Because Queen Elizabeth was more or less a cipher, her death has led to people projecting all manner of their own feelings onto her, seeing her ranging from a kind, diligent, and dedicated person to a representative of an outdated and bloody colonialist regime, as well as of a monarchy past its time. This post will give you one example of each pole. I have no d*g in this fight, so I tend to see the Queen as a decent and hardworking person, but the monarchy as an institution whose time has come and gone.
Reaction to the death of Elizabeth II was at first wholly worshipful, but a backlash is beginning—largely in the U.S. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but first let’s hear the positive assessment of Elizabeth by one of her former “subjects,” Andrew Sullivan. Her legacy is the main object of his column yesterday (click to read, but subscribe if you read frequently).
As a conservative and an ex-Brit, one might expect Sullivan to admire the Queen, and indeed he does. But he mainly admires her for hanging in there, for choosing a life that is not a human life, because she knew that her lot would be the abandonment of freedom for duty. I have to say, Sully does say that well:
[When Biden was elected], I found myself watching the life of an entirely different head of state: a young, somewhat shy woman suddenly elevated to immense responsibilities and duties in her twenties, hemmed in by protocol, rigidified by discipline. The new president could barely get through the day without some provocation, insult, threat or lie. Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.
The immense difficulty of this is proven by the failure of almost every other member of her family — including her husband — to pull it off. We know her son King Charles III’s views on a host of different subjects, many admirable, some cringe-inducing. We know so much of the psychological struggles of Diana; the reactionary outbursts of Philip; the trauma of Harry; the depravity of Andrew; the agonies of Margaret. We still know nothing like that about the Queen. Because whatever else her life was about, it was not about her.
Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.
Yes, she is to be admired for that self-restraint, though I don’t think it would have sullied her image to do a few more Paddington Bear skits. But, I suppose, Sullivan does come close to the reason for the outburst of grief in Britain at the Queen’s death:
Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.
You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.
The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay.
Well, one could disagree that countries need royalty to keep them stable. Although I’ve heard it argued that America could use a “head of state” for ceremonial purposes, alongside the President for governance, I think we’ve done pretty well (excepting for one four-year period); and many countries thrive without royalty. I, for one, don’t crave authority and mystery. Could Sullivan’s emphasis on those qualities have something to do with his Catholicism, which teems with both?
But in contrast to the article below, Sullivan does explain the Elizabeth-worship that so puzzles Americans:
But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase — “we’ll meet again” — that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.
Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before. When I grew up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts of the distant past, but deeply linked to the present by the monarchy’s persistence and the nation’s thousand-year survival as a sovereign state — something no other European country can claim.
She was there, she didn’t screw up, she was one fixed point in a changing world, and she was the latest instantiation of a hereditary monarchy. The first three points I can understand, the last I can’t. I’d prefer a country that didn’t have a lineage set apart (and considered superior to) all others. The United State is only about 250 years old, but would having a king ensure our persistence? Would a king have prevented Trump from nearly subverting the Republic? I don’t think so.
I was told that the NYT article below was “pretty good,” but when I read it I discovered a hit job on Queen Elizabeth from a woke-ish perspective. In other words, though I wasn’t a huge fan of the Queen or the monarchy, I see this article as fundamentally unfair. For it pins on Queen Elizabeth all the horrible crimes and tragedies that went with the creation of the British Empire, even though she had nothing to do with those things. She may have embodied that history as a ruler, but she was a virtually powerless figurehead who had nothing to do with the stuff. Nevertheless, Jasanoff finds a way to pin it on her: colonialism, racism, paternalism—the whole schmear. Click to read:
Jasanoff begins with the obligatory bow to Elizabeth’s fortitude and commitment, but quickly begins tarring her with the crimes of Empire formation:
Tell me if this is not an undeserved slur:
The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.
Seriously? The queen obscured a bloody history? Was it her job to stand up and pronounce about that? Did she deliberately obscure the bad aspects of British colonial history. No, because that’s not her brief. She did not favor or perpetuate or obscure any bloody history; all she did (which Jasanoff emphasizes) is make occasional visits to the “colonies” and have her picture taken with “mostly nonwhite” people in those places.
In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, as when she advocated multifaith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.
Note that the queen was against apartheid. But. . . but. . .
What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them.
. . . for which the Queen bears no blame. Jasanoff brings up British violence in Malaya, Ireland (not that the IRA had anything to do with that), and especially in Kenya, where the British engaged in mass slaughter to subdue the populace (read this piece: “The colonization of Kenya” to hear about British malfeasance in all its horror.) I could add India to Elizabeth’s crimes. Was the Queen to blame for the Jallianwalah Bagh Massacre, or the deaths of millions following the partition in 1947? She wasn’t even Queen during these times.
Perhaps Elizabeth knew all the bloody details, but knowing is not perpetrating or approving. Yet look at this sly dig: she might have known!
We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name. (What transpires in the sovereign’s weekly meetings with the prime minister remains a black box at the center of the British state.) Her subjects haven’t necessarily gotten the full story, either. Colonial officials destroyed many records that, according to a dispatch from the secretary of state for the colonies, “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” and deliberately concealed others in a secret archive whose existence was revealed only in 2011.
This is perilously close to the “have you stopped beating your wife?” accusation. Jasanoff keeps mixing up Elizabeth with the bad actions of others, like the previous Prime Minister, tarring her with the sins not just of her contemporaries, but also of the sins of the past. She is even faulted for “her white face”! Jasanoff just can’t stop mixing up the sins of the Empire with the character of the Queen:
Yet xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with Liz Truss, now the prime minister, as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.
The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.
The second paragraph faults her for having a “personal relationship” with Churchill, for being somehow associated with Boris Johnson’s defense of Churchill, and of course for having a “white face” that’s on all the currency and stamps. I suppose that visage on money and postage harms people. At long last, Dr. Jasanoff, have you no sense of decency?
At the end, Jasanoff calls for an end to the imperial monarchy. I agree. I oppose any hereditary aristocracy, and it’s time to at least ratchet back on the pomp and circumstance. But for Jasanoff, Elizabeth is a screen on which the sweating Harvard Professor projects all her hatred of colonialism and the bad things the British did to secure their empire. And I agree with that assessment of colonialism as well. But I do not agree that Elizabeth, by merely existing, somehow legitimizes the racism and xenophobia of British history.
Matthew tells me that this kind of criticism of Elizabeth is far stronger in America than in Britain. That, of course, is because she was the British Queen, but also because Americans are more Pecksniffian and woke than Brits. Perhaps it is time for a reckoning of the “British Empire’s violent atrocities,” as the Guardian piece below reports. In that way the Queen is like George Floyd, as the deaths of both of them have unleashed huge amounts of resentment and calls to reassess the past.
When Matthew sent me these tweets about what was going on in the UK, and I read some of the vicious criticism of Jasanoff’s piece by readers commenting on her article, I thought, “Wait, this is surely an overreaction.” Now I’m not so sure. Here are some tweets:
To think I used to subscribe to this revolting ‘newspaper’ https://t.co/92IgCekWdS
— Robert Lyman 🇺🇦 (@robert_lyman) September 9, 2022
Eizabeth’s death unleashes anger at both her and British history:
If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad. As a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This theater is absurd.
— Mukoma Wa Ngugi (@MukomaWaNgugi) September 8, 2022
If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star.
— Uju Anya (@UjuAnya) September 8, 2022
Black and brown people around the world who were subject to horrendous cruelties and economic deprivation under British colonialism are allowed to have feelings about Queen Elizabeth.
After all, they were her "subjects" too.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) September 8, 2022