I have to throw my two cents in on the Kate Middleton/Hilary Mantel “spat” after reading this post by Kit Whitfield. I don’t understand why there was such an outcry over Mantel’s speech, except that it involves women—women who probably don’t even care about one another. I’m going to violate all the laws of “you don’t know me” here, but Kate is a woman who lives with strangers taking pictures of her day and night, so some middlebrow author saying she looks like a doll probably isn’t a mortal insult.* Maybe she really is blindingly angry, but if somebody was chasing me with a camera every time I stepped out of the house, that would definitely underpin my insanity plea when they put me away for going after bystanders with a baseball bat. London Review of Books publications wouldn’t even be a factor.**
But everyone loves it when women fight, so much so that they make up catfights out of nothing. But men fight, too. I mean they hiss at and insult one another, not just make observations from afar. I feel like it is unfair that men should be able to get away with this without any sort of dissection of their motives and without people calling them ugly or stupid. Which leads me to comment on this actually mean and nasty letter.
Background: Ed Balls was a government bigwig, and wants to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, which he has a good chance at, not because of anything he did right but because George Osborne hates money and has a penis for a nose. Anthony Seldon is a headmaster and a trained historian (unlike Mantel, that ignorant heffer) who wrote lots of biographies of Tony Blair and various other people. Seldon wrote to the New Statesman to tell Balls that he is just generally a terrible person and should kill himself. No, it wasn’t quite like that, but he really wants Balls to just go somewhere else for a while and think about what he’s done. Seldon even dares to speak on behalf of Balls’s wife, which is certainly a trick of empathy, bordering on mind-reading.
Why is Seldon meowing at poor old Ed Balls? He doesn’t have a book to sell right now, so that eliminates the most obvious motive. Did he just wake up one morning and think, damn, you know what? Motherfuckers gotta know how I feel about Ed Balls! Is Seldon dying? Is telling off Ed Balls on his bucket list? What’s up?
At first I thought that the letter was a sort of warning—Seldon knows something terrible about Balls and he’s going to tell everyone unless Balls slinks off in shame. But then Seldon suggests that Balls go off to run a school or a charity, which suggests in turn that he can’t know anything that poisonous about the man—why make yourself a hostage to fortune? Does Seldon regularly recommend that awful people work at schools or charities? Has he read anything about Jimmy Savile in the last few months? “Hey, remember that time right before I told the world about a guy who raped a girl on the steps of a church as part of a black magic ritual? Well, when I wrote to tell him to quit his job to run a school for disadvantaged kids, I was just trying to give him a warning! Yeah!” I don’t believe Seldon’s that stupid, which means that he’s not about to tell the world about some black magic craziness. Disappointment.
I suppose that Seldon’s anger at Balls could be a result of political differences, but I can’t believe that they are very much different in their politics—Seldon is sour about school planning issues, but let’s not forget that Balls studied under Larry Summers. These two aren’t busting out of the neoliberal Matrix anytime soon. Maybe it’s the drama of small differences, but Seldon can’t really think that Balls is some sort of Communist who has to be stopped before he makes everyone share toothbrushes and wives. Maybe there’s some sort of tax break involved that I don’t know about because I don’t run an expensive public school, and Ed Balls is going to ruin Seldon’s life and make him live in a gutter by taking it away. But still, why write a nasty letter to him so he’ll remember you even more?
So what is it, then? It’s an image problem. Balls hurts the brand—Seldon explicitly refers to “a toxic brand”–not because he’s an actual bully, but because he’s perceived as one. (Bully he may well be, but again, why is Seldon suggesting that a known bully step near a school or a charity? Does Seldon hate children?) In addition, Gordon Brown was depressing and made people feel unhappy, and Balls is the same by association. The less people look at him, the better everyone else’s fortunes will be.
Even though he is a trained historian, Seldon’s concept of a politican is like Mantel’s concept of a princess—when you look at her, you’re supposed to see a symbol, something that awes you or reassures you. It has very little to do with what she does and all to do with how she appears, the feelings she provokes in her onlookers. In a princess’s case, the symbol has to do with breeding and family continuation; in the case of a potential Chancellor of the Exchequer, it’s the economy, the numbers that nobody seems to be able to control or understand. Princess Catherine is a good symbol because she is slim and pretty and pregnant; Balls is a bad symbol because he is associated with scarcity and failure. He has nothing more to give and should retire to the modern equivalent of the convent, as failed princesses used to do. At least the smart ones did; the ones who dragged their heels tended to lose their heads.
I imagine that Seldon’s adventure in symbol-reading had more power to hurt its subject than Mantel’s, simply because Kate doesn’t use her public position to voluntarily comment on the X-Factor, which leads me to believe that she’s more stable as a person.*** However, nobody is angry at Seldon. Well, I am. Shame on you, sir, for attacking a vulnerable person like that! You just wish you could look like a Chucky doll too, and I bet your penis is tiny and somehow ill-formed.
* I like Mantel’s writing but the Cromwell books aren’t her best—I’d say Beyond Black was her high point but that’s about women in the 1990s and nobody’s head comes off their shoulders, so it didn’t win any awards. Go read that if you get sick of reading about Cromwell thinking sad thoughts and not actually torturing anyone (that’s likely).
** Whitfield wants Mantel to somehow pry apart the “real” Kate from the image of Kate, but I’m not sure that’s possible. No one involved knows Princess Catherine personally. Whatever information available would have to be heavily mediated, part of a “real” image—and the lack of a “real” image is the difference between royalty and celebrity. Celebrities are supposed to have interests and likes and dislikes, so we can empathize with them—acceptable likes and dislikes, of course, and nothing too complex, but they still need to create themselves as human beings. Royalty doesn’t need that sort of empathy, because they’re emphatically not like us, so princes and princesses don’t need to keep up that “real” public image—nobody’s going to interview Kate to find out that she listens to One Direction, she likes Costa but not Starbucks coffee, and that she enjoys reading comic books but not the ones with Batman in. All we know about her is her age and what she looks like naked.
*** If Kate is blessedly pop-culture free, Ed Balls seems out to destroy the illusion that politicians are highly intelligent people who think about world problems all day and night. “Oh, no, they’re thinking about how to swindle us out of our money!” No, they’re not even thinking about that, they’re thinking about Carly Rae Jepsen (retweeted by the fucking “Original Bankster,” no less). I can see why Seldon wants to shank this guy.