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Up from Downton

Without a vision, the people perish.

By Petrarch  |  April 9, 2012

A most unusual cinematographic event is taking place.  There is a wildly popular television show which, wonder of wonders, your humble correspondent actually enjoys immensely.  Regular readers of this periodical will not be surprised to learn that this is not "Jersey Shore" nor "America's Got (highly questionable) Talent," but rather the British period drama "Downton Abbey."

"Downton Abbey" tells the story of the aristocratic Crawley family in rural England of 1910 and following - roughly the same era as Mary Poppins but a few notches up the social scale from Mr. Banks.  It's somewhat of a soap opera, exploring the personal relationships of the masters, servants, and non-elite relatives.

Perhaps startling for a modern production, family patriarch The Right Honourable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is portrayed in an entirely sympathetic way.  Despite his great wealth and influence, he is honorable, upright, honest, generous and caring to all the servants and tenants within his domain.  Even his rabidly socialistic revolutionary Irish chauffeur admits him to be "a decent man and a good employer."  In fact, a fair amount of the drama is generated by the efforts of the family and servants to prevent Lord Grantham from discovering all too many less-than-honorable truths about his daughters and others he cares about, for fear it would kill him.

Lord Grantham's life revolves around the operation of his estate, the titular Downton Abbey.  In a moving scene with Matthew Crowley, a distant relative and the man who'll most likely inherit because of his own lack of sons, His Lordship says, "You see shingles that break, stones that crack, chimneys that fall down.  I see my lifework."

It's made clear throughout the series that this lifework consists not just of his house but of providing a decent life for everyone in Downton, including healthcare - even rebuking Matthew, who doesn't think he needs a butler, for demeaning that man's choice of career and denying him honest labor.  Matthew makes up for it by working to modernize and improve the estate's farmer housing, earning respect from grateful tenants and His Lordship's love.

Yet as attractive a personage as is Lord Grantham, from our perspective of hindsight we know his life is a waste.  He may die in comfort, but the next Earl's fortune will not survive World War II, estate taxes, and the socialistic England of the 1960s and 70s.  Downton Abbey as an estate will not last another generation - indeed, thousands of great manors were bulldozed to avoid taxes, which is why we see the same handful of great houses in so many different period movies requiring them.

A Man's Reach Should Exceed His Grasp

Lord Grantham, while a good man, has a significant flaw: he has no goals or dreams other than keeping what he's already got.  True, he'll sacrifice anything to achieve that goal, even marrying a wealthy American heiress he didn't love in order to afford essential repairs; but in the final analysis, he wants nothing more than to pass on what he received from his forbears.

Those forbears were made of sterner stuff.  There was a time before Downton Abbey, before the fortune, before the Earldom itself.  Somebody had the enterprise to go out and win a heaping pile of money.  Somebody had the political acumen to obtain a title from the King.  Somebody had the vision to build a vast palace where there was none before.

That blood runs in the current Earl's veins; has he no higher dreams of anything new or greater?  No; and as a result, he and his descendants will ultimately lose what they treasure.

There is more than a whiff of Downton Abbey in Mr. Obama's America.  For a long time now, Americans have been the world's nobility in a very real and deep way.

At one point in the series, one of the housemaids wants to better herself and takes a typewriter course so she can work as a secretary.  When she's turned down for the job she resigns herself to permanent life as a servant.  The Earl's proto-feminist younger daughter tries to buck her up, but the maid observes that their classes are taught to expect different things from life:

"You're taught that if you dream and want something long enough, you'll probably get it.  We know not to chase our dreams too hard because they'll probably never happen."

Doesn't the "noble's perspective" exactly describe the common American dream that's been honored for so long?  For two hundred years, dreams did come true in America.  No, not for everyone all of the time, but often enough to keep everyone dreaming.

For every rags-to-riches story there are a hundred unknowns that never made it beyond the middle class, but without those hundred strivers there would never have been the one success.

Our politics once reflected this view of America as a place for greatness.  Obama's Democratic predecessor John F. Kennedy intentionally reached for a far-fetched science-fictional goal:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.  [emphasis added]

And lo, it was achieved.

Kennedy also had other more down-to-earth big dreams:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

But Don't Stop Grasping

Even when Kennedy spoke those words, most of our elites didn't think the Soviet Union could ever be defeated and that we just had to learn to live with the Evil Empire.  By the time of Ronald Reagan, Kennedy's entire party was wholly dedicated to non-confrontation of Soviet tyranny, believing us all to be better Red than Dead.  JFK himself would have been disgusted; imagine their shock, and Kennedy's pleasure from the beyond, when the Berlin Wall finally did fall as JFK had foreseen and Reagan had demanded!

Today, what great vision is presented by our leader?

We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times...

Mr. Obama has not even the doomed dream of Lord Grantham to at least save what he has for his children.  He wants us to go off gently into that good night of genteel poverty, no better than anyone else.  Even the kindhearted Earl would be roused to fury at such a suggestion, sending the arrogantly defeatist bounder fleeing down the front steps pursued by a furiously waving walking-stick.

It's been true for a long time but Mr. Obama's tenure has made it perfectly plain: The Democrat Party is the party of American decline.  To vote for Mr. Obama or any Democrat is to vote for an America that is, as one of Lord Grantham's maids might haughtily say, "no better than she ought to be" - where people no longer try to rise above their station or dream of better things.

Sad to say, that doesn't mean the Republican Party is the party of American greatness - sometimes we wonder how our so-called conservative leaders manage to get the correct legs in the appropriate side of their trousers in the morning.  But at least they try, and often say the right things; you have to start somewhere.

If you try, you may fail.  If you don't try, you'll certainly fail.  The right solution is not to become reconciled to failure and decline, as Mr. Obama's post-American Democrats would have us do, but to try harder and renew our dedication as that beloved Democrat John F. Kennedy proudly proclaimed.

Forget the fact that modern Democrats have abandoned our shared American principles, culture, and founding documents; they've abandoned the cherished policies of their own party's most honored leaders.  They are orphans, without family, without heritage, without goals, without dreams, deserving only of our pity if not contempt.

Now we just need to ensure that they are without power.  A genteel decline may be the fate of the Crowley family as it was for so many of their real-life peers and indeed their once world-girdling nation and Empire; it need not be so for us.