Poise and Dignity: Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Should we mourn someone who was the head of a very hegemonic, unjust institution that controlled so much of the developing world, and that holds a disproportionate amount of wealth today? A monarchy that is so linked to colonialism, slavery, and inequality? Someone who is still a polarizing figure not only in the Commonwealth and developing countries, but in her own country (there are many republicans, a word which means something entirely different in the UK.)

And yet, something must be said, because her passing cannot go without comment. In a world where oversharing is the norm, social media takes precedence over all forms of communication, and individualism is a driving force in how people live their lives, there was one woman who quietly went about her business without complaint and with an even temperament because she knew it was her duty: Queen Elizabeth II. What can be said about this great lady that hasn’t been said already? What can we learn from a woman who was nearly 100 years old and of a very different generation, who admittedly struggled to deal with emotional situations, especially related to family? And who was the elite of the elite, wealthy beyond belief, and royal?

-Change with the times. This might sound ironic, because in many ways, the queen was resistant to change and valued tradition over trends. However, she chose subtle ways to adapt within the framework of the institution and her culture. She had to become a media presence. She dismantled her empire. Her children adopted lifestyles and mores that were radically different from her own conservative Christian ones influenced by the Church of England. Her grandsons married true commoners who came from ordinary working families, with ancestry that included lower income people. And yet she was still the Queen, upholding the traditions of centuries, even a millennium.

-Embrace different people. It is well known that the queen cared deeply about the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were former colonies, the majority of which were not white. Nelson Mandela even had a special nickname for her, and the two were on a first name basis. She even broke protocol to reciprocate when Michelle Obama placed her hand on her back, as she was very fond of the groundbreaking First Lady. There is no question that much of the world is still recovering from centuries of British colonialism (the Partition was one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, in my opinion), and that many despise the British Monarchy. And she was not fond of Diana’s heart-on-her-sleeve approach to connecting with everyone, did not have the Princess of Wales’s connection with all the marginalized groups in society (who loved Diana dearly). But we cannot overlook the individual and how she had a personal rapport with many that her class (including her own mother) deemed unsuitable. She came from a society that was extremely racist, whose roots were connected to colonialism and slavery, and the current royals must move forward with making reparations.

-Do your work. Elizabeth’s steady, dutiful personality never wavered. It was extremely rare, almost unheard of, for the queen to miss her engagement. She never appeared fatigued, she treated everyone kindly, maintained a sense of cheer, and traveled extensively in the UK and around the world. She worked into her 90s–a rare feat for anyone, given that most people retire in their mid-60s, and do not survive to their 100thdecade. We have no idea what health problems she suffered throughout her lifetime, or her personal struggles. All we know is that she took her job seriously, through ups and downs, even when it was not a job she should have had. She was very fair to her staff, remembering their names and details about them. It is of note that she would have had a tremendous knowledge of- and insight into 20th and 21st century British history and politics, given her weekly audiences with prime ministers. She put duty and the institution above her personal life and expected others to do so.

-Maintain a sense of humor. By all accounts from people who met her, the queen was incredibly funny. She never took herself seriously, though she took her job seriously. When someone in a shop once commented that she resembled the Queen, she commented, “I find that rather assuring.” Recent years saw her willing to entertain the crowds by appearing with James Bond in her entrance to attending the London Olympics, and the recent, brilliantly funny video of her having tea with Paddington Bear before the Jubilee.

-Love animals and nature. Those who knew her well have said that were she not queen, she would simply have been a country lady, living at her manor, tending to her horses and dogs and plants. Her infamous corgis surrounded her throughout her life, and she had a deep interest in the plants and flowers and trees at her residences. Though her lifestyle was undoubtedly beyond extravagant, her own pleasures were fairly simple. 

-Maintain a sense of composure and mystery. Even when an intruder snuck into her bedroom, the Queen had enough sangfroid not to panic. She never gave interviews, save once, and she rarely revealed things about herself in public. These are characteristics that were typical of her class, and hence why she clashed with Diana, to whom she was sometimes unsympathetic. She kept herself on an even keel, much like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a figurehead, not a best friend. Even her dress sense, which was sometimes dowdy and outdated for modern times, featured simple cuts and bright colors so she could be seen. Perhaps it is this very British upper-class sense of “good breeding” that many Americans find so appealing (hence the popularity TV shows and movies about the English aristocracy.)

There are many things to criticize about the Queen, no question. She was not the warmest of mothers and could not understand emotional needs in her sons and daughters in law, or in her family. Sometimes she was out of touch with the zeitgeist of a decade. But even the staunchest Republicans and anti-monarchists cannot fail to respect the late Queen Elizabeth II on a personal level, for there were very few people like her in the recent decades or century. As an individual, a working professional, she was remarkable.

Mandela, Mythical Men and Women: The Great Statesman

[After a brief hiatus, TWOL is back! First, a brief message of gratitude to the blog’s readers here and overseas; as writers, we always hope we are communicating something of interest to others. And, please be sure to have a look at the blogs of the readers who are following TWOL!]

Today it seems natural to address The Great Statesman, in honoring the death of Nelson Mandela. Naturally, one must use a more general term, such as Statesperson or the feminine form Stateswoman, but as of now, the majority of great leaders sadly still have been men. The Great Statesman is not always the political leader of the country, but s/he holds great iconic significance to his or her people. Very often, this figure has united his or her people to face the opposition, which is sometimes internal as well as external in a country. For example, Mandela united South Africans against an internal enemy: the system of apartheid instituted by white supremacists. Mahatma Gandhi, spiritually the founder of modern India, had his enemy outside: the British. And it was the wife of a politician in Argentina who reached mythic heights with her popularity, a woman named Eva Perón, in a country that has struggled with various factions—-labor, military, leftist, right wing—-trying to claim power.

The Great Statesman is always a most charismatic figure, inspiring legions of followers and remaining in the collective consciousness of his or her citizens for generations or even centuries. But very often, this individual has come from extremely humble backgrounds or has embraced a wide variety of professions. The “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer. Vaclav Havel worked for a time in a brewery, despite his bourgeois family origins. Anwar Sadat was one of 13 children born to a poor family. And most all of them have faced severe obstacles in their lives, such as imprisonment for decades (think Mandela), that have made their heroic status even stronger.

Sometimes the legacy is not necessarily so much about politics as it is about culture. Catherine the great is considered a symbol of the Age of Enlightenment in Russia and one of her predecessors, Peter the Great, both expanded Russia’s power and “Europeanized” his country, adopting a number of practices found in Western Europe. Just look at Mandela’s influence on popular culture outside of his country: both Bono and Peter Gabriel have been largely influenced by him, spreading political awareness in their music, and the 1980’s groundbreaking American sitcom The Cosby Show featured Cliff Huxtable’s grandchildren named Winnie and Nelson. Cities, streets, children, and organizations are named in honor of these great individuals, and sometimes even the oddest items, such as sunglasses from Thailand of the brand Evita Peroni! Thus, it is important to remember that it is not enough for The Great Statesman to have been politically savvy, recognized by his or her fellow world leaders, Nobel prize committees, politicians, etcetera. The Great Statesman must have had a special quality that appealed to the simplest and humblest of people. S/he must have had an ability to connect with peoples’ hearts and feelings, to be that father figure, mother figure, saint, friend, teacher in a way that garners tremendous respect and love. Sadly, it is that very quality that allows the most crooked and cunning of politicians to manipulate the masses for their own benefit, the quality that often allows terrorists and despots to rise to power. If I feed you rice, if I provide for your daily needs with a smile on my face, I know you’ll vote for me. It is something that happens every day, all over the world.

But Mandela, or Madiba, as he was known by his clan name, touched not only the poorest of the poor and blackest of the Black and South Africa, but millions if not billions of people all over the world. He has rightly received extensive news coverage upon his death, and received the honor of the presence of numerous world leaders at his funeral services. It will be interesting to see his legacy in the future, and how it continues to impact politics and culture for centuries. We on earth were lucky to have had him for almost a century, as he died at the age of 95.