Victor Davis Hanson looks at the large audiences for Downtown Abbey and the movie American Sniper, and wonders the if popular appeal indicates Americans have concluded something’s missing today:
True, both Downton Abbey and American Sniper are well crafted, nicely produced, and have fine actors. But dozens of other movies and television shows meet those criteria too. So why would postmodern Westerners stay glued to their televisions on Sunday nights to enjoy the daily lives of the prewar English manorial class and their hordes of obedient and often well-adjusted and patriotic servants? …
For this generation of contemporary Westerners, is there is a fascination in watching people, even rich lords and ladies, sit and speak as they dine together rather than eat on couches in sweat pants in front of the television each evening? Amid Facebook and Twitter, do cocooned Westerners miss things like attending clubs, socials, and community councils? In an age when most Americans cannot name their great-grandparents, is the public curious about a lost age when one measured his worth in terms of not dishonoring his ancestors and ensuring that whatever he inherited he added to rather than consumed?…
Westerners may not like the politics of Downtown Abbey or the social structure and assumptions it represents, but they seem to appreciate the order, civility, manners, and beauty that it celebrates and which seek to mitigate the coarseness of our everyday existence. They miss something in their supposedly rich material and egalitarian lives that is weekly rediscovered vicariously inside Downton Abbey. In place of a vulgar buffoon like Miley Cyrus gyrating on stage half-naked as she dumbs down culture to its lowest common denominator, or a crude and talentless Kanye West crashing another award ceremony to whine about his latest ism, Westerners still like to escape on Sunday nights to the fair-play and civilized behavior of a plodding Lord or Lady Grantham and their politically-incorrect hierarchy.
Full disclosure: I’ve not watched either Downtown Abbey or American Sniper. But I think Mr. Hanson may be on to something. Social norms and stability can be buttressed in one of two ways: by a large-scale acceptance and internalization of them on an individual level (producing self-discipline and restraint), or by external forcing of compliance. For generations there has been an increasing flood of criticism and a tearing down of “traditional, bourgeoisie morality,” in favor of an anarchistic, non-judgmental, “all-paths-are-valid” approach. Is is any wonder our streets and institutions are becoming battlegrounds and many of our young believe that anything goes? Is it any wonder that an escape from that result, however artificial and fleeting, is welcomed?
“And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
— C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1943
The so-called “Culture Wars” are no less epic a struggle simply because they are waged off the battlefield. Sadly, Western Civilization lost the opening rounds, and there will literally be hell to pay for our lack of watchfulness. All is not lost, however. There is still an insurgency of those who believe in the Christian worldview and in the foundations that once were. Instead of simply watching TV, what we need to be doing is reversing Lewis’ observations. We need to be making men with chests — men of virtue and enterprise. We need to be extolling honor, and conversely, shunning and shaming those who display a lack of it. Peer pressure, in the form of political correctness, has silenced many. But that sword cuts multiple ways. Instead of wagging our tongues at Miley Cyrus, we need simply to ignore her and those like her. At most, they deserve a pitied glance and a shake of the head as we walk by the train wrecks they represent. But as the saying goes online: “don’t feed the trolls.” Starve them of attention; cast them out of the polite, self-disciplined circles of civility we can rebuild.
Will we be accused of elitism? Of judgmentalism? Naturally. But as Hanson’s observation shows, perhaps some people are finally waking up to the fact that tearing down those who honor God and seek to be the best they can in whatever their circumstances, so that those who wallow in the slop don’t have to feel bad about their choices, wasn’t such a good idea after all.