Thursday, September 15, 2022

Pretty Nice Girl

One thing I really wish people would try to do in the discussion of the late Mrs. von Battenberg, as somebody was calling her, is leave the Empire out of it, as in the current explosion of love for it, from Mr. Stephen Miller

the British Empire has been such a benevolent force for good in the world, and its unraveling was a historic tragedy with empires like China, for example, filling that void. If you look all around the world today, what is the legacy of this empire? The rule of law, self-government, natural rights, property rights, an independent justice system? Basically, everything Joe Biden is trying to destroy right now is something that was wonderful the British Empire had. 

(it actually gave all its colonies in Asia and Africa versions of the Internal Security Act that enabled countless dictators from Singapore to Pakistan and Burma and Ghana to Grenada and Sri Lanka to erect dictatorships under cover of law, and its failure over a century to provide Hong Kong with self-government is the chief reason Hong Kong doesn't have it now, and it didn't have any interest in "natural rights", including whatever awful thing you may mean when you use the term, and it's clear you're only using the moment to make absurd false accusations against President Biden, even as horrible new evidence emerges about how Trump and Barr worked to bend US Attorneys to their desire to persecute their percieved enemies)

to his eminence Mr. Cleese

And I'm also not crazy about those who recognize how evil the Empire was but want to blame her for it, though I fully understand if you're from Ireland or India or Zimbabwe or Trinidad you may have some trouble controlling your feelings, and these remarks are not really directed at you. 

But you really don't need to have any feelings about the Queen at all, other than the sense of our common humanity with an old lady in a very peculiar position in which she always did her best, at the end of the centuries-long process in which Britain attempted to drain the job of all political significance, from a time when sovereigns really named their own ministers from any party they liked, beheaded their enemies and sometimes their ex-wives, and changed an entire country's religion from time to time.

I can't get over how Henry VIII was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X in 1521, for writing an anti-Lutheran tract, and then kept the title after he turned everybody Protestant, as did all his successors, including a couple of Catholics. Now it is noted that young Charles once said (in 1994) that he would like to be known as "Defender of Faiths", though it turns out that he officially dumped that idea in 2015, and is now, like his ancestors, the Head of the Church that Henry invented, with its admirable tolerance, spacious ceremonial, minimal doctrine, and wonderful music. While Catholics and Jews have long been emancipated, the Lord Mayor of London since 2016 is an observant Muslim (and Labour Party member) and last month the UK came very close to getting a Hindu Conservative prime minister, while the nation as a whole, as we learned during the Brexit debate, remains more or less as racist as ever. 

I'm committed to the proposition that Her Majesty was a pretty nice girl, but she didn't run the Empire (even in the limited sense that Victoria did, as a recognized stakeholder who openly favored Disraeli for making her an Empress), nor did she oversee its dissolution, including the violence and stupidity with which British forces repressed opposition in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya and the Emergency in Malaya. She studiously did nothing that could ever be attacked as political, silent about whatever policy views she may have had except in her sessions with the prime minister of the moment, making the most strenuous effort to not influence the political situation no matter how tempting it might be. She could make a gesture (I'm especially fond of stories about her friendship, on a first-name basis, with Nelson Mandela), but only as long as it didn't mean much.

George Bernard Shaw tried to imagine a modern British sovereign exercising some political influence in his rarely performed 1928 play The Apple Cart (a future King Magnus, frustrated by the incapacity of the political system and realizing he's more popular than the current prime minister, threatens to abdicate and run himself). If you thought Charles was likely to do something like that, you found out last week that he absolutely won't:

My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”

(I've heard, somewhere, that the new Prince of Wales will be one of those trusted hands, taking over the king's environmentalist portfolio).

The question remaining being, what do sovereigns actually do nowadays, when the chief job requirement is that they do nothing, but do it very actively? What does it mean, how does it mean?

I ran into a tempting idea touching on that in my day job last week: a genuinely post-Freudian psychoanalytic approach developed in the 1960s and 1970s, by the Austrian-born psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (1913-81), that I'd never heard of before: "self psychology", developed, as it happened, in the quest for a treatment for narcissistic personality disorder. 

The short summary is that Kohut found the basis of psychological development to be not in the individual, but individual relationships, and not so much in the development of a psychosexual identity as a relationally-based idea of a "self", purposely left undefined. From his standpoint, we are born narcissistic, and our maturation depends on a process of disillusionment or disenchantment, typically through the observation of our parents, whose empathy, a form of "vicarious introspection", provides an example of how to construct a healthy self. in which we learn to live with the knowledge that we are not omnipotent.

Along the way, we are helped by what Kohut calls "selfobjects", external objects that help us achieve selfhood, including parents and other caregivers, obviously, but also things that are much more object-like; the stuff I was working with was for music therapists, meaning people in general who use music as a tool for easing various kinds of psychological pain, and it proposed thinking of music as a "selfobject", as a kind of nonphysical method of bringing on empathy, I think in South Korea, where there are people paid to get interested in a subject like that, as it happens. 

But thinking at the same time about the sociological character of British royalty, it struck me that that was a kind of selfobject production in its own right. Thinking about the Queen, for the last 70 years, has really been a way for Britons to experience a kind of thought of empathy that their alienated parents have been unable to expose them to. And if that's what her job was, she did it pretty well. Queen therapy.

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