Downton Abyss

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Since 2010, “Downton Abbey” has been one of the most popular dramas on television.  It’s enjoyed high ratings here in the U.S., which surprised its British producers.  I’ll concede that the production values are extraordinary: the period costumes and set design are as appealing as the beautiful cinematography.  I also love seeing those vintage automobiles.  My parents are modest fans of the show, but I’m not.  In fact, I actually loathe it.  The concept of upper-class Britons spending their time delivering snarky comments to one another, while haggling over what attire to don for the latest high-society ball, bears no sense of originality or purpose in my view.  But, “Downton Abbey” actually serves a greater, if unintentional purpose: it represents what is wrong in the U.S. from a cultural and economic standpoint.

In one episode, I happened to overhear the character of Violet Crawley, portrayed by the exquisite Dame Maggie Smith, lament that life in England was pathetically different than it was before the “Great War,” a.k.a. World War I.  She desperately wants to see it return to “the way it was before.”  That’s how some White conservative Americans view this nation; they want to see it return to the way it was before the 1960s, when droves of Negroes, Hispanics, Indians, women and queers dared to demand equal treatment.  It’s one thing that makes Ronald Reagan so popular among White conservatives.  The “Gipper” (a failed, divorced actor) had always believed America was just fine before c. 1963.  Reagan’s British counterpart and political soul mate, Margaret Thatcher, apparently felt the same.  Aside from their subtle distaste for equality, both enacted legislation to crush unions and subsequently impede workers’ rights.  Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 for going on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions.  Thatcher systematically destroyed coal miners’ unions; coming close to bringing in the military to help put an end to their relentless strikes.  Consequently, labor never viewed either Reagan or Thatcher with much adoration.

It’s these latter antics that brought both countries back to an earlier time when large companies could do what they wished to their workers with little regard for their health or safety.  And, it’s where “Downton Abbey” plays out – during a period in which the wealthiest citizens managed to insulate themselves from “The Rest of Us” and stay above the fray of everyday life.  “Downton Abbey,” with all its vivacious costumes and sumptuous furnishings, is emblematic of the very real and extraordinary economic disparity in the U.S.  We’re still suffering the ill effects of dramatic deregulation of the banking and housing industries that the Bush Administration enacted more than a decade ago; irresponsible actions that, along with two unfunded wars and disparate tax policies, almost completely destroyed the U.S. economy by the end of 2008.  It lingers as a financial hangover for us common folks.

Still, Peter Augustine Lawler, a conservative professor of government at Berry College, celebrated the “astute nostalgia” of “Downton Abbey” in an editorial in “Intercollegiate Review,” a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  ISI promotes limited government and free market economies – hallmarks of conservative ideology that leave no room for individual freedom, despite their claims to the contrary.

Wrote Lawler: “Everyone – aristocrat or servant – knows his place, his relational responsibilities. . . . The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world. . . . Many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. . . . The nobility of living in service to a lord. . . . What aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”

Notice how Lawler mentions the term “place.”  It’s a common designation the upper classes often bestow upon their lowly minions.  It’s a word many Whites in the U.S. have used in conjunction with non-Whites; what some men have often said to women.  Everyone supposedly has a “place” in the human food chain and they shouldn’t dare to undermine that structure; lest they be denounced as heretical and banished to social obscurity.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, though, Lawler coldly declares that the aristocracy of any nation should be able to preserve their right to a privileged state without impediments and damned the rest of us.  In other words, we’re supposed to accept such conditions without question; it’s just the way things are and too bad if we don’t like it.

There is no “nobility” in a life of servitude – whether to the lord of an antiquitous estate or a bully boss in a Fortune 500 company.  It’s one reason why I’m strongly opposed to illegal immigration.  Aside from the legality question, illegal immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous employers who force them to work in the worst of conditions and sometimes fail to pay them; they then threaten the individuals with deportation if they have the audacity to demand the promised compensation.

It’s somewhat similar to what’s occurring now in the American workplace, as the economy remains fragile.  Corporate executives threaten employees with layoffs or termination if the latter won’t accept harsh working conditions, low pay and / or cuts in benefits.  I was threatened with my job at an engineering company in 2010; at the height of the “Great Recession.”  It worked, as I kept quiet and searched earnestly for another job.  So were most of my colleagues.  Everyone seemed unhappy, but could do nothing about it.  Our supervisor once mentioned in a meeting, “I wish you could see the number of applications on my desk.”  As her boss sat there nodding, we all comprehended the subtle threat.  Despite working so hard, though, four of us were laid off that fall.  My only consolation is that the supervisor and manager ended up losing their jobs, too.

The skewered viewpoint of the “Downton Abbey” gang is courtesy of principal writer Julian Fellowes, a private school graduate who holds a seat in England’s House of Lords.  Most writers compose what they know.  I’ve lived all my life to date in Texas; raised in a middle class household with two working parents in a good suburban home.  So, that’s who my characters are.  They may encounter some unusual events (since I have a fetish for the supernatural), but they’re generally working folks.  That’s my view of reality – and it’s a more accurate assessment than the world according to Fellowes.  He grew up in a golden bubble where his family obviously had privileges.  He never questioned the veracity of that lifestyle – why should anyone else?

Well I do – and I have no problems questioning it.  Violet Crawley (the name sounds as wretched as the character looks) reminds me of former First Lady Barbara Bush and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Gulf Coast in August of 2005, Bush and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, visited the Houston Astrodome where many New Orleans residents had been evacuated.  Observing the masses of people who had lost everything to floodwaters and high winds, Mrs. Bush quipped, “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.  And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Schlafly came to prominence in the 1970s when she vehemently opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have guaranteed complete and total equality to everyone in the U.S., regardless of gender.  Schlafly warned that women’s traditional roles were under threat from the proposed amendment: protective orders for sexual assault and alimony would be eliminated; women would no longer automatically be granted custody of their children in divorce cases; women would be drafted into the military; and unisex public restrooms would become mandatory.  With a law degree in her background, Schlafly often opened her speeches with gems like, “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight.”

In the narrow prism through which Bush and Schlafly see the world, everyone has their proper place, and challenging it would simply disrupt the natural order of things.  Because of the near-total economic collapse, the U.S. now has the greatest wealth disparity since the 1920s.  It’s a trend that actually began years ago, but became more pronounced by the end of the previous decade.  A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that, between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income for the nation’s wealthiest 1% grew by 275%.  For the rest of the populace, it increased during the same period by an average of only 40%.  Although the “Great Recession” technically ended in 2010, unemployment remains stubbornly above 6%.  It’s been a “jobless recovery,” a term no one I know had ever heard until now.  It’s an oxymoron – how can an economy recover from a recession if so many people can’t find work?

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In January 1952, two young men, Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, launched a road trip across South America on a motorcycle.  Their purpose was purely hedonistic; their youthful vigor infused with a craving for adventure and fun.  But, as they traveled from one town to another, Guevara in particular noted the gross economic disparities between the elite European-style upper classes and the downtrodden indigenous populations.  He became disillusioned with a world he thought was just and righteous.  He turned his anger to the written word in a chronicle he dubbed “The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey.”

“And then many things became very clear… we learned perfectly that the life of a single human being is worth millions of times more than all the property of the richest man on Earth,” wrote Guevara.  Later, the would-be medical student metamorphosed into the revolutionary Che Guevara – and would be murdered because he dared to challenge the elitist authority.

But, that happens when a country’s finances become skewered to favor the most affluent and their puppets in government.  People like Violet Crawley may feel safe and comfortable in their diamond-studded estates for a time.  But, we all die at some point – and whatever money and jewels we possess won’t go with us into that abyss of the next world.

Graph courtesy Congressional Budget Office.

4 Comments

Filed under Essays

4 responses to “Downton Abyss

  1. Ain’t it funny that the only people who want to return to ‘the good old days’ are the ones who were on top back then – or at least, thought they were.

    • Yes! Things were good for them, so they think that’s the way it should be. True freedom isn’t attained in a society until every hard-working, respectable citizen – even those who aren’t exactly like you – have the same opportunities.

  2. First, love how you took this from Downtown Abbey to Che Guevara; perfect. This was such a good analysis and absolutely dead on. Like you I don’t watch the show, for similar reasons.

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