I admit it: I love Lady Mary. And Mrs. Patmore. And Daisy. And Bates. Let’s see, that’s three to one in favor of downstairs. I don’t think I have a soft spot for servants, but the characters who appeal to me seem to be the ones with problems ranked lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I worry more about the struggle to make a living than the quandary over which gown to wear to the ball.
As entertaining as it is, watching Downton Abbey is beginning to annoy me; or perhaps I should say discourage me. Why are we so fascinated with the aristocracy? Why do we care about them at all? Sure, they’re people; they have problems like we all do. Sort of. It’s too bad for Lady Edith that she went from ugly duckling to pregnant pariah without ever passing through the swan stage. But she’s not going to have to work two jobs or queue up for food stamps to get by as a single mother. She’ll board the wee bairn on the estate and go back to afternoon tea served by Carson and that conniving Thomas we all love to hate.
There have always been classes. Some societies—notably Britain and India—formalized them. They didn’t just tolerate them, they maintained that one person’s dominion over another was a natural right. It is less popular these days to codify superiority, but as part of the human condition class is sticky. Even when nations have violently thrown off the shackles of caste—as in Bolshevik Russia and Red China—the ensuing totalitarianism ushered in not an egalitarian utopia but rather a concentration of power and privilege on a lofty peak overlooking a thickening fog of paucity and suffering. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about a capitalist “democracy” like ours is that at least there is no dictator.
It seems odd to me, if perhaps historically inevitable, that a country like the United States, which was founded by hearty individualists breaking free of their feudal fates, has come to look more like nineteenth-century England’s realm of landed gentry than a wide-open new world of prairie schooners and gold rushes. We’ve run out of easily accessible opportunity—land and natural resources—and we are stratifying. Our economic institutions (and, through them, our political structures) are becoming the domain of a plutocracy that is consolidating power and building deregulated walls and untaxed moats to defend it.
I’m not foolish enough to wish for Marxism. I’ve read what Stalin did in Russia. I saw the newspaper accounts of Mao’s purge of China’s intellectuals in his cultural revolution. But still it pains me to see Bates putting on Lord Grantham’s cufflinks. It doesn’t seem right that one group should be subordinate to another. I know how it happens; I understand the driving economic and cultural forces behind it, the apparent inevitability of our tendency to rank ourselves (and our universities) one against the other, but it doesn’t seem right.
Utopia germinates in revolution but always seems to end up being bastardized by political or economic bullies. I suppose I think that, among large pluralistic cultures, the United States still offers the best hope for us to live together in comparative equality. There’s no getting around the privilege of money, but I hope we can avoid the snobbish entitlement that baronies and duchies carried with them in the run-up to Downton Abbey, when a lady of the manor falling for a chauffeur was an epic scandal.
There is an insulation that goes with economic privilege that dehumanizes those of lower classes. They become takers and parasites. Mitt Romney’s forty seven percent. Unworthy even to participate in governance, at least by the reckoning of the rich venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who recently proposed that only the rich should vote. When we look upon one another that way, utopia seems a long way off.
There have always been rich snobs, and will ever be. What I fear now, as we return politically and economically to something like the Gilded Age, is that we are losing sight of the notion that a rich snob is not a good thing to be.