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Spectacle, imperial mythologies and the performance of change: watching the Queen's Platinum Jubilee

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

I felt compelled to wake up very early on June 2 and 3 to watch the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, being covered live in Canada by CBC. Now, more than a week later, I am eager to explore why. Actually, I had wanted to travel to London and be there in person, but early June is a busy time of year in my household. The first and only time I had participated live in a royal spectacle was when I joined countless mourners and trod to Kensington Palace when Diana died in August 1997, days after I had arrived in London to conduct my doctoral fieldwork. Perhaps that’s why I forced myself to rise at 5:30 EST to watch the Trooping the Colour and the Service of Remembrance; for, the Queen at 96 will not be around for much longer and after, it will be one king after another. Certainly, in my lifetime, I will never experience another Queen as a (arguably symbolic) head of state.

Hence, it was my own sense of mortality, of a desire to witness a spectacle that may never happen again, that drove me to rise early. And, I wasn’t disappointed. I willingly consumed the at-once austere and decadent pomp of Trooping the Colour, with the surfeit of horses and horns, sat mesmerized as the ancient and modern planes flew overhead while the Queen and the slimmed-down Royal Family peered from a Buckingham Palace balcony. I listened to the expert royalist commentary and wrapped myself in the vary (problematic) mythologizing that linked me as a British-born, Canadian-raised and Indian-descended subject-citizen in complex ways to the unprecedented span of Elizabeth II’s reign, of the interconnections between monarchy, militarism, and imperialist exploitation and its attendant ideology of 'civilizing mission.'

These interconnections were made crystal-clear in two opinion pieces that both appeared on June 4th. Patrick Gathara, a communications consultant, writer and political cartoonist based in Nairobi, strikingly compared the sanitization of this mythologizing as Jekyll-Hyde scenario, in which the pomp and circumstance is celebrated (Jekyll) with the horrors of imperial oppression and violence removed (Hyde). Gathara points out that it was during a trip to Kenya that the then-Elizabeth learned that her father had died and she had become a queen, at a time in the 1950s in which Kenyans were fighting for their land and freedom which was being brutally suppressed by the British government. As Gathara continues,

“Neither she nor her descendants have deigned to acknowledge, apologise and seek to make amends for the horrors visited upon Kenyans in her name…the British government continues to deny liability for the sins of the colonial administration... The murmurs of “regret” at the atrocities thus fall far short of an apology."

Caroline Elkins, writing in the New York Times, joins Gathara in elaborating the “monarch’s historically embedded role as the avatar of Britain’s empire,” where for centuries, “the monarchy derived healthy doses of its power from empire, just as imperial nationalism has drawn legitimacy from the monarchy.” This intertwined relationship makes Queen Elizabeth and her royal antecedents inseparable from the imperial exploitation, oppression and violence of the British state, which Gathara aptly describes as:

“The queen today is the Dr Jekyll to the UK’s Mr Hyde – encapsulating the glory and benevolence of the empire with the evil separated out.”

Indeed, as Elkins continues:

“Reformist fictions laundered Britain’s past, watermarking official narratives of end-of-empire conflicts in Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Fragments of damning evidence remain, however. Historians, myself included, have spent years reassembling them, demonstrating liberal imperialism’s perfidity and the ways in which successive monarchs manifestly performed the empire and its myths, drawing symbolic power from their sublime in loco parentis role civilizing colonial subjects while — perhaps unwittingly given their governments’ cover-ups — honoring the dishonorable with speeches, titles and medals.”

Violence. Oppression. Lies. Coverups. Performance. I wonder whether it is naive to expect a contemporary monarch or a royal to apologize for the plunder and violence of the past. I also wonder, judging from the crowds at Buckingham Palace, including a handful of Canadians selected to chat with CBC hosts, whether many of us prefer this sanitized spectacle? Consider, for example, the enduring popularity for pseudo-aristocratic storytelling in various 'historical' period pieces. There is clearly some kind of nostalgia for what we imagine a more splendid past, especially appealing in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. Indeed, this point was repeatedly made by the commentators at the Platinum Jubilee: the Queen as a symbol of continuity against change. Yet, as Gather and Elkins importantly point out, this nostalgia is for a romantic fiction that is severed from reality.

The word 'performance' also lingers for me as I repeatedly hear the critique of the performative in discussions of anti-oppression and anti-racism, of decolonization and reconciliation and the various institutional and corporate efforts of equity and inclusion in North America, and of the juxtaposition between 'symbolic change' to 'real change.' For, it is one thing to name a course of action, it is quite another to actually implement it, especially if it requires dismantling systems of violent subjugation and enduring exploitation. Perhaps the Jubilee and the upcoming end of a remarkable reign can be made even more remarkable by a reckoning with the historical record and starting to make amends with the peoples and nations that are calling for it and taking responsibility for the past in order to chart a different future. Now, that would be a performance for which I should wake up early.

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