December 12, 2015

Horse 2041 - Arise Sir Loin of Beef
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dumped knights and dames from the honours system, labelling the titles "anachronistic and out of date".
Mr Turnbull, who is a well-known republican, said Cabinet has agreed the titles are no longer appropriate in the modern awards system and revealed the Queen has approved his request to scrap them.
"It is a long way from being the most important issue in Australia today," he said.
"This reflects modern Australia.
"Knights and dames are titles that are really anachronistic, they're out of date, not appropriate in 2015 in Australia."
- ABC News, 2nd Nov 2015.

Next year, the year 2016, there will be the issuing of no knighthoods on Australia Day. The Prime Minister, who like the rest of us had to witness the farce of last year's honours list, moved to scrap the issuing of titles from the honours system. Are they really anachronistic, they're out of date and not appropriate in modern Australia?

I look to the United States as the prime example of a nation who wanted to forge a new identity. It was born of metal; being fired back back forth at the ends of guns.
So important was the imagined need to remove titles of nobility in the fledgling nation, that this became part of the US Constitution at Article I, Section 9, Clause 8:
No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
- Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, US Constitution (1789)

People like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hated the idea of titles because they thought that such things clouded people's judgement of character; implying that people might be loftier than they were. The argument that someone who have been conferred with a title from a foreign power would be inclined to shift their allegiance was also considered and so not only did the United States refuse at law to confer titles, it still to this day refuses its citizens the ability to have titles conferred on them.
Mr Turnbull's reason for getting rid of titles appears to be far less charged than these reasons. Ever the pragmatist, he argues merely that the awarding of titles is not appropriate for a modern society; though I'm not sure why.

One of the more interesting pieces that I've ever heard in favour of titles came from an American, who by virtue of living in that nation, was debarred and refused the ability to have a title conferred on him.
Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked in the field of quantum mechanics and the theory of quantum electrodynamics, for this he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics  in 1965; along with his colleagues Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger.
But, in each I saw the same two common elements. I saw in each, joy; and I saw affection (you see, whatever modesty I may have had has been completely swept away in recent days).
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, Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1965

The United States which has no system of honours, by default awards nobility to those with money and power, irrespective of how they got it and almost to a degree, how they use it. In the absence of a titles system, other systems have grown up to fill the void; such as the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tonys in the arts.
I would also argue that the sheer vulgarity of money and power is the reason why the cult of celebrity is as strong in the United States as it is in the United Kingdom or even North Korea.

So why have an honours system? I think that in a modern society, the need to show honour to people who are neither rich or powerful is stronger than ever.
Why is it that someone like Elizabeth Blackburn who works in  molecular biology and specifically in telomere research, can be awarded a Nobel Prize but can't be made Dame Elizabeth? How can Richard Flanagan win the Man Booker Prize and not be made Sir Richard? How come Shane Warne could be named as one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Century but not be made Sir Shane?
The people who are awarded knighthoods in the UK, are authors, scientists, actors, philanthropists, community workers, public servants, sportspeople and other people who might never ever reach any level of wide fame at all. Knighthoods are brilliant because they confer honour and yet because they are honorary, cost precisely nothing at all to the state for their upkeep. I like knighthoods precisely because they do cost almost nothing. There might be a state dinner and a small medal but that's about it.

Think about this:
"Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own."
The last prime minister demonstrated that used inappropriately they hey can generate ill feeling but that says more of how they are used. Used properly and they do what they are designed to do, confer honour on those upon whom honour should be conferred. Baron Florey, Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. Their titles have lived on beyond them and we know that honour was conferred upon them well after they've died.
It is far easier to tear something down than to build upon it. Why did it need to be torn down? Because Mr Turnbull, a well-known republican. This is purely political in nature. I think that titles and knighthoods are a fundamentally good idea because whilst the average life of a cabinet minister is less than eighteen months and a Prime Minister only four and a bit years, the reach of a title stretches on for far far longer.

1 comment:

prof prem raj pushpakaran said...

prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Julian Seymour Schwinger!!!