Monday, January 14, 2013

Downton Abbey: What's in it For Me?

 If they're so rich and aristocratic and British and all, why did they put their abbey downtown?

Catching up on the last few episodes of Season 2 of “Downton Abbey” the other night, followed by the first few episodes of Season 3 (spoiler alerts below) and it occurred to me that:

1.)    I very likely fall outside the usual demographic for this show’s viewers. 

2.)    The writers and showrunner really boxed themselves in at the end of last season. With Matthew and Mary’s snow-globe kiss and the marriage proposal that millions of dewy-eyed, lonely, Anglophilic women had been anticipating for two seasons, all major conflict had largely been excised from the story; aside from Bates’ murder charges, all the cliffhangers had been hung.

Sorry, he still looks like Eeyore to me.

 3.)   Buried among the major differences separating modern life from post-World War I England--traditional gender roles being challenged, questions about the validity of class and privilege emerging, the impact of technological advances--it is striking that we never question or at least don’t think too much about how differently we see another subject depicted on the show that is largely missing in the modern age: self-sacrifice.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but today we are a bunch of selfish cunts.

Of course I don’t mean to literally speak in this manner about every single human being living today. Nor to suggest that every person who was alive a hundred years ago was some sort of saint. Just as I’m sure there are many people who gave nothing to their fellow humans back then, there are lots of modern examples of self-sacrifice: some of those serving in our armed forces; those who give of themselves for the sake of the poor or ill. (Parents...I have a problem with including them.*)

But generally, I don't think self-sacrifice is all that common today. As a mental exercise and to perhaps get a more honest assessment of where we think self-sacrifice fits as a modern human virtue, let’s pose this question: would you say that your fellow human beings--people besides yourself--in general possess and demonstrate the capacity for self-sacrifice? How often/how much? On a list of the 20 most common human attributes, where does self-sacrifice go?

I can come up with a fairly concise answer based solely on the evening commute.

I mean, forget about the harrowing portrayal of life in the trenches in The Great War, a time when so many served that “there were no young men left” afterward, as opposed to the drone war we wage today from behind computer screens with a tiny fraction of a tiny minority of our population actually on the ground. 

SIDEBAR: And for those who are stuck serving on the ground in a war with no conceivable end (how do you defeat a concept? When will Terror surrender?) and who are fighting a nebulous, ever-changing enemy on endless tours of duty, is it any wonder that suicide--perhaps not incidentally what some consider the ultimate act of selfishness--might seem like the only way out?

And how about the quaint idea of the children of privilege not only serving but actually VOLUNTEERING to serve on the front lines? And then serving with no special considerations, no Alabama National Guard tours or anything like that? That is completely unheard of today, and pretty much has been unheard of, going all the way back to Vietnam. Just ask George W or DickCheney.

>>MILD, POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT BELOW: If you haven’t gotten to S03E03 maybe stop reading here<<

Then we come to watching Matthew’s struggles with whether to accept an enormous inheritance from his former fiancé Lavinia’s family, knowing that he had thrown her over for Mary. Worse, he thought that Lavinia having seen him kissing Mary may have helped push her illness over the edge into death. (When I actually type out the storyline like this, it makes me feel like a soap opera fan. Where's the amnesia? The long-lost twin? Oh, yeah. Right...) 

Pic unrelated, but too funny not to include.

As Matthew argued with Mary and clenched his jaw stoically looking off into the distance, pinching the bridge of his nose--in the timeless international actor’s indication of inner torment--did anyone honestly think, “Yep. I too would be selfless enough to seriously consider turning down millions of pounds in honor of the memory of a dead woman.”

Bullshit. Not in the “Dolla make me holla” generation. Not in an era when people won’t think twice about sacrificing their privacy and dignity for the sake of a shot at just being on television--let alone fame or fortune--but are also perfectly willing to sacrifice their children too. Literally in some cases.

Honey Boo-Boo's mother was unavailable for comment as of press time.

So what happened? Are we so inundated with images of fame and wealth? Are we so drowned in advertising pitched to appeal to self-indulgence that we can no longer fathom a world without us sitting atop it? Are we just dumber? Or perhaps just less imaginative, in that we lack the capacity to envision a world without us in it?

I don’t really have the answers, and I realize using a fictional character’s fictional situation on a television show as a launching point from which to ask these questions may have some layers of irony and absurdity embedded in it that cannot even be fathomed straightaway. But I think it’s inarguable, even almost trite to say that we are more selfish today than we once were. And this scene in this show made me think for a moment about how the calculus of modern thought seldom includes anything remotely approaching what people were asked to do in bygone eras. More importantly, what they asked themselves to do.

Granted, another frequent topic or even perpetual undertone of the show is the push and pull between ancient British stoicism and reticence, "stiff upper lip," and "suffering in silence" and all that, and a more modern modality of self-expression and emotional honesty. And the notion of self-sacrifice wedges itself in there somewhere between the two.

But goddamn, wouldn’t our so-called “culture” benefit if more people were LESS self-expressive? If more people STIFLED their emotional honesty some? I’m looking at you, Kardashians. Also Jersey Shore, everything on TLC--hell, all so-called reality television--as well as a vast swath of our popular TV, movie and music stars to boot, and all the loud-mouth, obnoxious people out there who noisily hold them up as role models. If people could just shut the fuck up about themselves for five minutes, the world would be a better place.

Well, shit, if it'll keep her from talking...

I say again, we are a nation of selfish cunts. We are denizens of an empire that is tottering on its last legs, burdened under the weight of 300 million sets of absurdly grandiose expectations.

Reality took several hundred years to become plain to the Romans; of course, things move much faster these days.


*To me, regardless of the sacrifices that parents make on behalf of their children, there is a rather large and unforgivable element of narcissism involved in the decision to have a child. Especially in this day and age, when we can quantify the environmental demands that a child born to parents who live in an industrialized nation imposes. I could drive a Hummer to the grocery store every day and ask for both paper and plastic and still have far less environmental impact than parents of even one U.S.-born child. And anyway, let's get down to it: what, you think passing on that awesome DNA you have, the DNA that made you such a stable and wonderful and loving and beautiful creature, you think that’s vital to the species? Or the planet?

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