As the initial shock of Elizabeth II’s death has started to lessen, and with it the time when people in love with the idea of The Queen can scream “too soon!” regarding criticisms of the Crown, cracks have been begun to appear in the hagiography that has thus far been emblematic of the media coverage, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
Such is the case with this piece in the New York Times by Hari Kunzru, whose ancestors fought in bloody battles to overthrow the the brutal and rapaciously greedy monarchy in the far-flung empire.
The British elite have always understood that the monarchy is a screen onto which the people project their own fantasies, and Elizabeth’s greatest asset as queen was her blankness. She liked dogs and horses, and rarely betrayed strong emotions. She seemed to accept that her role was to be shown things, so very many things: factories and ships and tanks and local customs and types of cheese and the right way to tie the traditional garment, to receive bouquets of flowers from small curtsying girls, and in return never to appear bored or irritated by what was surely often a boring public role.
The queen bridged the colonial and post-colonial eras. But for those of us who have a complicated relationship to Britain’s imperial past, the continuity represented by Elizabeth was not an unmitigated good. My father’s side of our family was made up of staunch Indian nationalists who worked for the end of imperial rule in 1947. Like many other people around the world whose families fought the British Empire, I reject its mythology of benevolence and enlightenment, and find the royal demand for deference repugnant.
Elizabeth was queen when British officers tortured Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising. She was queen when troops fired on civilians in Northern Ireland. She spent a lifetime smiling and waving at cheering native people around the world, a sort of living ghost of a system of rapacious and bloodthirsty extraction. Throughout that lifetime, the British media enthusiastically reported on royal tours of the newly independent countries of the Commonwealth, dwelling on exotic dances for the white queen and cargo cults devoted to her consort.
You can also read this very good piece by the Times‘ Serge Schmemann, titled, “Queen Elizabeth Embodied the Myth of the Good Monarch.”
And then there is this piece by Maya Jasanoff, titled “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire.”
I see these pieces not as trampling on the memory of a Queen who was indeed admirable in so many ways, but rather as attempts to say that, as good as she was, she represented a system and monarchy whose history is the opposite of the anodyne public performance art she embodied.
I think young people — in Great Britain, as well as around the world — are, if you are to believe news coverage since Elizabeth’s death, more willing to see the monarchy without rose colored glasses.
After all, if I support the movement to remove Confederate monuments as representations of a racist, murderous past — and I do support it — then how can we not turn the same critical eye to a monarchy which practiced murderous racism on a far larger scale?