Why I Grieve Queen Elizabeth’s Passing for Other Reasons

Many of my friends and loved ones are currently reflecting on their personal connections at the moment of the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, my daughter and father happened to visit London on the Jubilee a few months ago, and Canadian colleagues reflect on the sovereign on distant shores they admired in their childhood, and so I feel it myself. Yet the more I see and reflect on my and our collective grief, the more I realized I mourn the passing of Queen Elizabeth for other reasons.

The Magna Carta, 1215, a document of grief for sovereigns

I grieve the passing of Elizabeth not just because a dignified person has passed but because the life of any royal family member, while alive, is already a tragedy, straightjacketed by custom, stunted by tradition, and fed by the insatiable symbolic demands of a public throne. Any consumer of English-language media, whether the tabloids to Mark Helprin’s satirical novel Freddy and Fredericka to most of the shows on the BBC, knows what I mean.

I mourn her passing not because Queen Elizabeth may have done the least damage of any monarch in her 70 years of rule nor because that means that, all things equal, the next monarch or the monarch after that is statistically likely to do more damage. Rather I mourn that, in wake of the tremendous outpouring of English-language media and public reverence for her family, that the institution of the monarchy appears likely to continue in defiance of every basic bit of modern political philosophy since the Magna Carta, never mind the American and French revolutions, wishing that one day a public might be constituted and even governed by principles, even — even especially — symbolic principles, that do not rest on blood, soil, heredity, legacy, dynasty — without, in a word, monarchy. Yet, six hundred years after the Magna Carta, we repeat, in a dirge to our own obsolesce in the history of unreasonable power: the Queen is Dead, long live the King.

I mourn with those that mourn her passing in reflection on the fact that we, as an English-speaking portion of our species at least, do not yet know what to do with our excessive collective demand for symbolic reverence and power. Let me be clear: I would not minimize it, only use it better than for the tabloids of an insular monarchy. In fact, I hold dear the public and private demands and uses of ritual and tradition; still I think it is fairly obvious that figureheads, once invested with symbolic power, specialize in finding ways to do damage. Modern history is short for the history of how monarchies have done damage, with or without their democracies. But it is not just the reverence and occasional endurance of a peak fourteenth-century institution that astounds me; it is how worryingly relevant it all remains in the twenty first: indeed a democratically-elected would-be monarch is far more worrisome than a mostly symbolic monarch! Trust not those who would be, or choose to remain, sovereign.

So what should we do with the English-speaking excess demand for symbolically constituted meaning? Modernity doesn’t offer too many satisfying options: many friends invest it into the regional tribalism of war without war that is sports (choose your favorite football); many other friends I know invest it into the para-social proxies for real-life interrelationships that are celebrity cultures. In the intersection of proxies for wars and relationships stands the national monarchies: monarchies, historically and still presently, combine both sports and celebrities in ways that feed nationalism (what is royalty but a family writ into the blood of a nation, and what is a member of a royal family except a celebrity pressed into the whims of a public and a public’s nation?). I find rituals most helpful when they build embodied communities greater than a home and smaller than a city — classrooms, congregations, schools, neighborhoods, etc., a secondary social orbit greater than your friends and smaller than the public: I admire and promote lifelong rituals of service that unbind the tragedies of the past and build the promises of better-for-all futures. In this is ritual’s power, and perhaps in it is the redeeming grace of the funerals and public rituals that will be enacted in the memory of the passing of this symbolic sovereign. I see some real resources in self-checking religious rituals and, to that, while I doubt that deliberative democracy is necessarily the next ritual religion for a secular world of politics. (There is much to be said about rituals in which not much needs to be said at all, such as wedding vows and funerals; an antidote to liberalism’s religion of words, from the local parliamentarianism of, say, the Iowa caucuses in middle school gyms to the high parliamentarianism of the House of the Lords whose entertaining squabbles offer a public antidote to the stiflingly high dignities of the throne.) Still may a thousand creative variations thereon bloom! I, for one, see social progress most probable in the mezzanine orbits of social life that is more public than a private life yet less social than a public life. Alas, the life of a royal is the opposite of such a Goldilocks zone: a royal is a private life passed as a globally public life, a tragic scapegoat to the twin public demand for intimates and the grandiose. In grieving Queen Elizabeth’s passing, we also bear the collective tragedy of our own public desires as unwilling heirs and continuing servants to the English colonies.

I mourn with those that mourn her passing for our grief depends on our not processing why an English-speaking public so reveres its figureheads. Why do we love to love (as well as love to hate) the ruling class, remembering that the ruling class has enslaved and colonized our ancestors and countless others of our brothers and sister cultures? Is it because royal family members stand in as benighted scapegoats that, through our acquiesce and reveries, accept responsibility for the many impossible tensions of modern life? “Capital, class, or colonial inequalities got us down? Take heart: still the crown stands!” No thanks, I’ll pass. Is it because, in appearing fabulously wealthy, our love of royals reaffirm the modern fixation on wild wealth and prosperity (rather than wishing that everyone have more than enough, we genuflect before those who have too much)? To this point, I find the argument that the royal family is a net wealth-generator (more from tourism than from its expenses) an indictment of the very people — us, the natively English-reading public — their family has ruled. I’ll pass here too. Is it because, in enacting the symbolic ritual trappings of life that appear to give society generation after generation of tradition, normalcy, and continuity, they also stand in as a convenient cover for the hugely significant world changes that neither traditionalist nor revolutionary (so often two sides of the same coin) would welcome? Nope: that’s the opposite of both tradition and progress. Why does the public so revere anti-public institutions? On the same day that Russia launches a fresh attack on Ukraine in the name of empire, I find myself sober in my own reflection on the ritual renewal of the sovereign line of English empire.

Call me as a modern, call me American, but I grieve for the passing of Queen Elizabeth for these and other reasons.

I know others will have other reasons, but perhaps by learning to mourn with those that mourn, for whatever reasons, we are also learning to mourn not only the deceased but ourselves too, to the better, while we still live.

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Ben Peters

Media prof (TU), author, editor, theorist, historian, ultimate frisbeeist