Downton Abbey cast libertarianism

Downton Abbey cast

So what will you be doing Sunday night? My advice: Watch more TV! Now you innovative and disruptive TIC readers might think you don’t have the time. But that’s only because you’ve forgotten about “multitasking.” Professors, for example, can be watching while grading papers and filling out assessment rubrics. Some people listen to music. I like the noise of conversation.

Professors of American politics and sociology and so forth should be required to achieve TV literacy. It’s the closest thing our country has to a common culture. There’s no way you’ve read the same contemporary books as your students. And TV, after all, has gotten much better. Well, some of it has. (There are also some new reality shows that are very interesting without being good—such as The Amish Mafia.)

On Sunday night, two shows in particular have won the favor of critics: Downton Abbey and Girls. Is it really possible to like them both? One displays a way of life in which everyone knows his or her place and so knows his or her duties or relational responsibilities. Everyone on Downton Abbey has class—not in the nasty sense of oppressing and being oppressed, but mainly in the more positive sense of being classy.

The other show celebrates the liberation of people without class, who are on the tough journey of figuring out who they are and what they’re supposed to do without much guidance at all. On Girls, everyone seems to experience him or herself as disconcertingly pro-choice when it comes to relational responsibilities. So nobody would say that the characters are typically classy. We’re reminded just enough that the girls’ parents are just as clueless and emotionally disconnected as they are themselves.

From our view, both shows are critical commentaries on the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism of our time. Downton is the anti-libertarian show, of course. Girls exaggerates our libertarian tendencies so that we can see them more clearly. It’s hard to tell when its neon displays of who sophisticated young people are these days are celebratory, negative or at least ironic, or just descriptive in a value-neutral way. We do see the toll liberation takes on love, and it’s clear enough that the liberated opinions that love is for suckers or could be duty-free are held by the emotionally wounded and confused.

With the beginning of the new season last Sunday, we saw that Hannah on Girls has changed, although I assume it’s not change we can believe in for long. She’s no longer the victim ready to have sex with anyone who’s ready to exploit her. She thinks of herself as through caring for others (which, of course, she never really did). She has contempt for the guy who used to exploit her because he’s bedridden with injuries (that were her fault) and is now needy both physically and emotionally. When he says loves her in a whiny way, she almost runs out of his apartment. She’s sleeping around with confidence and is at least fake-cheerful. And she refuses to allow her new main guy to even use “love” in a sentence when speaking of her. She’s says she’s now all about calculation and good judgment when it comes to connections with others. She’s having (emotionally) safe sex now.

So it’s only appropriate that her new black boyfriend is all about reading The Fountainhead. In the show’s last business-like seduction scene Hannah only semi-jokes about wanting to borrow his Rand book. She’s really borrowed its outlook. We see that deeply clueless Hanna has oscillated from one anti-relational extreme to the other—from victim to selfish (Randian) domination. Maybe this self-obsessed move from one extreme to another is subversive commentary on libertarian nerve of our time. It’s not so clear she’s really cured herself of her self-esteem problems.

Critics are excited that Hannah is now involved with a conservative. What could be more daring than that?  Lena Dunham, the real-life Hannah, has said that she couldn’t be involved with someone who doesn’t share her outlook on issues such as abortion rights. But it seems this guy does share her views. Although a Randian might vote Republican, he certainly wouldn’t disagree with her on any right to choose. From the view of a religious conservative or a traditionalist (Downton) conservative, this guy is no conservative.

On Downton, we saw once again that when there’s a lapse in doing what one should, the men, especially, feel really guilty and reliably end up eventually doing the right thing, sometimes at considerable personal sacrifice, by others—both those whom one loves and those whom one either serves or commands. There’s a downside—a subtext—to the somewhat melodramatic goings on at the Abbey, but more on that later.

Some religious conservatives wish that the characters at the Abbey seemed more Christian. It is clear that the Earl of Grantham and family own the local Vicar and don’t value his spiritual guidance. That may be commentary on the Church of England. But it’s also true that what’s usually called Victorian morality was based on detaching the traditional code of conduct from its religious foundation. It was, as English conservative Roger Scruton has explained, a kind of “first-wave” secularism.

Tonight night, join me in experiencing the thrill of the quick move from aristocratic class at 9 to Randian trash (talk, at least) at 10. Let’s see if you can handle the “multiple perspectives” in figuring out something about who you are and what you’re supposed to do.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. "Professors of American politics and sociology and so forth should be required to achieve TV literacy."

    While I understand the rational for this, it is self-defeating. I think it would be more beneficial for all political scientists to familiarize themselves with Rousseau's Lettre sur les spectacles, wherein the philosopher gives a robust argument for censorship in the arts.

    Rousseau's basic argument is that theatre corrupts the moral virtue of small republican cities and thus should be censored by them, while it may dull the vices of corrupt large cities, where it should thus be encouraged. The details and nuances of his argument are worth studying.

    Meanwhile, on a personal note – I have now understood why, perhaps, I am such a poor political sscientist: I have no TV.

    I grew up with a TV, and consider the programming I watched as a child salutory: Transformers, GI Joe, the A team, and similar programs about the battle between good and evil. I think Plato would have approved the poetry of the 1980s.

    But since turning 11, I watched only video cassettes, and at the age of 14, I began living without a TV. To this day, I don't own one and see littke reason to get one. The few times I am a guest in a house where there is a TV, I feel vindicated insofar as the thing is loud, it's hardly possible to find anything interesting on, and one feels forced into a system.

    I much prefer watching programs on youtube, and while that makes me a late comer to most worthwhile tv (for instance, I only watched Dr. House last year), I do not feel the worse for it.

    My father is the same, he has been living without television for most of his life, and has in fact not even adopted a typewriter, let alone a computer into his life. He writes with a pen, and while he did set up an email account, he would only use it during visits to either his local library or community center.

    I'm content with a tablet and youtube, although I admit the lack of TV often puts me in situations where I give the impression that I am ignorant, because whenever someone mentions a famous or popular show or actor, I do not know about them.

    Take for instance this 'Girls', which I have never seen a second of, and which I only heard about on this website. From what has been written of it, I will likely not watch it. Not, mind you, because I am a prude and have something against nudity, but it sounds like the characters are shallow and mindless, and I don't have much tolerance for such a thing. I usually fall asleep whenever anyone tries to show me some such drama with "complicated" life situations or "existential" problems of a "modern" sort. The only sort of films I can tolerate are the ones most people consider simplistic, like the Expendables or John Rambo. As for tv shows, I prefer the world of Japanese anime to anything else, particularly the 70s and 80s shows.

    I would like to think that in this internet age, tv viewing culture is radically heterogenous, and that it would be nearly impossible to find a large demographic that watches the same thing.

    I am probably wrong…

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