Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Peter Lawler Responds to George Will

A Defense of Downton’s Nostalgia - referring to something he wrote for ISI.
Aristocrats had relational virtues—a clear sense of the connection between privileges and responsibilities—that we don’t. When it comes to money and justice, however, we middle-class democrats know better. Astute nostalgia is always self-consciously selective. The model of that kind of analytic use of nostalgia is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which is full of aristocratic criticisms of democracy and democratic criticisms of aristocracy.

On Downton Abbey, we see that the way of life of the relational place is being improved by middle-class, American, Irish, socialist, and even proto-feminist contributions, but usually not at the expense of “class” in the sense of knowing who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Who can deny that today our upper class—our meritocratic cognitive elite—lacks and could benefit from some of the class of the Earl of Grantham and his family? That’s not to deny that the Lord Grantham is not so astute when it comes to the personal longing for freedom, turning a profit, tolerance of religious diversity, modern science, and even good government. He is astute enough, though, to accept, if reluctantly, changes that will make his way of life more sustainable and even admirable. He is also astute enough not to embrace the popular moralism that turns sins into crimes or even reasons for dismissal.

When the difference is not between aristocracy and bourgeoisie but between one form of oligarchy and another form of oligarchy, then Lawler misunderstands the "virtues" embodied by people like Lord Grantham. A rigid notion of place that is based on landed wealth and an inherited title that may have some connection with responsibility but little with desert (justice) is not the sort of "place" any republican would seek to uphold - nor any true aristocrat. Is a true aristocracy, one based on merit and distributive justice, impossible to have in this world? Can we be only content with a counterfeit, or worse, a counterfeit form of a republic? There may be those who romanticize the British class system, but I have no time for it.

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