Her personal virtues are an antidote to our era’s self-promotion and social-virtue signaling.
Within the hour of her death, Queen Elizabeth II was praised by commentators from left to right for representing so many traditional values. Reserve, self-containment, duty, responsibility, modesty of demeanor, graciousness, civility, prudence, fortitude.
For a moment I thought I was back in St. Margaret Mary grade school memorizing the useful virtues from the Baltimore Catechism: “The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.” Counsel, as the young Elizabeth surely learned, is “advice, which guides us in practical matters.”
What is most notable is that this instant outpouring of media praise for the queen’s traditional virtues comes amid a contemporary culture that elevates daily, even hourly, a value system of self-regard, self-promotion, changeability, acting out and anything-goes behavior that is the polar opposite of Queen Elizabeth’s.
The celebration of the queen’s traditional values suggests an unexpected recognition of the extreme artificiality of our now-dominant culture.
The queen’s own family reflected this trend. First Princess Diana in the 1980s rode the rising celebrity wave, and ultimately it drowned her. Then Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, known primarily as an influencer. The queen’s views on this cultural turn may be guessed.
“Influencer” is the defining word for our times.
An influencer’s success depends overwhelmingly on one thing: self-promotion accomplished by rising in the hot-air balloons of Instagram, TikTok and other social media. The goal is to marry marketing with fame. Because influencers do it, millions of others, often young women, make preoccupation with themselves the one habit that directs their lives.
A culture of self-aggrandizement, though, is only one half of the shift in values revealed by the celebration of the queen’s life.
To say that the queen’s values were traditional means they existed for a very long time. The poised 14-year-old Elizabeth we heard in news clips reading her first public speech to children during the Blitz of World War II had by then been taught personal virtues held in high regard for centuries in the West and arguably longer in the East.
In our time, however, personal virtue has been demoted by social virtue.
In the new ethos, a well-ordered life is measured by one’s commitment to notions such as social justice, equity, inclusion and—undeniably the most dominant modern virtue—saving the planet. The achievement of a good life depends on making a public commitment to large, sometimes amorphous groups—minorities, the transgendered, the indigenous, the disadvantaged.
The week’s recollections of what made the queen’s life exceptional are an opportunity to compare the merits of virtue earned individually with virtue, or approved behavior, constructed
One effect of giving social responsibility more weight than personal responsibility is that it gives people a pass on their personal behavior. So long as one’s life is “centered” on some larger social good, the conduct of one’s personal life is, well, irrelevant.
Consider progressive prosecutors. Good intentions notwithstanding, a difficulty with the theory of decriminalization is that it diminishes almost to nothing responsibility for one’s bad acts, such as shoplifting. Behavior unhinged from norms of any sort is rampant now.
The price paid for losing interest in Queen Elizabeth’s traditional values is an epidemic of emotional anxiety. To the extent modern culture has any counterweight, it is antidepressants and the legalization of recreational dope.
The queen’s habits were a source of personal stability. Modern values are a source of instability. The habits of behavior associated with her are not about mere goodness but about creating a structure of life inside of which one then can perform successfully as a person, hopefully for the good. She did that for her country for 70 years.
One cannot discuss what has happened to the culture in the queen’s lifetime without considering the changed role of the churches. Gaining momentum, I’d say, with their embrace of the nuclear-disarmament movement in the 1980s, the churches turned most of their energies to teaching that the embrace of broad social goals is the first determinant of a moral life. That won’t change, but maybe it’s time they reset the weekly balance between social-justice homilies and a rediscovery of personal virtues like the queen’s, which they once taught so well.
Public schools, where children spend six hours of each of their weekdays, were long considered an invaluable reinforcement of personal self-discipline and character. They also abandoned that role to propagandize instead for politicized values. This shift is one reason so many parents migrated to charters, school-choice programs and home-schooling.
One has to wonder: Is the praise for the queen’s old-school virtues little more than this week’s talking points, or do her media admirers recognize that something about what we promote now—self-regard, social moralizing—has gone badly off the tracks?
Perhaps this will fade with the queen’s funeral Monday. We’d be better off if a longer reconsideration of what made Queen Elizabeth’s life exemplary became part of the post-pandemic reckoning that is changing so much else about the status quo.
Appeared in the September 15, 2022, print edition as ‘The Countercultural Queen’.