RECURRENT VOICES: Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag
May 10, 2016
Examining The Camel or One Inspiration For a Biography of a Canadian Viceregal Couple
Privilege of whatever sort is readily corrosive of an ethics of care to others. This is the Christian message in Matthew 19:24: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” It is also the affliction described as “fatty degeneration of the conscience” by suffragist Nellie McClung in her classic In Times Like These (1915). More recently still, Peggy McIntosh’s staple of feminist teaching, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1988), sets out the limits on the imagination of advantaged white observers.
When as a graduate student I first encountered Lord and Lady Aberdeen, the governor general of Canada and his lady between 1893 and 1898, I exercised my privilege over the old and was ruthlessly cynical about their “do gooding.” As I grew older and more conscious of the advantages I wielded in modern Canada, I became more curious about how the Aberdeens had maintained lifelong engagement in so many “good” causes. Liberal Hearts and Coronets: the Lives and Times of Ishbel Marjorbanks Gordon and John Campbell Gordon, the Aberdeens (2015) explores how a leading reform couple understood and wrestled with the obligations of gender, faith, and rank.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Aberdeens became hyperconscious of their good fortune and determined to reshape the world in a way that wouldn’t disadvantage so many. Although their choices were never disinterested, many improved the lot of individuals and communities and helped usher in a greater degree of justice and fair dealing. In other words, Liberal Hearts and Coronets considers the possibility of transcendence or escaping at least in part privilege’s common moral straitjacket. Like the occasional camel, a few soi-disant ladies and gentlemen deserve, if not heaven, then at least respect when it comes to their attempts to right the scales of life so much fixed, whether by patriarchy or by capitalism, in their favour.