Queen Elizabeth: A Bridge Between Greatness and Decline

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Back in the nineties, when I was first a regular visitor to the Netherlands but not yet a resident there, I was, I am now embarrassed to admit, rather taken with that country’s sovereign.  I spent a good deal of time in Amsterdam’s legendary brown pubs, and in many of them – this is a distinctive aspect of Dutch culture – there were large photographs or paintings of Queen Beatrix, often not just a single portrait but whole slews of them, some of them showing her with her husband, others with subsidiary members of the royal family or various commoners.  The paintings were sometimes elaborately framed, and not infrequently, as a form of tribute, there were giant vases of fresh tulips placed in front of them.  There was nothing remotely ironic, nothing tongue-in-cheek about any of this; the Dutch, young and old, male and female, gay and straight, quite simply adore their queen.  In the pictures she always seemed to be smiling, and she always seemed to have a nice way about her, a certain style, a taste for big, fun, almost-but-not-quite-over-the-top hats, a charisma, a joie de vivre, a talent for balancing an easy dignity appropriate to her position with an endearing lack of self-seriousnessAt one bar in particular I used to stare at her picture, reflecting that she looked rather like Mary Tyler Moore, and thinking that there would be worse things than to be able to call this woman my queen.

After not very long, fortunately, I snapped out of that romantic royalist reverie and back into my fierce American hostility to the very idea of monarchy.  Whatever lingering affection I might have had for Queen Beatrix utterly evaporated, moreover, in the wake of the butchery of the Dutch writer and filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a homegrown jihadist on a busy Amsterdam street in November 2004.  To her everlasting obloquy, Beatrix, instead of attending van Gogh’s funeral or even coughing up a kind word or two in his memory or sending a sympathetic note to his family, chose to react to this monstrous act by rushing off to a Muslim community center to assure the people there that she didn’t bear them any ill will.

By that point I had long since moved to Norway, where, from the very beginning, there were two things above all that weirded me out about the place: it had an established church, and it had a king.  I, a descendant of men who had taken up arms to free America from George III, was now an official resident of a kingdom.  To be sure, King Harald V is a constitutional monarch, but still.  His picture is on the ten- and twenty-kroner coins.  When you walk around downtown Oslo, there’s the royal palace at the very end of the main street, a constant reminder that the guy is, at least nominally, in charge.  Every May 17, on the anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution, armies of schoolchildren march past the royal palace carrying flags, and as they pass the second-story balcony from which the king and his family review this spectacle, the kids lower their flags in tribute.  That used to drive me nuts – the idea of kids being taught to bow and scrape, if only metaphorically, to some dude who just happened to have been born into the right family.

I’m still no monarchist.  I’m too American for that.  But after more than a decade in Europe, I have, shall we say, a more nuanced picture of it all.  I still consider Beatrix feckless and cowardly.  The royal family of Sweden, too, is a rather silly bunch.  And I have my reservations about the next generation of Norwegian royals – the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway are very P.C., and after the Breivik atrocities the Crown Prince seemed to go out of his way to act chummy with Muslim leaders in front of the TV cameras.  But Harald – the dad, the king – seems a good sort.  Unlike many of the ideologues in his government, he’s plainly a staunch friend of America: I’ve never seen him happier and more relaxed than on a certain evening back in 1999, when, hosting then-President Bill Clinton at a state dinner, he gave an uncharacteristically charming and personal speech (delivered in perfect American English) in which he talked about living at the White House as a boy, during the the Nazi occupation of Norway.  While his father and grandfather, the then king, were residing in London, Harald and his mom were house guests of Franklin and Eleanor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  His memories of that time were obviously happy ones.  It was clear then, and has often been clear since, that Harald has seen and experienced enough in his life to know who the good guys and the bad guys are.  The same, I might add, is true of Queen Margrethe of Denmark, a tough and gutsy old broad who, quite the opposite of Beatrix, has spoken out quite bluntly about her country’s immigration and integration problems.

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  • dave

    Great piece. I'm a Londoner and it was a very weird weekend here. Many people view the Monarchy as parasites, funded by the tax payer and cannot understand all the sycophantic behaviour of the public. For me what was strange is the fact that the Jubilee gave people a chance to celebrate a nationalist event, without being called a racist bigot, as it has become impossible to be 'proud to be British' anymore, it has become really distasteful to display any national pride and yet the extreme monarchy worship we saw over the weekend shows a completely divided nation.


      Dave, Speaking as an outsider, an American, it seems to me that the BIGGEST parasite of the British people is the BBC.

      In the US a media outlet is independent and needs to survive on its own.

      I could see that back in the early 20th century the BBC needed public funding to establish itself, but now, it's time for the BBC to stand on its own..

      Queen Elizabeth is a link to the time when Britain was great. Her parents kept their family in London during the blitz of WW2. They stuck it out, dealt with the same threat as the British people. She represents her parents today.

      • Chezwick

        "In the US a media outlet is independent and needs to survive on its own."

        What about NPR and PBS?

  • Stephan

    I am stunned that this site has some problem seeing the difference between noble and mean.

  • koran kid

    'Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head.'

  • tagalog

    I'm willing to lift a glass to Beatrix in a Dutch bar anytime. But as an American, I bow to no monarch. My ancestors fought and died so that they and their descendants would bow to no one. That's what I respect most.

    • Malfleur

      I thought your president bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia -"as an American", of course?

  • Chezwick

    The poster above named 'Dave' has made a prescient observation. In the States, national pride is not yet a rank obscenity like it is in England…(except in the universities). But we're heading that way…certainly the Democratic Party is. Sometimes I believe the only hope for preserving our values is in their celebration and representation by enlightened blacks and Hispanics. Too many whites (including most members of my extended family) have had their patriotism eviscerated by the albatross of white-guilt.

  • Lady_Dr

    Some one, some where did a study that those who celebrate Independence Day as children tend to be more patriotic. Folks, July 4th is just a month away – take your children, grandchildren, and/or the neighbor's kids to a parade or a park, let them have fun and teach them a little history. It doesn't need to take much time or preparation. But it could be a milestone in their young lives. They are not being taught patriotism in the public schools that's for sure. We need to show our youth that love of country is good, positive, even fun (that seems to be the highest value some of them are ever taught). SO – let's make a difference.

  • H&R_ Barack

    The difference between the Her Maj, Queen Elizabeth II and First Woman, Michelle Obama……

    1.) Moochelle's coif will not accommodate a hat.
    2.) Moochelle Obama doesn't understand the difference between a place fork, salad fork, or, shrimp fork.
    3.) moreover, .. . taxpayers can boot Moochelle-Antoinette's fat arse out of monarchy in four years!

  • Suzanne

    I understand what you mean, Mr. Bawer. With the problems that England faces today, the Queen actually came out looking pretty good this stime. It was also great to see the English people standing up for things British. I felt the same way last year at the wedding of Willian and Kate. No, as Americans, we are against monarchy- however stripped of power it is- but right now the British royal family are a symbol of tradition and western ideals. However flawed the institution is, they represent England's heritage, not this PC multi-cultural mess that's strangling them.

  • geopeyton

    "Yes, you can rage at her and her clan for their obscene, unearned wealth and privilege, or you can pity them for having been doomed by birth to spend their lives being scrutinized by the world and being denied the same right all the rest of us have to chart our own courses. For my part, I’m pretty much equally divided between rage and pity. "

    This doesn't speak well of you. Better a deluge absent a king than an abundance with a king. Embrace freedom and its results.

    • Malfleur

      I agree with geopeyton. Are you , Mr. Bawer,going to be "raging" soon at the obscene wealth and privileges of your own American clans? Join the Obama 'tax the rich' bandwagon, why don't you? Understand, dummy, this ours is a CONSTITUTIONAL monarchy which means that it presides with the consent of the people. It also pays its way.

  • Stuart Parsons

    How dare you attack my Queen. We are at war. My friend Big Dave will be arriving to surround you and accept your surrender.

    its just that most of us pefer A king or Queen to a President Blair, Thatcher or Cameron…… or even a President Churchill.

    Isn't it a case of the pot calling the kettle black.. We have a Queen you have Imam Obama.

    P.S You still owe us (with interest) for all that tea tipped into Boston Harbour. Big Dave will collect it when he arrives.

    God Save the Queen and Bless America

    • Sage on the Stage

      And you still owe us for burning the White House. Call it even.

  • g_jochnowitz

    Raul Castro, Bashir al-Assad, and Kim Jong-un are evidence of how monarchies begin. A thug takes over a country through force and violence and then decides it is his property, willing the nation to his heirs.

    It’s true that in Europe, monarchies are merely relics, ruled by royal families that typically are akin to trailer-park trash. We were reminded of this by the stories about the death of Princess Diana. We should remember, however, that only one form of government in inherently moral: democracy.

  • Sage on the Stage

    Good Queen Bess II should visit Israel this year, on her 60th Anniversary Jubilee year. That would take some of the steam out of the Islamist surge in England, give moral support to the Israelis, and perhaps take some of the sting out of bad memories of the British Mandate, on the part of Israelis old enough to remember those days.

    • g_jochnowitz

      The Queen's sister, Princess Margaret, made anti-Semitic remarks. Her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, was Hitler's friend. Maybe the reason she has never visited Israel is that she opposes its existence.

      • Sage on the Stage

        "Maybe the reason she has never visited israel is that she opposes its existence." Royal families are
        weird, in the sense that you'll get ten opinions from five Dukes and Princes. So while Princess Margaret may have made anti-semitic remarks; I don't believe the Queen shares those sentiments, nor does her husband, Prince Phillip. (In the same vein, Churchill was a friend of the Jews, while Anthony Eden
        had anti-semitic tendencies)