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Benjamin Disraeli's Favorite TV Show

Aristo Fetishism in Downton Abbey

by CLANCY SIGAL

“Property is theft.”

— Proudhon

I’m sure we all have better things to do than watch that emotionally involving, spacey-fiction  example of Disraeli-era “one nation” Tory-conservative spin, Downton Abbey.

The Big House is where the nice, kind, decent, pragmatic, charitable liberals just by chance happen to be the rich folks upstairs and the reactionary, even stuffier, tradition-upholding homophobes lurk down in the scullery.   I love Carson the butler (brilliantly played by Jim  Carter) as the avatar of the “deference vote” that keeps Britain’s big and little c  conservatives in power.  Really I do love Carson.   SOMEONE has to uphold standards when Lady Mary screws a (gasp)Turk to death, Lord Grantham makes passes at the maid over whom he has total social and economic power, a gay footman actually wants sex, Lady Edith is having it off with an adulterer, and a stylish – kindly – way of life is, sadly,  passing, passing into the sunset, a victim of menacing Armageddon, a future Labour government with its socialistic death duties.

Here’s the thing they omit from this stupendously successful tosh.  Summer or winter in real life you freeze your bum off in those big draughty impossible-to-heat halls.  I’ve been there.  Now try to imagine an episode at the Abbey where the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives: a young American reporter (me) so morally soft, O GOD THE HORROR!,  he has along with him his own Valor paraffin heater.  Can you just hear hear Maggie Smith sniffing?  Shirley MacLaine was one American Jew too many.  But this is too much: bringing your own central heating!!!!

That was my experience when for a period I was “taken up” by the English lower aristocracy and higher gentry in their Downton-style country houses for shootin’-and-huntin’ weekends and sometimes longer.   The real life OR Book Going Rougeversions of Lord Grantham were gracious and charming…until they spied my Valor heater in hand.  (And also until mine host lent me his Purdy over-and-under when I shot off 50 shells and not a single partridge fell out of the sky.)  For one thing, burning paraffin awfully smells up the place.  For another, the very existence of a Valor is a rebuke to a stately, ordered, stoical way of life where enduring cold used to be, and perhaps still is a mark of upper class virtue.

Ben Disraeli, who more or less invented the “One Nation” wheeze, was one of the more clever prime ministers.  (And Jewish yet!)  One Nationism trumpets a view of “organic” society in which we all, regardless of political disagreements, have our God-given parts to play under the paternalistic  guidance of a wise and tolerant Lord Grantham clone.  (UK’s current leader David Cameron claims Disraeli is his favorite politician.)  Nation matters more than class.  Indeed, this patrician-conceived “philosophy” – a pragmatic response to lower class turbulence – is trotted out periodically when, in the good old Yorkshire/Lancs phrase, “there’s trouble at t’ mill”.  That is,  the restless natives threaten to riot.  As soon as the proles cool off it’s back to free market capitalism.  Tick tock.  Like a cuckoo clock.

Disraeli, the Tory genius at muffling class hatreds in periods of quasi-revolt, is a direct ancestor of the Tory peer Julian Fellowes – Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford – the writer-genius of Downton Abbey with his incredible talent for keeping plot lines unfouled (well, almost) and lack of talent for creating real human beings on the screen.  Reality is not what we want in a stylish soap, is it?

Parenthetically, Julian Fellowes battled successfully against a change in rules of royal succession so that his wife, a distant relation of Lord Kitchener, could become a Countess.  In his private life no One Nationer he.  But in public he sounds almost like Rodney King after he was beaten up by Los Angeles cops.  “Can we all get along.”

In response to critics who crabbed about Fellowes fawning over his own class in Downton Abbey, he pleaded that “it is possible for us all to get on, that we don’t have to be ranged in class warfare permanently.”  Right on, Julie.

Why is Downton Abbey so popular?  Of course it has nothing to do today’s rage of the 99% against the one percent which, as in Disraeli’s time, threatens to get out of hand.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.