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The Dirty Secret of Downton Abbey

The British soap is a Rorschach test for how we feel about living in end times.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Masterpiece Theater

 
 
 
 

"Downton Abbey" has got our political knickers in a twist. Whether Americans are conscious of our self-inflicted decline or not, something about watching the comedown of the old British system of aristocracy has transfixed us. Depending on our political leanings, we are by turns nostalgic, indignant or conflicted.

At the National Review, "Downton" offers a ripe opportunity for full-tilt, evidence-free revisionism, giving one Charles C. W. Cooke the opportunity to write giddy sentences like this about the Edwardian period and its aftermath: “There was rather an astonishing level of comity between the servants and the served, for neither socialism nor any serious class organization had yet crept into the great houses of England.”

Never mind that it was quite a boisterous time in the U.K., what with the birth of the Labor Party, liberal rallies, and so on. Cooke’s rose-colored glasses perceive only serenity in the bond between baron and butler.

Over at Forbes, the favored publication of the traditionless free marketeer, "Downton" becomes an admirably fair and balanced portrait of the misunderstood 1 percent: “To portray Lord and Lady Grantham as anything other than drunks, fools, hypocrites or either sexpots or sexual glaciers (or best of all, alternately both),” purrs Jerry Bowyer, “is itself an act of cultural rebellion.” Take that, you pinkos.

Slate’s Katie Roiphe, the product of navel-gazing Northeastern liberalism, is so anxious about a love for the upper-crust that dare not speak its name that her prose ripples with indefinite pronouns and dances around her secret desire to collapse into the benign languor of Lady Grantham. Oh, wait! One must not be too eager. One must keep up appearances.It is Roiphe who best approximates the viewpoint of "Downton" creator Julian Fellowes, who, unlike Roiphe, has recently satisfied his fantasies with induction into the House of Lords.

The Nation’s John Heilpern, a Brit, wants it clear on the record that he is offended by "Downton," and would like to give the naughty liberals a spanking. He sets off on a round of indignant finger wagging, chastising “anglophile Americans” who “swoon over 'Downton' as a superiorsoap opera” when it is really “escapist kitsch” that revels “insidiously” in class pandering. He performs this dressing down while using terms like “artistocratic toff” to show just how superior he is to swells like Fellowes.

A few center-lefties, especially young feminist bloggerly types, have given the show a cautious thumbs-up, charmed by its dutifully respectful attention to identity politics, those goodies the 1 percent doles out to distract us from economic unpleasantries. For the left-lefties, who have less faith in identity political theater, there is but one acceptable position: horror, which, to the credit of In Brief mag’s Jack Kenchingon-Evans, can be rendered with black humor that is welcoming after slogging through a few of the aforementioned pieties.

I like a period costume as much as the next gal. And I have succumbed, for an entire weekend, to Netflix immersion in Downton's iridescent soap bubbles. The dialogue is sometimes snappy, and watching Maggie Smith in full self-parody as the Dowager Countess is often delicious. The show is shallow and silly, but beside the oceans of crap that flow through my cable television subscription, it often feels like a relief. Except for the third season, which is so bad as to become nearly unwatchable. But I remind myself that even B horror movies can be invaluable for the open window they provide into the anxieties of a particular time. High art seeks to transcend its moment. Popular entertainment, especially the schlocky variety, has no such pretensions and can serve up a remarkable distillation of the common zeitgeist. Its tendency, of course, is to reflect rather than to challenge.

When "Downton Abbey" debuted in the U.S. in January 2011, in the wake of the financial crash, its opening with news of the sinking of the Titanic -- that ultimate parable of class struggle – seemed to promise a reckoning with power and privilege, especially as Occupy Wall Street took off later that year. It was not to be. Julian Fellowes is no more capable of seriously engaging the unwashed radicals of our time than the Earl of Grantham is of absorbing the lessons of his socialist-chauffer-cum-son-in-law. He will tolerate them with bemusement, but no more.

In the world of "Downton Abbey," the classical liberal is the hero. It is he who will save the arch-conservative from his excesses, and if said conservative can get with the program, from financial ruin. Cousin Matthew, the benevolent middle-class modernizer who arrives to inherit the ancient estate, is the hope of the future. Tom, the revolutionary chauffer, is absorbed into the aristocratic family fold where his radical speeches yield little more than a crisp: “Are you quite finished?” by the Dowager. Feminist advances consist of young ladies gaining permission to wear sassy dresses and engage in journalism while having their underwear ironed daily (cue Roiphe’s sigh). Being gay is anachronistically rendered a suitable topic for polite conversation, and all is right in BBC-PBS realm. As Matthew maps out his plans for the estate, you can almost hear the strains of Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” in the background as noblesse oblige gives way to capitalist innovation that has rendered the current underclasses of both Britain and America little better off than their forebearers.

If we look closely, we can see, in the form of Matthew, that something is lurching toward us to be born. Some rough beast that eventually emerges to replace the pompous conservatism of the landed aristocrats with the chill robotic efficiency of the supply-side capitalist. Classical liberalism, which took its inspiration from Bentham and the Mills’ emphasis on utility rather than custom and later the belief in unrestrained self-interest, opposed the ancient privileges of the aristocracy. But it also tended toward the protection of the new privilege of the capitalist. Over several generations, it threw labor just enough bones to keep it from revolting, and then, when the threat of communism subsided, largely abandoned it. The Matthews, in just a few generations, produced the Thatchers, the Reagans, and the Romneys. That is the dirty secret at the heart of "Downton Abbey."

It was the classical liberals who turned into the financiers and corporate managers, whose current follies are as much to blame for the end-of-regime crisis we now face as the excesses of the landed aristocrats and a set of earlier financiers were for the decline of Britannia. It’s too bad that as our own catastrophe progresses we can’t just turn the channel.

Meanwhile, Matthew has morphed into Paul Ryan. That's worse than a B horror flick.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.