An Icon, Not An Idol

The genius of a monarchy embedded in a democracy.

The Union Jack is lowered on Windsor Castle as a rainbow covers the sky on September 8 shortly after the Queen’s death. (Chris Jackson/Getty)

It was a coincidence that The Crown debuted on US television in November 2016. America had just elected a new president — boorish, unstable, indifferent to rules, contemptuous of the law, with a long history of sexual assault, fraud and deception. There was no impulse he didn’t indulge, no cruelty he didn’t entertain, no tradition he wasn’t willing to trash.

At the same time, 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.


Categories: Geopolitics

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