An Icon, Not An Idol
The genius of a monarchy embedded in a democracy.
It was a coincidence that The Crown debuted on US television in November 2016. America had just elected a new president — boorish, unstable, indifferent to rules, contemptuous of the law, with a long history of sexual assault, fraud and deception. There was no impulse he didn’t indulge, no cruelty he didn’t entertain, no tradition he wasn’t willing to trash.
At the same time, I found myself watching the life of an entirely different head of state: a young, somewhat shy woman suddenly elevated to immense responsibilities and duties in her twenties, hemmed in by protocol, rigidified by discipline. The new president could barely get through the day without some provocation, insult, threat or lie. Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.
The immense difficulty of this is proven by the failure of almost every other member of her family — including her husband — to pull it off. We know her son King Charles III’s views on a host of different subjects, many admirable, some cringe-inducing. We know so much of the psychological struggles of Diana; the reactionary outbursts of Philip; the trauma of Harry; the depravity of Andrew; the agonies of Margaret. We still know nothing like that about the Queen. Because whatever else her life was about, it was not about her.
Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.
With her death, it’s hard not to fear that so much she exemplified — restraint, duty, grace, reticence, persistence — are disappearing from the world. As long as she was there, they were at the center of an idea of Britishness that helped define the culture at its best. Perhaps the most famous woman in the world, she remained a sphinx, hard to decipher, impossible to label. She was not particularly beautiful or dashing or inspiring. She said nothing surprising. She was simply the Queen. She showed up. She got on with it. She was there. She was always there.
Whatever else happened to the other royals, she stayed the same. And whatever else happened in Britain — from the end of Empire to Brexit — she stayed the same. This is an achievement of nearly inhuman proportions, requiring discipline beyond most mortals. Think of a year, 1992, in which one son, Andrew, divorced, a daughter-in-law, Sarah Ferguson was seen cavorting nude in the tabloids, a daughter, Anne, separated, another son’s famously failed marriage, Charles’, dominated the headlines, and your house burns down. Here is how Her Majesty “vented”:
1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis.’
Dry, understated, with the only vivid phrase ascribed to a correspondent. Flawless.
She was an icon, but not an idol. An idol requires the vivid expression of virtues, personality, style. Diana was an idol — fusing a compelling and vulnerable temperament with Hollywood glamor. And Diana, of course, was in her time loved far more intensely than her mother-in-law; connected emotionally with ordinary people like a rockstar; only eventually to face the longterm consequences of that exposure and crumble under the murderous spotlight of it all.
Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.
You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.
The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay. No one has expressed this better than C.S. Lewis:
Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
The Crown represents something from the ancient past, a logically indefensible but emotionally salient symbol of something called a nation, something that gives its members meaning and happiness. However shitty the economy, or awful the prime minister, or ugly the discourse, the monarch is able to represent the nation all the time. In a living, breathing, mortal person.
The importance of this in a deeply polarized and ideological world, where fellow citizens have come to despise their opponents as enemies, is hard to measure. But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase — “we’ll meet again” — that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.
Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before. When I grew up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts of the distant past, but deeply linked to the present by the monarchy’s persistence and the nation’s thousand-year survival as a sovereign state — something no other European country can claim.
The Queen was crowned in the cathedral where kings and queens have been crowned for centuries, in the same ceremony, with the same liturgy. To have that kind of symbolic, sacred, mystical thread through time and space is something that is simply a gift from the past that the British people, in their collective wisdom, have refused to return.
Long live the King.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my escalating fear of a catastrophe in Europe this winter; a discussion with Matthew Rose over the philosophers of the radical right; reader dissents over my opposition to infant circumcision; six notable quotes for the week; an Yglesias Award from a Republican on Dobbs; 15 pieces we recommend from other Substackers; my appearance on a progressive podcast to discuss DeSantis; a Mental Health Break of an AI music video; summer views from rural New Hampshire and urban Italy; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a newcomer:
I signed up as a paid subscriber today after listening to the Dishcast for a few months. I think your episodes are becoming better and better. I met you several years ago at Gym Bar in Chelsea. You were on your way out, so we didn’t speak long. But I enjoyed meeting you, and I certainly appreciate the rational and pragmatic analysis of the Dish.
Putin’s Economic WMD
The thing about wars is that they are unpredictable, cascading events.
When unprecedented international sanctions against Moscow were organized this spring — with startling success — it felt as if the economic price Putin could pay for his aggression would be immense. This fall, not so much. Russia’s energy revenues are hitting records, as it squeezes gas supply and raises prices.
(Read the whole item here, for paid subscribers)
New On The Dishcast: Matthew Rose
Matthew is a scholar of religion. He’s currently Senior Fellow and Director of the Barry Center on the University and Intellectual Life — a project of the Morningside Institute — and he previously taught at Villanova. He’s written for magazines such as First Things and The Weekly Standard, and his newest book is A World After Liberalism. It’s an examination of five far-right thinkers, from Julius Evola to Sam Francis, who are proving increasingly influential in post-liberal conservatism in America.
It’s the first of several podcasts in which I hope to explore more deeply the radical alternatives to liberal democracy being touted on the right. Think of it as a balance to my focus this past year on the illiberal alternatives being touted on the woke left.
For two clips of the Matthew Rose convo — on the anti-Christian nature of the New Right, and why liberalism needs religion to stay resilient — pop over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to commentary on our episodes with Sohrab Ahmari on post-liberalism, Dexter Filkins on DeSantis, and Jill Abramson on the New York Times.
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy.
Dissents Of The Week: Leave The Kids Alone
Just before our Dishcation, I briefly commented on some ironies when it comes to the circumcision of babies and sex-changes for children. (Male genital mutilation is an old hobbyhorse for the Dish.) A dissenter downplays MGM as “the equivalent to getting tattooed or your ears pierced,” adding:
A coworker of mine many years ago reported that he had to have a circumcision at age 19 due to a medical problem. He told me that, if he ever had a son, the son would be circumcised at birth, because he did not want his child to have to go through the agony of having to possibly undergo the procedure later in life.
Read my response to that dissent, and a few others, here.
I recently spoke with the progressive podcaster David Pakman about conservatism, DeSantis, and the current state of Trumpism:
The top comment on YouTube:
I can’t believe how refreshing that was to have two people who disagree politically have a discussion where crazy is called out as crazy and logic and reason are the basis of every statement.
Face Of The Week
A reader writes:
I’ve always enjoyed your meditations on the outer Cape. Your most recent, The Joy of Doing Nothing, seemed to lament the seasonal roar after two years of quiet. If I’m right, it’s because I sympathize.
The pandemic summer of 2020 was divine. At its peak, everything was closed. The festivities, cancelled. I’m sure you’ve one of those “PTown 400” t-shirts with a pilgrim wearing a medical mask. All you could do that summer was nothing. There was nobody there. And whoever was there sounded less like “alien frequencies” and more like confessions whispered over glasses of wine deep into the night.
On one of those nights in early July, my daughter and I were walking along Commercial St. A light came from the small tobacco shop just past the library. A few people were about and my daughter pointed: “Look, that beagle has three legs.”
I thought of you. There must not be too many three-legged beagles in Provincetown. So I glanced around. I saw a weathered woman, leaning into the shop while holding a cigarette outside of it, gesticulating about some offense. Standing in the street was a rather shabbily dressed man, hoodie up, his hands clasped behind his back. On the opposite side were two youngish men smoking a joint together. No one seemed in the mood to chat with a stranger (myself included), so we carried on.
Bowie is indeed the only three-legged beagle in Ptown, so that was almost certainly me, at the local convenience store, which Bowie drags me to every day twice a day because they always give her a treat. This little bitch is living her best life right now, and I’m here for it.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as Palin’s defeat, revived nuclear plants, and Brittney Griner. A few examples:
Ben Appel is gobsmacked over a State Department memo that includes “talk therapy” in its definition of “conversion therapy.”
A conservative case for trans acceptance by TaraElla, a trans woman herself.
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.