September 1, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, September 1, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today in the week of the 20th anniversary the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, we will see that her role is not only as a driver of pop culture but also as a driver of the moral revolution, we’ll see how our vocabulary is tested the events of the scales such as Hurricane Harvey, and we’ll also celebrate courage under fire as we come to see the story of a kindly grandmother who died in recent days in France who turned out to a been one of the most important spies of World War II.
Princess Diana: Not only a pop culture icon, but also a driver of the moral revolution
Cultural change takes place at the intersection of people and events and issues; sometimes the people become emblematic of the kind of moral change that is taking place in a particular epic of human history. Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and it reminds us of the fact that Diana was one of the most massive celebrities of the world at the end of the 20th century; she did not live into the 21st century. That 20-year milestone is important so much just in terms of the celebrity culture, though that’s certainly a dimension, but of the reflection upon the moral change that has taken place in both Great Britain and the United States over the last 20 years.
Let’s talk about the celebrity culture. We’re looking at Diana as a major artifact of pop culture. The Princess of Wales, whose storybook romance — or at least storybook marriage to Charles the Prince of Wales — was to have set the stage for a new era in the Royal family’s history in Great Britain. The expectation back when the marriage took place is that Prince Charles and Princess Diana, then the Prince and Princess of Wales, would begin a new dynastic era for Britain’s Royal family. The storybook romance — as it turned out — was not actually true, and the storybook wedding led to a marriage that very publicly fell apart. Back during the 1990s it was Diana — not Charles — that dominated the celebrity circuit and also the front pages of so many of the magazines. She was a made-for-artistry, made-for-popular-culture Princess, and she knew how to play the part — the popular culture part; it turned out that the public responsibility part was something very different. And the breakdown of the marriage between Charles and Diana, leading to the very public divorce, also demonstrated something of the moral shift that had taken place in British culture. Now 20 years later, the New York Times ran a front-page story yesterday with the headline,Show Full Transcript
“The Death of Diana Transformed Monarchy and Britain Itself”
Sarah Lyall wrote the article, and she says that,
“After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago, London felt like a city on the verge of a revolution. Suddenly everything was up for grabs, even the monarchy itself.”
“For a few crazy weeks, this most enduring of institutions looked as if it might actually implode under the weight of so much emotion.”
Now of course just about most Americans for one reason or another know the saying attributed to Londoners during the second world war: Keep calm and carry on. This British reserve, this reticence to show emotion was indeed a part — not only the British Royal family — but of British culture at large, and all that did begin to break down during the 1990s, and it broke down like a shattering of glass when Diana died 20 years ago yesterday.
One of the cultural shifts that was very evident during what is now known as Diana Week, is that the British monarchy had to be redefined. The British monarch, then and now, Elizabeth II, then 71, now 91, was originally criticized, nearly roundly criticized, for failing to identify with the emotional response of the British people to the death of Diana. That miscalculation on the part of the British Royal family became a matter that did indeed make history, and Queen Elizabeth had to change her understanding of the role of the monarch and the symbolism of the monarchy. One of the issues had been that flags had been lowered on their flagstaff to indicate a national morning, but in terms of the British monarchy, the flag flies over an institution like Buckingham Palace only when the queen, the monarch, is in residence. She was not at Buckingham Palace, but was at the time at her private castle in Scotland, along with Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and her two grandsons: the Princes William and Harry. And the British people seeing that there was no flag to be flown at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, felt that somehow that meant that the British Royal family was uncaring and refusing to indicate by that symbolism the sense of morning that had set in amongst the British people. The situation was further complicated when the Queen originally intended for Diana’s body to be brought back on a commercial airliner — that was only rectified by a plea from Prince Charles, who according to sources asked the Queen if she really intended for the body of the mother of England’s future King to be flown back on a commercial airliner.
The death of Diana also brought about an historic change in the relationship between Britain’s elected head of government, the Prime Minister, and the monarch, the head of state. In his roles advising the Queen, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair implored the Queen to return to London to demonstrate publicly her emotion and the loss of Diana, and to identify the British people. After resisting those pleas for some time, the Queen relented and returned to London, and just as had been expected and hoped, she identified with the emotional outpouring of the British people.
Now why is that an importance to us? Well, there are several things to note here. For one thing, you have a major turn in public culture during the 20th century from the expectation that public leaders would not show emotion but would rather demonstrate stability and reserve to the expectation that they would openly emote. It is not just about the British monarchy, it’s also about the American presidency and other major leaders in the culture. There was a shift in the expectation towards a more expressive emotionalism that would’ve been considered saccharin and out of place just a generation earlier.
In yesterday’s front page story in the New York Times, Sarah Lyall wrote,
“Diana in [person] was a loose cannon, an unpredictable wild card; in death, she had a galvanizing effect. Britain,” says Lyall, “is already a very different place from [what it was in] Diana’s era, partly because of a younger generation less enamored with old conventions.”
One of the points made, not only in this article, but in a previous article, the day before in the New York Times, is that there is a generational divide in Great Britain at about age 30 between those who remember the death of Diana and those who do not. It turns out that for millennials she’s really not all that powerful, or cultural, or pop-culture presence, but for older Britain’s, and for that matter a significant number of older Americans, she remains very much a symbolic figure. Twenty years after her death, it is now clear that Diana was a powerful figure in pop culture. As a matter fact, she is a part of the engine that developed the celebrity culture of today’s popular culture that is so much a factor of everyday life, and she did so at a time before social media when it was harder for isolated individuals to gain this kind of attention. She gained the attention by marrying the Prince of Wales and by becoming in that light, the expected Queen of England — something, of course, that did not happen.
But in terms of the Christian worldview, what we also have to note is something that doesn’t show up in much of the press analysis on the 20th anniversary of her death, and that is that Diana was also a major driver of the moral and sexual revolution as we know it today. Back during the 1990s, Princess Diana very intentionally used her celebrity status in order to normalize those, especially Artis and other figures in pop culture, who then live according to what were called,
“alternative sexual lifestyles”
One key example of that fact was her friendship with Elton John, openly gay, and the fact that Elton John was one of the most celebrated performers at her funeral service — and by the way the word performer there is not out of place in that event. So the major British newspapers and many American newspapers as well, are dwelling on the fact that this 20th anniversary demonstrates a massive cultural change in Britain and in the West in terms of the expectation of leaders and the expression of emotion. We also need to recognize from a Christian worldview perspective that the death of Princess Diana 20 years ago also points to the fact that the celebrity culture is now nearly victorious throughout all of popular culture at every level, and we also need to note the Princess Diana — though this is not acknowledged in many of these press articles — was a major driver, intentionally so, of the moral and sexual revolution that is now so much a part of our landscape. There is indeed a big story here, and there’s more to the story than most people will ever know.
Hurricane Harvey tests the vocabulary of meteorology
Next, Texas itself is getting something of a reprieve, but not before the storm that had been known as Hurricane Harvey came back on to the Gulf Coast again, dropping feet of precipitation and causing flooding. The flooding in some of the smaller Texas towns, more catastrophic even than had been expected just hours before, and the storm is now passing through Louisiana and Mississippi and is expected to bring heavy rainfall all the way up into the Tennessee and Ohio Valley over the weekend. But there was a very interesting article, a very illuminating article in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, the headline,
“As [Storm] Raged, Meteorologists Grasped for Words to Describe It.”
Now, just looking at that headline, at one level, we understand it: This storm was so large even especially terms of a human scale, there appeared to be no way rightly to describe it. But the story’s actually about something maybe even more interesting. There is now a concern among meteorologists and newscasters that their use of adjectives and modifiers in terms of language about these storms has led to the fact that there is no way for them now to be clear in warning people about the actual danger of the storms that might come. Here’s the bottom line: So many these meteorologist and newscasters, at least in part to maintain viewer attention, have been using modifiers that are now exceeded by the reality. So when you have meteorologist warning over and over again that this is a killer storm that is likely to be absolutely catastrophic and the storm turns out not to be, then what do you say in order to warn people when a storm apparently really is going to be catastrophic and really does hold the potential of being a killer storm.
Christine Hauser, reporting for the Times, begins by writing,
“‘Unprecedented.’ ‘Unknown.’ ‘Beyond anything experienced,’” she says. “When weather forecasters needed to describe Hurricane Harvey’s potential for death and destruction, they stretched their linguistic abilities into new territory.”
Part of this is simply the size of the storm.
“A storm system with 130 m.p.h. winds — strong enough to topple tall structures,” she writes, “— and rains that would be so relentless that millions of gallons of water would fall for days on vulnerable towns and cities.”
She goes on to make very clear that Hurricane Harvey, as we now know, was just as catastrophic, just as much a killer storm, just as unprecedented as a meteorologists had warned in the hours leading up to the storm’s arrival on the Texas Gulf Coast. But the problem is this: The same kind of language had been used about other storms that did not turn out to be so catastrophic nor so deadly. Later Hauser writes,
“Words may escape politicians, but measuring and describing a storm is exactly the job description of forecasters.”
She cited Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, he said,
“We wanted to convey the message that this is a storm that can kill you.”
Now, of course, that’s just basically some of the language that was used, and it turned out to be all too real. It turns out, as this article reveals, that the federal government now has a project that sounds like the federal government; it’s called the Hazard Simplification Project. The National Weather Service is trying to come up with a way to regulate and control the kind of language that is used in forecasting about the storms; for instance, limiting the word catastrophic to when there is actually likely to be a catastrophe.
From a Christian worldview perspective, the bottom line in all of this is that language matters and the use of language reveals more than just the words. In this case, it reveals the fact that our finitude and smallness over against these storms really does tax our vocabulary. It’s very hard to come up with any new way to issue a warning, and furthermore, there’s the human reality that hearing warnings over and over again does not make us more attentive, but less attentive. A story like this reminds all of us in whatever context to be careful with our words. Words matter, adjectives matter; if you stretch them out of shape is very hard for them to retain their power.
Courage under fire: How a kindly grandmother who turned out to be an important WWII spy
But finally, I turn to an obituary that also ran in the New York Times the headline,
“Jeannie de Clarens, Spy Who Uncovered Rockets Used by Hitler, Dies at 98.”
The obituary is written by William Grimes; it’s another one of those absolutely fascinating and authoritative obituaries that appears in a newspaper like the New York Times. In this case, it’s about a woman who died just in recent days in France at age 98. And if you look at a picture of this elderly woman, you would never actually guess the story. She was one of the most important allied spies of World War II. As Grimes writes,
“Jeannie de Clarens, an amateur spy who passed a wealth of information to the British about the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets during World War II and survived stays in three concentration camps for her activities, died on Aug. 23 in … France.”
Again, she was 98 years old. In 1943 in Natzi occupied Paris, Jeannie Rousseau, as she was then known, was an interpreter for a group of prominent Paris businessmen. She was fluent in German and that gave her an unusual capacity. It was during a time when the Germans were trying their very best to establish some cultural relations in occupied Paris, and she became something of a friend to many German officers, and around her they began to talk about matters of deep German military secrecy — including what we now know was the infamous V-1 and V-2 rocket program. As Grimes writes,
“Getting wind of a secret weapons project, she made it her mission to be on hand when the topic was discussed by the Germans, coaxing information through charm and guile.”
As she later reflected,
“I teased them, taunted them, looked at them wide-eyed, insisted that they must be mad when they spoke of the astounding new weapon that flew over vast distances, much faster than any airplane,” this she told to The Washington Post in 1998. “I kept saying, ‘What you are telling me cannot be true!’ I must have said that 100 times.”
Eventually one officer, in his bravado to try to prove to her that it was true, actually took her to look at drawings of the rockets. She had a near photographic memory, and very quickly through a contact, she got the information to the British and American Secret Services. Based upon the information that came from the then Jeannie Rousseau, British intelligence was able to inform the military such that they were able to organize several bombing raids against the rocket plant, delaying deployment of the V2 and sparing thousands of lives, especially in London. She was eventually caught by German authorities, and she was sent to three different concentration camps; each worse than the one before. Amongst those three camps was the infamous Ravensbrück.
After the war, when she was rescued by the Swedish Red Cross, she married Henri de Clarens, a fellow patient who had been imprisoned at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. She was extremely humble about her work during the war, she told The Washington Post,
“After the war, the curtain came down on my memories. … What I did was so little. Others did so much more. I was one small stone.”
She was nonetheless highly honored by the French, the British, and the Americans. The French made her a member of the Legion of honor in 1955, she was also named a grand officer of the Legion in 2009.
“She was awarded the Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre. In 1993, the director of central intelligence, R. James Woolsey, presented her with the Seal Medallion (now Medal) “for heroic and momentous contribution to Allied efforts during World War II as a member of the French Resistance.”
The crucible of war, as so many other human events, brings out both the best and the worst. It brought out remarkable, nearly unthinkable courage in the woman known as Jeannie Rousseau, later as Jeannie de Clarens. For the past several decades she looked like what she was, an aging grandmother enjoying her family, especially her grandchildren in France. Little did most people know that she was also one of the most important spies of World War II.
This is another reminder of something important to the Christian worldview: You never know what you’re really seeing when you see another human being. You could be seeing a grandmother, you could be seeing a spy, you could be seeing both.