Now that ceremonies marking Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee have drawn to a close, it's hard to resist asking, from this side of the pond, what on Earth that was all about.

In this relatively egalitarian day and age, why would people get so excited about royalty? Britain's ancient system of hereditary wealth and privilege, familiar to us lately in "Downton Abbey," was appalling, and just the kind of thing Americans wanted to avoid when they broke away from the motherland. Our hefty estate taxes -- Republicans like to call them death taxes -- on multimillion-dollar legacies exemplify our attitudes toward inherited wealth.

The historian Simon Schama, on the BBC, offered one useful way of understanding the affection of Britons for their queen. He noted that rallying around a politician is problematic because so often political leaders have done bad as well as good things. The queen, on the other hand, offers people a symbolic figure in whose person they can celebrate their nationhood without worrying about whether they agreed with this or that policy. One might add that politicians come and go, after all. But this queen's been on the job for 60 years, and for the most part has avoided antagonizing her subjects. Celebrating her Diamond Jubilee is like getting to root for some infallible Mariano Rivera who never blows a save or gets too old to pitch.

Another way of understanding people's response to the jubilee in the United Kingdom is to remember the importance of ritual, which enables us to feel some sense of continuity and inhabit (however briefly) an idealized world that can help us accommodate the real one. Monarchy these days is about nothing but ritual, yet this particular ritual has served its people reasonably well. Their enduring queen, a steady presence in a fast-changing world, has helped Britons retain their values and identity while living through a turbulent 60 years that saw the end of empire and the rise of a multicultural United Kingdom. Hmm. Maybe there's something to be said for having a hereditary monarch after all.
 

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