Meghan Markle and the aristocracy of victimhood

Meghan Markle and the aristocracy of victimhood

How Meghan became the Princess of Postmodernism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books Identity Politics UK USA

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‘What is truth?’, wondered Pontius Pilate. Finally, 2,000 years later, we have an answer to that grandest of philosophical sticklers – it’s whatever Meghan Markle says it is.

Something extraordinary is happening in a Florida courtroom right now: Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, seems to be trying to redefine reality itself. She is being sued by her estranged half-sister Samantha Markle for defamation. One of Samantha’s claims is that Meghan was fibbing when she told Oprah Winfrey in that volcanic interview last year that she ‘grew up as an only child’. What about me, and your half-brother, Thomas Jr, Samantha is asking? Do we not exist?

The response of Meghan’s legal team to the ‘only child’ controversy has been astonishing. Meghan’s comment ‘was obviously not meant to be a statement of objective fact that she had no genetic siblings or half-siblings’, her lawyers say. Rather, it was a ‘textbook example of a subjective statement of how a person feels about their childhood’ (my emphasis). In short, Meghan’s feelings trump pesky facts. Meghan’s ‘truth’ – that she grew up all alone – takes precedence over the truth: namely, that she had a half-sister and a half-brother. Actual siblings. Real living and breathing kin.

This isn’t the first time Meghan’s ‘truth’ has gone into battle with actual truth. Also in that Oprah chat, Meghan infamously said she and Prince Harry got married in a small, private ceremony three days before the showy wedding millions watched on TV. ‘You know, three days before our wedding, we got married’, she announced. Oprah looked startled. ‘No one knows that’, Meghan continued. ‘But we called the Archbishop [of Canterbury] and we just said, “Look, this thing, this spectacle is for the world, but we want our union between us”.’ Wow! So the TV wedding was a sham? Now that’s explosive.

It is also not true, of course. And by ‘true’ I mean real-world true, not Meghan true. They didn’t get married three days before the televised wedding. You’re not allowed to do that. The same couple cannot officially marry twice unless they get divorced in between. They likely had a blessing from the archbishop, not a marriage ceremony. But who are we to judge Meghan’s ‘truth’ with our bothersome facts? Maybe her insistence that she and Harry got married three days before the wedding was a textbook example of a subjective statement of how a person feels about their marriage.

Isn’t it striking that the Trump administration was continually slammed by liberals for its promotion of ‘alternative facts’, whereas Meghan is loved by liberals despite also seeming to deal in ‘alternative facts’? The Trumpite Orwellian category of ‘alternative facts’ really means pushing ‘claims that do not conform to objective reality’, raged USA Today. ‘Traditionally known as false or misleading claims; also, lies’, it continued. Does that apply to the Duchess of Sussex, too? Are her claims about being an only child and getting married three days before she actually got married also ‘alternative facts’, false claims, misinformation?

One observer actually raised this question shortly after the Oprah interview was broadcast last March. ‘Is “speaking your truth” the new alternative facts?’, asked Elisabeth Braw at Foreign Policy. In response to Oprah’s congratulation of Meghan for telling ‘her truth’ to the world, Braw wrote: ‘“Your truth” is not “the truth”.’ ‘My truth’ is to the left what ‘alternative facts’ were to sections of the Trumpite right, she said: ‘Both foreground personal beliefs ahead of indisputable fact. And in doing so, they open the door to disinformation.’

To speak of Markle, the Princess of Woke, in the same breath as Donald Trump, the Bad Orange Man, will strike many as nonsensical, even outrageous. These two are at the opposite ends of the moral barometer of the right-on elites. He’s the oafish, self-regarding liar who was put in the White House by Putin; she’s the virtuous modern woman who might have sprinkled a little moral correction on the House of Windsor if only those racist royals hadn’t hounded her out. But what if, behind these infantile fairytales about Trump’s evil and Markle’s virtue, these two people are actually similar? What if both ascended to their positions of influence partly by bending reality to their own personal needs, by subjugating the truth to their truth?

This is not to say Meghan Markle is a liar. It is more complicated than that, and in a sense more sinister. She appears to be a product of the end of truth. She seems symbolic of a postmodern culture in which self-definition now takes precedence over objective reality. In which our narcissistic description of ourselves carries more weight than any anchored, measurable facts about ourselves. In which one can ‘identify’ as anything one chooses, however estranged your identification might be from material reality. A man can be a woman, despite having a penis, and Meghan Markle can be an only child, despite having siblings. That’s their truth, man.

Tom Bower’s new book, Revenge: Meghan, Harry and the War Between the Windsors, suggests there has long been a post-truth element to the Meghan Markle phenomenon. Actually, this is less a book than a bulldozer. It lays waste, in chapter after chapter, to Markle’s carefully constructed image of herself as a survivor of racism and mental ill-health who now just wants to ‘do good’. After six years of Meghanmania from the woke establishment, the book feels like an act of heresy, or at least like one of those 18th-century monarchy-bashing pamphlets in which John Wilkes or some other upstart would take wild, satirical potshots at a pompous royal. I loved it.

Bower takes us from Markle’s comfy childhood to her rather unillustrious acting career to her ascendancy first into the new aristocracy of Californian celebs who are woke, philanthropic and almost pathologically self-obsessed and then into the actual aristocracy. He captures brilliantly what appears to be Markle’s driving obsession: to be an influencer. Not just an actress, not just a celeb, but someone who enjoys cultural power. It was never just fame Meghan was after when she ventured into Hollywood, eventually landing a part in the popular legal soap Suits – it was clout, sway, purpose. Long before Harry, Meghan seems to have been obsessed with the idea of becoming a physical embodiment of active righteousness.

Bower captures the cynicism and soullessness of the influencer life. Meghan sets up a ‘lifestyle brand’ called The Tig, a food / travel / fashion / beauty blog, à la Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which offered pursuers of the ‘inspired lifestyle’ such nuggets of platitudinous wisdom as ‘You deserve endless pizza and love and you have a nice butt’. After hawking herself about as an inspirational speaker, she is snapped up by the UN as a ‘women’s advocate for political participation’. She flies to Rwanda in 2015, ‘overnighting in air-conditioned luxury’ and then visiting ‘the wretched Gihembe refugee camp to ask the distraught women how they coped with life’. ‘This type of work feeds my soul’, she later wrote on Instagram, confirming that there’s no global problem so abject that it cannot be turned into an opportunity for online preening by the influencer caste.

Her second visit to Rwanda, in January 2016, sounds even worse. She flew there first class, with fashion photographer Gabor Jurina, and a hair stylist, stayed in Kigali’s best five-star hotel, and then drove in an ‘air-conditioned mini-van’ to the dirt-poor village of Gashora. She chatted with the locals about their daily struggle to get water, but not for long: ‘To the villagers’ surprise, she disappeared… For hours Jurina photographed the perfectly coiffured actress hugging, squeezing and smiling with the village children. Each pose was followed by a change of clothing.’ Africa as backdrop, hard-up kids as props for a photo shoot – these are the deranged levels of self-regard celebs who Do Good have reached.

When she meets Harry, in mid-2016, her mission to deliver salvation to a world that’s lost its way, to be a one-woman religion essentially, intensifies. Harry’s friends get an early glimpse of what a woke scold she can be. They go on a shooting weekend. Harry’s looking forward to ‘endless banter, jokes and a lot of drinking’. Dream on, duke. ‘Meghan challenged every guest whose conversation contravened her values’, reports Bower. There were ‘jokes involving sexism, feminism and transgender people’ and Meghan was having none of it – ‘she reprimanded them about the slightest inappropriate nuance’. As everyone drove home, ‘texts pinged between the cars’. ‘Harry must be fucking nuts’, said one.

Harry’s friends bemoaned Meghan’s ‘wokery’. She’s a ‘dampener’, they told him. Now her party-pooping has gone global. It’s no longer just poshos who shoot pheasants who have to put up with Meghan Markle tutting at their wrongthink – it’s all of us. Together Meghan and Harry have become globe-trotting moral reprimanders, with often unwittingly hilarious results. Meghan guest-edited Vogue, using it as a pulpit to preach about the evils of climate change. Yet she takes private jets the way the rest of us order Ubers, says Bower. Harry flew in a private jet to a Google camp in Sicily to speak about climate change. ‘His plane was just one of the 114 private jets, as well as a fleet of super yachts, that had ferried billionaires and celebrities to the festival.’ Later, at a press conference in Amsterdam to promote an eco-travel campaign (!), Harry is outraged when a journalist asks him about his private jet-setting. Ninety-nine per cent of my flights are commercial, he says. Actually, at least 60 per cent of your flights are private, he is informed. ‘No one is perfect’, he replies. A few days later the pair flew by private jet to attend the wedding of a close friend who was getting hitched to the son of an oil billionaire.

The new elites are laughing at us, aren’t they? They instruct us to travel less, have fewer kids, stop being so greedy and polluting, and yet they’re hopping on hyper-luxurious airplanes to fly to Elton John’s swanky pad in the south of France, as Harry and Meghan did in 2019. Our behaviour is fine, said Harry, because we ‘plant trees to offset the carbon’. ‘Where and how many trees?’, a journalist asked him. Judging by Harry’s face, he clearly believes that being asked questions is a form of ‘persecution’, writes Bower: ‘Whatever he said, Harry believed, was “the truth”.’

Ah, the truth. What is it? Perhaps Harry’s claim that 99 per cent of his flights are commercial was his truth. Not an objective fact, sure, but a subjective belief, and isn’t that just as good? That’s the thing about ‘my truth’ – it shuts down discussion. Like ‘lived experience’, ‘my truth’ is something you are not allowed to interrogate. Observe what happened to Piers Morgan: elbowed out of Good Morning Britain for having the temerity to question Meghan’s ‘truth’ about feeling suicidal in the palace. The sanctification of subjective feeling over objective reality nurtures a deeply censorious and intolerant climate in which any questioning of a person’s claims about themselves – that they are non-binary, or a frequent commercial flyer, or an only child, or whatever – is treated as a species of blasphemy.

And yet it is legitimate to query Meghan’s ‘truth’, even her ‘truth’ about feeling depressed in the palace. She told Oprah that she was forbidden by a palace official from seeking therapeutic help because ‘it would not be good for the institution’. Royals don’t do psychology, apparently. Only that isn’t true. Harry says he has been in therapy for years. Princess Margaret had a shrink. Bower points out that ‘Harry and Meghan gave conflicting accounts of the [mental health] saga’. And ‘neither explained why Meghan sought help from an unqualified palace official rather than an experienced medical specialist’. The idea that two wealthy royals could not have been driven to some plush therapist’s clinic on Harley Street is patently ridiculous. And it’s important to say that, not in order to depict Harry and Meghan as liars, but because truth matters. Should Meghan’s truth about feeling neglected by palace officials be allowed to override the truth that the palace has frequently allowed senior royals to seek therapeutic assistance?

Meghan seems to inhabit a strange post-truth plane. It is hard to work out what is real in her life and what is invention. Consider one of her favourite stories about herself – the time she was a precocious moral warrior, aged 11, and she fired off an angry letter to Procter & Gamble to complain about an advert for washing-up liquid that showed women doing the dishes. She says she received a reply from Hillary Clinton and that she virtually single-handedly changed Procter & Gamble’s campaign. ‘It was at that moment that I realised the magnitude of my actions’, she said at a UN conference in New York in 2015. Is it true, though? Early in her relationship with Harry, Meghan was interviewed for Vanity Fair. She told the interviewer all about her P&G campaign and was horrified that he left it out of the published article. He did so because ‘Vanity Fair’s fact-checkers concluded there was no proof that the incident had ever happened’, writes Bower. ‘There was also no evidence… that Meghan had received a reply from Hillary Clinton.’ Thomas Markle, Meghan’s father, says ‘both Hillary Clinton and Procter & Gamble had ignored Meghan’s letters’. P&G changed its campaign, not because of the protests of a plucky girl from California, but because ‘thousands of American women’ had written to complain about the ad.

Meghan also claims that she witnessed the LA riots of 1992. ‘The ash from street fires sifted down on suburban lawns’, she said. Her dad says they were nowhere near LA – they were in Palm Springs.

Meghan has recently spoken of experiencing racism at school, yet she went to a school that was mostly non-white. Only 30 per cent of the kids were white. ‘Most [students] assumed Meghan was Italian.’ Bower argues, convincingly, that Meghan has only recently started talking about race, and possibly started to reimagine certain childhood experiences as instances of racism, because race has become one of the ultimate cards in the game of woke. It is indeed striking that Harry and Meghan seem to see racism everywhere – in every critical article, every difficult question, every allegation of bullying against Meghan. ‘Find me a woman of colour in a senior position who has not been accused of being too angry, too scary, too whatever in the workplace’, a close friend of the couple told the press. So if you call Meghan a bully, you’re racist?

That Meghan seems to be reimagining her life as a victimised one is not surprising. Victimhood is the most prized cultural asset in the new aristocracy of celebrities, influencers and activists. Having experienced suffering – especially of the racist variety – grants one access to the global media stage to tell the world one’s truth. Incongruously, pain is power; claims of adversity are the most important moral currency for the new elites. This is why Harry and Meghan seem to devote so much time to searching for proof of racial animus against them. So when a UKIP dimwit made racist remarks about the couple on Instagram, ‘that single post would be repeatedly cited by the couple to suggest “palace officials were overwhelmed by threats made from multiple sources”’, says Bower. In fact, replied palace officials, we are ‘overwhelmed by demands from Harry and Meghan to remove any criticism [from social media], rather than a few threats’ (my emphasis).

So what’s the truth? Are Harry and Meghan victims of a ‘monster machine’ of racial hatred, as they have described it, or are they exaggerating the problem in order to enjoy greater cultural clout in the Black Lives Matter era? Is it true that they were overwhelmed by racist threats, or is it true that they overwhelmed the palace with demands to take down critical commentary? Is it true that Hillary Clinton responded to 11-year-old Meghan’s letter, or isn’t it? Is it true that Meghan was in LA during the riots, or isn’t it? Did Meghan get married three days before the wedding, or didn’t she? Does truth matter?

We may never know all the facts about some of these stories. But we should bear in mind a point Bower makes well – that in the woke ‘religion’ of Hollywood celebrities, ‘the concept of “universal truth” [is] false’. Indeed, Meghan herself has said that ‘life is about storytelling, about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we’re told, what we buy into’. We all have the right to ‘create our own truth about the world’, she says. Behold the Princess of Postmodernism, for whom truth is whatever she says it is. I am the Truth – the final rallying cry of the narcissistic new aristocracy.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Revenge: Meghan, Harry and the War Between the Windsors, by Tom Bower, is published by Blink.

Picture by Getty

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Topics Books Identity Politics UK USA


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