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The Importance of Being a Prince

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The thing about being a prince is that you can say anything you feel like, and they don’t make you resign. In a democracy it’s different: You can be laid low politically for one thoughtless remark.

Do you remember Trent Lott’s lighthearted remarks at a convivial birthday party on December 5, 2002? “When Strom Thurmond ran for president,” said Lott of the birthday boy, “we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” That last sentence did him in as Republican leader of the Senate.

Thurmond’s long reign as a notorious segregationist and opponent of black civil rights was ending: In addition to becoming a centenarian, he was stepping down from the Senate. The idea of Thurmond assuming presidential office in 1948 was a horrifying science-fiction alternative reality where Truman was never re-elected but instead we got a president who would countermand Executive Order 9981 and resegregate the military. What were “all these problems” that Lott thought a segregationist president would have spared us? Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Acts and the start of the integration of public schools? For the leader of the U.S. Senate to yearn for such an alternative reality was just too much. Even the vaguest vision of what Lott could have meant signaled that he could not continue. Within 15 days media discussion had made it clear that he was too politically damaged to continue, and he resigned the Senate leadership. Sometimes a few careless words will do that to you. Even a university administrator will not be able to hang on to his job after implying a supportive attitude toward racial segregation.

The situation with gay rights is similar today. Andrew Turner, MP for the prosperous southern England constituency of the Isle of Wight, recently told some politics students at a school called Christ the King College that he thought homosexuality was “wrong” and “dangerous to society.” He didn’t last 15 days. Nor even hours. Esther Poucher, born in the year when Turner first became an MP, reported on Facebook what he had said. Five hours later (that must be a record), Turner decided his political career was over and he would not continue as an MP.

But that’s because, like Trent Lott, he wasn’t a prince. He didn’t have the extraordinary latitude that has been accorded to His Royal Highness Prince Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh, born a prince of Greece and Denmark, scion of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, consort to Queen Elizabeth II. For decades, Prince Philip has been able to say whatever came into his mind, be it racist or sexist or merely insulting, on any occasion. His recent retirement announcement provided an opportunity for the news media to republish some of his greatest insulting and embarrassing remarks (see here or here for a few of them; this page has no fewer than 95).

Introduced to a wealthy citizen of the Cayman Islands, he said: “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?”

To a driving instructor in Oban, Scotland, he said: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”

To a student who had been trekking in Papua New Guinea, he said: “You managed not to get eaten, then?”

Noticing a rather ancient fuse box in a factory near Edinburgh he said: “It looks as if it was put in by an Indian.”

Meeting Australian aboriginal leader William Brin, he asked: “Do you still throw spears at each other?”

At a Bangladeshi youth club he said: “So who’s on drugs here? … HE looks as if he’s on drugs.”

Chatting with some students who had been studying in China for some months, he said: “If you stay here much longer, you’ll go home with slitty eyes.”

Talking to a 25-year-old council worker in Kent wearing a dress that had a zipper fastener down the front he said: “I would get arrested if I unzipped that dress.”

But he probably wouldn’t: The headlines would have said “Playful Prince Unzips Dress” or something like that, and no arrest would have been made. You can do anything when you’re a prince. Thank goodness the American political system precludes any possibility of a rich, powerful, arrogant male saying outrageous things and getting away with it, and then ultimately obtaining a high office of state.

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