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Noblesse oblige; with proposed code of race ethics being called ”politically correct social engineering” it’s time we were all reminded, with great power comes a duty to be decent, “nobility obliges”.
In these times of uncertainty and fear my favourite daily moment of solace is ABC’s Pointless. On the face of it, this is a quiz show like any other, but for me, it is a window into a much older, much kinder world. Alexander Armstrong, its presenter, epitomises something I adore, and see as part of the solution to most of our problems: noblesse oblige. Let me explain. The lineage of Armstrong’s mother Virginia, which includes dukes, marquesses and ladies of the bedchamber, stretches back to William the Conqueror. Even in Britain, this is about as posh as you can be. Alexander himself went to Cambridge on a choral scholarship, after a childhood in a 1612 vicarage with a name, Rothbury. Apart from presenting Pointless with a mate from Cambridge, Richard Osman, Armstrong also acts, and has a production company, called, very much tongue-in-cheek, Toff Media.
Armstrong is a definite part of something that people scorn at the moment: the elite. Prince Charles is a friend and when a recent question on Pointless asked the contestants to name people who were in line to the British throne, most of the lords and ladies were just Peter and Zara to him. This could have made Armstrong conceited, smug and snooty, but instead he shows himself as kind, grateful and self-deprecating. He is never nasty to the people who play the game, but seems genuinely interested and is generous with his praise. This betrays his upbringing, something he shares with others who grew up in the British landed gentry. Stephen Fry comes to mind, for example. The core of this upbringing is a principle called noblesse oblige, a code which dictates that with great privileges come great responsibilities.
Noblesse oblige is an old idea; one closely related to another old idea: that of chivalry. The core of it is that the fact that you are well off, or a leader, does not entitle you to anything. On the contrary, the price you pay for your nice life is that you have to give something back. You have a moral obligation to be generous, honourable and kind. Or, as my husband, who is a very experienced martial artist, says: you are caring, considerate and compassionate because you can. Of course, you can squash people with your pinky, but that is exactly the reason why you don’t do it. With great power comes a duty to be decent and, to use another old-fashioned word, benevolent. The job of a real human being, or a Mensch as the Jewish tradition calls it, is to “be the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil”, as number ten in the Ten Commandments of Chivalry says.
Liberal National backbencher George Christensen called the proposal “politically correct social engineering”, although he had to admit he hadn’t seen or read the plan. I wonder what our famous egalitarianism entails if not compassion and kindness.
The principle of noblesse oblige is a helpful guideline in times like these. It is simple and tells you what to do, and more to the point: what not to do. For today, it is enough to give you one example. Last month, even before the world was Trumpified, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus sat down at his desk and formulated a new parliamentary code of conduct for Australian MPs. Last week, Bill Shorten asked Malcolm Turnbull to join him in a bipartisan move to guarantee the principles of tolerance and inclusion that are enshrined in the document. Obviously, Dreyfus was aiming at the ills of Hanson and her mob, but his guidelines went further than political opportunism, and into the realm of noblesse oblige. It was important for parliamentarians, Dreyfus wrote, to always engage in “factual commentary on a foundation of truth”, “act in a manner which upholds the honour of public office” and the “principles of justice and tolerance”. Then there had to be the intention to “help without discrimination all persons seeking assistance” and see government as a partnership between elected officials and the people. To me it sounded very much like chivalry Commandment Number Three: “thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them”.
Of course, the Billy Bunter of Australian politics, Liberal National party backbencher George Christensen, wasn’t having any of it. He called the Dreyfus proposal “politically correct social engineering”, although he had to admit he hadn’t seen or read the plan. Christensen’s remark is unintelligent as well as sickening. It shows that he doesn’t understand what his job is, for one. Governing is social engineering: you are there to organise and re-organise society, which is the essence of social engineering. But most of all, Christensen showed that he underestimates his responsibilities as an elected official: his power gives him the duty to be magnanimous and generous and kind, not petty and mean-spirited and narrow-minded. He would probably say that this noblesse oblige caper is a throwback to a British class system that we Australians rejected centuries ago. Frankly, I wonder what our famous egalitarianism entails if not compassion and kindness.
In the choice between Christensen and Armstrong, give me the toff any day.