A couple of evenings ago, BBC2's Newsnight featured a discussion of information recently released on those who have said no to the offer of one of the Queen of Enlgand's honours, one of those OBEs, or CBEs, or other kinds of distinction that she has at her disposal.
The tone of Newsnight's piece was one familiar to viewers of the programme: amused irony, a sense that no response to the topic can rise above it and so any response is laughable. As part of this atmosphere of snide resignation, it was suggested that those who say no to the offer of an honour are guilty of snobbery as much as those who say yes, and then we were subjected to the director Michael Winner, seated at the doorway of his comfortable London home and personifying the tone of Newsnight's report by seeming to be unable to rise to, or sink from, any demeanor other than that of knowing amusement. We are SO beyond this sort of thing, the whole report suggested, that we understand that it is utterly pitiable to pretend that we're beyond it.
A couple of evenings ago, Newsnight was in the grip of an emotional state that Paolo Virno characterizes as the defining feature of our times: a certain brand of cynicism, uniting a jaded acceptance that all of the options before us are only one skewed and interest-serving set of options among many, and an irrepressible opportunism, the sense that one might as well take whatever comes one's way and abandon or carry on with that depending on conditions that subsequently arise. We are, in this sense, too sophisticated for engagement, too knowing for commitment; yes and no are mere variables, interchangeable responses that combine the cynicism of knowing that neither represents anything stable or meaningful, and the opportunism of opting for whichever one at that moment serves one or other of our interests.
In this cynical mood, one cannot say no to the Queen. This is not because of her sovereign power, but because of the extent to which power has ceased to have any face, and ceased even to be administered by faceless systems and institutions. We cannot say no to the Queen because we are just too amused by the offer she makes us. An offer we literally cannot refuse.
Saying no, really saying no, is now impossible. Or, if not impossible, then only to be achieved as one achieves knowledge of the existence of God, that is, by belief. We can say no only in spite of what we know. Never mind grand religious visions of punishment and redemption; just to say no now requires an unimaginable leap of faith.