When Queen Elizabeth passed, I thought of one nice thing to say about her, remembering her unique military service, and let it go at that. Now in a separate post, I want to follow up.
On the one hand, the British empire was a straight up miserable thing. 65 countries around the world celebrate their independence from Britain, many with stories of cruelty and brutality.
On the other hand, Elizabeth had jack-all to do with it**. She had little input in the remaining empire holdings or their freedom. She grew up in an environment that, to put it mildly, did not cultivate reflection on the more sordid history of the tea in her cup, the diamonds in her tiara or the artifacts in the museum. And that’s the problem. She was the living symbol of the Empire, but also a product of it. And we don’t like to think of ourselves as a “product” of our own culture, ever, because it would erode our sense of moral superiority.
You as rebel
Sure, we’d like to think we’ve changed, evolved, rebelled against the machine, etc. But have we? Or are we riding currents of social change? As science historian Naomi Oreskes said; “The way we think depends in part on the company we keep.”
Luke Skywalker didn’t wake up one day and decide to become antifascist; he became a rebel when bad things happened to him and he met new friends. The transition wasn’t instantaneous by any means, either. And truth be told, many of us did that on the Internet. We got to hear voices we hadn’t heard before and it changed us. Poor voices, gay voices, trans voices, women’s voices, foreign voices, black voices, and so on.
New choices in the mind
Mind you, I’m damn glad to have seen Capitalism for what it is, and to learn about the racist core of US history. Tickled pink to have finally realized GLBTQ+ rights are about people like me and not some abstraction. Fully assured that if we’re tackling a scientific question, then science is the tool to use. And completely onboard with women’s bodily autonomy and equality. But I can’t pretend I thought of any of it. I’m no moral inventor; I just made some new choices of understanding. Sure, I think they’re good choices, but how else does anyone function?
Now imagine you were the queen
What if I’d grown up in a gilded prison? What if I was born with status so ensconced in national culture that no one could challenge me, or ever say a harsh word to me under any circumstances? What if no one was ever allowed to tell me I was full of shit? Even, inherited shit.
By the way, inherited shit is how Americans can “not have a racist bone in their body” but still uphold racist institutions. We’re no more inclined to question it than a fish questions water. With not a single malicious thought, we can hurt people just by doing business and following the rules. It’s baked in, and we have to take it apart molecule by molecule. The same goes for the assumptions of capitalism and empire and patriarchy.
So, yeah, if you want to hate on Elizabeth, go ahead, but don’t spend too much time on it. Focus on the cage, not the captive. Yes she could have been some kind of unicorn, but most of us aren’t, and she wasn’t either.
- *In this case I’m specifically addressing my fellow straight white males. If you’re uncomfortable thinking that multiple systems are aligned for your benefit, you have some painful realizations in your future.
- ** Hmm, I was not quite correct when I said she had jack-all to do with it: A short timeline of Queen Elizabeth’s history of promoting British imperialism
- An interesting perspective on Elizabeth and the Empire on Greg Laden’s blog: What Should The British Do With Their Monarchy?
- Will add more notes later