What We Can Learn From Downton Abbey

Peter Lawler claims the show is ideal viewing for conservatives, as it offers lessons “on how to make our nostalgia astutely selective”:

Downton Abbey shows us what’s best and what’s ridiculous—if not necessarily much of what’s worst—about being aristocratic. It also cele­brates the decent business sense of the middle class, the realistic love of the American woman, the nobility of living in service to a lord, the humane achieve­ments of modern medical sci­ence, the struggle of both aristo­cratic and servant young women to become somewhat displaced in a world that has their whole lives figured out, and even what’s admirable about the progressive idealism that liberates women and the Irish. Downton highlights the tension between aristocratic tradition­alism and modern progress, and forces conservatives to confront the good and bad in both.

George Will isn’t as impressed, seeing Downton as a sop to progressives:

It is fitting that PBS offers “Downton Abbey” to its disproportionately progressive audience. This series is a languid appreciation of a class structure supposedly tempered by the paternalism of the privileged. And if progressivism prevails, America will BE Downton Abbey: Upstairs, the administrators of the regulatory state will, with a feudal sense of noblesse oblige, assume responsibility for the lower orders downstairs, gently protecting them from “substandard” health insurance policies, school choice, gun ownership, large sodas and other decisions that experts consider naughty or calamitous.

Lawler thinks Will is missing the point:

Who can deny that today our upper class—our meritocratic cognitive elite—lacks and could benefit from some of the class of the Earl of Grantham and his family? That’s not to deny that the Lord Grantham is not so astute when it comes to the personal longing for freedom, turning a profit, tolerance of religious diversity, modern science, and even good government. He is astute enough, though, to accept, if reluctantly, changes that will make his way of life more sustainable and even admirable. He is also astute enough not to embrace the popular moralism that turns sins into crimes or even reasons for dismissal. My friend George Will, who finds me “normally wise and lucid,” mistakes, partly by presenting a quote out of its ironic context, my praise of the relational place called Downton Abbey as a progressive and paternalistic endorsement of the welfare state. There’s a huge difference between an aristocratic manor and a government bureaucracy! And I said Downton is an exaggeration for our edification—not a real place.

Stephen Mufson focuses on the economic lessons of Downton. Among them? “Beware of speculative bubbles fueled by cheap foreign capital”:

Faced with cash-flow problems for years, [Lord Grantham] married his rich American wife, Cora (a sort of corporate merger that only later grew more sentimental), to gain access to foreign investment, namely her family money. Nothing wrong with that: China in its early economic-reform days tapped U.S. and other foreign investment, and now many U.S. companies are looking for investments by successful Chinese firms.

Alas, Grantham violates the basic rules of financial management and fails to put his wife Cora’s injection of capital to good use. Instead of investing in his family business (the estate and its many tenant farmers) or diversifying his investments, Lord Grantham gets swept up in a speculative bubble, sinking virtually all of his wife’s money into a Canadian railway scheme that goes bust. Had he been alive today, he’d have been buying subprime mortgages or giving all his money to Bernie Madoff.