What to Do about Privilege: a Royal Standard
Said France’s president Macron to the British people on the occasion of the passing of their Queen, “To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen.”
His generous sentiment was typical of many thousands expressed by leaders and commoners around the world.
Why was this particular British monarch placed on such a pedestal even in parts of the world where she was not placed on a throne? Why do people with no attachment to Britain feel any emotion, let alone deep emotion, at the passing of an old woman whose prominence ultimately depended on an accident of birth and the historical idiosyncrasy of a foreign island nation?
Those questions urge themselves upon us all the more keenly for the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s death was natural, undramatic and, by the time it came, expected. Moreover, this lady, whose image was then immediately reproduced on the front pages of papers in practically every country in the world, could not be said to have been loved because people could relate to her in their personal experience (they could not), as perhaps was the case for Princess Diana; or because they agreed with her cause (she had none), as perhaps was the case for Winston Churchill.
Nevertheless, it appears she was much loved – or, at the very least, greatly and widely revered.
Why? Why was her loss personally felt by so many people with no discernible connection to her or to the institution of which she was the head?
The obvious answer has already been given hundreds of times: it concerns how she lived her life and how she did her job. Myriad commentators (especially in Britain) have used expressions like “flawless” and “we may never see her like again” in attempts to capture why her loss is so deeply felt. These sentiments are certainly on the mark – but they do not capture the whole matter. Many people live and work excellently, and some may even be publicly known, but not for a long time has anyone’s passing induced quite the type of reaction that the passing of Elizabeth II did.
What sets the Queen’s loss apart is not merely that her life and work were quantitatively remarkable, being unique in the degree of excellence and scrupulousness that they exhibited; rather, they were qualitatively remarkable, being unique in the type of excellence and scrupulousness that they exhibited.
Hers was a uniqueness of values both held and lived - unique in the literal sense that her mourners cannot find her particular combination thereof anywhere else in their society, culture or politics. For that reason, perhaps, they are mourning not merely a loss: whether they know it or not, they are mourning an utter lack, that now, with her passing, they face.
A lack of what, exactly?
Dutifulness – as opposed to grievance; sacrifice – as opposed to entitlement; doing what one must with what one is given – as opposed to demanding that more is given because one cannot do as one chooses; service as a duty – as opposed to refusal to serve as a right; faithfulness – as opposed to expedience; and action, which always speaks louder than words – as opposed to words, which usually do too little.
Our age purports to be greatly bothered by privilege. The alleged problem is that some people have it, having never earned it, while others are denied it, and deserve more of it. To make matters worse, it is claimed, some have it because others are denied it, and vice versa. We spend an awful lot of time and energy in this paradigm but none of the acknowledged approaches to solving the alleged problem seems to work. That is not surprising because they are mostly caught up in a contradiction of their own making: someone must be held responsible for the consequences of a past for which they had absolutely no responsibility for creating. A self-contradictory morality is no morality at all, just as a self-contradictory solution is no solution at all.
Thinking they are the first to care about such things in any informed way, many of the people who drive our social and political discourse from the cultural commanding heights lack the historical curiosity that could provide a more complete understanding of this problem, which has always been, and always shall be, with us. Their solutions are therefore partial in both senses of that word: incomplete and biased. They tend to be variations on a theme of “checking one’s privilege”, which demand that we look only at relationships between the past doings of people with whom we share or do not share some characteristic and the present distribution of things with respect to those characteristics.
Thus, today’s dominant notion of moral desert and obligation is both backward-looking and collective.
It is a notion that condemns our culture and politics to seeing only the posited bad that has led to absences of privilege, while being blind to the good that could be achieved by properly deploying it. As a result, inevitably, we deny and attack what (if we are to make the world a better place) should be appreciated and multiplied.
It is a blindness that endangers society at large, because almost all modern Westerners are immensely privileged – perhaps not as much as The Queen, but arguably more so by most reasonable metrics. Unlike The Queen, for example, I can take a day off; my family troubles don’t become front-page news; I can choose my career, my relationships, and the time I get out of bed. For all of those reasons, I, for one, would not trade my freedoms for the the late monarch’s wealth, homes, and fame, given what else they come with. For what it’s worth, the Queen did not choose them, or what else comes with them, either.
The rest of us may not have access to the material abundance that Elizabeth II enjoyed, but like her, most of us lack almost nothing material that we need. Although our lives are not without economic and other challenges, we can nevertheless rely on the availability of food and shelter. Like the monarch, we benefit from almost all of the wonderfully useful and beautiful things built by our ancestors, having done nothing to deserve them. (That last sentence could not have been written until very recently in our history.)
I did nothing to deserve the access to information that the Internet and my iPhone give me, or those extraordinary means of communication that enrich my life by allowing me to maintain and deepen my most important relationships over huge distances. I did nothing to deserve the education that I had, or the entertainments in which I can lose myself. I did nothing to earn access to the medical advances made by brilliant men and women of the past who had much tougher lives than I did, even as they worked to discover and innovate things that I - already with a much easier life than they could ever have imagined - can acquire as needed to make my life even easier still. I did nothing to earn the use of any of the technologies that make my chores so easy that I can enjoy hundreds of hours of leisure that my ancestors could never have had, or that enable me to set the temperature in my home so as to make those hundreds of hours of leisure so many hours of comfort, too.
The modern Western obsession with the elimination of luck, privilege and inequality, comes at the huge price of neglecting how rightly to live all the while those things affect each and every one of us both positively and negatively. Since those challenges will always be with us, it is an obsession less in the mould of Queen Elizabeth than the mould of King Cnut, who commanded the tide not to come in – and (to prove the point) got his feet wet.
What passes today for right-thinking if the majority of our leaders in culture, education, politics and the media are to be believed, is a declarative morality that pronounces on what is wrong with how things came to be the way they are, for which no one today is responsible, rather than an active morality that makes individuals responsible for their actions, however things may be. The former fails hard and repeatedly because it is more concerned with systems, which have no agency; and with hypotheticals, which have no reality. The latter, exemplified by the late Queen, is concerned with the individual, who is the only agent, and the here and now, which is the only reality.
Like you and I, the Queen did not earn her privilege by anything she did to get it. Perhaps more than you and I, though, she earned it by what that she did with it.
In a society that increasingly insists on a declarative, backward-looking and collective moral sensibility, the Queen’s was, in contrast, entirely active, forward-looking and deeply personal. Perhaps her loss is so deeply felt because we are worried that with her has been lost what our gut, even if not our conscious minds, tells us is at least half of the Good.
A person who uses her privilege to do right by others not only makes privilege harmless: she makes it a source of Good. She turns a problem to be solved into a means of solving problems.
It’s not how you got what you have that matters: it’s what you do now that you have it.
Accordingly, the Queen’s life demonstrated a simple solution through service to a problem that no political leader has begun to work out how to solve, beyond hopeless and clumsy attempts typically characterized by criticism, condescension or even imposition.
No one is blameworthy for having undeserved privilege (assuming it is not obtained by his own dishonesty) any more than he is for having undeserved disadvantage. Since both will always exist, privilege must be earned as the Queen earned it: after the fact, by its dutiful, faithful, and humble deployment.
A society that not only understands that but also celebrates its redemptive possibilities would be one in which much less would be said and more would be done – especially by our public figures.
Thus, the Queen’s loss is felt so hard not only because her life exemplified certain values, but also because, with her gone, we in the West don’t know where else to find them. They have been missing from our politics, culture, discourse and even language, for so long that no one alive remembers where we last put them. They have been missing because they only make sense in a world in which each person is judged – or rather judges herself – not by what she lacks or by what she says, but by what she does, with whatever she has, however she might have come by it, and whatever anyone else might or might not have done.
In a speech that she gave on her 21st birthday in 1947, then Princess Elizabeth told her audience of a family motto that she inherited: simply, “I serve.”
And so she did.
Her death reminded the world of something critical that all individuals have always known, but that modern societies have seemingly forgotten: privilege demands not guilt or punishment or even redress, but a commitment to its proper use; and so it imposes its demands much less on “a system” than on each and every one of us.
These days, to use such words as “duty,” “service,” “sacrifice,” “responsibility,” “faithfulness,” and (my favorite,) “integrity,” is to be at odds with our times. Yet, the death of the woman who lived out the values indicated by those words as completely as anyone else in the world, for that self-same reason, elicited a reaction that no other death in our era has.
We need to find those values again – not because they are the only ones that matter, but because their complete absence from our cultural and political discourse leaves our understanding of society and of our responsibility to it, dangerously distorted.
We need to live them again; we need to say them again; we need to meet them again.