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Downton Abbey in Our Time and Place

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“The perfect garden is a memory of the future.”

—from The Empty Room, by Sadia Abbas

Thanks to Covid-enforced lockdown (a privilege not afforded to essential, mostly underpaid, workers)—I finished watching the entire six seasons of Masterpiece Theatre’s Downtown Abbey—for the first time—just as George Floyd’s brutal murder (caught on video), inundated television screens, newspapers and social media. Following on the heels of the Amy Cooper story, the murder of Ahmaud Arberry, and alongside reminders of other recent murders of Black men and women including Breonna Taylor—Floyd’s “I cant breathe” plea as Officer Chauvin’s knee squeezed the last breath out of him–began igniting waves of protest across the USA. These have been of such intensity and scope as to invite comparison to the civil rights protests of the 1960s by many scholars and media pundits. [1]

It felt strange, surreal even—yet somehow very relevant to this moment—to have been immersed in a saga of class relations between white British rulers and ruled–which despite some bones thrown to the servants and tenant farmers living and working on (for) the Grantham estate (run by the exceedingly gracious Lord and Lady Grantham)– ends by upholding a nostalgia for the noblesse oblige days fast receding for the British ruling classes by the time the series draws to its wistful end. It is an ending punctuated by a romantic, and unexpected marriage that lifts the plain middle daughter of Lord Grantham to the title and position of a marquess– guaranteed to elicit viewers’ contented sighs signaling their/our collective desire for happy endings underwritten by a world order in which everyone knows/knew their place.

That sense of “being in your place” is what we Americans in the 100 or so years that have elapsed since the end of the British Empire in the bulk of its colonies abroad and the steady reduction in influence of its monarchical system at home—find encoded in the ideology of “law and order” which has its roots in the very moment of this country’s formation and break from the British King, George the 3rd in the late 18th century. When President Trump brandished his credentials as a “Law and Order” President to call upon the National Guard, whose soldiers, dressed in army camouflage, pushed peaceful protestors away in Lafayette Square in Washington DC to allow the president and some of his team to walk across to St John’s Episcopal church in a show of strength–he was in fact, harkening back to the 1807 Insurrection Act (which he had been threatening to invoke)—and which itself is based on the First Militia Act of 1792 passed just a decade and a half after US Independence from Britain. That Act provided authority to the President to call on the militias of the several states, “whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe”; more relevant to our times, it also authorized the President to call these state militias into federal service “whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state.”[2] Hence Trump’s exhortation to state governors to send in their National Guard contingents, declaring to them that the mission he intended to use them for was to “dominate the battle space in American cities.” [3]

So it was heartening that most governors refused such a Presidential request, and that several army chiefs warned against the adoption of such force, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who acknowledged openly that “The United States has a long and, to be fair, troubled history using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws.” More interesting, however, was his observation that the real issue was, “not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.” [4]

This begs the question, how do those in power determine what constitutes “wise use of authority” especially when lines between “enemies abroad” and those “inside” get blurred, with the catchall term “terrorist” used to designate all whom those in power don’t like, all those, within or without, who challenge the status quo? And when the “enemy” lines and definitions get thus blurred, and in doing so, reveal to us that in fact, such definitional separation is a ruse, a convenient trick on the part of the powers-that-be to convince ALL who are the ruled (whether within the nation or belonging to an enemy country)—that they are different, and as such, should “fight” the “other” in the name of a drummed up patriotism at any time convenient to the rulers—then, in truth, we should be wary of the Mullens and the McMasters and the Mattises too. Because such military “heroes” are also part of the ruling elites, and while like Pontius Pilate, they hem and haw about what constitutes the “wise administration of authority” and even as they seemingly criticize as “wrong” the kind of authority Trump is deploying at this time—they reveal the ideological beliefs that bind them to the Trumps of this world whilst crying “foul!” at his attempts to corral them into the pastures they enjoy grazing in together in “normal” times.

All cries to “stop militarizing the police” or to insist that the police and the army fulfill different functions—may be “definitionally” correct approaches to align behind, but they mask the grim truth that in fact, these functions are not that different. When several officers of the Armed Forces noted that one of the major complaints The Declaration of Independence had adumbrated was that the King of England tried to “render the military independent of and superior to civil power” and that, jumping forward to the present, Trump was now going back to reenact such a collapse between different branches of the legislature by exhorting the military to take “charge” of suppressing American citizens protesting in the streets— they may have been correct in pointing out the parallel and justified in refusing to go along with such a command. But again, this is not the whole story! Once you invent an “enemy” abroad, who threatens the safety and well being of your nation (clearly, not the well being or safety of everyone in your nation)—it is not a big step to seeing enemies that need to be suppressed within your nation, roaming about “looting” and challenging the rule of “law and order” that allows “us” (all of us?)—to live in peace and security. So, if the army fights for our nation’s rulers to maintain their privileged perches at home by killing and maiming our enemies “abroad”, by the same token we farm out the killing and maiming of “our” civilian “enemies” (those who threaten the status quo, again, of the rulers and elites)—to the police. The army and the police are joined at the hip, like Siamese twins.

Which brings me back to Downton Abbey and its many guilty pleasures. Just as many good Americans applaud/wish to distinguish the “good” cops from the “bad” ones, and as they applaud the “peaceful” protestors, wishing to distinguish them from those who are “looters” and “violent,” and just as most of us wish to maintain distinctions between “army” functions and those of the “police”—we need to be reminded that these are at best, spurious distinctions. At worst, they are ideological ploys designed to keep most of us glued to our homegrown Masterpiece Theatre, where the “good” cops are like the revolutionary Irish chauffeur of Downton Abbey, who temporarily “forgets” his station in life by marrying the employer’s daughter, but then is won over by the ruling class family he weds into and becomes the most ardent defender of their lives of white upper-class privilege; or, better cops still are the servants who happily “remain in their place” downstairs, content to get the crumbs and nods of approval for jobs well done taking care of the needs of their masters and mistresses “upstairs.” They are the true defenders of the status quo, turning on their own class members when the latter express any discontent with their lot in life or express any criticism of their employers. Such servants are ofcourse, shown to be friendless, lonely, and their plots to alter their fates by challenging the status quo, generally doomed to failure (alas poor Thomas, doubly an outcast because he is gay).

In a book entitled Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, author Asad Haider reminds readers of how the working class in Britain during the middle of the last century came to be split along race lines, a division that is mirrored this side of the pond as well despite different histories. Lyrics he cites from Linton Kwesi Johnson’s song “Wat About Di Working Claas”[5] show how the “dynamic of racial division” deployed by the neofascist National Front and the political clout and wide popularity on both sides of the political spectrum enjoyed by Conservative Party MP Enoch Powell (despite his later dismissal from government)—has and continues to “pose an obstacle to the success of industrial struggles”[6] on both sides of the Atlantic:

Nah Badda blame it ‘pon the black working class, Mr Racist
Blame it ‘pon the ruling class
Blame it ‘pon your capitalist boss
We pay the costs, we suffer the loss

That loss is suffered by all of us, unless “we” are the 1% who oppress others to live in gilded cages till the end of time, surrounded by perfect gardens (or golf courses)—where the dream of the future is ofcourse the dream of the past—a past when everyone knew their place, and when a transgression of class—what Stuart Hall in Policing the Crisis (as cited by Haider), terms, “a crisis of the working class,”– gets “reproduced…through the structural mechanism of racism, as a crisis within and between the working classes” (Hall, cited in Haider, p 88). Thus, for eg, the character of Lady Rose, a cousin of the Granthams, has to be “saved” from an imminent fall from grace in her class position, when she falls in love with a working class black jazz musician she meets at a club in London (the servants of Downton Abbey perceive him through racial rather than class lenses too, hence there is never any question of class solidarity, either for him or for the Irish chauffeur earlier). When Rose later falls for, and marries a Jewish young man, what makes it an acceptable match to the rest of her family (despite their anti-semitic “race” prejudice)–is the class position of the Jewish family, which allows the latter to “pass” within British aristocracy.[7] Nonetheless, as the Granthams and the Crawleys and all of the Lords and Ladies and wannabes they represent in Downton Abbey realize by series close, the end of time for their kind is nigh. The dream of the perfect garden will flourish now in their successor in all things, the USA–in debased form perhaps (embodied best by the American mother of Lady Grantham, played in delightfully vulgar form by the inimitable Shirley Maclaine) — but with class structure in tact for capitalist democracy to flourish, class warfare masquerading as racial conflict, stoked by the captains of industry who are the new aristocracy. Even in Britain, we see the scions of the old aristocracy moving to secure their positions in the new ruling order when Lady Mary Crawley’s husband and brother -in-law decide to open a garage in town, servicing—what else—second hand Bentleys and Rolls Royces.

Until we come to terms with our various complicities in keeping this class structure in place, no matter how it appears to shift over time and place–we will stay mired in our long-shared history with the British, loyal to their class system and its use of racial divisions to inveigh “law and order” for maintaining the status quo and its beneficiaries “in place” at home and abroad. Despite the Declaration of Independence, the British imperial shadow and all that it signifies, hangs long and deep upon us. Just Like Lord Grantham who sings the praises of “British justice“ when his long-suffering butler “Mr” Bates is finally released from prison despite the long and horrible time he has spent there for a murder he didn’t commit, we too on this side of the pond might end up foolishly singing similar praises about justice being served by “tinkering” with the system. What is required of us, now, is to see the carceral state for what it is, and act to change the deep structures that enable it –and us—to “stay in place.”

Notes.

1) http://hwchronicle.com/here-comes-the-signs-protests-of-the-60s-compared-to-now/

https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/6/2/21277253/george-floyd-protest-1960s-civil-rights

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/12/reddit-remembers-the-1960s-we-probably-dont-have-to-kill-all-of-them-just-the-agitators/

2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Militia_Acts_of_1792

3) https://www.businessinsider.com/state-leaders-shun-trumps-calls-to-dominate-protests-using-military-2020-6.

Also see https://truthout.org/articles/as-trump-threatens-to-send-military-into-cities-some-gis-refuse-to-comply/

4) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/us/politics/trump-military-protests.html

5) Linton Kwesi Johnson “(born 24 August 1952), also known as LKJ, is a Jamaican dub poet who has been based in the United Kingdom since 1963.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linton_Kwesi_Johnson

6) Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. Verso: 2018, pp.88-89

7) And here, it is worth noting how the collusion today between Israel and the United States regarding “law and order” training for US police officers, adds yet another layer to class politics. Class solidarity (of the elites), trumps (no pun intended!) all else—including any perceived differences of race or creed. We see evidence of this also in the unqualified support of Christian Zionists for the Israeli state even as its security forces employ the same tactics of brutal suppression and “control” against the native Palestinians, as those used by our militarized police against African Americans and other marginalized communities of color here in the USA.

 

 

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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