It is a strange thing eulogizing a monarch in these democratic days. Still stranger is it to eulogize another people’s monarch. Nevertheless, decorum and the sanctity of the moment demands that we honor a woman who has seen more of the world, and arguably done more for it, than any US politician could dream.
We Americans have always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Despite our rejection of foreign rule some two centuries ago, having defeated the greatest military force on earth (twice), having gone our separate political ways, we still feel drawn to the British. It is surely due in part to our shared global interests in perpetuating Western values. It is most certainly due to a shared language and similar culture. But it is also due, I think, to the pageantry of an institution we consciously forget but secretly admire.
This pageantry can become a distraction, no doubt, as illustrated by Charles’ antics, Andrew’s escapades, and Meghan’s snobbery. But for every self-congratulatory Oprah interview, there is the humble service of Diana, the constancy of Kate, and the honorable dignity of Elizabeth herself. The Royals occupy a curious fascination in the American imagination, though not, I think, for the same reasons as it does the British imagination. Ours indulges an obsession with celebrity, theirs fulfills a need for cultural unity.
The argument has been made many times that the monarchy exists as an important symbol—to give the people something to which they can aspire. Oscar Wilde satirizes this idealization in The Importance of Being Earnest when he says that the lower classes should provide moral examples to the upper classes, mocking the sentiment while only proving the point. This is not to say that the aristocrat is innately more moral than the commoner, nor that the commoner should grasp for wealth and land. Rather, the commoner should adopt the cultural values of the aristocrat to mold himself, in the truest sense of the term, into something more noble. Chaucer is right in The Wife of Bath’s Tale when he says that nobility is not inherited but created by elegant manners and right living. In this sense, the monarchy—when practiced well—is a good thing. The ignoble aristocrat, thus, is a walking contradiction, a blight on his name and title. The iconoclasts of America—and some in the UK—point to the ignoble aristocrat as a reason to tear down the entire edifice, much like unbelievers will point to the Crusades as a reason not to be a Christian. Both are lost in the forest attempting to find their way out while fixating on one rotten tree.
Sometimes a symbol is only that, but those are the symbols that do not endure. The true symbols have substance, something that guides us toward a higher truth and a greater reality. The colonists, in establishing the theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, did not seek to demolish the culture on which those theories rested. Similarly, they did not reject the pageantry and symbol, only the divine investiture of those things as essential to good government. We are not so wise in our own day. The cynic sees the throne as a mere chair and the crown as a mere hat (as Chesterton might have said), but the fool sees the throne and crown as mere paperweights.
This queen was no paperweight—and there was nothing mere about her. She consistently rose above the political infighting necessary to parliamentary government without taking sides in debates of the pendulum. She maintained her composure while much of the British empire threw off the imposition of the British crown, encouraging them to choose their own national destinies without war—even if that meant her own influence shrank. She remained steadfastly committed to her duty when many members of her own family chose personal advancement and selfish pleasure. She exercised the art of statecraft when many politicians behaved like demagogues. She provided the symbol of resilience, sacrifice, and hope that her people needed in an era of unprecedented change. Watching from across the pond, Elizabeth II has modeled civic truths many an American could learn.
It is in our national DNA to reject tyranny and to balk at monarchy; but this is a truth only half-glimpsed. Constitutional self-governance is surely preferable to monarchical rule. But in the absence of self-governance, lacking a moral center through which to view the world, and confronted with the rejection of constitutional norms, monarchical rule is surely preferable to chaos. So though I am not a Briton, I greatly admire Elizabeth II, both as a woman and as a crown. Though I am not nearly as fond of Charles of Wales, I still bend the knee to Charles III—and that only figuratively as a true American citizen—proclaiming boldly
God Save the Queen.