A Person Has Died; She Just Happened to Be Queen

Marcus Aurelius was ruler of the Roman Empire at arguably its height of power and prosperity. He nevertheless saw himself as a mere man, one compelled to be Emperor, and in no way greater than the common people. He just happened to be Emperor, and in the power vested in him, he defended Roman territory from invasion, provided for the common good of the people through natural disasters, and engaged in more civic improvement projects than any other Roman Emperor. He used the power granted to him for good.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, daughter of George and Elizabeth was symbolic head of state of the United Kingdom at unarguably its descent from empire. She nevertheless saw herself as a mere woman, one who unexpectedly became Queen (see Edward VIII), and in no way greater than the common people. She just happened to be Queen, and though she had no real political power, she provided for the common good of the people as a stable presence, even if only ceremonially. She used the power granted to her for good.

Person

I lived in the United Kingdom from 2012 to 2018 when I earned my PhD in social and political philosophy and taught there. I enjoyed living there, but that nation has been in almost constant crisis for decades, wracked by, among other things, its loss of empire, and its ongoing reluctance to sufficiently deal with the damaging legacy of its colonialism. It is a nation consumed and self-harming by its own divisions.

Queen Elizabeth was both outside of these traumas and a target of them. She saw herself as simply a servant of the people. In truth, she was a symbol of the nation and the symbol of other people’s desires. As one commentator so aptly expressed, if the Queen were standing in front of a building, and you loved that building, you loved her for standing there, but if you disliked that building, you were angry at her for standing there. People projected onto the Queen their own emotions.

Most people loved and admired the Queen for her humility, dedication, and kindness. Reactionary Right-wingers projected onto her their own prejudices, pretending that she was a symbol of their fantasy of British supremacy. The Fake Left projected onto her their own prejudices, pretending that she was a symbol of their hatred of empire.

The irony is that the Queen never expressed a political opinion. Never. As another commentator put it, she was so familiar and yet so unknown as to what she really thought about the nation’s divisions. For good or for ill she felt her duty was to be politically neutral — she just happened to be Queen, she wasn’t an elected head of government. Perhaps the closest she ever came to a political statement was her outfit during a speech to parliament after the Brexit vote.

Surely just a coincidence that Her Majesty was dressed in EU colours.

And yet, her neutrality did not stop some people from using her as a prop for their own political prejudices. She saw herself as their servant; they saw her as a mere object.

Projection

However you feel about the United Kingdom and the concept of monarchy, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was a person. As every other person, she deserves to be treated as such. The vile posts on social media after her death from the Fake Left and the racist responses from the Reactionary Right do not reflect the person who was Queen, but the patheticness of the people spewing hatred.

As always, hatred is a projection of how people see themselves, A self-hatred that causes people to see others negatively to soothe their own feelings of inadequacy. Those spewing hatred of the Queen are not seeing her for who she is but as a token object to be exploited for their own agendas.

Similar to what I wrote years ago about Trump, if you think Queen Elizabeth or the monarchy is the problem, you aren’t part of the solution. She didn’t create the Empire and she didn’t commit its crimes. She just happened to be Queen at a time when the empire was falling apart. Any righteous anger you have about colonialism should today be directed at the corporations and their political demagogues who are perpetuating colonialism. Attacking the Queen is attacking the wrong target and says more about you than anything else.

As for the right-wing demagogues who lionize the Queen as the symbol of Empire — they are no better. Again, she didn’t create the Empire and she didn’t commit the crimes these right-wingers want to continue to commit. Using Elizabeth as a symbolic backing of corporate greed and structural oppression is as vile as those spewing hatred against her.

Person, Again

What is my opinion of Queen Elizabeth? I never met her, but from all appearances, she was a good person who did her best with what fate dealt her. We can debate whether she could have done this or that, but there is no reason to hate her nor any reason to use her. Like Marcus Aurelius, Elizabeth knew who she was and what her limits were. As Marcus Aurelius said, death dealt the same with both Alexander the Great and his mule driver. Now, a person has died; she just happened to be Queen. How she saw herself and other people mattered. For that, she was a good person.

4 comments

  1. Prof. Giles,

    I enjoy your blog immensely, and I want to thank you for the time and effort spent to produce it.

    This entry regarding the death of Queen Elizabeth, however, I find not merely misguided, but also– out of character for you– poorly reasoned.

    You state:

    “She nevertheless saw herself as a mere woman, one who unexpectedly became Queen (see Edward VIII), and in no way greater than the common people. She just happened to be Queen, and though she had no real political power, she provided for the common good of the people as a stable presence, even if only ceremonially. She used the power granted to her for good…Queen Elizabeth was both outside of these traumas and a target of them. She saw herself as simply a servant of the people. ”

    These are contentions worthy of a hagiographic biography, not the astute observations, or clear-eyed application of moral philosophy, you so routinely display.

    Elizabeth, like other members of her family, routinely offered public pronouncements ‘on behalf of the Crown’, which in turn served to convey the legitimacy of the empire and hereditary rule. Every formal declaration by her was political by its very nature, and she was keenly aware of that. Any claim that she acted in a studiously ‘apolitical manner’ is immediately and inherently specious. Beyond that, her lifestyle (including armed military guards literally at her doorstep, and formal state visits to the elected heads of nations around the world) was a demonstration of a political order rooted in privilege (including her family’s sense of complete impunity to commit crimes without fear of prosecution). These are, of course, entirely political entitlements. It would be farcical to claim she was not also keenly aware of the political nature of every aspect of her life.

    The woman’s likeness appeared on the currency of fifty-six countries for goodness sake. Was it not within her capacity to ask that this practice be discontinued, since she was ‘just a person who happened to be queen’?

    How about publicly declaring decades ago that colonial empires are by definition immoral, as is the entirely arbitrary and baseless custom of hereditary rule. Could she not have done either of those things at any time over the past seven decades?

    Best regards,

    IDR

    1. I see that you do regularly visit my Web site (it is not a blog), so you should know that I write consistently on two major themes. One is that injustices are primarily caused by social structures and institutions in which individuals find themselves. The second is that people are individuals with unique identities and free will and that we must consider them as such both academically and personally as they must learn to navigate the social structures in which they are embedded. My essay on how people were responding to Elizabeth’s death is consistent with those themes.

      Please note two statements late in the article to clarify what this article is saying. The first is, “Similar to what I wrote years ago about Trump, if you think Queen Elizabeth or the monarchy is the problem, you aren’t part of the solution.” That article on Trump can be found at https://insertphilosophyhere.com/if-you-think-trump-is-the-problem-you-arent-part-of-the-solution/. The second is, “What is my opinion of Queen Elizabeth? I never met her, but from all appearances, she was a good person who did her best with what fate dealt her. We can debate whether she could have done this or that, but there is no reason to hate her nor any reason to use her.” That last sentence I consider the thesis of my article.

      Nothing I wrote denies the reality of colonialism and its continued effects. In fact, I specifically referenced them several times.

      1. Prof. Giles,

        Thank you for the considered response to my comment. I don’t disagree with this at all: ‘…people are individuals with unique identities and free will and that we must consider them as such both academically and personally as they must learn to navigate the social structures in which they are embedded’. However, this other statement warrants further explication: ‘… injustices are primarily caused by social structures and institutions’. Social structures and institutions are constructed by and composed of individuals. I don’t dismiss the emergent, independent features of groups and institutions, nor the factors that perpetuate them over time. However, individuals perpetrate harm against individuals, and against groups of individuals. And in perpetrating harm, individuals concoct any number of justifications, including group affiliation. At the same time, individuals immersed in the very same social systems, subject to the same institutional framework, inculcated with the same sociopolitical dogma, can and do choose to oppose them, choose not to participate in the individual harms or mass injustices. Elizabeth’s choices, throughout her life, were considerably less constrained than that of most people, no matter how much she may have subscribed to the fabricated notions of ‘duty and obligation’, or how sincerely she held the belief that her life within a system of cruel domination and unearned wealth and privilege could be construed as constituting ‘selfless acts of service’. The extent to which she or anyone else convinced themselves of this fictional narrative has no bearing on whether it always was a self-serving fiction. She could have refused all of it, but chose not to. Bestowing the beneficence of the Crown at any given moment does nothing to change that simple, brute fact of reality. I choose not to participate in the fiction.

        Best regards,

        IDR

        1. Elizabeth did not create or in any way perpetuate the corporatist system. Nor did she have any power to influence it much less stop it. Look at Prince Charles who drew attention to the climate emergency and he was either ignored or told he shouldn’t meddle. Look at William and Harry who spoke up about mental health and were roundly slammed and told to be quiet. I think you are missing the main theme of my article, which is that Elizabeth, and all royals, are just used by others as props in their own agendas. Their cage is gilded, but it is still a cage, and no one wants the occupants to be anything but quiet, pretty birds.

          Respectfully, reading through my article again as I was recording it as part of this week’s podcast, I have to wonder if you read anything of my article other than the title and the last paragraph.

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