What does the hit show Downton Abbey have to do with politics? More than you might expect and not what some in the media want you to believe. Read all about it in my monthly column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, my hometown newspaper. (reprinted below)
Many of us here in Northampton proudly embrace the liberal nature of our town. A Mitt Romney bumper sticker is about as popular around here as a flu epidemic. I’m happy to call Northampton by the same name as my favorite political talk show, The Liberal Oasis, which originates right here in our town.
My liberal friends and I were glued to coverage of President Obama’s second inauguration with the same dedication that we usually reserve for the PBS hit Downton Abbey. So I got a big laugh when I heard Fox News pundit Stuart Varney say that my liberal friends and I should be worried about Downton Abbey.
“The politics of Downton are very important, and it’s important that they are popular in America today,” Varney said to the charmless hosts of Fox and Friends. “Rich people, powerful people, in America today, are reviled. They’re dismissed as fat cats. ... Yet, along comes this show Downton Abbey--rich people prominently featured, and they’re generous; they’re nice people; they create jobs, for heaven’s sake; they’re classy; they’ve got style and we love ’em. ... That show is wildly popular, which poses a threat to the left, doesn’t it?”
Varney, as usual, has missed the point by a distance greater than Northampton to Varney’s native England. First of all, the show doesn’t focus exclusively on the wealthy Grantham family of the titular mansion. On the contrary--the working class is equally represented in the persons of the household staff: butlers, footmen, cooks, maids and chauffeurs.
For every moment of drama, heartache, resentment, courage and devotion “upstairs,” the “downstairs” residents experience the same breadth of human experience and emotion. That’s a notion squarely in the liberal camp: that we are all equal human beings despite our level of birth, breeding or wealth.
Varney praises the Granthams as “generous job creators” while lamenting that liberals “revile” the rich in America today. The distinction that seems to evade Varney’s grasp is that the Granthams understand that the primary purpose of their wealth is to create jobs for members of their community. Yes, they have fancy meals and parties because they enjoy them--but they also do so to create jobs for cooks, servers, cleaners, farmers and a host of others around them. In contrast, the wealthy in America today, our corporate elite, have regained all of the profits they lost in the crash of 2008, but they have been hoarding their wealth and cutting jobs, pay and benefits rather than hiring at a rate commensurate with their income.
When Lord Grantham experiences post-war financial problems that put the estate at risk, he’s just as worried about all the people in his employ losing their livelihood as he is about the possibility of his family moving to a smaller home. Here in present day America, most of those few unelected individuals sitting on vast corporate wealth have shown no such concern. The “job creators” that Varney and his colleagues at Fox News love so much don’t seem to understand the societal obligation of employing their fellow Americans. They don’t even understand that true “job creators” are actually hardworking middle-class citizens whose paycheck purchasing power provides the demand that leads to new jobs.
The Granthams understand the liberal proposition that we are all in this life together, so wealth exists mainly to benefit as many fellow human beings as possible, not just an elite few.
Varney is right about one thing: we certainly “love” the Grantham family. But they are not presented as flawless royalty. One daughter has a sexual scandal in her recent past, and even stuffy Lord Grantham himself is tempted to near-adultery by a vulnerable new maid. We liberal viewers don’t love the Granthams because they’re wealthy, as Varney implies. We love them because they’re human, just as we love the equally flawed house staff with their own history of imperfections. Loving all people equally for their whole selves is a liberal perspective.
My liberal friends and I will continue to tune into Downton Abbey, not because the show sends some “love the rich” message, as Varney would have us believe. No, we’ll return for the excellent acting, well-rounded characters, historical context, beautiful sets and scenery and dramatic (if occasionally melodramatic) plot developments.
And we’ll keep watching in part because liberals don’t revile rich people. We revile the greedy and admire those who understand a French phrase that can be well applied to this British television show: noblesse oblige, the sense that vast wealth implies an equally vast sense of community responsibility.
But there is a television phenomenon that we’ll definitely tune out: Fox News pundit Stuart Varney and his whole propaganda network.