Saturday, September 10, 2022

Elizabeth, Regina, R.I.P.

Famed royal-watcher Tina Brown said this of Queen Elizabeth:

… she was the last well-behaved person in our coarsening, transactional world. Amid the clamor of ubiquitous narcissism, her cool refusal to impose her views or justify her choices was ineffably soothing. 

One will refrain from quoting those Americans who took the opportunity to spew their bile about the queen. Perhaps they were seeking attention. Perhaps they felt it to be therapeutic to show how much they hated her. Perhaps they simply needed some toilet training.

Whatever the reason, those who took the occasion to talk trash about the late queen should have known better than to show off their singular lack of character. Anyone who defended or supported them showed the same. Fortunately, such people marginalize themselves. Surely, they will be out there complaining about not being invited to dinner. 

When you lack the most basic decency and decorum, when you take the occasion of the death of the British monarch, to draw attention to your own miserable existence, you do not deserve to be accepted into polite company. By making a public spectacle of their disrespect they merely damaged their own reputations, such as they were.

Among those who have spoken sanely and intelligently, and with respect, we have Andrew Sullivan, from his Substack. In the midst of our narcissistic age, where everything is about Me, and where everyone is encouraged to show off how deeply he feels about issues, Queen Elizabeth rose above the din and consistently maintained her grace and dignity. In her person she showed the virtue of self-restraint, something we have long since abandoned.

Sullivan wrote:

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.

What was that example? Sullivan continues:

With her death, it’s hard not to fear that so much she exemplified — restraint, duty, grace, reticence, persistence — are disappearing from the world. As long as she was there, they were at the center of an idea of Britishness that helped define the culture at its best. Perhaps the most famous woman in the world, she remained a sphinx, hard to decipher, impossible to label. She was not particularly beautiful or dashing or inspiring. She said nothing surprising. She was simply the Queen. She showed up. She got on with it. She was there. She was always there.

It is not what she said. It is not about the power that she flexed; it is about the example she set. Did you notice that among all of the encomia that have filled the airways, no one seems to have remarked on the fact that the Queen of England has no real political power. She cannot rule by decree. She has no power to veto legislation. She has no legislative agenda. She greets members of both political parties with the same formality. 

At a time when everyone thinks that politics is all about power, and that it is all about flexing your muscles and forcing people to do your bidding, the example of Elizabeth suggests that people are yearning for character in their leaders, even more than they glom on to the rough and tough persona that many of them like to adopt.

In our age of informality, Elizabeth never really yielded to the clamoring masses. She went through the motions on occasion, but her leadership was about manifesting good character, not in making herself a public spectacle. As opposed to certain members of the royal family, past and present, she never turned her life into a tawdry soap opera.

As one watches the ceremonial events from London, one cannot help but notice the triumph of Camilla, queen consort, and wife of the current monarchy. For all of her messy personal history, Camilla became the antidote to Diana. She was reserved, serene, formal and decorous. One understands that Elizabeth allowed Camilla to become queen consort because Camilla had never become tabloid fodder. At a time when the British nation was agog over the wildly indecorous Diana, Camilla helped right the moral ship of state.

More especially, Elizabeth did not seek the status of celebrity. She did not try to be Diana and she did not respect the Hollywood glamor of Meghan Markle.

She was an icon, but not an idol. An idol requires the vivid expression of virtues, personality, style. Diana was an idol — fusing a compelling and vulnerable temperament with Hollywood glamor. And Diana, of course, was in her time loved far more intensely than her mother-in-law; connected emotionally with ordinary people like a rockstar; only eventually to face the longterm consequences of that exposure and crumble under the murderous spotlight of it all.

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.

Idols elicit worshipful adulation. Icons symbolize unity and strength of character.

The British monarchy, denuded of power, sidelined from political machinations, symbolizes the nation. It symbolizes a nation that is not divided against itself, but that can unify itself beyond a human symbol:

The Crown represents something from the ancient past, a logically indefensible but emotionally salient symbol of something called a nation, something that gives its members meaning and happiness. However shitty the economy, or awful the prime minister, or ugly the discourse, the monarch is able to represent the nation all the time. In a living, breathing, mortal person.

The importance of this in a deeply polarized and ideological world, where fellow citizens have come to despise their opponents as enemies, is hard to measure. 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.

And the British monarchy also represents the value of patriotism.

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.

To unify the nation, to set an example of decorum and propriety, to retain a stiff upper lip, no matter what-- these values have been lost in America. Those who regret their loss over here are not unhappy to see that they persist on Great Britain.



Stu said...

It was reported that not only did the Queen have a good sense of humor but that she was known for telling bawdy jokes.

Webutante said...

Great post, Stuart. I hope it's not the end of an era, but fear it could be. Still, you correctly mention Camilla's quiet and steady demeanor in spite of it all and that gives me hope. Kate and William are also wonderful image bearers of the Crown.

Webutante said...

And I should add, image bearers for all of Western Civilization, now under attack from dark agents of depravity.