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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Elizabeth’s burden and duty

by Philip Martin | September 13, 2022 at 4:54 a.m.


We blink into a reality we had no hand in choosing. None of us has any say in the circumstances of our birth.

Yet the American commonplace is that we are created "equal," endowed by a Creator with certain inalienable rights (and, we must imagine, a corresponding set of obligations). None of us is any better than any other, we say, meaning that no one is better than ourselves, no matter how much we lack in ability, charisma or empathy.

It feels good to wrap ourselves in this assumption: We exist to return the infinite love of some odd God who has made us by His plan, a mystery too large and wondrous to be held in the human mind but nevertheless accounts for everyone.

So we are equals, but not equally blessed. Some of us can run fast, some can lift many times their body weight. Some can recognize patterns in the data and guess the future. Some are born wealthy to parents whose prime concern is the welfare of their child. Some are fortunate, others less so. We are all dealt different hands; we are all in the game.

Sometimes it is hard to accept that you are not who you wish you were--that you are not Brooks Robinson or Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Jackson Browne. Sometimes it is hard to accept that you have achieved all that you are likely to achieve, that there will be no moment of overcoming glory, no one shining moment where they play your anthem over a montage of clips from your struggle.

The Cinderella story is a pretty lie, a myth born of wishfulness and discontent with what Walker Percy called the "everydayness" of our lives. The groundskeeper will not win the Masters. The serving wench will not marry the Prince, unless her YouTube followers number in the millions.

Despite what Disney tells our daughters, there is no "becoming" a princess. Princesses are born, or vetted and chosen by dark committees. More importantly, it is not something a decent person should campaign or even wish for; it is an archaic, useless thing to be, and we should not regard those who by lot or accident achieve it as especially lucky.

For a woman of wit and imagination and moral courage, being a princess could at best be an onerous responsibility, a duty to be fulfilled. For only the dullest of us would it be anything but a drag.

Elizabeth did not petition to be a princess, or a queen. She was born into a situation, and did what she thought was possible and fair, and I'm sure she thought she was of service. Surely she knew how ludicrous her position was; even at this remove you could see she was not a stupid woman, and likely not a petty one either.

But she was born to be watched and judged and to serve as the repository of a broken empire's down-sliding dreams. She did not get in the way, she did not hinder the inevitable settling of the United Kingdom into a supporting player's role in the international drama. She did her best.

Officially, she was the sovereign head of state. In practice, no king or queen has been more than a figurehead since the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s. (The last monarch to actually veto legislation passed by Parliament was Queen Anne in 1708, when she refused assent to the Scottish Militia Bill because she feared that if she armed the Scots, they'd align themselves with the French. One of the primary complaints of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was that King George III was vetoing the laws passed by the colonists, something he'd never try with Parliament.)

Even dismissing her wartime mechanic-ing and Corgi obsession as public relations-driven attempts at humanizing her, Elizabeth always seemed reasonable, or at least as reasonable as one could seem while playing the role of the divinely chosen, a reminder of the days when human beings believed countries and people could be owned, that there was an elect class of rulers and a larger class of common folk who, no matter how brave and true and heroic their actions and works, could never become genuinely "noble."

She managed to persist with grace and dignity, even as her family endured traumas and dramas.

I am American. I have no king or queen. I care not one whit who England crowns and what modest brief they can make for themselves. Charles likes architecture and is probably no villain, and while some people think him cruel, I imagine he has tasted cruelty himself.

He was never meant for Diana, but people thought they fit together. All the royals probably would have had happier lives had they been born middle class, to striving parents who wanted only that their children have a chance to prosper and be happy. I can't imagine having your face on a coin would help you sleep at night.

The queen is dead, but the monarchy continues, and it's hard to care much about that. Were I more Anglophilic, I might detest the institution or find in it some quaint, redeeming charm, but all it means is that another celebrity has died, one who lived to a rich old age and seemed like, as Paul McCartney had it, "a pretty nice girl."

They say that Americans are more mad for royalty than most British subjects, and it is undeniable there is a certain fan-club culture that goes all squealy over royal weddings and treated the tragic death of Diana as an occasion for garment-rending and the gnashing of teeth.

But we are actually in the bag for all people of status and renown, and to us the royal family is just another long-running reality show populated by characters we assign certain virtues and iniquities. Probably since before Edward VIII abdicated his throne to marry a divorcee from Baltimore we've attended to the spectacle.

Maybe it's a species of nostalgia; maybe some of us long for that land across the pond from which many of our ancestors came. Maybe we can imagine ourselves, had things been slightly different, growing up in a land where there is still a House of Lords and judges wear powdered wigs.

I am an American, and as such I am reluctant to recognize any political leader as more than a jumped-up public servant. Politics is one field where mediocre people of no discernible talent other than the ability to seem "relatable" to a broad range of citizens can prosper. Being good at politics calls your character into question; wanting to wield the power of high office is damning. There are good people involved in politics, but it is not a profession that appeals to saints and angels.

Elizabeth's greatest attribute was that she was never a politician. She never gave any of us reason to doubt she was on our side. She never asked for this job, but she did it beautifully.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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