Editor’s Note: This article was printed on the op-ed page of The Stamford Advocate in September 1997, right after Princess Di and Mother Teresa had died. For some reason, this editorial generated a great deal of response, some of it very hostile. My phone, fax and e-mail were all busy for days. Go figure.
Princess Diana’s Legacy
Already, the backlash is building. It may have begun when the media hoopla accompanying Princess Diana's death was, toward the end, briefly perturbed by Mother Teresa’s passing. This second death seemed almost divinely ordained to show us just how excessive is our tendency toward excess. The fact that her death was subsumed by Diana’s in the public eye epitomized the degree to which style has swallowed substance.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in their heart of hearts, some members of the media resented Mother Teresa for having the bad timing to intrude upon the Princess’ beatification. This confluence of events forces the sort of comparisons to be made that our celebrity-crazed society may be loath to consider.
A few years back, a meeting between the two women was photographed. The tall, young, elegantly dressed Princess had to bend over to shake hands with the bent, wizened and aged little nun. They looked as if they came from different planets, and the gulf that separated their respective lives was as clearly delineated as the contrast between their appearances.
This is not to disparage Diana’s legacy, but to put it in perspective. Listening to the man on the street, one would have thought that Albert Schweitzer or Gandhi had just died. During the past two weeks, she’s been called “a great humanitarian,” and journalists have exhausted their thesauruses coming up with encomiums. This seems to be part of our general tendency to cheapen the language when celebrities are involved. When every pop icon is a “genius,” the word itself becomes meaningless. If Bruce Springsteen is a musical genius, what word is left for Mozart? If the late Tupac Shakur is a poetic genius, then how shall we describe Shakespeare?
Certainly, Diana deserves praise for her kindness toward AIDS victims. While American televangelists like Jerry Falwell were showing their “Christian compassion” by telling us the disease was God’s rightful vengeance on sinners, Diana’s willingness to hug the afflicted provided a timely example of how decent people should treat those who are suffering.
Of course, it’s a easier to be a “great humanitarian” when you’re flying to a children’s hospital in the Concorde. And it’s easier to spend a day with the unfortunate when you arrive in a limousine, and you know you’ll be chauffeured back to a palace when you’re done. Humanitarianism is easiest when it’s a hobby, rather than a vocation.
Compare this to ordinary people working in human services fields who spend their lives being humanitarians, 40 hours or more a week for low pay, and die with no crowds mourning for them in the streets. While it’s admirable that Diana took time out from the Windsors’ endless vacations, dedications, garden parties and dinners to visit the sick, we should keep in mind that these outings were a break from her routine; they were not her routine.
By contrast, Mother Teresa made human service her life’s work, choosing discomfort and inconvenience in the slums of Calcutta. She lived among the poor; she didn’t visit them. And the journalists who would have us pity Diana for the pressures of her life as a princess never seem to mention that she too chose her vocation. No one was holding a gun to her head in during her wedding at St. Paul’s. She wanted to be a queen, and she married Charles out of blonde ambition in order to be rich, royal and famous.
When you realize that the British monarchy is essentially an expensive anachronism that accomplishes little, the talk about the burdens of duty imposed upon the Princess begins to seem a bit nonsensical. The royals’ duties are mainly ceremonial, and most are essentially trivial self-perpetuation. If a burn therapist calls in sick, patients could miss their treatments, but who suffers when Fergie skips a cocktail party?
Diana’s brother called her “the most hunted woman in the world,” but we should remember that she was not being hunted by the KKK or the KGB. When Dodi’s Mercedes hit 120 mph endangering its occupants, as well as the French peasantry on the road it was not evading the Gestapo. The deceased were running from photographers on Mopeds who, at worst, might have taken some unflattering head shots. While the behavior of the paparazzi is obnoxious, they were, after all, shooting Nikons, not Uzis.
Diana has also been pitied for her struggles with an eating disorder, but does this have the same weight as battling multiple sclerosis or involuntary malnutrition? The irony here is that one can’t imagine what Mother Teresa would have thought of someone who chooses to throw up a nutritious meal because the stress of too many social events became too much to bear, or because a few extra pounds might have made bulges in her Versace gowns. I suspect that few, if any of the Indian children cared for by Mother Teresa have developed bulimia.
The “people’s princess” certainly seemed a warm and personable woman, but don’t forget the stuffed shirts and petrified fossils to whom she was being compared. It makes you wonder how desperate we are for heroines, when the death of a pretty woman practically brings to a halt a nation known for its stiff upper lip. Yet a heroine did die at the same time, and she was largely forgotten in the media frenzy.
The problem is not that we lack for heroines, but that we mistake style for substance and don’t know a heroine when we see one. Or we’ve simply forgotten what the word means. Think of the Academy Awards show, where directors and actors endlessly pat each other on the back for their “courage.” The police and firemen are heroes; inner city schoolteachers need courage every day. But how much actual bravery is required for Madonna to cash a check for millions of dollars for portraying Eva Peron?
Blinded by celebrity, we mistook a socialite’s car accident for a tragedy of monumental proportions. And having inflated Di’s brief fling with a playboy (whose previous marriage had lasted a grand total of eight months) to the status of a mythic romance, we must now make of both her life and her death what Elton John keeps calling her “legend.”
Of course, the death of someone so young is always sad, especially for the family, but what emptiness in our own lives leads us to weep in the streets for a woman we never knew and whose accomplishments will shortly be forgotten because they were, on balance, rather minor. And could not the money spent on the tons of flowers that engulfed the royal dwellings have been better spent on medicine for the AIDS patients that Diana had taken compassion on or for food for the hungry children of Mother Teresa?
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