The Queen? Not a fan.
The monarchy's combination of mystery and authority don't provide much of worth to the modern world.
I had a blast living in London for a year after graduating from college and became a lover of all things British – the pubs, the football, the music. Saying “cheers” instead of “hello.” Brilliant.
But an attachment to the British monarchy and now dearly departed Queen? Not so much.
I know this attitude sets me at odds with the vast majority of the British people. Britain endured a horrific war on its territory and then transitioned from a massive empire to the rank of a second-tier power. Through it all, the stoic Queen served as a symbol of national resilience, personifying a message that despite it all, everything would be all right. Her jewels and gilded carriages connected Britain to a once glorious past so different from the conflict and drudgeries of modern life.
Yet I have been struck over the past week since Elizabeth II’s death at the effusive praise bestowed upon her not just by her loyal subjects, but by intellectuals extolling both the institution of the British monarchy and the seven-decade career of this monarch. Some have suggested that perhaps America, in our perilous times, could benefit from the lessons of her life of service and dedication to unstinting apoliticism. (For examples of this commentary, check out Fareed Zakaria, David French, and Andrew Sullivan).
The commentators argue that the Queen exemplified virtue by perfectly adhering to her duty “to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human – for her entire life.” This discipline and perseverance are admirable qualities, they claim, and starkly contrast with our modern narcissism where public life is dominated not by service to a higher goal, but in self-absorption and attention-seeking. The Queen’s loyalty to her duty of neutrality is seen as a gift to the nation that binds all its citizens together in common purpose. She is the north star to guide her country, compared to America adrift, pulling itself apart in tribal conflict.
Perhaps Americans like me are just not intellectually equipped to understand how abiding by an oath of intellectual opaqueness contributes to the ethos of a nation. I have read the long obituaries and seen the cascades of tributes from every corner of the globe. Yet, I still I fail to see how the odd institution of a constitutional monarchy or the manner in which Elizabeth II executed her office are worthy of such glowing admiration.
If the Queen is a symbol of the nation, how is the concept of “nationhood” possibly served by the head of state not making an utterance that reveals anything of substance nor expressing an emotion of any kind lest the gesture be construed as possibly political. This is good? Why is a lifetime of emotional detachment beneficial for a nation? President Obama cried at the White House when discussing the murder of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. How can you be human and do anything else? Would we Americans have been better off if he had just said, “right then, carry on”? It is possible to care about the plight of humankind without getting mired in partisanship. To my mind, the Queen has leaned way too far in the direction of meaninglessness.
Andrew Sullivan notes that not a single other modern Windsor was up to the test of neutrality and non-emotionalism that the monarchy requires and Elizabeth II so nobly met. Not Phillip, Margaret, Charles, Anne, Andrew, Diana, Harry and Meghan, and on and on? Is that evidence that all these individuals were inferior to the Queen in character and fortitude, or that maybe something was wrong with the monarchial test itself?
Those lauding the Queen for her lifetime of non-politicization compare her favorably to the celebrity Diana and the internet influencer Meghan, claiming that Elizabeth’s stoicism properly fit the very purpose of the monarchy, while the two younger women’s individualism ultimately led, in one instance, to her tragic demise, and in the other, to an expulsion from the institution.
I see it as just the opposite.
Diana figured out something the Queen never did -- how to use the mega-status that royalty provided to spread joy and celebrate human decency without becoming enmeshed in the stain of the political. But instead of embracing this dynamism, the Windsors did whatever they could to crush Diana’s spirit and conform her to their ideal of the monarchy as an emotionless pit until she could stand it no more. Yes, Meghan is self-absorbed. But the Queen was clearly blind to the monumental significance of a cross-racial marriage in the world’s most famous family. She was oblivious to how much positive impact this royal couple could have as symbols of racial harmony in a world with so much pain and division. That there was no room in the House of Windsor for either Diana or Meghan is not a poor reflection on them, but on the character of the monarchy itself. And as for Elizabeth II’s role in all this, it is tragically ironic that a woman who grappled her entire life with the burdens of leadership in a deeply patriarchal society failed to embrace and mentor these women so they too could reach their potential.
I know we are not supposed to evaluate the monarchs on how much good they do in the world. “Doing good” is far too modern a barometer to measure a centuries-old monarchy. Rather, we have to respect the royal family’s role in providing “continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation.” But is it too American of me to ask what Elizabeth II, with all the soft power and prestige that she had at her disposal, stood for? It seems to me that her principal concerns were perpetuation of the monarchy, preservation of the vestiges of Empire via the British Commonwealth, continuation of the rigid class hierarchy of British society, and the accumulation of massive wealth. Count me in as unimpressed.
America would certainly benefit from someone or something to unify our divided nation. Our president serves simultaneously as head of state, chief executive, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and the leader of one of our political parties. During times of crisis, there has often been a rally-around-the-flag effect such that Americans unify behind their president, but these moments are rare. In the end, presidents are political figures and as our politics has polarized so too has the ability of a president to unify the nation diminished. Our nation glories in celebrity and athletic achievement, but here too, these individuals often disappoint or find it impossible to stay above the political fray. We unify behind our troops, that is for sure. But there are big dangers of making the military the symbol of national unity and in so doing immunizing it from the scrutiny and criticism that must be imposed on an institution with such substantial power.
Like it or not, our greatest unifying force is our Constitution as well as the American aspirations to societal liberty and equality. Strengthening public understanding of our Constitution and national ethos, with all their flaws, as well as our history of advancing, but also often falling short of, our ideals, is probably the best way we have for improving our national unity. This is called “civics education.” There will never be one universally accepted formula for what kind of education in civics is required to mold a proper American citizen. But we need to do a better job educating the public about our common values and ideals as Americans if we are to remain one nation.
America has a lot of hard work to do.
But in setting out on this task, I don’t think we have much to learn from Elizabeth II.
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