how downton abbey & an indian hip hop artist explain the world
By Afshin Molavi
“The nature of life is not permanence, but flux,” Mr. Carson, the famously fastidious and traditional butler of Downton Abbey said with a hint of frustration toward the end of the wildly popular British period drama of the same name. A traditionalist uneasy with the changes sweeping society in early 20th century Britain, Mr. Carson was acknowledging reality. His world was changing, and he would need to find ways to adapt.
The concept of change lay at the heart of Downton Abbey, the television series that broke viewership records (it was the most watched PBS series of all time by far), won multiple Emmy awards and earned tens of millions of dollars and devoted fans from the U.S to China and beyond. The winds of change sometimes gentle, other times furious whipped against the lavish and serene country estate in Great Britain from 1912-26 that was home to Lord and Lady Grantham, their family and the world of upstairs lords and ladies and downstairs butlers and housemaids – the fictional creation of the talented author and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (born in Cairo in 1949, itself on the cusp of dramatic changes).
Many commentators have written about the underlying theme of social change in Downton Abbey. The last words of the series underscore this theme, spoken by one of the most popular characters, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, masterfully played by Maggie Smith (pictured below). The Countess had a penchant for zinging one-liners and a surprising flexibility and a soulful heart buried beneath her prim, sometimes obstinate traditionalism.
As the series came to a close on new year’s eve 1926, she sat with her cousin Isobel and they reflected on the future and the past.
Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess: “It makes me smile the way we drink every year to what the future may bring.”
Cousin Isobel: “What else could we drink to? We’re going
forward into the future, not back into the past.”
Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (chuckles): “If only we had the choice.”
Obviously, change is not a choice, and she understood this, even reluctantly. From the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ famous remark that “there is nothing permanent except change” to our lived experience of high-speed change, we know that our world is constantly evolving and the most resilient are those who can adapt.
But there was something else at play in Downton Abbey that has not received as much attention. What Downton Abbey showed us, particularly among the downstairs servants, was the new, not always comfortable but radically disruptive phenomenon of aspiration. Mr. Carson, the Countess Dowager — and the Western, industrialized world — was facing revolved around a potent force recently unleashed in society: the aspiration of the individual.
What do I mean by this? I mean a form of meaningful aspiration, a belief that one has a right and the ability to try to rise “above their station” – and that by education, entrepreneurial flourish, the acquisition of a technical skill, or possibly migration, one could rise above their fated lot. This is a revolutionary concept that began broadly with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th century. Before then, in most of the Western world, you could hope for a better life, or wish to rise above your lot, but it was not something that individuals meaningfully aspired toward with an expectation of results.
In the downstairs of Downton Abbey, we saw several of the characters who worked “in service” – a respectable job for sons and daughters of farmers or laborers – aim for more. It was the beginning of mass aspiration. These early aspiration pioneers did not have it easy. When the housemaid Gwen dreamed of moving up in life, possibly becoming a secretary, she faced opprobrium from both upstairs and downstairs. Her words were moving when she told one of Lord Grantham’s daughters who was helping her:
“You’re brought up to think it’s all within your grasp, that if you want something enough it will come to you. But we’re not like that. We don’t think our dreams are bound to come true because they almost never do.”
It was a heartbreaking statement, but one that bore truth. But eventually Gwen — after learning to type — managed to get a job as a secretary and make the transition. Countless other Gwen’s were striving to do the same at that time, unleashing a wave of meaningful aspiration in Western societies – the belief that you can rise “above your station.” I see many of those same patterns playing out across the developing world and emerging markets today – and aspiration remains a potent and disruptive force in societies worldwide. After all, a world in which you are content with your “station” is a less disruptive (and a less just one, too) than a world of aspiring individuals wanting more.
Aspiring individuals wanting more or, at least, believing that there is no Divine right of kings or aristocrats or “presidents-for-life”, have been revolutionary forces from France in 1789 to the Arab Uprisings of the past decade. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot over the past five years.
In 2017, I wrote a piece in which I argued that “the story of the Arab Uprisings is largely a story of aspirations unmet, and heavy-handed governments slamming the doors on young populations seeking opportunity, dignity, hope, and freedom.”
And since I’ve already committed the sin of quoting myself, indulge me once more, if only to share my thought process on this topic (and a co-written piece of which I remain proud). Alongside fellow traveler Mishaal Al Gergawi back in 2016, we wrote – “The first quarter of the 21st century might be dubbed the age of aspiration. Just about everywhere in the [emerging world], people are seeking more – more education, more goods, more connectivity, more opportunity, more rights, more entertainment, more jobs, more of almost everything.”
As the 19th century French diplomat and author Alexis de Tocqueville warned us, rising expectations that are unmet can be a revolutionary driver. But there’s more to it than political protest. The son of a Kenyan farmer or daughter of an Egyptian taxi driver today generally assumes that with the right mix of conditions – education or entrepreneurial flourish or migration or some combination of all — they can rise toward a life of greater material progress and less hardship than their parents. As the author Evan Osnos astutely points out in his fine book, “The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” the greatest change to come to China has been “aspiration, the sheer ability to make a better life.”
The danger lies in the fact that those expectations are often not met by reality. Instead, they face the reality of corruption and nepotism, lack of available jobs, and venal establishments unwilling to make the changes necessary to level the playing field.
There are also generational clashes of younger aspirants wanting more than their cautious parents. A recent Indian movie (a must watch, fellow travelers!) that featured a rapper on the rise captured this Zeitgeist moment beautifully.
The movie, Gully Boy, directed by Zoya Akhtar, has an Eminem 8 Mile quality to it – a young man from the slums in Mumbai, the wrong side of the tracks, finds meaning in rap music and rises to the top of rap contests with his powerful lyrics and music videos. His abusive father, of course, disapproves and wants him to maintain a sensible job in an office owned by a relative, Ateeq. For his father, that office job was a gift given to his son, one that would allow him to rise above the slum life, and he grew angry when he walked out of the job.
In that dramatic confrontational scene, his son told him the “good news” that he won a rap contest and a dramatic showdown ensued. I watched the film on one of my last international flights pre-Covid and was so struck by the dialogue that pulled out my phone and recorded it (thankfully! as I could not find the dialogue in English on Youtube).
Here is the dramatic scene’s dialogue:
Son: “Over 50 rappers tried out. Only five made it. I got selected. I made the right choice.”
Father: “Choice? Who are you? What are you worth? Call Ateeq and apologize!”
Son: “I won’t apologize! He called us servants!”
Father: “But we ARE servants!”
Son: “That means we serve and work hard! We are not
slaves! Whatever we are, we deserve respect.”
Father: “You won’t get such an opportunity again. Who do you think you are?”
Son: “So now someone else will tell me who I am? Look
at this.” He gets up and shows his father a smartphone.
“Over 400,000 people saw this video.”
Father: “So what?”
Son: “Read the comments they’ve posted. They’re
thanking me for making a song about people like us.”
Father: “So what?”
Son: “So it means something! It matters to people. After
die, people will still watch it and feel something. That
has value. I have value! Don’t ever call me worthless. I am
something. And I’m worth something…”
Father: “Listen, son. Life isn’t easy for people like us. We
can’t afford big dreams. Haven’t I told you to keep your
head down? The world…”
Son: “Did you ever consider you might be wrong? That you’ve wasted your whole life believing a lie? Believing this is our fate. That only scraps are in our lot.”
Father (his face torn with pain): “No. It’s not a lie. I’ve seen more sunsets than you have. I’ve taught you only what I’ve learned. Your dream must match your reality.”
Son: “I will not change my dream to match my reality. I will change my reality to match my dream.”
In a way, the Indian hip-hop artist confronting his father was no different than Gwen from Downton Abbey. They both simply aspired to something more, something beyond the confining walls of tradition or “fate.” They chose to change their reality to match their dream.
Let’s give Gully Boy, the last word with his song, Asli Hip-Hop. And can’t recommend the movie enough (the female lead, the Muslim medical student, Safeena Ferdausi, played by Alia Bhatt, is a stereotype- shattering firecracker of love and emotion, and Ahmed Murad plays the lead artist with quiet power).
“The dark nights helped me find the light…I am an artist today that will shape your tomorrow.” From Asli Hip Hop
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and editor and founder of the Emerging World newsletter. His writings, essays and dispatches from the Middle East and Asia have appeared in the Washington Post, the Financial Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, National Geographic and many specialty and academic publications.