MoDo has been confusing TV shows with real life again. In “Beautifying Abbey Road” she wails that as Americans decry a Dickensian class divide, they fawn over a British soap opera of manners. She really needs to get a life. I’ll let “Pilatius” from NYC handle what needs to be said about her POS: ““It’s television!! Perhaps we can take the next column and discuss the socio-ecomic implications of General Hospital.” The Moustache of Wisdom says it’s “Not Just About Us” and that as the headlines from the Arab world get worse and worse, there is talk of the “power vacuum” in the region. Getting overlooked is the “values vacuum.” He manages to write the whole thing without the word “Israel” appearing once. Stunning… Here’s MoDo:
In real life, Americans may keen about income inequality. But on TV, they’re keen for it.
“Downton Abbey” continued its upward ascent with viewers Sunday night, a gushing embrace of class snobbery that hasn’t been seen since friends clustered across the country in 1981 — wearing black tie and clutching Teddy Bears and champagne glasses — to watch “Brideshead Revisited.”
I’ve resisted the “Downton Abbey” ferver. My grandmother and her nine sisters were tall, strapping women who immigrated to America from Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century and found jobs as maids, cooks and nannies for rich families with names like Gore and Mellon. So heaven forfend that I would enjoy watching Lord Grantham erupt in horror when his youngest daughter wants to marry the cute Irish chauffeur.
At the start of the fourth season, Maggie Smith’s caustic Dowager Countess still can’t stomach calling the Irishman by his first name, even now that the widowed Tom Branson is the estate manager and father of her great-granddaughter (dubbed a wicked “crossbreed” by the nanny.) As my great-aunts worked tirelessly to grasp shards of the American dream, they were not gliding about mansions playing confidantes to malleable employers, much less co-conspirators in moving the bodies of dead lovers.
It was a much tougher life than the democratized fantasy shown in “Downton Abbey.” Sure, Julian Fellowes’s servants have to iron the newspapers, choose cuff links and scan for scratches in the silver candelabra, but basically the upstairs-downstairs hierarchies work in contented concert, mingling like family — warmly and sometimes spitefully.
Just as there is a yawning gulf between “Gone With the Wind” and the harrowing “12 Years a Slave,” there is a yawning gulf between the Panglossian PBS soap opera of manners and the dehumanizing life most servants led.
In “Castle Rackrent,” an 1800 work that was a pioneer of the historical novel, Maria Edgeworth skewered her own British landlord class for viciousness to the Irish peasantry. Speaking of the grand lady of the house, Edgeworth wrote: “She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent, and all fast-days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together, we put a morsel of roast beef in her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh’s dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it unfortunately reached my lady’s ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced, as soon as she could walk, to do penance for it, before she could get any peace or absolution, in the house or out of it.”
Niall O’Dowd, the founder of The Irish Voice, IrishCentral.com and Irish America magazine, asserted: “For this generation of Americans, the ‘Downton Abbey’ ‘Yes, m’Lady’ servants are the equivalent to the old minstrel shows on the Bowery. It reflects the colonial cringe, casting an ameliorating light over a period that was full of pretty desperate stuff for people trapped in a rigid, notorious caste system.”
Americans cast off the British monarchy, but they go nuts for Kate Middleton’s procreation story. (“Rich woman has baby,” O’Dowd notes dryly.) And they savor watching a Downton aristocrat dress down a servant for noting inelegantly, “Dinner is on the table.”
We believe in upward mobility. Yet some of the new American moguls are taking on the worst traits of the old British class system: Silicon Valley’s up-and-coming tech titans who complain about having to look at the tatty homeless spoiling their San Francisco “utopia.” The Dickensian conservatives who don’t give a fig about a social safety net ensuring that poor people have food on the table.
As Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money” asked MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “Wasn’t this settled in 1848-1850 with the Irish potato famine? I’m not kidding. Lord John Russell believed what the Republicans did, which is, you know, let them eat potatoes even if they’re rotten.” The issue of laissez-faire, Cramer said, “was decided many years ago by Queen Victoria’s insolence toward the Irish.”
I relented on “Downton” when I read Alessandra Stanley’s review in The Times last week pointing out that the allure “isn’t Anglophilia or a vestigial yearning for a monarch” but the fact that it’s a “show about class differences that panders to contemporary notions of democracy and equality.”
Watching the saga from the beginning this week, I saw the extent of the subversive fantasy: The servants rule the masters. The bad ones manipulate the lords and ladies into doing their bidding. And the good ones instruct and nag their superiors into making the right moves in their royal lives, both personally and professionally. In Sunday’s season premiere, Lady Mary frostily informed Carson the butler that he had overstepped the mark in urging her to move past her grief over her husband’s death and get more involved in running the estate. But she soon humbly apologized for having the cheek to criticize Carson’s cheek. The marble beauty in long black gloves melted into sobs in his arms and then bucked up to rejoin the world.
The butler did it.
Jeez. I think we ought to make her watch every “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” episode and then write a hissy little column. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: An Al Qaeda affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven different homegrown Syrian rebel groups for control of the region around Aleppo, Syria. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut is bombed. Mohamad Chatah, an enormously decent former Lebanese finance minister, is blown up after criticizing Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-Al Qaeda group takes control of Fallujah, Iraq. Explosions rock Egypt, where the army is now jailing Islamists and secular activists. Libya is a mess of competing militias.
What’s going on? Some say it’s all because of the “power vacuum” — America has absented itself from the region. But this is not just about us. There’s also a huge “values vacuum.” The Middle East is a highly pluralistic region — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Druze and various tribes — that for centuries was held together from above by iron-fisted colonial powers, kings and dictators. But now that vertical control has broken down, before this pluralistic region has developed any true bottom-up pluralism — a broad ethic of tolerance — that might enable its people to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above.
For the Arab awakening to have any future, the ideology that is most needed now is the one being promoted least: Pluralism. Until that changes, argues Marwan Muasher, in his extremely relevant new book — “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism” — none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.
Again, President Obama could have done more to restrain leaders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria from going to extremes. But, ultimately, argues Muasher, this is the Arabs’ fight for their political future. If 500,000 American troops in Iraq, and $1 trillion, could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can, said Muasher. There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that some 15,000 Arabs and Muslims have flocked to Syria to fight and die for jihadism and zero have flocked to Syria to fight and die for pluralism? Is it only because we didn’t give the “good guys” big enough guns?
As Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, put it in an interview: “Three years of the Arab uprising have shown the bankruptcy of all the old political forces in the Arab world.” The corrupt secular autocrats who failed to give their young people the tools to thrive — and, as a result, triggered these uprisings — are still locked in a struggle with Islamists, who also have no clue how to deliver jobs, services, security and economic growth. (Tunisia may be an exception.) “As long as we’re in the this zero-sum game, the sum will be zero,” says Muasher.
No sustainable progress will be possible, argues Muasher, without the ethic of pluralism permeating all aspects of Arab society — pluralism of thought, pluralism in gender opportunities, pluralism in respect to other religions, pluralism in education, pluralism toward minorities, pluralism of political parties rotating in power and pluralism in the sense of everyone’s right to think differently from the collective.
The first Arab awakening in the 20th century was a fight for independence from colonial powers, says Muasher. It never continued as a fight for democracy and pluralism. That war of ideas, he insists, is what “the second Arab awakening” has to be about. Neither the autocrats nor the Islamists can deliver progress. “Pluralism is the operating system we need to solve all our problems, and as long as that operating system is not in place, we will not get there. This is an internal battle. Let’s stop hoping for delivery from the outside.” This will take time.
Naïve? No. Naïve is thinking that everything is about the absence or presence of American power, and that the people of the region have no agency. That’s wrong: Iraq is splintering because Prime Minister Maliki behaved like a Shiite militiaman, not an Iraqi Mandela. Arab youths took their future in their own hands, motivated largely by pluralistic impulses. But the old order proved to be too stubborn, yet these youth aspirations have not gone away, and will not.
“The Arab world will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships,” writes Muasher. But “these forces will also fade, because, in the end, the exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people’s needs for better quality of life. … As history has demonstrated overwhelmingly, where there is respect for diversity, there is prosperity. Contrary to what Arab societies have been taught for decades by their governments to believe — that tolerance, acceptance of different points of view, and critical thinking are destructive to national unity and economic growth — experience proves that societies cannot keep renewing themselves and thereby thrive except through diversity.”
Muasher, who is returning to Jordan to participate in this struggle for diversity, dedicated his book to: “The youth of the Arab World — who revolted, not against their parents, but on their behalf.”