Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

by

Howard Adelman

I have not spent full blogs on many of the basic philosophic premises of fascism and instead have included them as minor keys within a larger discussion of one principle, such as the reference to the breakdown between the public and the private within the discussion of chaos, democracy and fascism. However, there are two remaining themes that I want to discuss at some length in this blog, the dystopian view of the existing world and the utopian portrait of a nostalgic as well as future world characteristic of fascism.

As was widely noted when Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech after he won the nomination at the Republican Convention, in contrast to Barack Obama’s stress on hope and the typical stress on optimism characterizing presidential hopefuls, DT painted a very bleak picture of both the state of the nation and the world.  In a dystopia, people live dehumanized and fearful lives. Of course, it is an imaginary world conforming very little to reality, but all the more powerful because of that.

DT’s portrait of the state of the nation was cast in terms of murder and mayhem, moving towards financial ruin because of unfair trade deals and an invasion by immigrants and refugees. More recently, he insisted he won New Hampshire – he did not; he won the primary – because it is a drug-infested den.

The general explanation is that he was tapping into widespread anger and fear among white working-class men. However, in listening to interviews in the states that he won and among individuals who voted for him, I heard no expressions of fear, except in the abstract – that is, if something is not done, the U.S. is headed to hell in a basket. I heard very little anger. His supporters were calm and determined to have a candidate that reflected themselves and only fearful that DT and the Republican-led Congress would not deliver. Thus, the irony. They voted for the candidate who held the most jaundiced view of America than anyone had ever expressed on the campaign trail while they most deeply wanted to preserve the status quo where they lived in the American heartland.

The dystopic text for comprehending the regime is not George Orwell’s 1984 but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that dystopic novel, order is not maintained by Big Brother watching your every move and thought, but by an amusement and entertainment absorption resulting in “blissed-out and vacant servitude.” (Christopher Hitchens) However, we live in an age of celebrity politics. DT as a candidate won power on a platform of “draining the swamp” by appointing billionaires, extras from Goldman Sachs and generals. In ignoring this and many other blatant contradictions, those who voted for DT were not “blissed out” by an absorption in amusement and entertainment, but rather in soap box melodrama both before and after the election. Aldous Huxley was right about distraction, but wrong about the vehicle. For the latter, as it turns out, is even more effective in burying facts and analysis in weepy clichés rather than sensual distractions.

In 1935, the great muckraking novelist, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, warning about the immanent possibility of fascism in America. As Brian Bethune wrote in an essay in Macleans in January, “A dystopian reading list for the Donald Trump era,” the political style of the president was to sneer at “tact” and “courtesy.” Civility was not to be a hallmark of such an administration. Rather, a self-advertising and self-promoting hero defines himself as the only one who can make America great again in a fictitious America where citizens hide away fearful of marauding hordes of migrants.

The irony – one among many – is that this promoter of chaos mentioned “law and order’ four times in accepting the role of presidential candidate for the Republican Party. Further, his first TV ad in black and white at the beginning of the year, when he sought the nomination, included images of the two accused San Bernardino shooters, missiles, a body on a stretcher, bombs dropping on buildings. In this hellscape of riots that bore little resemblance to the then current reality in America, DT painted a portrait of the American nightmare rather than the American dream, the reference point for almost all American politicians running for high office.

This did not mean that his platform, his program and his performance lacked a utopian dimension. Quite the reverse. It was integral to his appeal.  DT views America as a once great nation (assuming, of course, that his words approximate his deep beliefs – a big assumption in itself) that is currently beset by a myriad of problems resulting from the U.S. being exploited and used by the rest of the world. He campaigned on a vision: “Make America Great Again.” Not only has the world taken advantage of America, but the elites have betrayed their own country.

Of course, the dystopic and utopian sides of his coin of the realm are at one and the same time a distorted picture of America’s problems and wrongheaded view of the solutions to the real problems of the country. DT promised to bring the coal industry back to life and restore the well-paying jobs in the industry. He is averse to involvements in foreign wars, but has been unable to forge an effective military doctrine to extract the U.S. from Afghanistan.

However, he has delivered his promises to the business world as he wages war on regulations. He promised to produce jobs and reduce unemployment and so far the economy has sizzled even higher than under Obama so that the U.S. is at the lowest record of unemployment in sixteen years – 4.3%. The unemployment rate was even lower in 19 of America’s fifty states, ironically mostly in states that voted for Hillary Clinton. Within the vision of this schizophrenic dystopian president one finds a utopian vision of America with full employment, high paying jobs, job security and thriving businesses operating in a country free from foreign wars, a reduced influx of “unwanted” migrants and increased domestic freedom from both regulations and taxes.

However, DT is a particularly odd type of saviour. For he has never been interested in creating a new world order. Nor even a new national order. His slogan is not. “Make America great,” but “Make America great again.” His utopia hearkens back to the vision America projected of itself when DT was a boy in the fifties, when the image was there, but not the reality of widespread discrimination, of the Korean and later Vietnam War. For DT, the strains and stresses of domestic strife in the U.S. began the long decline. D.T.’s utopian vision is a backward gaze immersed in nostalgia and mindblindness.

Linking the dystopian and utopian vision is the projection of himself as a doer, as a man of action, as a leader who signs executive order after executive, order, many, if not most, without reflection, vetting or input even by his own party or even cabinet. But if he emerges as disastrous on domestic policy requiring legislation (repeal and replace Obamacare), his record is even more disastrous when it comes to foreign policy. The Philippines has been allowed to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. He is determined to destroy the Iranian nuclear agreement even as his officials certify that Iran has kept to its terms, even as his rants have undermined the relatively moderate leadership of Hassan Rouhani and even though his views are contradicted by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. DT also spoke of supporting NATO in contradistinction to DT who wallows in belittling the alliance, wearing on the nerves of his allies. His one foreign policy success, getting through the UN Security Council a unanimous vote, resolution 2371, in support of severest sanctions ever against North Korea, but even that success might be highly overrated if China does not follow through with strict compliance on the boycott of North Korea.

However, even the North Korean UN victory cannot be attributed in any way to Donald Trump, but to the twin wrestling team of Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the UN. For unlike their boss, they take the importance of the UN, and particularly the Security Council, seriously. They both emphasize the importance of diplomacy, though Nikki is more likely to wave the big stick. Rex Tillerson stresses clarity. “We do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.”

The sanctions passed will slash North Korea’s revenues from coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood by one billion dollars, a full one-third of its foreign currency earnings. The victory is also noteworthy because it relied on subtle diplomacy rather than shifts between rants and insults versus excessive praise and flattery. We can only watch to see if China, and, to a lesser extent, Russia really comply with the sanctions resolution.

Utopian/dystopian frameworks for politics lead to mindblindness to the actual problems nations face and the realistic alternatives for resolving them. The split undercuts rational analysis and detailed empirical research. Most importantly, it feeds the politics of centering attention on a leader who sees and projects a reality that is overwhelmingly a product of his own mind. As such, it reinforces an attachment between that leader and followers caught up in a similar or identical imaginative worldview.

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Bernie Sanders Postscript

Bernie Sanders Postscript

by

Howard Adelman

Who wouldda thunk it! Stated in proper English, this has been the reaction of the vast majority of commentators and observers that I have read or spoken to over the primary season. At the beginning, I viewed both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as candidates that had virtually no chance of becoming the nominee of their respective parties. The question was whether they could make a credible showing and why each entered in the first place. For Trump, it appeared to be his insatiable desire for publicity. For Sanders, it appeared to be a chance to forward his agenda, especially when the competition against the expected presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, left a significant opening.

Obama had proven that a candidate could win without major financial support or a reliance on major donors. Crowd funding offered an alternative method for raising considerable funds. Further, Obama had also shown that “star” quality counts – as Justin Trudeau also showed in Canada. The star quality can be varied, but its presence could enormously boost one’s campaign. And it could be constructed. Hillary never succeeded in doing so. Both Bernie and Donald did.

Who would have known that when Bernie debuted as a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in 2015 that he would develop star quality? He announced his candidacy on 30 April. During his fifteen months of campaigning, he grew from a stumbling and somewhat awkward candidate to one that at his peak employed 1,000 paid staff and tens of thousands of volunteers as he attracted larger and larger crowds with enormous energy and conviction that allowed him to break fundraising records. Bernie’s star quality compared to Donald Trump’s was the more unusual.

Like Donald, Bernie appealed to nostalgia. A different imagined past that Donald’s, but a constructed past nevertheless. No portraits of anti-war protesters. No pictures of Southern governors setting dogs on black human rights workers. By the time Bernie’s ads began to appear for the Iowa caucus on 1 February when he was nine months into his campaign, the message had become clear and unequivocal. As he denounced the big banks, as he railed against the 1% in boring repetition, as he called for a Canadian-style universal health care plan and free university education, the core emotional appeal was not socialism but the small town innocence of an earlier and more rural America.

His video on 1 February 2016 told the story. An American flag on the side of a shed in snow-covered presumably Vermont. A pale yellow general store in small town America. A port with red painted fishing vessels. A daughter hugging her mother in a park and smiling – no generation gap here. A woman feeding her cows from a pail and then a shot of a male farmer inspecting his cows in old-fashioned barns – no large scale industrial farming here. But though rural and small town, the appeal is not restricted to there even if founded on such images.

The video includes a picture of a large city, of two young people at work on computers, then a girl with a wool cap, long brown hair and a scarf at what looks like a modern coffee shop with an “authentic” older feel and look. A couple at a work station and another with a child of about one and a half – woman with scruffy hair and man with scruffy beard – sitting at a dining room table that could date back to the fifties. A bearded grandfather walking in the snow with a ten-year-old girl in gloves and an open blue jacket against a backdrop of what could be 1960s suburbia – she is presumably his granddaughter.

Then back to the farm – haying in this case – then a small two outdoor dancing event with a sign “Bernie for President” in background and a man with a beard and old fashion white summer hat and his partner with a peak cap in the foreground. Again, wherever the video was taken, the feeling is for small town America. And thus far, the images have all been of whites. One would not know that a significant very large minority of Americans were black and Hispanic. Then young teenagers with very serious looks foreground with two girls, with long brown straight hair, no make-up, one with her arm around her companion and the other holding her hand, both looking very serious and almost worried.

Then Bernie finally with his smile and white hair as an impersonation of Larry Davis before Larry Davis impersonated him, greeting voters – again all white – on a field of grass. Then worried workers and a crowd of youth holding up Bernie Sander’s signs – “WE LOVE BERNIE.” Then a row of girls, led by one that could be of possible Filipino descent the first non-white after over half the video had passed. The girls were high fiving a row of older folk going the other way – this is a movement in which young and old have joined hands even as they travel in different directions towards the future – or, at the very least, clapped hands.

Then another video of a farmer in a field gathering up left over hay by hand as a very young boy in a blue parka carrying a little black lamb strides in the foreground and the scene is followed by three generations of farmers. One might be led to believe we were living in 1960 before there was an enormous growth in productivity on farms and there were still fears that we would run out of arable land, before the tremendous growth in national let alone international markets for farm produce, and before the rising influence of consumers on agricultural production. Bernie’s economic policies are more nostalgic American than socialist, harking back to a time before the structure of farms and farms households had so radically changed, harking back to a time when the institutions farmers hated most were banks as they secretly cheered as Bonnie and Clyde robbed those banks. Bernie may have verbally been calling for “revolution,” but it was a revolution in the classical rather than the modern sense, a revolving back to what once was rather than a brand new utopian future.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than half of Americans lived on farms and farms employed about half the work force. Fifty years later, mechanization had come to farming as had large scale specialization. But you would never know that by watching a Bernie video. The leisure is there but not the industrialization and specialization. There is no mention of the radical increase in productivity in the latter half of the century that made the improvements in the first half look like tinkering. Farming counts for a very small percent of the GDP of America and fewer and fewer Americans live on farms as urbanites create farms in the cities, esteem local foods, and crowd organic food markets on weekends.

In Israel, Bernie worked on a kibbutz. He has no love for Israel as a start-up nation that files even more patents per year than America with thirty times the population, and, next to Israel, America is the leader in innovation. At the end of the sixties, only 4% of Americans were employed in agriculture compared to 41% in 1900. At the end of the sixties, agriculture only constituted 2.3% of America’s GDP. But you would have no clue that this was the case watching a Bernie video. Nor the fact that the vast majority of the very small number of farmers have jobs off the farm.

In the video, you then see Bernie again glad handing a very large crowd of young people. Then the slogan two-thirds of the way through the video – “They’ve all come to look for America.” The message is clear. America, the America we knew, has been lost. America is at heart rural and small town. America is clean cut. American youth and older people are united. And they all love “the Bern.” Most significantly, America is at heart white. But it is the song that accompanies the video that is most telling, the Simon and Garfunkel 1968 hit, “America”. “And we walked off to look for America.” What could be more nostalgic than a time when young lovers could hitchhike from Saginaw, Michigan to Pittsburgh, a song which echoes an earlier great Simon and Garfunkel hit, “Homeward Bound.”

That in a nutshell was Bernie’s message. Not, “We want to make America strong again,” but we want to take America back to the sixties when there was purity, hope and love in the air and America smelled of hay and goat’s milk as young lovers travel across a newly-paved America supposedly headed into a future, but which has taken them into the present. The message is clear. America went astray when it became involved in the Vietnam War, when it left its roots, when it travelled towards a globalized and a multicultural village.

This does not mean that Bernie is a bigot and racist like the Donald. Not at all. But he is clearly nostalgic for an earlier, a simpler, a purer, a cleaner, America. For he was a Jewish boy who left Brooklyn for Vermont. Most of all, the song resonates with clear harmony even as the boy sings as his lover, Kathy, sleeps beside him on the grass, “I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why.” In the sixties, in Bernie’s version, life was full of angst, foreboding as one counts cars on the New Jersey turnpike. In Bernie’s world, there is no rejoicing that the New Left led and won the campaign against the testing of nuclear weapons, only a sense of impending loss and a desire to recover what America once had, before America had started to decay and its broken spirit robbed youth of their hopes and their faith in humanity.

We had a visitor arrive at our house yesterday evening. He had come from LA to become the director of photography on my youngest son’s first feature which goes into production this weekend. I asked him about the primary in California the day before. He said he was still a Canadian and could not vote, but that he and all his friends were Bernie supporters. Would they vote for Hillary? None of them were diehards, he replied. They loved Bernie, but all of them would vote for Hillary. They may be nostalgic, but they are far from stupid.

Wall Street does not just stand for big money and corruption. It is now an icon for when and how America went wrong, when it sold its soul to the big financiers and money manipulators as inequality increased and the infrastructure of America that had been built crumbled. A month after the Iowa caucus, Bernie charged back to his birthplace, New York, but not Brooklyn, but Manhattan, and not Harlem but Wall Street. He went directly into the home of the hedge funds and called for jailing bankers and breaking up the large financial institutions. This was a Wall Street created by Hollywood. Bernie insisted that “financial fraud became not only the norm but in many ways the new business model.” This was as big a lie as Donald Trump ever told.

Though I am not intimidated by banks as Stephen Leacock was, and though I do not love them as Hillary is portrayed as doing, they are not the devil incarnate. I studied the situation of the 2008 financial crisis and published on it. Bill Clinton, in surrendering to the right and reducing the regulatory controls on banks – an initiative that Canada did not follow – opened up the path to small boiler operations and other financial schemers. They used even a few of the larger bank’s greed for larger and larger profits regardless of risk. This activity brought on the crisis, even if the opening for the fraud could be traced back to an algorithm created by a graduate student from Canada’s Waterloo University in 1999.

Bernie was not after the New York vote. He was after the votes of youth who face insecurity, who enter life burdened with debt from their education, who face urban life when the price of homes has gone into the stratosphere relative to earnings. He was after the votes of small-towners who have always suspected the city, but especially New York. He was not after the votes of one out of every nine New Yorkers employed by the financial sector or anyone else related to the industry that pays $12.5 billion in state taxes to New York State.

Bernie was not after the voters who trace their intellectual descent to Alexander Hamilton, a father of the American constitution and grandfather of the American Federal Reserve. In the 1931 film, Alexander Hamilton, George Arliss, who wrote the drama on which the film was based, plays this illegitimate child who would become one of America’s greatest political leaders. Hamilton grew up in the West Indies among Blacks and attended a Jewish school because he was a bastard denied entry to the Protestant school on that account. It was he who undermined his enemies, including his blackmailer, Mr. Reynolds, who tried to exploit his sexual peccadilloes with Mrs. Reynolds; Hamilton confessed. By confessing and telling all to an American public, he set a precedent for an American public that has fed off public confessions by public figures ever since. But most of all, Hamilton loved cities and despised the hypocrisy of rural romanticism, particularly that of Thomas Jefferson (a sleazebag in the film). He loved the marriage of capital, innovation and industry that was responsible for America’s greatness.

Hamilton is buried only a block away from the New York Stock exchange and Bernie came to New York to bury his prodigy. Bernie was not looking for support from an electorate that chose Michael Bloomberg as its mayor, an entrepreneur who became a billionaire by developing monopoly control on information, particularly financial information without which the security industry would collapse. Bernie, like Aaron Burr in 1804, came to New York to challenge the heirs of Hamilton to a duel and to slay the financier dragon.

He fought like a lion but he failed. In California’s primary on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton won 55.8% of the vote and 260 delegates compared to Bernie’s 43.2% and 206 delegates. When I went to bed at 3:00 a.m., Hillary had been leading 60:40 with about 40% of the vote counted. Bernie in his speech predicted that the difference would narrow and he was correct. But not enough that Hillary would not end up with enough delegates to crown her as the presumptive Democratic candidate compared to Bernie’s without counting superdelegates. Nate Cohn and Toni Monkovic’s dialogue (“Superdelegates Sink Bernie Sanders, Will He Sink Them?”) in Monday’s New York Times was just nonsense. Yet the rumours continue that the system was rigged because the superdelegates had declared early, were not selected by the people and overwhelmingly supported Hillary. California’s primary smacked Bernie down hard.

It is true that Hillary did not earn enough elected delegates to put her over the top. She won 2,203 to Bernie’s 1,826 and she needed 2,383 delegates. Can anyone argue that in an open election she would not also have won a majority of superdelegates since she only needed 180 of the 622 superdelegates to win. She won 574 to Bernie’s 48. The significance – experienced Democrats have much more faith in Hillary than in Bernie, both to win the election for the Democrats and to be a better president. Further, the reality is that she has won 55% of the elected delegates. The rumours matching Donald Trump’s of an election system designed to beat outsiders like Bernie and Donald is just a load of crock and part of the paranoia of modern politics where widespread acceptance of conspiracies abound.

The popular vote tells the real story. Bernie won only 42% of the Democratic voters but he received a higher percentage of delegates because he won in small caucus states, based on much lower voting, where there were caucuses rather than votes cast by the Democratic members or, in open states, by Democrats and independents. His romantic nostalgia worked with them. Hillary was the choice of the people and of the party.

But the reality is that Bernie did far better than expected. Further, he shifted Hillary’s campaign significantly to the left where she too now espouses a minimum wage of $15, lower costs for higher education, universal health care, the reinvigoration of the American economy, more safeguards against the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing that famous artery in New York City. Hillary has, however, never gone against expanded free trade as both Donald and Bernie have, and has never renounced humanitarian intervention abroad even as Obama proved to be more cautious about that prospect than she has been. Bernie, like Donald Trump, regards all foreign involvement as a misuse of American resources and firepower.

When Bernie made his speech late in the evening on California time, everyone waited eagerly to see if he would concede defeat and rally behind Hillary Clinton. Hillary had earlier held out a hand of reconciliation to him and certainly in her policy statements has swung in his direction. But Bernie insisted not only that he would continue as a candidate not only through the Washington, D.C. primary but to the convention in Philadelphia in July since, theoretically, the superdelegates were not committed until they voted. More importantly, he was the leader of a movement and wanted his people to have a significant role on the committees defining policy. Any hopes that he would concede before Philadelphia were misplaced. Bernie and his supporters will continue raging against “the dying of the light” even though most are young millennials.

However, the public imagery is bad, worse for Bernie than for Hillary. He comes across as an old grouch or as driven even more by the politics of resentment than was suspected heretofore. Like Donald, Bernie, though he certainly did not disparage, he virtually ignored Black and Hispanic voters as targeted groups, appealing to them only as common members of a class. When Hillary really targeted identity politics herself in her post-California victory speech, it was as a feminist as she used Bernie’s appeal to nostalgia by referring to the beginning of the women’s movement in America in the nineteenth century, the fact that her mother was born when the constitution was amended to give women the vote, and to her personal wish that her mother had been here at the pinnacle of her achievements thus far when the most important glass ceiling in America had been broken. But it was ultimately a tale of progress using nostalgia as a literary device.

Most of the talk by Clinton supporters has been about giving Bernie time to adjust to his loss, believing, I think erroneously, that he will fold right after the Washington, D.C. primary. But he won’t. He does not need to regain his bearings. He never lost them. And he should not. For he leads a movement of which the quest as the presidential standard bearer was just the leading edge to a campaign rooted in nostalgia that was much more substantial. Further, now 18-33 year olds believe they can influence Washington policy. That is his primary objective and he believes there is plenty of time for Democrats to beat Trump.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

by

Howard Adelman

This is NOT a review of the series. NO SPOILERS HERE! I have only watched two of its very many episodes in their entirety, the first one of the first series and the third of the second series. My wife, Nancy, has been smitten. She has finished two seasons in just three days. A number of our close friends have watched the series and recommended it enormously. So why do I dislike it? My initial sense was my rejection of emotional repression parading as reserve, shrapnels of sophistication buried in the body politic of the family, death in the Midlands rather than in Venice, servility served up with a dash of snobbery on stunning dinnerware, permeated, I suspect, with autobiographical insider intimacies from which the viewer is excluded and senses that exclusion.

How can I make such a judgment when I have only seen these two episodes, the first introducing the abbey, the family and the servants as well as the villainous maid and footman, and the third episode of Series II in which the estate is converted into a convalescent hospital during the Great War in which the aristocracy have to suffer the shrinking of their physical space and the intrusions of the real world into their protected enclave, in which the shifts in hierarchies, both in the upstairs and the downstairs, disturb the standing order, romantic intrigues upset both the servants quarters and the daughters of milord, and everyone is faced with the horror of women waiting on the family in the drawing room instead of footmen?

Who really cares about the fortitude of a piece of flotsam from history? Who really cares about the physical and emotional legacy of this deluxe family period melodrama? Obviously a great number of people seduced by the diverting dilemmas and the high production values of the series. Nancy has taken to doling out two white chocolate bob bons in fancy cellophane as periodic treats that are not real chocolate and have soft rather than the hard centres I love.

Downton Abbey is a magnificent gorgeous costume drama. The sets, the dresses, even the chauffeur’s uniform, are absolutely exquisite. The setting is glorious, better than any tour of the great estates of Britain. Further, nothing beats British acting skills. The script is somewhat uneven, sometimes sparkling with sharp wit – especially when delivered with pointed barbs and a knowing look by Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, but at other times with clichéd homilies, and in between, a great deal of asides and whispering to advance the conniving and scheming of both the villainous and the mixed characters. The fuller characters, whether in the minor roles of a scullery maid and a cook, or the major roles of all the members of the Crawley family, are intriguing. They engage in shape shifting sufficiently to maintain our interest and convince us of the fictional reality of their personalities. But the most important character in the plot is Downton Abbey itself, to whom everyone, the nobility and the servants, the pretenders, the envious and the rebellious, are all in thrall. Sometimes the abbey looks exquisite and classical but at other times dowdy and forlorn when seen from a distance. I was never able to reconcile these two very different visuals of the estate and ascertain whether it was intentional.

The worst is the plot with conniving, scheming, plotting, terrible and accidental coincidences drawn from nineteenth century novels as the series transitions from the Edwardian era into the modern world. Plot elements are held back and in reserve like regiments in a battlefield. What happened to the homosexuality to which we are introduced in the first episode? You have to stick with the series to await its re-appearance I assume. Or is it dropped? I suspect not. From a postmodern period, it is a matter of great curiousity to encounter an upstairs/downstairs world as electricity, the motor car, the telephone and, most and worst of all, the Great War intervene to corrode and destroy the illusionary stability of the nineteenth century class system and Downton Abbey as its architectural symbol.

Perhaps tales of treacheries untold and secrets unfolded like the fine sheets the maids use to make the beds, narratives of reverses of fortune and fortunate inversions of those reversals so critical to the success of any soap opera, scandalous scheming and scurrilous actions all topped off with mounds of rich cream to make the medicine go down, have far greater appeal to most than a great smoked beef sandwich. Emotions are announced and pronounced or allowed to seep out under the closed doors and reserve, especially of the servants. It is not how I like to treat my imagination or taste buds.

However, what is most apparent are the absences. There is no glimpse of religion in the two episodes I saw, either of High Anglicanism or even rebellious noble Catholicism, though I overheard a minister say prayers and offer condolences at a funeral in another episode. How could Robert, the Earl of Grantham, the most enslaved milord I have ever witnessed, played brilliantly by Hugh Bonneville, the most devoted servant to the well-being and continuity of Downton Abbey, a man of great tolerance even if ridden with deep Tory values, a man kind and generous with a deep understanding of the foibles of others in spite of his marriage to tradition, a Tevye in formal wear, how could this man who supposedly attended both Eton and Oxford and possesses a supposed great love of reading, though we see him mostly reading the newspaper in the library, demonstrate so little self-consciousness and such a vast ignorance of literature and philosophy even as references to the classics are strewn at random through the two episodes as the petals that fall off dying indoor plants that I saw? How can a man of such ostensible reason and reasonableness be so lacking in knowledge and insight, learning and true understanding of the working of money and power? But I had no sense that this was the question driving Julian Fellowes.

Cora, the Countess of Grantham, is sometimes terribly naive, especially when dealing with her conniving maid, and at others very cunning and a formidable American opponent and sometime ally of the Dowager Duchess. In the third episode of the second series, the maid and Cora plot together to bring back the villainous footman into a position of power in Downton Abbey at the same time as the Dowager Duchess and her daughter-in-law conspire to undermine Lavinia, the fiancé of Crawley who is the true legal heir of the estate.

Events conspire and transpire, and they happen with great rapidity to suit a postmodern sensibility, but it is not their causes or their circumstances that intrigue, but their effects, not historically, but on the personal lives of the characters whether they reside upstairs or downstairs. All humans are born equal because, whether man or woman, whether servant or master, we are all buffeted and tossed about by the unexpected, by the icebergs that drift across the north Atlantic and can even sink the unsinkable Titanic, the symbol for Britain introduced in the very first episode.

There is another value I noted in passing – a worship of evidence, of proof, a commitment to empiricism and confirmation  that presumably will ultimately save the Brits as they muddle through these radical changes. Perhaps empiricism did but it is so little in real evidence itself that allusions to such values seem to be a folly in itself.

But the greatest absence is any political depth. There is, of course, the socialist and anti-war chauffeur who is so obviously in love with and protective of one of milord’s and his only modern and worldly daughter, but the references are absolutely superficial lest the politics of the day undermine the centrality of the politics of the family and the central issue of inheritance – inheritance of property and wealth, inheritance of manners and a sense of civility, and inheritance of a propensity to make errors of judgment. What a surprise to read in yesterday’s paper that the rule of primogeniture of aristocratic inheritance restricted to male heirs is now about to have legislation introduced in the British Parliament. So there is a reality behind this obsolete system of privileges and positions, of misplaced rights and rites, of a world that once ruled Brittania but is now left to being ruled by its rules.

There is an absence of the antisemitism that permeated the upper classes of Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but of this we get not even a whiff. Perhaps it is being saved for a later episode when the effects will be shown to dramatic effect in the thirties. And where and when will racism be introduced, racism that was integral to the Boer War and was so central to the exploitation of India that made all that wealth and pomposity possible. Perhaps the producers are waiting until the more contemporary anti-Black racism takes the center stage in world history.

However, the absence that bothered me most was when General Stutts, a stand-in for General Haig, the so-called hero of the Battle of the Somme (???), visits Downton Abbey in the episode that I watched when Downton Abbey was being used as a convalescent hospital for the unwalking wounded and the walking unwound as casualties of the Great War convalesce. Nothing is said. There are allusions to the large number of casualties, but no comment is offered on the 60,000 casualties General Haig sacrificed to “break through”, fight a modern tank war and gain six miles of territory. How can one cry and empathize with a world of class and privilege that brought about its own destruction in its blind drift into the follies of massive deaths with the barest glimpse of what the role of blind loyalty – the highest and noblest value upheld by the whole system and epitomized by Mr. Bates, a British Jean Valjean, milord’s batman from the Boer campaign, his personal valet and “man” in the series?   

So what bothers me? I love westerns, even crappy ones, so why does such a brilliant melodrama upset me? Because, like the aristocracy it portrays, the series not only has pretensions but, next to loyalty, reveals pretence and appearance as the central virtue of the class system. And I despise pretence except when it is espoused as the highest virtue by Maggie Smith. Then it is both an expression of true belief and a marvellous send up. As I overheard in another episode in a line of Maggie Smith’s that is ironic rather than full of pithy wit but perhaps summarizes the interpretation of history: “The war may be at an end but the upheaval is only beginning.”

What seemed to permeate the episodes I saw was not description and insight but depiction and painful if fatalistic regret. What is the perspective of Julian Fellowes who created the series? I did not have the sitzfleisch to discover. How could Fellowes write such brilliant lines for an actress playing an acerbic and condescending presence who can deliver them with dripping perfection? Though torn a bit, I had the impression that Fellowe’s overwhelming nostalgia for this period and those values that penetrate the two episodes I saw. were and remain the deep values he upholds. Next to pretence, nostalgia is its repugnant kissing cousin for me. But not, I had the impression, for the series.

I regret I have so little use for both.

Pity!