Sunday, June 03, 2012

Downton Abbey & Current American Attitudes

There's been a change in me...


A kind of moving on. Though what I used to be, I still depend upon. For now I realize, that good can come from bad. That may not make me wise, but oh it makes me glad. These are the immortal words of Howard Ashman & Tim Rice from Disney's Beauty & the Beast.

What is this new awareness, this heightened understanding?

I have just consumed all 16 episodes of Downton Abbey in a little less than (5) days.  I know I may be a little late to the party, but ooooh buddy I am hooked.

Oh yeah...and now I have shit figured out too, bro.

In full disclosure, this is going to be a diatribe much like the kind you used to have with That Kid in college. You know the one I'm talking about.  The one who was usually high, and had it aaaaaalllllllll figured out -but don't worry, some day you'll understand, bro.  Someday...

Yeah, it's going to be one of those.  So if that isn't your cup of tea, you can always click here and read about that Florida cannibal guy.

Thanks for sticking with me.  I just made those assholes who checked out look at some nasty, nasty shit.

Where was I?

Oh yes, Downton Abbey.

As I mentioned, in a very short span of time,  I have consumed this series which follows the upstairs / downstairs life of a well-heeled turn of the century family and the servants that support them in a place, a place called, Downton Abbey. 

As I watched the show I went along the peaks and valleys, much in the same way that I do with Mad Men, but with the difference that in a lot of ways it made me really sad.  Sad because the sense of optimism and pluckiness of the serving class seems in direct contrast with where we as Americans are today.  I told you, it was going to be one of those.

Because it will be far too involved to introduce you to all of the characters, I'm not going to.  Also, I'm lazy.  With that in mind, I would like to discuss my thesis through the prism of the character of Tom Branson, because much like me, he's Irish and handsome.

Tom Branson - is an Irishman from Dublin who takes up work with the Grantham Household as a chauffeur, while striving to be politically involved in world affairs and the pursuit of an Irish Republic.  He, along with many of the younger servants in the household, view the closing of WWI as an opportunity for a new world.  This upheaval bodes a time for Change. Sound familiar?

As I watched the show, and saw these various hopeful themes play out, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of Fareed Zakaria or Thomas Friedman-esque fatalism that perhaps we'd lost the will or the optimism to overcome adversity to elevate ourselves to the exceptionalism that has been the hallmark of the American brand.

To best illustrate this, here are a few major themes that are expressed in the show that are just as relevant now as they were in 1912 - 1920 window the show currently resides in.  However, what I want to illustrate is the different between Branson's (completely hypothetical) view and what I (in a wholly unscientific way) see general public opinion on these same topics.

  • War provided an opportunity for the world to start new.  As a socialist he sees an opening for a new style of governance, led by the people, to take hold, providing greater opportunities
  • The end of the war allows and opportunity for more local level issues to finally be dealt with by capable, motivated people
  • A battle weary public just wants to stop a war they see no point in, due to the inability to articulate what victory means -- that is to say nothing of the blood and treasure lost in the pursuit
  • Rather than a "we're all in this together" mentality, a very small group of people -- many to most not coming from a great deal of money -- are charged with shouldering the burden
  • When they return, rather than being met by a grateful nation, they find high unemployment and inadequate resources to deal with the trauma caused by the work asked of them
Wealth & Opportunity
  • A sense that the Old Guard will fall, and an American (for that time period) style of opportunity will become available
  • A feeling of optimism that in a Post-War world things can be different.  A chauffeur can become a journalist if he works hard and aspires to do so, etc.
  • Every day a greater concentration of wealth occurs at the top and a populist resentment simmers as the rest are left to scramble for scraps
  • With things like the banking / mortgage crisis, Citizens United decision and Occupy / Tea Party movements, a sense that the deck is stacked against the average Joe metastasizes
  • The revolution is happening now:  Governments are being toppled, new people are getting the right to vote, tyranny all over the world is upended, and new people stepping in to fill the vacuum
  • The sense of ownership of that revolution, personal participation and sacrifice it requires to see it through. This is what gives him the cohones to sweep an aristocratic girl off her feet and spirit away to Dublin to be part of the next phase in Irish history
  • Spiking ever so slightly with the Tea Party & Occupy movements, it is apparent that something is brewing or at least should be...
  • Whether it's laziness, a sense of powerlessness or apathy, there's a lack of participation by the broader public to see how things might be improved
  • A wonder of how bad do things have to get before things change dramatically? And what does that change look like?

Then again, maybe I need to get some sleep and stop watching these soap operas like a desperate housewife.

Instead, I think I'll watch soap operas with a Desperate Housewife.

Yesssss, this one will do quite nicely.

What do you think? 

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