(inspired by snatches of a conversation I overheard between Alain de Botton and Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast 26th March 2014, and written the next day)
The Prime Minister’s recent decision to resume nominating pre-eminent Australians to the Queen for the award of a knighthood or damehood within the Order of Australia has attracted the usual loud but confused and largely ignorant response from the political-media classes. Beyond the noise and movement, however, the ‘return’ of knighthood offers us, as a whole society, a comely mirror for reflection upon the role of citizenship in the early 21st century.
At its simplest, the resumption of knighthood (and within that collective noun I include both knights and dames and their partners) is the rational action of the state turning the example of modern celebrity to its own purposes. The pre-nominal title Sir or Dame confers upon its recipients a certain status that conveys a message to the citizenry at large that in the lived actions of these knights and dames can be seen the values of a ‘good citizen’. It also contains the message that every citizen can achieve this status, signified by the title, by how they choose to live their life, by how they choose to give back to their communities and society over their own personal advancement, because it’s the right thing to do.
In this sense, knighthood is contrasted with the meaninglessness of celebrity in our times that is conferred through the media, by for example television programs marketed as talent, weight loss, cookery and other quests in which the celebrities are celebrated for little more than being celebrated. Their celebrity celebrates vacuousness. It is celebrity for its own selfish sake, is generally fleeting, and involves the celebrity being cast aside, as soon as their ratings begin to fall, in favour of a new celebrity. The private commercial interests of the media owners remain, of course, hidden in this vacuity.
This meaningless celebrity can also be seen in the practice, well known in academic circles, of external people, usually business people, being invited to lecture to students for a semester or some other short period and in return being granted the temporary title of Adjunct Professor. For the temporary academic, the true value of this is the possibility (often realized) of then styling themselves Professor Smith (or whomever) for the rest of their life, which they use to gain a certain professional cache within their own circles and, more importantly, promote their private commercial interests to prospective clients. Whether this devalues the expertise of an actual professor in the real academy is rarely, if ever, discussed in public.
As notions of citizenship have to evolve in the rapidly changing world of the early 21st century, the core values of knighthood, which are explicitly and traditionally about service to others, beyond the self, for a greater good, are the values that the state will seek, indeed needs, to articulate and promote in the state’s own self interest. These values support the ideals of social cohesion, and run counter to the fragmentation of those ideals that is inherent in the cults of mindless self-obsessed commercial celebrity described above. The strategic and controlled use of the crown and knighthood by the state is a clear example of the state learning from the example of celebrity, observing its strengths and defects, and then turning that learning to its own advantage through the ideal of knighthood as meaningful celebrity, or celebration full of meaning.
The resumption of appointments to the Australian knighthood is a clear sign, for those who take the time to actually read it, that the state, always dynamic, is evolving in the new circumstances of the new century. It is the ultimate example of egalitarianism because every citizen can aspire to appointment through truly outstanding and inspiring actions. Such actions must clearly place the community and society above the self and the personal. The new knighthood speaks to the real meaning of commonwealth in the early 21st century. It illustrates the state’s need to use the crown’s status as the sole ‘fount of honour’ to harness the values encompassed by the ideals of knighthood to fostering a socially cohesive and dynamic society suited to the demands of the new century.
Of course some of the political-media class don’t like it. They forge words such as medieval, colonial, British and bunyip into weapons to hurl at their opponents, in substitute for any actual argument. The very idea of an Australian knighthood directly affronts their self-assumed right to mediate between the citizenry and its leaders. This is illustrated in claims that the Order of Australia is already much admired and perfectly egalitarian as it is, as though putting the title after the recipients name rather then before is somehow more ‘equal’! It remains a moot point whether, had the new knights and dames been required to only use their post-nominal letters of AK or AD rather than their pre-nominal titles of Sir or Dame, the equity criterion set by the gatekeepers would have been satisfied.
In their noisy objections they reveal they have long ago captured the higher levels of the Order – and it works perfectly well for them, promoting their own in a cosy self-deception of faux egalitarianism that lets them then lecture the rest of use for not being Australian enough. It also reveals a distinct lack of any critical thinking, an intellectual enslavement to quaint old ideas of 1990s Australian nationalism and its obsession with all things British that blinds them to the evolving character of citizenship, the state and the crown in Australia that is occurring all around them.
I’m no fan of the government’s policies on the environment or asylum seekers, and the method by which the prime minister made his decision will be open to question from within his own ranks, but the actual decision is exactly right for this time. The ‘return of knights and dames’, as some media commentators and some politicians insistently, deliberately and incorrectly term it, is actually a logical and rationale response by the state to the evolving ideas of citizenship in a culture that is awash with opinionated media ‘reporting’ devoid of any real meaning (or even reportage for that matter).
The values of the contemporary knighthood that will now develop in Australia will have the capacity to provide both inspiration and aspiration to service beyond the self in the interests of a larger common good. It will provide a pathway to social cohesion in which service and duty provide an alternative to materialism and cults of individualism. It also has the capacity to provide, at least for some people, an ethical secular alternative to the exclusive and, in some cases, tainted morality of organised religion. It will enrich the Order of Australia by daring it to live up to its purpose as an ‘order of honour’
The prime minister’s decision is courageous, and I don’t mean that in any Appleby-esque way. Welcome Dame Quentin and Sir Peter, and those who come after you, in making the Australian knighthood a crucible for forging the inclusive, cohesive and inspirational citizenship we need for the new century. I support the resumption of the Australian knighthood.