01.12.09

Prince Not-So-Charming?

Does Prince Harry’s “Paki” video prove he was born with a silver foot in his mouth, or does the media just not get the joke?

Is Prince Harry a virtual Paki-basher? The News of the World, suddenly an arbiter of multicultural manners, has posted on its website excerpts of Harry’s “ racist outbursts”—a self-mocking home video made in 2006 when he was in military training at Sandhurst.

The uproar over a royal halfwit’s casual relationship with a camcorder is tabloid PC at its most cynical. It’s also an opportunity to unpack the very nature of contemporary taboos. Profanity has been redefined, but there is a catch. These new taboos—based on the sacred cows of identity, human rights, and equality—are as hypocritical as the ones they’ve replaced. And there is more at stake.

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Video screenshot

Harry—third in line to the British throne—didn’t just refer to one of his mates, Ahmed Raza Khan, as “our little Paki friend.” He also said “like a raghead” while filming a friend who happens to be wearing some fabric—a small mosquito net or towel, it’s hard to tell—on his head. In another segment of the video diary, he pokes fun at his grandmother the queen, then talks about, of all things, his ginger pubes. He mocks not only his heritage but the raison d’etre of the military, though I’m not sure the latter was entirely conscious. According to NOTW, he can also be heard at various points in the video saying, “All is good in the empire.” (Yeah, right.) This crucial, ironic flourish is missing from the online excerpts—too bad we can’t see the entire video for ourselves.

I was never an admirer of Princess Diana’s progeny, but now I’m starting to wonder if this video might be the work of an idiot savant turned idiot subversive.

I was never an admirer of Princess Diana’s progeny, but now I’m starting to wonder if I underestimated the Spencer genes. Perhaps Harry should have been sent to art school instead of a military academy? This video might be the work of an idiot savant turned idiot subversive.

The prince has brilliantly—albeit inadvertently—spotlighted the fact that the modern British army is not all that concerned about the indignities suffered by actual human beings who get called ragheads. If it were, the last eight years would have been rather different for people in Afghanistan, where Harry has been posted, and in Iraq (deemed too dangerous a location for the royal recruit). “Raghead” is simply a public-relations headache for the Ministry of Defense because it would like to recruit more Muslims and look more progressive.

In fact, if you’re a peacenik who feels that brown-skinned people ought not to be co-opted into policing each other for the benefit of Western colonizers, you might view Harry’s video as a useful bit of propaganda: “See how racist the British army is? Stay out of it.” But words and meanings are slippery. If you’re an equal-opportunity hawk, Harry’s comments portray the jocose, insulting atmosphere of the military as splendidly inclusive: If a potential monarch’s pubic hair is fair game, why not Pakistani identity?

The response from the Ministry of Defense and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been predictably theatrical, with everyone—especially the MoD spokesman—falling into character. “This sort of language is not acceptable in a modern army.” This is life—and 21st-century damage control—imitating Gilbert and Sullivan. Harry (“Fuck me, you look like a raghead”) is channeling the HMS Pinafore’s Captain Corcoran (“Why damn me, it’s too bad!”), who then provokes a parody of outrage: "Did you hear him? Did you hear him? He is swearing! He is swearing!"

But times do change, so Harry has apologized through his Clarence House handlers for “Paki” and “raghead”—not for the F-word, ginger pubes, or the queen. Once upon a time, we would have been shocked, shocked to hear a royal figure talking about his genital area, using sexual profanity, or poking fun at his grandmother in the presence of commoners. Is this progress?

Yes and no. Taboos grow stale after they’ve been kicking around for a while, and a culture cannot be expected to work itself into a lather forever over the same old same old.

Like millions of other people, I experienced schoolyard racism. I don’t condone its grown-up version, but I realize that kids who made fun of my Chinese appearance were simultaneously picking on each other for being fat, stupid, rich, poor, pompous, buck-toothed, Jewish, Lebanese, black, or French-Canadian. Healthy people who aren’t hobbled by discrimination can get over this sense of injury—and they also get past the desire to perpetuate it.

But is Paki really a worse diminutive than, say, Aussie? Why assume that Paki is abusive and Aussie affectionate? Iftikhar Raja, one of Ahmed Khan’s older relatives, told BBC Radio Five Live he’s proud to be called a Pakistani, but that “Paki is definitely a derogatory remark.” Context does matter, and I’d venture that this may also be a generational thing. Perhaps Ahmed’s uncle did not spend his youth fraternizing with white kids. I’ve experienced disagreements with my own parents about words having nothing to do with race—“chick” and “girl,” “dyke” and “queer” still sound patronizing, alienating, or hostile to their generation. To me, they are normal terms used by adult women, lesbians, and gay rights activists.

Prince Harry is a product of the same era that made "queer" a politically correct synonym for gay, so it's plausible when he claims to use Paki "without any malice." But it’s hard not to suspect that he has inherited an unlucky combination of Diana’s legendary dimness and the undiplomatic DNA of the Duke of Edinburgh. (Prince Philip, known for his gaffes about aboriginal Australians and the "slitty-eyed" Chinese, is a sideshow unto himself.) If Harry thought as keenly as his grandmother, he would never have allowed that video to go astray. On the other hand, its content would have been far less controversial in the first place. As it is, Harry's embarrassing video is a gift to be treasured by social historians in future centuries.

Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.