Friday, January 13, 2012

Gosford Park and Downton Abbey: The social vs. the psychological

I enjoyed the first season of Masterpiece's show Downton Abbey very much, and like many people, sat down to see the first episode of the second season last Sunday.  The new episode wasn't bad at all, although it felt like the writers crammed down a lot of points today to set the stage for what I assume will be the "real" developments that follow. But this seems as good a time as any to remark on the show's strengths and weaknesses.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Abbey, wrote Robert Altman's Gosford Park and I remember watching that movie alone in my dorm room, a bad pirated print with bad sound (the overlapping Altman-style dialogue didn't help matters).    The murder mystery at its center was interesting and kept me watching, yet there were these surreal things that didn't quite gel: the wet, rainy opening sequence, with the picture of the wet maid keeping an umbrella over her mistress was one.  What was the movie's point, I wondered.

And then, it all came together in a kind of moment that movies should strive for.  [SPOILER ALERT].  The lady's maid played by the wonderful Kelly Macdonald has discovered that it's not the brooding valet (Clive Owen, the first time I've ever watched this charismatic actor) who's murdered the aristocratic owner of Gosford Park, even though, he is, in fact, owner's illegitimate son.  Rather, it's the valet's supposedly long-dead mother, the housekeeper of Gosford Park, Mrs. Wilson (played by Helen Mirren) who never knew of his existence until very recently.  And she did it because she knew her son, who isn't even aware that she is his mother, wanted to murder his father.  She's also angry because she was assured that the son she would give up would be adopted by a family and have a good life; instead he was actually given away to an orphanage.  She kills her employer to protect her son.  It's his life that matters, Mrs. Wilson says, concise and matter-of-fact. But what about your life, the maid asks.  In a line that can seem didactic on repeated viewings, but resonates like whip-lash when you hear it for the first time, Mrs Wilson replies: I am the perfect servant.  I have no life. 

In those two lines, the film distills itself to its essence.  The life of a servant under the aristocracy is about being invisible.  Fellowes and Altman had made a murder mystery that's not actually about the usual psychological motives for murder at all.  While we are teased with all the usual motives for murder - love, hate, anger, money - it turns out that this is a murder driven by hate for a certain kind of social arrangement.  [SPOILER ENDS]

Downton Abbey is almost the complete opposite of Gosford Park, almost as if Fellowes wanted to make amends for having created a biting critique of aristocracy. The aristocrats here are almost the embodiment of saintliness.  While they are, of course, used to a life of privilege and to being waited upon hand and foot, they are also unfailingly courteous to, and extremely fair to their servants.  The servants, in turn, are all suitably grateful: there is little griping about class here.

When I saw Downton Abbey for the second time, I noticed things I really hadn't the first time, when I was too engrossed in the plot to notice.  The first is that literally every "downstairs" character (except for the unscrupulous Thomas and cunning O'Brien, on whom more later) is "good."  Good, meaning that they're all hardworking, unfailingly fair,  industrious, and nice within the boundaries of reason.  The butler Carson is a bit ridiculous --  think The Remains of the Day - but he's self-aware and beyond his occasional pomposity, he's still a good guy.  They're all in stark contrast to O'Brien and Thomas who are positively Machiavellian in their dealings (not to mention that they're the only two to smoke cigarettes while they plot everyone else's downfall). 

This, I suppose, is the equivalent of political correctness in the show.  Since the show is not a critique of class, but rather an old-fashioned melodrama (heartbreaks, mild intrigue, passion, love), it won't do to have servants who are embittered for social reasons.  The bad servants clearly need a psychological reason for their badness and indeed, it is supplied for Thomas: his repressed homosexuality has led to an internalized homophobia (the cook refers to him as "damaged," a surprisingly charitable, and therefore anachronistic, assessment for those times).  I suspect that in subsequent seasons we will see why O'Brien is the way she is (the show is already starting to redeem her character in certain ways, notice her sympathy to the new valet who has shell-shock).

Which is why the "upstairs" characters are far more interesting.  Since their motivations can be seen to be free of class (after all, if you're upper class, class doesn't really exist for you.  And besides, since these guys are all good aristocrats, they're free of any taint of snobbery as well), they are allowed to be far more psychologically complex: they all have a touch of meanness and hardness that's not straightforwardly evil (like Thomas and O Brien).  My favorite was the Lady Mary Crawley, who comes across as impossibly hard and brittle in the first episode, wondering if she has to wear black when her fiance dies -- but somehow comes to have the richest inner life of all the characters in subsequent episodes.  Her motivations range from jealousy (that her cousin Matthew has become the son that her father longed for) to a certain striving for something she isn't quite sure about which is why she hesitates to marry him.  Her motivations for all her actions are never quite clear-cut (even the scene where she tells Matthew she likes him comes after she sees Matthew becoming more interested in her sister, Sybil).  She can also be incredibly vicious: the Edith-Mary relationship is probably the most daring thing that the makers of Abbey have ever portrayed.

All in all, the artistic choices of film-makers are constrained by what their film is about. Since Gosford Park was explicitly about class, the downstairs characters were far more interesting: their motives were an irresolvable mix of the social and the psychological.  The upstairs characters, on the other hand, were expectedly shallow (the fantastic British actors notwithstanding) -- which was, in a sense, the point.

Downton Abbey, because it tries to neutralize class differences, is almost forced to make its downstairs characters sympathetic (and when not, to give them clear psychological motivations for being the way they are).  It has no such problems with its upstairs characters, who can all be seen as "good" socially because they don't exploit their employees.  Which therefore makes possible ambiguous and indelible characters upstairs characters like Mary Crawley with her on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Matthew Crawley as well as her venomous attitude towards her sister Edith.  I am curious to see what journey the writers take Mary Crawley on next.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Social Construction as Conservatism

The release of Corey Robin's book "The Reactionary Mind" and some of the high-profile unfavorable reviews it elicited has led to a backlash in the blogosphere

Mark Lilla's dismissal of the book is on first principles.  He argues that the core principle that unites all the different strains of self-identified conservatives -- and therefore the key difference between liberals and conservatives -- is not, pace Robin, their stance on the progress of the underprivileged, but rather, their stance on human nature.  For conservatives, says Lilla, society comes before individuals: it shapes human nature and constitutes individuals.  Therefore conservatives are loath to tinker with tradition: a slow change in traditions is preferable to the vast upheaval of revolution.  Liberals, on the other hand, do not hold tradition in the high esteem that conservatives do.  They are therefore far more eager to dismantle social structures if they think these structures are impeding human freedom and potential.  For liberals, Lilla argues, individuals come first, society, a distant second.

This is not new, of course and this is a great illustration of what separates, say, Edmund Burke from John Stuart Mill.  But then, after positing this as the main principle distinguishing conservatives from liberals, Lilla goes on to say:
Americans’ assumptions about human nature are basically liberal today. We take it for granted that we are born free, that we constitute society, it doesn’t constitute us, and that together we legitimately govern ourselves. Most intellectuals who call themselves conservatives today accept as self-evident the truths enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which no traditional European conservative could. Some of them have drawn from European conservatism when they write about the constructive role of civil society, the habits and mores needed to exercise liberty, and the limits of government action. But strictly speaking, they are go-slow, curb-your-enthusiasm liberals like Tocqueville, not conservatives like Burke or T.S. Eliot or Michael Oakeshott. As for those like Congressman Ron Paul who promote a minimal state and an unregulated economy, their libertarianism is actually a mutation of early liberalism, not conservatism. This is important to bear in mind.
All right then!  After positing that it is their stance on human nature that divides liberals from conservatives, it turns out that this distinction is moot in the contemporary American context because, well, everyone is a liberal: they all believe that individuals come before society.  What separates them, then?  Well, it seems to me that it's their stance on the welfare state.  Self-identified conservatives (from the early Public Interest neo-conservatives to the Tea Party) take a far more skeptical stance on the possibility of the welfare state to do good; whereas self-identified liberals are more optimistic about this.  (Note that we've now talking about the American context.) 

But there's another point here.  The ability of the welfare state to do "good," it turns out, is in a specific context: of providing government services to the underprivileged (poor blacks, foreclosed homeowners, and so on).  The difference between liberals and conservatives is thus over two points: (a) the possibility that a some kind of systemic injustice exists.  Liberals will admit to this, and possibly some conservatives will too.  (b) The possibility of doing something about this systemic injustice: It is here that the key difference between conservatives and liberals comes through.  With some oversimplification, one might say that liberals typically agree that if the injustice is bad enough then some steps (i.e. government actions) need to be taken to mitigate it, even if they impede human freedom (within limits).  Conservatives might think that the so-called injustice is not an injustice at all and even if it is, the costs of mitigating it are far more than the expected benefits.  This skepticism may range from Ron Paul-style complaints that, say, forcing Jim Crow-supporting restaurant owners to admit black people into their restaurants is an insupportable infringement of basic liberty to a cautiously Oakshottian stance that since changing social mores rarely works out the way we want it to, strict government regulation might lead to results that we may not quite like, and that therefore policies to remove, say, racial discrimination need to be a little less heavy-handed.

It turns out then that Corey Robin is right after all: the dispute between liberals and conservatives is indeed about the existence of system-wide injustices and over the means to mitigate them.  The question of whether human nature is contingent or fixed, or whether society is ontologically prior to individuals, becomes relevant only in the context of debates over the existence of systemic injustices.  Conservatives are indeed counter-revolutionaries, in the sense that they see no need (or are afraid of) agressive action to remove systemic injustices.  This might be out of the genuine fear that agressive action can have unexpected consequences (which comes out of an ontological belief that society is prior to individuals) or the idea that the systemic injustice in question isn't an injustice at all, but merely a matter of just desserts (which is an apotheosis of extreme individualism).

Indeed, the problem with Robin's book (which I haven't read!) may be what Matt Yglesias points out: it is too mean to conservatives.  And as Sheri Berman points out in her insightful review: it cannot account for fascists who were indeed revolutionaries, not traditionalists.  Far more importantly, it does not account for why conservative ideologies have such populist appeal, even to the very people whose "interests" it is supposedly against (at least, not without using false consciousness as an explanation, which, as Berman points out dryly, is "always a bad sign.").  

Indeed, this brings me back to the reason why I began writing this post.  As Lilla remarks, Americans are all liberals today, in terms of their stance on human nature.  Indeed, the only people who may be truly conservative in the Burkean sense are academics, who are often disparaged as part of the "academic left."  My own discipline of STS (Science and Technology Studies) is explicit about its assumptions: that a great deal of work has gone into constituting human nature as we think about it today, even if that work is not really obvious.  This is often called "social construction": the idea that the institutions that consitute society (say, gender, the family, merit and so on) did not arise spontaneously , in and of themselves, but that they are what they are as a result of a great deal of work (anonymous and overt) and particular historical circumstances. 

This is in itself a conservative argument: that "tradition" is prior to individuals.  Yet, the conclusion it takes is the opposite: if one can show that the deepest traditions are made, it is also possible to change them, and indeed they do change with time.  Most social constructionists will agree with conservatives: that changing our deepest traditions requires hard work, with the ever-present possibility that this work will yield unexpected consequences.  Yet social constructionists are not conservatives (and nor are they considered to be) primarily because they agree that the institutions of society often contain systemic injustices and that work that addresses these inequities is necessary and urgent (even if not easy).