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I wrote a small appreciation of the show Downton Abbey as using nostalgia astutely as a way of showing us the strengths and weaknesses of aristocracy. 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.

My friend George Will, who finds me “normally wise and lucid,” mistakes, partly by presenting a quote out of its ironic context, my praise of the relational place called Downton Abbey as a progressive and paternalistic endorsement of the welfare state. There’s a huge difference between an aristocratic manor and a government bureaucracy! And I said Downton is an exaggeration for our edification—not a real place. George’s real objection is to my thought that the effects of economic freedom aren’t all good, and for thinking, even for a moment, that the relational dignity of knowing one’s place in the world—with its attendant privileges and responsibilities—is anything about servitude. But any Christian—not to mention any member of any family—knows that a huge part of the art of living well is knowing how to serve with love and dignity.

George, I’ve noticed, is getting more libertarian, even embracing the libertarian brand of judicial activism. From his view now, I’m not American or individualistic enough. For Patrick Deneen, I’m way too American by refusing to admit that American freedom and his view of the properly Catholic civilization of love are incompatible.

I’m okay with being the mean between the extremes of Will and Deneen.

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