King Lear laments that “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” He’s referring to his daughter Goneril in the first act of King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies. Lear compares having his daughter with a snake bite. And though much has changed culturally since Shakespeare wrote those lines in seventeenth century England, its theme of familial ingratitude is so universal it has endured nearly thirteen centuries to emerge in our own as a platitude about familial ingratitude, emblazoned today on t-shirts, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, and other pop-culture items.
Relationships between kids and their parents, thankless or not at either or both ends, have been fraught throughout human history, tangled up as they are with the competing needs and expectations of children, their families, and the culture they jointly inhabit. So it’s hardly surprising that in our media- and status-driven contemporary culture the ugly patina of politics has entered the family stage, especially for politicians’ children. It’s a rare bipartisan issue.
Enter 52-year-old Hunter Biden, troubled second son of President Joe Biden. Though open about his alcohol and crack-cocaine addictions and stints in rehab and charged with no crime, investigating Hunter’s activities has become one of new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s top legislative priorities. (Didn’t he run on a commitment to tackle inflation, taxes, and immigration?) Following in former President Donald Trump’s footsteps, McCarthy has jumped all over Hunter’s alleged compromising emails and such, searching in vain for anything serious enough to splash back on his father in the run-up to the next presidential election. Even respected news organizations now sadly stoop to the twenty-first century normal of celebrity gossip, tawdry personal revelations, and, for the self-absorbed, endless pieces on diet, exercise, and the latest plastic surgery “enhancements” and cosmetic products that promise to make you look young when you’re old.
Hunter Biden did fail to pay his taxes for several years, apparently during one of his druggy periods (though according to news reports he has since repaid them), and much to Republicans’ chagrin no charges have been filed against him as of this writing for either his late-but-now-paid taxes or for an alleged false claim on a gun-purchase application. In any event we would have neither known nor cared about Hunter and his problems had he not been the President’s son. If or until he is criminally charged with a crime, he’s just another troubled adult and should be left alone to fight his demons.
Even young minor children aren’t spared the bottomless maw of social media. Barron Trump and Chelsea Clinton were widely and cruelly written about during their awkward pre-teen White House years, and both endured cruel public comments about their appearances. Then there was Jenna Bush, who appeared to be way under the influence in a photograph taken at a university rager where she was a student. Kids should be off limits, especially now when every person with a cell phone is a mobile camera.
Harry and Meghan, Inc., are either top contenders for the thankless kid award or bold pioneers who escaped “oppressive” royal lives, depending on your viewpoint. Had the high-profile couple fled their privileged lives to selflessly dedicate themselves to promoting income inequality and inclusion, they would today be living examples of personal integrity. They’ve chosen instead to offer only tiresome (though highly lucrative) tales of the royals’ dirty laundry to the highest bidders. Media consumers on both sides of the Atlantic are paying them big bucks to vicariously wallow in the royal dirt, though this interest will surely evaporate as the couple’s tearful revelations grow stale. In a twisted way the couple is now more tightly bound to the British Monarchy than when they were living in Frogmore Cottage under its protection. It looks like it’s all they have to peddle. Personally, I’m with Team Charles, who was widely quoted at his father’s funeral requesting of his squabbling sons that they “not make my final years a misery.” It’s hard not to admire the new king’s dignified silence in the face of Harry’s public attacks on his family and, by extension, on the monarchy itself.
Getting back to King Lear, the children of today’s powerful parents may or may not feel “thankless” toward the high-profile parents who dragged them into the unforgiving glare of the public arena, where opposing political operatives use them as PR tools to discredit their parents, especially during political campaigns. This dynamic is so commonplace it doesn’t raise the eyebrows it should. But it’s still wrong, and we have a collective civic responsibility to both oppose and deny it the cash that is its life’s blood. Don’t buy tell-all memoirs, don’t pay to hear or watch their podcasts. Don’t feed the beast by supporting what you don’t believe in.
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