Among the innumerable parodies of the “keep calm and carry on” slogan are several variations on “keep calm and realize you’re not good enough.” But now, after the Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, London, the keep calm slogan itself doesn’t seem good enough anymore. Since a copy of the World War II propaganda poster was rediscovered by a bookseller in Northumberland in 2000, “keep calm and carry on” has become an all-purpose meme, seemingly infinitely adaptable. It felt, to many, particularly appropriate and even uplifting last month after the suicide terror attacks in Manchester and London.
The quasi-official voice of establishment Britain, The Times, points out today that while “keep calm” has “served as a self-consciously British summary of what to do when times get tough,” and that “Theresa May seems to have adopted it as her mantra in the worst week of her career,” “the mantra is not equal to the moment.” And after the tower fire keeping calm and carrying on has become, seemingly even to Queen Elizabeth, an inadequate response to the grim reality of avoidable mass death in a high-rise abutting the wealthiest parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom. “The Queen’s Official Birthday 2017” statement, published today, says that “today is traditionally a day of celebration. This year, however, it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood. In recent months, the country has witnessed a succession of terrible tragedies….During recent visits in Manchester and London, I have been profoundly struck by the immediate inclination of people throughout the country to offer comfort and support to those in desperate need….we are…determined, without fear or favour, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss.” The queen’s birthday statement also claims that “put to the test, the United Kingdom has been resolute in the face of adversity.” She is of course not suggesting that the British replace calm with panic. Instead, her statement lifts up the importance of responding to adversity “without fear or favour,” a phrase with ancient Latin roots (“sine timore aut favore”) that is part of the British oath of allegiance . She does not single out any particular politicians of opportunism or cowardice, but she (or her advisers) do not need to. The shockingly urgent tone of the birthday message resounds more without specific accusation, at least for today. But the spirit of “without fear or favor” will demand reckonings before long. As an American, I say all this knowing that we are probably in even direr need of acting without fear or favor if we are to save our own institutions, liberties, and culture from the barbarisms resulting from inequality and neglect. We Americans (like the Scottish police, by the way) do not take an oath of allegiance to the sovereign, but we surely need to honor the substance of that oath, to “do right to all manner of people…without fear or favour,” that is, we need to learn and relearn the impartiality that our current regime seems to want desperately for us to forget and abandon.