I was not shocked by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. After all, she was 96 and, more significantly, Prince Philip, her mate for life (“my strength and stay” she called him) had died about 17 months before. From that moment, her death had been drawing nigh.
What caught me off guard were the venom and vitriol, the glee and celebration, unleashed on social media that started after her death seemed imminent. A Carnegie Mellon University professor helped set the tone shortly after news came Sept. 8 that the condition of the queen’s health was dire.
“I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating,” tweeted the professor, Uju Anya. Less strident but with casual disdain, a member of my Facebook circles noted, “One of the things about being Queen is that you’re likely to live a long life because everybody is taking care of your Royal Ass.”
With Twitter, YouTube and TikTok afire by the time prevailing messages reached some of my students at Morgan State University, it was all about entertainment. To them the verbal insults, the videos and the animations were just funny. Geopolitical reckoning? Nah. This was a good laugh at the expense of a dead rich woman who one of my students said was fair game because she was a public figure.
There was no understanding of what she had meant to the people of her realm, thousands of whom waited in line — some for 12 hours or more — for a chance to walk past her coffin as it lay in state. Here was a person who boosted morale at age 14 when England was being attacked by Germany the way Ukraine is being bombarded by Russia. “And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place,” she said in a 1940 radio broadcast.
She was still giving encouragement 80 years later in the fearful earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again,” she said.
The inability to appreciate life and to see death as comedic was an eerie reminder of how much life is devalued in Baltimore, where hurt people, one might say, hurt others through violence — contributing to a shameful record of human slaughter while sometimes reveling in their deeds via social media.
What rattled me as students tried to explain the humor in what they were enjoying on Twitter and TikTok was the absence of even a modicum of empathy, of any of that old-fashioned respect for the dead and of tiptoeing around the feelings of their loved ones during a reasonable period of mourning. Are these niceties, like monarchs, relics of an age fading away?
On social media, people have claimed the queen not only made Meghan Markle’s life miserable as a biracial member of the family, but she also had Princess Diana killed 25 years ago. The woman who at age 21 pledged her life “whether it be long or short” to her people and then reigned for 70 years as queen is being depicted as the embodiment of evil. Substitute “queen” for “witch” in that song from “The Wizard of Oz,” and you’ll have the flavor:
“Wake up, the wicked witch is dead!
She’s gone where the goblins go below, below, below, yo ho
Let’s open up and sing, and ring the bells out
Ding-dong! [T]he merry-o sing it high, sing it low
Let them know the wicked witch is dead.”
A web editor for Slate offered some insight: “[T]he memes, jokes, and gleeful tweets are not just a manifestation of the very contemporary desire to dunk on one’s online enemies as viciously and virally as possible. That is part of what’s fueling this response, sure; it’s a pillar of modern social media culture. But these reactions are also coming from a place of real, often deeply felt pain. If the queen, for many, was a symbol of grace, for many other people she was a symbol of something deeply ugly.”
How do you “balance the right to protest with the right to grieve,” as one BBC commentator so aptly summarized the dilemma?
The thing is, there is much about the British monarchy that should be questioned, as mainstream media began to gingerly acknowledge after days of round-the-clock, somber-toned reports on Elizabeth as if she were queen of the world. Outsized, uncritical deference was totally devoid of the hard truths to which that Carnegie Mellon professor alluded. American networks had no hesitation interrupting regular programming to bring us British funereal pageantry, but a little more than a week before, they’d refused to air a prime-time speech by President Joe Biden on threats to our democracy.
Of course, the networks know what attracts audiences because the programmers and our educational system have groomed them. Younger generations are no more knowledgeable — or curious — about history and geography than their elders. It’s an American thing to be so cocooned in our exceptionalism that it is the exceptional American who sees themself as a citizen of the world.
Thus, when critics like Anya see the imperial state crown that lay atop the coffin, they don’t marvel at craftsmanship dating back several centuries. They see the lives destroyed to make that crown possible.
Too much of American media has been besotted with the pop culture and pseudo-history aspects of the end of the second Elizabethan age. On Sept. 12, the top news on CBS Mornings was mourning for the queen in Scotland the day before. That was apparently of greater news value than what had taken place at the same time in this country the day before: commemoration of the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
I get it, although I wish that I did not. American patriots kicked the British monarchy to the curb in the Revolutionary War and later the War of 1812, but like those defeated Confederates who have never gone away, royalists have existed among us even longer. Pining persists for the trappings of the court of King Arthur and his descendants, or their American imitations — from Gilded Age barons and social climbers, to the brief Camelot era of the Kennedy presidency, to TV shows and magazines devoted to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Three decades after the Princess Diana saga unfolded, we have the Meghan saga. Now there’s that royal rift between Diana’s sons.This, far more than any concerns about the future of the United Kingdom, accounts for American media obsession.
Few have followed the example of Democracy Now!, an independent journalism operation that from the outset has calmly interrogated the legacy of a monarchy whose wealth and power derived from the transatlantic slave trade; the extraction of gold, diamonds and other natural resources from lands it seized; and the exploitation of human labor from Jamaica to India.
Some of the former colonies, out of deference to the queen (“the grandmother of us all,” as a Black Britisher called her), are reconsidering their membership in a commonwealth whose head is the British monarch. Some are demanding reparations, especially as they see that William, the new heir, has just inherited royal property worth about $1 billion.
The question for American media, especially the networks, is whether they will tackle the harder story — or stick with the William-Harry-Meghan soap opera.
The challenge for those of us who engage with social media is how to introduce facts and civility in spaces where too many want to know: “How will you entertain me today?” or “How will you affirm me today?” That’s a 21st century version of fiddling while Rome burns — or while we lose what Biden warns is the “battle for the soul of this nation.”
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.