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Politics in American Popular Culture

The recent clamor about Britain’s Prince Harry wearing a Nazi costume to his friend’s “native and colonial” themed birthday party entirely glossed over its broader scope amidst the backdrop of a colonial war. The swastika-laden Afrikans desert costume worn by the twenty-two-year-old heir to the throne only points to a larger symptom - of which he is far from the only perpetrator - of fetishizing oppression.

I don’t find the Prince’s particular choice of costume as alarming (although granted, I do find it alarming) as his choice to attend a party in which such a costume would be appropriate. Is there a costume for such a shindig that wouldn’t be troublesome? I also want to note that Prince William, Prince Harry’s older brother, went to the party dressed as a lion. A lion costume is innocuous enough, right? Not if it is a costume of a native it isn’t. Considering no one’s ever colonized a lion (unless you count Sigfried and Roy), his lion referred to the notion of the untamed, savage “native” (i.e. African). Displaying the symbols of violence or, as is the case of Prince Harry’s royal embarrassment, making light of a regime of terror, shows one’s disconnection with the reality of oppression and war.

The truth is Prince Harry didn’t even need to WEAR a costume to show up as a colonizer. The party’s theme was more narcissistic than it was creative; It was a pastiche of the partiers’ own lives. Their drivers, handlers, bodyguards, and maids daily play underling to their overlord. Everyone pouring the drinks and serving the finger-foods at the party wore a kind of “native” costume. Prince Harry and his buddies may have squeaked by in econ and world history at their exclusive preparatory schools, but they certainly enjoy the economic fruits of their oppressive ancestral history.

I do not imagine that Prince Harry or Prince William harbor any overtly racist or anti-Semitic views, but going to a party and playing along with its bigoted theme is unquestionably complicity to bigotry. As much, or perhaps even more worth noting though, is the public and media reactions to the story. As the media tends to do (after all, at the end of the day, they too are selling product) it latched onto the sensationalistic/dramatic aspect of the story, The Prince and The Swastika, and it failed to view this story through the lens of the more subtle and pervasive problematic from which it comes. (Passive racism is still racism, and that includes the passivity of the witnesses.)

While the Prince’s privileged coterie disported in the garments of a dark past, a present-day colonial war carried on miles away in the Middle East. Not but a few days after The Prince and The Swastika, a story broke about another kind of British government-sponsored “native and colonial” party, just like the ones on U.S. public dollars. At all of these “parties” uniformed colonials, at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, took turns with the natives, and flashed broad smiles and thumbs up for the camera.

Jean Baudrillard wrote, “Forgetting extermination is part of extermination, because it is also the extermination of memory, of history, of the social, etc.” Old cultural habits are hard to break. Prince Harry and his friends probably eschew bigotry, but they can’t seem to let go of the appurtenances of it. They go through the motions unquestioningly, uncritically, in an amnesiatic fog. They cleave to its image, being members, after all, of a generation (of which I am a member) suckled on spectacle. (Could Baudrillard be right that our so-called reality has become only an endless self-referential concatenation of images?)

Play-acting in the symbols of violence and oppression has become trendy. Hummers consume gads of Middle Eastern oil; camouflage clothes spill off store shelves. Their preponderance situates us in a culture of fluid-moving, hollow images and watered-down critical thinking skills. War is the new team sport and camouflage the color worn by its fans. The game’s players coming home in boxes doesn’t seem to quell the enthusiasm but only stokes the flames.

Anti-colonialist author Frantz Fanon, pictured above, said that the settler is an exhibitionist, an apt description I’d say for the current colonial council leading the war in Iraq. It calls to mind the show of pomposity that was the flailing, inked, index fingers on the Senate floor. The Prince’s flirtation with despotic fashion, to my mind, only points to the ignorance bloated with arrogance that is the fashion of the day.

March 2005

From guest contributor Carolee Klimchock

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