January 27, 2015

Horse 1829 - Arise Sir Loin of Beef, Arise Sir Osis of Liver

Many words in the media have criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to confer the rank of knighthood upon Prince Phillip. I think that this is mainly a media beat up but newspaper editors who like to sensationalise the news to sell advertising space.

Before I begin this I must point out that I am a pragmatic monarchist. I kind of like the idea of a monarch who is so far removed from Australian politics as to be completely irrelevant. I think that the idea of an elected head of state politicises the position and I honestly can not think of even a single example where it improves democracy.
I've also laid out the case why there shouldn't be any Aboriginal recognition in the Preamble to the constitution (See Horse 1534) because I'm not impressed by token measures that do nothing to improve people's conditions. I would prefer to see Aboriginal-only representatives in parliament; much the same way as there are Maori-only representatives in New Zealand's parliament. I want to hear Aboriginal voices on the floor of the house; not merely a few words that have no real impact at all.

Having said that, I rather like the idea of knighthoods and other titles, for reasons which I shall now expand upon.

In principle I like the idea that as a society we can bestow honour upon people who often have worked selflessly in their field for little to no recognition.
Universities confer the title of Professor or Doctor upon people who have spent years of study and have contributed something to the world of research. Doctors and Professors generally have to produce a thesis or dissertation which  presents the author's research and findings. Professors are often paid academics who go on to manage other research or continiue in some higher teaching function.

Society is perfectly find with this. We don't seem to have a problem with someone who is allowed to call themselves Professor or Doctor. Likewise, society also doesn't seem to have a problem with lawyers who append their names with QC or SC, or military personnel who use their military rank as a title.
So I don't think that we necessarily have a problem with the idea of titles as a thing.

I think that the speech given by scientist Richard Feynman when he received his Nobel Prize in 1965 perfectly sums up why the idea of knighthoods is in principle a good idea. Feynman was famous for being something of a maverick and refused a whole host of honorary doctorates and awards on the basis that he hadn't done anything necessarily to earn them, however when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics he said:

The prize was a signal to permit them to express, and me to learn about, their feelings. Each joy, though transient thrill, repeated in so many places amounts to a considerable sum of human happiness. And, each note of affection released thus one upon another has permitted me to realize a depth of love for my friends and acquaintances, which I had never felt so poignantly before.
For this, I thank Alfred Nobel and the many who worked so hard to carry out his wishes in this particular way.

And so, you Swedish people, with your honors, and your trumpets, and your king - forgive me. For I understand at last - such things provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own. For that lesson, I thank you. Tack!
- Richard P. Feynman's speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1965

If I was Grand Poobah and Lord High Everything Else¹, then I would award knighthoods every year on Australia Day, in the similar to categories laid out by Trivial Pursuit: Entertainment, Arts & Literature, Science & Nature, Sports & Leisure etc.

There's nothing wrong in principle with Australia offering knighthoods to foreign citizens either; what looks clumsy is that unlike the citation given for Sir Angus Houston there is no reason given at all for conferring the award upon Prince Philip². If anything it just looks like PM Tony Abbott (who called this a "captain's call") is himself hoping the grease the wheels a little and gain a peerage - Lord Abbott.

Make Elizabeth Blackburn a Dame for her work into molecular biology and the study of telomers. Give David Malouf a knighthood for his work in literature. Make Bert Newton "Sir Bert" for his work on television.
Knighthoods and Damehoods as Richard Feynman said "can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own" and that's worth pursuing. To that end, they should not be political in nature and there should probably never be a "captain's call" unless it is first sent through some sort of committee.
Better yet, make me King and I'll decide. I'd be a rubbish king but I can't be any worse than what happened yesterday, can I?

¹And if Australia ever does become a Republic and you want to make me head of state - that's the title I'm taking.

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