffered injuries similar to Bader’s. Nor have they risked their lives fighting against evil, unless you think they take chances every time they board a private jet to fly to yet another social function.

That realisation reinforced my suspicion that heroism means something else these days, though I still wasn’t sure exactly what. Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F Kennedy and president of the foundation awarding the accolade, set me straight:

“They’ve stood up, they’ve talked about racial justice and they’ve talked about mental illness in a way that was incredibly brave.” The word ‘incredibly’ suggests that the couple’s bravery, unlike Bader’s, went beyond human imaginings.

As a parenthetical aside, I marvel at the staying power of the Kennedy family. Member after member succumbs to assassination, disease, accident or old age, and yet we never seem to run out of Kennedys. One after another keeps popping out, ever ready to serve mankind – in this case by clarifying terminological conundrums.

So talking about racial justice and mental illness (and presumably knowing where one ends and the other begins) constitutes an act of heroism that no human brain can fathom. Fair enough, speaking your mind is indeed tantamount to risking life and limb in oppressive countries, like the one I grew up in.

By inference, Britain is also one such country. You utter one word about structural racism in the royal family, and there comes that knock on the door in the middle of the night. Off you are dragged, never to be seen again.

This doesn’t quite tally with my observations of Britain, but then I’ve never lived in a palace. Harry’s experience is different, and he generously vouchsafed it to the audience: “Ultimately we live in this world now where sharing experiences and sharing stories has an enormous impact.”

No doubt. Yet the happy couple stopped short of claiming that telling such stories was all their lives were worth. Apparently they didn’t risk what used to be called ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’. And even incarceration in the Tower for lèsemajesté wasn’t a real prospect.

So what makes the Sussexes such “incredible” heroes? This is where that lexical inflation comes in.

Words take on new meanings, while sometimes shedding the old ones and sometimes keeping them, to confuse fossils like me even further. The word ‘liberal’, for example, used to mean commitment to individual liberties, free trade and a small central state.

That’s what it still designates in books on the history of the 19th century and in some articles on current Australian politics. Yet in the rest of the Anglophone world it now means, not to cut too fine a point, socialism: suppression of individual liberties, regulation of trade and an ad infinitum growth in the power of the central state.

In parallel, the word ‘heroism’, while still applicable to the likes of Douglas Bader, can now also accommodate “sharing stories”, especially mendacious ones. Always assuming the stories thus shared seamlessly fit into the ‘liberal’ narrative.

The guests at the ceremony reportedly paid $1,000,000 for the privilege of listening to Harry’s insights into the nature of heroism. I hope he and Meghan got their cut of the receipts. After all, Bader got paid for his heroism. So it’s only fair that they should be paid for theirs.

10 thoughts on “Heroism ain’t what it used to be”

  1. The story of Group Captain Douglas Bader never ceases to amaze and I am glad to see you reference him from time to time. We can still speak of him as a hero as the second world war is still seen as a legitimate cause. Other wars are not framed so and thus combatants can be viewed as oppressors.

    Bruce Jenner was hailed a hero for donning a dress and make-up and, on nation-wide television, declaring himself a woman (indeed, the first woman ever to have won the Olympic men’s decathlon – or any male Olympic event!). While I suppose it did take some courage to do so (I certainly would not have done it), “hero” seems too strong a word. Perhaps “lunatic” would have fit better. The same word seems to fit the happy couple, perhaps with certain qualifiers – “attention seeking” springs to mind. One rarely finds an instance where the words “dignity” or “decorum” can be applied. Sigh.

  2. Abolish the Monarchy
    Abolish the Church Of England
    Abolish the House Of Lords
    Abolish Oxford University
    Abolish Cambridge University
    Abolish ‘First Pass The Post’

    This would improve the country and lead to a good deal less scandal and farce. Mr Boot, ‘the Palace’ had you sacked for exposing their treasonous behaviour. Yet you continue to believe in that institution. They do not deserve your support.

    1. Petulant, childish nonsense, Mr Thompson!

      Your prescription amounts to mindless destruction, the historical record of which is totally bad. Only gradual, evolutionary changes should ever be espoused by mature poitical entities. Mindless destruction of the kind you recommend has never produced a good outcome. Anywhere.

      1. Bernie, seeking to abolish a thoroughly compromised institution is not ‘mindless destruction’- but the removal of cancer in the body politic. The refusal to do so is the reason why ‘conservatism’ has failed time and time again.

        Our ‘top’ universities have for decades been hot beds of Marxism. Our national church is an insult to any Christian believer. Our late Queen, brilliant as she was, was unwittingly used as a form of containment for the traditional urges still felt by some Britons. The House of Lords is an oblivious old boy (and girl!) club and the ‘first past the post system’ is the primary mechanism for preventing any genuine reform (Reform?)

        It is precisely this irrational fear of upheaval, expertly cultivated by the Conservative Party, which has kept actual conservatives in political bondage since well before I was born.

    2. An understabdable temptation, I dare say. Alas, I can absolutely and unequivocally guarantee that, once you’ve abolished all those compromised institutions, whatever replaces them will abolish you. I don’t think sinking into nihilism is the solution — and history confirms it.

  3. ” Despite his disability he made several attempts to escape from the Nazi POW camp. When eventually freed by the US army, Bader was feted as a hero ”

    Guy Gibson VC commander of the Dam Busters squadron WW had a black Lab retriever as a squadron mascot. The dog answered to the name of n…er. Damn Guy Gibson VC for all eternity

  4. I’m surprised that you didn’t recommend Paul Brickhill’s authorised biography of Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky. The same author’s The Great Escape and The Dam Busters are also worth reading.

    These books are “escapist”, in so far as they provide their readers with an escape from the sordidly unheroic antics of Mr Harry Windsor and his paramour Mrs Engelson.

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