Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

On the Crown and history and stuff

We all routinely make assumptions about what other people think based on limited evidence. I do. You do. Everyone does. It’s how humans roll. For an explanation of the psychology that explains why, look up “WYSIATI” in the index of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

I’m one of those people who frequently choose “a little from column A, some from column B, and a few items from C.” For a la carte types like me, this tendency to make quick judgments on the basis of assumptions can be frustrating as hell.

“A little from column A” doesn’t mean “I endorse everything in column A” much less “I stand with my brothers and sisters in A! Suck it, B and C!” But that’s often how it's interpreted, particularly on an ephemeral medium like Twitter, thanks to the human tendency to rush to judgment on the basis of limited evidence.

The sensible thing to do is chalk up such misunderstandings to life among humans and forget it.

Unfortunately, on the Big Five personality dimensions, I score very high on “agreeableness.” When a misunderstanding results in people I more or less agree with thinking they vehemently disagree with me, the polite little Canadian who pulls the levers in the control room of my brain gets really upset. “But we more or less agree!? Shall I clarify? Would you like me to clarify?!?”

When he gets like that, he just won’t shut up.

Which – oddly enough -- brings me to the Queen of Canada.

Under ordinary circumstances, the monarchy is a dusty, seldom-visited museum exhibit but recent events suddenly made monarchy the raging hot Issue Of The Day. Certain aspects of that Issue Of The Day touched on a number of long-standing interests of mine (see below), so I made some comments on Twitter that were of the one-item-from-column-A variety.

And I got a lot of responses along the lines of “those other items in column A are horrible! How can you support such awfulness?”

Which got the polite little Canadian in my control room moaning. And he won’t stop.

So for the half-dozen of you who may care – plus my mother – let me use a better format than Twitter to lay out what I think about the constitution, the monarchy, the British Empire, and how to think about and make use of history. And let me just as explicitly lay out what I do not believe about same.

I support the Canadian monarchy. Always have. I think the first newspaper column I wrote on the subject was almost a quarter-century ago. (...sigh...)

I support the Canadian monarchy primarily because it is the linchpin of a Canadian constitutional order that, however improbably, seems to work pretty well. Secondarily, I support the monarchy because it is a symbol with deep roots in a country that has few symbols and serious challenges in maintaining national unity.

I also have to admit to an entirely irrational fondness for old stuff. Anything old. I collect old junk. To me, the smell of musty books is perfume. And the Crown is really old.

I will also cop to personal affection for Liz Windsor. Think of how long she has been under an intense spotlight, how many complexities she has navigated, how much bullshit she has put up with, how much work she has put in, and is still putting in at 94. And think about how much the world has changed from the early 1950s, when she became Queen. Given all that, I think she is a distinctly impressive person.

On all these points, reasonable people can and do disagree. I fully acknowledge that I may be out to lunch about any or all of them, except the smell of musty books.

But please notice what’s not on my list.

I don't collect royal family teaspoons. I don’t swoon over the baby photos of little Prince George. In fact, I just had to use Google to confirm the kid’s name is “George.”

I have no idea if Kate made Meghan cry or vice versa, or which member of the family did or did not make unknown but possibly racist comments. Similarly, I don’t know if Prince Charles was a wretch to Princess Diana. I have no opinions on the great Wallis Simpson controversy. Or George III’s mistress. Or whether William the Conqueror was mean to his kids.

I know almost nothing about the personal lives of royals and I care less than I know. So I haven't and won't defended the royals on the matters in headlines. Where I have commented is where I think an argument is unfair, unsubstantiated, or illogical. Not because a royal is involved. But because thinking is my jam. I make comments like that all the time about other subject matter. What matters to me is the thinking, not the subject.

The one and only view I have expressed on the lives of the royals is this: I think the strongest argument in favour of the abolition of the monarchy is pity for the people who have to live their lives in a fishbowl, under a spotlight, at the centre of a carnival madhouse.

There are a couple more items not on my list. They are far more important, however.

I do no defend what the British monarchy did or stood for in the past. I do not defend the British Empire. I do not deny the racism, cruelty, and exploitation that run like ribbons through the long history of both monarchy and empire.

I’ve spent my entire life studying history, with a considerable focus on the slave trade and other human rights atrocities. My MA dissertation was about the origins of the crimes against humanity charge at the Nuremberg Trials. I’m very familiar with the history. I could easily sit down and write a book entitled “Horrible Things Brits Did.” It would be a long book.

Of course, I could also cherry-pick my way through the records and write a book called “Wonderful Things Brits Did.” Victorian authors often wrote books like that. There's a word for such books. It is "propaganda."

Real history isn’t a lawyer’s brief, where evidence is advanced or dismissed depending on whether it suits the interests of the client. And it doesn’t deliberately serve a modern political agenda. History at least attempts to deliver von Ranke’s famous maxim of wie es eigentlich gewesen -- “how things actually were” – and as a result it is almost always complex. And it is almost always difficult, if not impossible, to reduce to a simple moral judgement.

In that way, history is rather like people. Which is not surprising because history is nothing but the record of what people did.

The British Empire was a leading participant in the Atlantic slave trade; the British Empire was the strongest opponent of the slave trade and did the most to end it. Both these statements are true. The British Empire ruthlessly subjugated and exploited peoples around the world; the British Empire saved the world from the Nazis. Both those statements are also indisputable.

So I roll my eyes when pollsters ask questions like “was the British Empire good or bad?” It’s such silly way to think about history. You can't sensibly reduce four centuries of global history to a thumbs-up-or-down verdict. The only correct answer to such a question is this: “The British Empire was.”

Which brings me back to Canada’s constitution and the Queen of Canada. Several people have put two points to me.

One, the Crown – both Britain’s and Canada’s -- is an institution which evolved out of a history stained with every crime up to and including genocide. Two, it is therefore obscene and must be abolished. The fact that I defend the Crown means I must deny, or be ignorant of, the history.

In fact, I think the first point is obvious and indisputable.

So how can I support the continued existence of that institution if, in fact, I am aware of and fully acknowledge that history?

The answer to that is simple. The history is. What happened, happened. We cannot change an atom of it. But we are in control of the present and we can decide, at least a little, what the future will look like.

And if the constitutional order works – if it enables the country to continue becoming the prosperous and equitable place it aspires to be – let it keep working. And let us be aware of the history which created it, in all its moral facets, and use it to inform our decisions today about the country we want tomorrow.

This is pretty much the same reason I’ve been rattling on for more than a decade about why the August 1stholiday should become a national holiday called “Emancipation Day.” Canadians should be far more aware of both the monstrous crimes that preceded that watershed moment and the moral progress it represented – moral progress which we aspire to continue.

The same argument holds for Canada itself, incidentally. Like the Crown, Canada is an institution which evolved out of a history stained with every crime up to and including genocide. Simple fact. Indisputable. It’s the same history, after all.

And yet, Canada manifestly works. It’s miles from perfect (if there is such a thing as perfection, which I strongly doubt). But it is progressing. And it at least aspires to be a prosperous and equitable country. In the grand scheme of human history, that makes it a rare treasure.

So should we abolish Canada? Or should we say “it’s working pretty well, let’s keep it, and improve it, not only aware of its ugly past but using that awareness to inform our decisions and ensure we continue to progress”?

I vote yea.

Thanks for reading, mum. (Kidding. My mother was bored gormless by the fourth paragraph snd stopped reading. Prove me wrong, mum. Prove me wrong.)