The Queen, God bless

Posted: May 29, 2002 12:00 AM
Well, now, is it the business of Americans, really, whether Great Britain in the coming month celebrates Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee or replaces her with Mick Jagger? Are we not studiously impartial as to how foreign countries -- friendly ones, at least -- settle their own governmental forms? Then, too, didn't we ourselves give up all that king and queen business two centuries ago? Acknowledged, in part. There is another part, though, and we might do worse than reflect on it as the royal pageantry starts to unfold. All of us, everywhere, entered the 21st century believing in the newness of every day; the unsettledness of all things human; the likelihood that, however things might look in the morning, they could be radically different by the time Tom Brokaw came on. Events of the past year have merely reinforced these beliefs. There seems less to hold onto than formerly. Many claim to thrive on this state of affairs. "Why don't the rest of us, as well?" such people are given to asking, with exasperation or pity. Here is one reason: Because to ignore continuing-ness, and the continuing need for it, is to ignore the real and the true. Human dignity, the necessity of honor and duty and generosity, the meaning of sacrifice -- around these rocks in our civilizational stream the white water roils and rages. The spume passes by; the rocks endure. Now and again, it does us good to look more intently on the rocks than the rapids. The British monarchy is one of those rocks in the stream of life. Americans need not hanker to live under the monarchy in order to appreciate its many qualities -- durability, of course, but also dignity (if you exclude specific family members), centrality in the national life over many centuries and usefulness as an organizing principle ... the Royal Navy; the Queen's Birthday; Her Majesty's Government; Queen, Defender of the Faith. It is possible to uproot all of this, as other monarchies were violently uprooted in the 20th century. At a price -- the price of forgetfulness; the price of disconnectedness. How many in a disconnected century yearn to pay that price? What has kept the British monarchy in business longer than competing dynasties is a sense of stewardship. It is hard to know exactly how and when this sense first arose. Queen Victoria had much to do with it, and her great-great granddaughter, Elizabeth II, has cultivated it with extraordinary diligence and sensitivity, getting up-close and personal with her subjects in a way that would never have amused Great-Great Grandmother. (Princess Di went way too far in this respect and suffered for it; her onetime husband, the prince of Wales, seems to have discerned that the 21st century can live with adultery, just not with flagrant adultery.) One can't imagine that a whole lot of old-fashioned kicks come from being a modern monarch with no life of your own, and that life lived always in the public eye. But that could be called a part of stewardship and service -- a much-neglected ethic, broad exposure to which does no one any conceivable harm. Time and tide, since 1900, have swept away the Romanovs, the bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Prohibitionists and the Dixiecrats, not to mention the cult of Ross the Boss Perot. The British monarchy endures, if greatly altered from the forms familiar to Richard Lionheart and John Longshanks. On those terms alone, it becomes a subject that repays careful study. Besides, who puts on a better show these days? Centuries is what it takes to concoct and learn the style -- centuries of instruction in how to accelerate the pulse through calmness and repose, and more than a soupcon of awe and reverence. The British monarchy is a sovereign corrective to modernity at its worst. Good democratic, liberty-loving Americans during this festive summer have my personal permission to lip-sync, without shame, the acclamation that will resound throughout Her Majesty's realms: God save the Queen! May the Queen live forever!